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The Poles Who Won’t Collude With Warsaw’s Deluded Nationalist Suppression of the Holocaust

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Survivors and guests walking past the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz, during International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies, in Poland, January 27, 2018.
Survivors and guests walking past the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz, during International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies, in Poland, January 27, 2018. Credit: Kacper Pempel.Reuters
Michał P. Garapich
Michał P. Garapich

Be careful when you read this. And be careful if you intend to share it after March 1st. From that day - if Poland's Holocaust legislation, now only temporarily suspended,  is enacted by the Polish judiciary - publicly stating that during the Holocaust, some Poles murdered their Jewish compatriots could potentially amount to transgressing Polish law and land you with a three year jail sentence

Shocked? You should be, as decades of reconstructing Polish-Jewish relations are in jeopardy. Silenced? I doubt anyone with a story to tell will be.

Paradoxically, this law, aimed at shaping a debate to suit the needs of Polish nationalists, will lead to further in-depth research on non-German complicity in the Holocaust, in particular Eastern European societies' participation in WWII atrocities.

The new law, signed by Andrzej Duda, the right-wing, conservative president of Poland, makes it a crime to use a sentence “Polish death camps”. This element of the law is hard to argue with; no one would seriously claim otherwise, and if it happens – like when Barack Obama used it – it is more of a gaffe, a semantic error, mistakenly using a geographical term. No issue here.

What did create an outrage was the insertion of clause of up to three years’ imprisonment for “public and contrary-to-fact conduct that attributes responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich to the Polish nation or the Polish state."

Because the concept of “nation” is fuzzy and far from clear and very subjective, this means that someone could call a prosecutor in Warsaw to inform them that X or Y, during a public lecture, a newspaper article, or on-line post told a story of Jedwabne or Radziów or Wsosz or Szczuczyn or dozen of other towns where local Poles – encouraged by Germans - murdered their Jewish neighbors.

Or during a discussion, someone may mention that – according to the University of Ottawa’s Prof. Jan Grabowski – the Polish population around certain districts in German-occupied Poland were engaged in a Judenjagd - or an "orgy of murder", where the majority of Jews who had escaped the ghettos were denounced, rounded up or killed by Poles.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp. January 27, 2014Credit: רויטרס

Or you may have thought about publishing a family memoir, including testimony from those who survived the war and who generalized about the guilt of Poles? In that case, too, the said prosecutor would need to decide whether the new law was broken and whether to bring charges.

The law has rightly caused a massive international outrage. But the stance of the Polish government and domestic right-wing media has not just been defensive. The Polish PM has gone on the offensive, and declared last week in Munich that Jews were also "perpetrators" of the Holocaust, which just escalated the conflict between Jerusalem and Warsaw.

Even one of Israel’s most pro-Polish diplomats (and Holocaust survivor himself), Shevach (Szewach) Weiss protested, declaring he felt devastated, "broken," by PM Mateusz Morawiecki's latest comments, and that the current "Polish government is destroying everything achieved with great effort in relations between [our] two countries over the last 25 years."

It’s sad to think that the Polish government is not only undermining the dialogue achieved by people like Weiss, but is also perpetuating and entrenching a stereotype of Poles as essentially anti-Semitic by nature.

This stereotype is not only intellectually wrong and ethically dubious, it is ahistorical since it throws away almost a thousand years of Jews calling Poland their home, mutual intertwinement of both cultures and numerous forms of strong philo-Semitism among Poles. No intellectual can imagine Polish culture without its Jewish components. After all, Poland’s greatest romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz, was strongly influenced by Judaism - and was possibly Jewish himself.

Auschwitz death camp survivor Maria Stroinska, 82, holds a family photo taken before the war, as she poses for a portrait in Warsaw. January 12, 2015Credit: \ REUTERS

This itself is part of why the Jewish community’s emotional response has been so intense: After all, Jews did not expect much from their German murderers. It was from their Polish neighbors that they expected more humanity.

After decades of careful historical research we now know that the norm for Poles in regard to Jews was more akin to indifference, hostility and too often, active participation in killings.

Of course, there weren’t any Polish death camps. But there were Polish participants in the Holocaust. Yes, there were people like Jan Karski, who was the first to extensively report to the West what was going on behind barbed wires of Auschwitz. But even he was honest in reporting about his fellow Poles’ hostility towards their Jewish neighbors.

As a Pole, I am not just ashamed, but astounded, by this collective act of self-delusion, immaturity and hidden anti-Semitism the current government and public debate in Poland is displaying. But maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised.

My grandmother, Krystyna Breza, was jailed during WWII by the Gestapo. She and my grandfather helped many people escape the Nazis, smuggling them further east. Having witnessed the horrors of the war she lost her faith, and was a self-declared atheist afterwards.

But the most shocking memory that she shared with me wasn’t from the war or the prison cell in Kraków, where she witnessed the torture and death of Zuzanna Ginczanka, a famous Jewish poet – denounced by her Polish housekeeper – but by another memory.

Anna Stupnicka-Bando, 89, a Polish woman recognized by Yad Vashem for saving Jews during the Holocaust, speaks to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Warsaw on February 26, 2018Credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP

It was of a Pole she met years after the war, who bragged publicly about killing Jewish children with his bare hands. On telling the story she could not stop crying. She had touched evil, unredeemed evil; the fact he hadn’t been punished and still walked this earth meant, for my grandmother, that there certainly was no God.

She came from a privileged background, but in pre-war Poland her family upbringing would have been naturally hostile to Jews. Her father was a member of fiercely anti-Semitic political party, and I guess she was far too intelligent not to notice the link between her father’s ideas – who died just before the war - and the horrors she witnessed during it.

She helped some Jewish families in hiding, but she would never claim to be a hero; this was, I suppose, something she thought should be an instinctive part of one's humanity. She was, in fact, the only member of my family who made sure to tell me about this evil, and to acknowledge how some Poles were complicit. She would definitely have been disgusted by what is happening now - but not too surprised.

Although she died 15 years ago, I would still like to tell her that, despite anti-Semitism showing its face in this new Polish law, despite the Polish Prime Minister talking about Jewish Holocaust "perpetrators" and then the next day laying wreaths on the graves of one of the very few Polish resistance units which actively collaborated with the Nazis, despite right-wing publicists like Rafa Ziemkiewicz joking about the gas chambers on state TV, despite all this nationalistic filth, there are many Poles out there who work tirelessly to further our understanding of our shared past in much less divisive way.

Portraits of Holocaust survivors by Italian photographer Luigi Toscano line a fence bordering United Nations headquarters, Jan. 23, 2018, in New YorkCredit: Kathy Willens/AP

They are high-profile historians like Jan Grabowski or Barbara Enkelging; or museum directors, like Dariusz Stola, who heads the Polin museum in Warsaw; or they’re young people living in small towns who work on rediscovering the Jewish roots of their towns – like Kamil Mrozowicz who comes from a village near Jedwabne and collects books on the Shoah for the local library.

It is through people like these Poles maintain – I hope – some level of dignity and identity during Poland’s current, awful anti-Semitic flashback.

And despite all its intentions, the Polish government has, paradoxically, ensured that its decision to unearth more and more historical layers will most definitely result in more, not less scholarly spotlights exposing this dark side of Polish history.

Dr. Micha P. Garapich is a senior lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Roehampton, London. His research covers issues of diaspora politics, nationalism, migration and homelessness

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