Opinion |

Poland's Deputy PM: We All Must Stop Using the Holocaust for Political Games

We will never permit anybody to falsify history, nor disrespect Jewish victims. From Israel and the Jewish nation, we ask for the same truth and respect regarding Poles in return

Jarosław Gowin
Jarosław Gowin
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Nazi guards at the Belzec death camp, where 430,000 Jews were murdered, in occupied Poland in 1942
Nazi guards at the Belzec death camp, where 430,000 Jews were murdered, in occupied Poland in 1942Credit: AP
Jarosław Gowin
Jarosław Gowin

For several weeks now, the recent amendment to the 1998 Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, which makes it a crime to "ascribe Nazi crimes to the Polish Nation or to the Polish State," opposed, amongst the others, by the Israeli government and Jewish communities, still leads the headlines. The Polish side responds and explains, but the dispute is repeatedly inflamed.

Let us, for a moment, not focus on statements, comments, corrections, tweets, and videos posted on the Internet recently.

Let us turn our eyes on Auschwitz-Birkenau, on the very heart of darkness. On the camp established by Germans for Polish political prisoners in the spring of 1940, which in 1942 became a center of the Holocaust of European Jews.

In no way these two tragedies do exclude or compete with each other. It was the perpetrators who decided that they occurred at the same place and time.

The death factory, erected by Nazi Germany on Polish territory incorporated by the Third Reich in the autumn of 1939, took lives of over one million Jews from Poland and Europe, about 75,000 Poles, over 20,000 Roma and Sinti people, and thousands of Soviet prisoners and representatives of dozens of other nations.

Auschwitz-Birkenau became the largest graveyard in the world, although no physical graves, in the literal meaning of that word, are visible there.

And any man with even a trace of sensitivity understands that to sacred sites of ancestors’ graves, particularly, of innocent victims of unthinkable bestiality, remembrance, respect and reflection are due.

For a number of years, Poles and Jews jointly cared for remains of the former concentration and death camp, assisted, amongst the others, by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the International Auschwitz Council under the auspices of the Prime Minister of Poland. That care and cooperation are generally considered a role model for other nations all over the world.

A visitor to the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews looks at exhibits from the WWII Warsaw Ghetto. Warsaw, Poland. Feb. 1, 2018Credit: Czarek Sokolowski/AP

On the other hand, nearly 1000 years of history of Jews on Polish lands are commemorated at the award-winning POLIN Museum in Warsaw, which is packed every day with visitors from Poland and from all over the world.

Its main exhibition showcases the bright areas of our coexistence - starting with a fact that for several centuries, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was home to the largest Jewish community in the world, enjoying protection and tolerance exceptional in Europe at that time, and, simultaneously, contributing significantly to our joint cultural heritage and to economic development.

However, that exhibition does not cover up issues such as anti-Semitism, dislike and hostility. It attracts and convinces, because it is honest.

A new and important place on the Map of Remembrance is Markowa, where the Museum of Poles Saving Jews, commemorating the Ulma Family, opened in 2016.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visits the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews during WWII, in Markowa, Poland. Feb. 2, 2018Credit: Alik Keplicz/AP

At the end of last year, an excellent exhibition on the Ringelblum Archive was opened at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Many years ago already, due to an initiative of the Jewish community in the U.S., a moving monument was erected at the site of the former extermination camp in Beec, and another one is being constructed in Sobibór, as a part of an international project conducted together by Poland, Israel, The Netherlands and Slovakia.

However, much more is happening besides the establishment of museums and monuments.

Since the downfall of communism, fascination with Jewish culture, tradition and history has been increasing in my country, in particular, amongst young Poles who discover traces of the old world destroyed by the Holocaust in their hometowns.

Being a citizen of Kraków, I had watched a phenomenon of revival of the Kazimierz Jewish quarter from its very beginnings; and seeing crowds attending the annual festival promoting the Jewish culture there, I felt like a witness to a miracle. With pleasure and hope we see the gradually recovering Jewish communities and organizations, small, but thriving, and increasingly involving younger generations.

Kazimierz, the renewed Jewish neighborhood in Krakow, Poland. August 2012Credit: Wikimedia/Jorge Láscar

Yes, anti-Semitic incidents occur in Poland, similarly as, unfortunately, in other countries of the Old Continent. This should always put us on guard and stimulate the whole of Europe to decisive actions. Any manifestations of anti-Semitism are condemned by the Polish authorities, but we definitely need to step up the fight against it, strengthening educational activities at the same time.

However, anybody examining the cold hard statistics and facts will see that, fortunately, in our country anti-Semitism never reached the scale or forms as drastic as in other countries on our continent.

From the political point of view, the State of Israel is one of our very important allies. This view has not changed since 1989, despite coalition reshuffles in both countries. Our political, military and economic cooperation has become even stronger during first two years of rule of the United Right in Poland.

Poland maintains its position that the secure Jewish state is a guarantee of world peace. This truth should be particularly emphasised this year, when we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel.

I could continue for a long time listing all the things that Jews and Poles can be proud of: the lively and fraternal Christian-Jewish dialogue conducted in the spirit of John Paul II, in which I participated myself; The International March of the Living and youth exchanges; the scientific and research cooperation.

But it is not my intent to use a hail of words to drown out the storm raging around us at the moment. I would like to ask: What has happened that suddenly so many people forget about and disregard everything that brought us so much closer together in recent years? Why should we waste and squander it? What will we gain when we turn our backs on each other?

Sobibor train station in Poland. December 1, 2009.Credit: REUTERS/Peter Andrews

We sympathize with Jewish pain, and we respect Jewish memory and sensitivities. We do not want to limit any research aiming at discovering the truth about the past. The timing of the vote over the National Remembrance amendment was unfortunate, as it took place just before the International Holocaust Remembrance Day; this was emphasised several times by representatives of our government.

However, it should be clearly stated that we were truly surprised by the reaction of the Israeli government. We had grounds to think that changes introduced to the draft bill had removed any remaining doubts on the part of our partners.

It was the communication that failed, but this is not the time to search for those responsible or to blame each other. Reinstating our dialogue is much more important.

However, despite our mistakes, we have a right to be understood. We will never agree to the use of misleading and offensive phrases like "Polish death camps" or "Polish Holocaust." As Israel does everything possible to prevent the denial and diminution of the Holocaust, Poland will never allow the falsifying of history, excluding us from the community of victims, and placing us as the organisers and perpetrators of German-led genocide.

To respond in advance to any possible criticism: we do not want to cover up any specific crimes committed by my compatriots. One would have to be either mad or a cynical liar to say that those disgraceful actions never took place. Historians continue to discuss the scale of both Polish help provided to Jews, and of szmalcownictwo (Poles who blackmailed Jews during WWII by threatening denouncing them to the Nazis) and murders of Jews committed by Poles.

The wall of the Shoah Memorial in Paris, listing the 76,000 Jews deported by the Nazis from France. Most were murdered between 1942-1944 in Auschwitz-Birkenau and only 2,500 people. January 23, 2005Credit: REUTERS

Let us leave this problem to reliable researchers, who seek the truth without being affected by ideological heat.

Today, looking at our nations, Polish and Jewish, it is clear that emotions and fears have predominated on both sides in recent weeks. It is understandable, after all, as the most important issues are involved: moral obligations towards the victims, unimaginable pain associated with loss, the fight for the truth, the memory and identity of our nations, and issues of sovereignty and the international image of the state.

And this is why we should continue to talk. Sit down, listen, and then present what is most valuable and sacred to both parties. In this kind of dialogue we will find a foundation for true understanding, away from political bargaining or a rotten compromise. Death and pain should not be used in any political games; however, this does not mean that, as some say, we are doomed to conflict.

There is an ironic saying that own tears are bitter, and tears of others are only wet. I would like to ensure you that we will never permit anybody to disrespect Jewish tears. And we ask for the same in return.

Despite all our differences we, Poles and Jews, can together weep over the graves of victims from both our nations. And then sit and talk sincerely, as partners, allies and friends.

Jarosawa Gowin is the Deputy Prime Minister of Poland. Twitter: @Jaroslaw_Gowin

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