Opinion

Who Owns Auschwitz?

The law that would prohibit any mention of Polish complicity during World War II is wrong. But it is also a stark reminder that Jews no longer have exclusivity over the Holocaust’s narrative

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.
Kacper Pempel.Reuters

A favorite joke among the Polish-Moroccan section of my family is the one about the Polish mother who made aliyah in 1938, and never forgave herself for having missed out on the Holocaust.

Of course, if you’re not aware of the way Polish mothers have long served as the butt of a thousand jokes in Israeli comedy, for their fabled love of suffering and being curators of grievances, you might find that joke offensive. But being of Polish roots and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I get to make it.

I’ve been thinking about that joke a lot this past week – ever since the furor over Poland’s new Holocaust revision law broke out last Saturday. Because the Polish insistence that no one use the term “Polish death camps” is understandable. After all, the camps were built and operated on the orders of the German Third Reich, and millions of Poles suffered and died in them. So it makes sense they should be called “German death camps.”

What doesn’t make sense is passing a law that prohibits calling the camps “Polish” or even suggesting that the Polish nation was in any way complicit with Nazi crimes. History is not written in law books, and the way to commemorate the victims of the Nazis cannot be through limiting freedom of speech and historical research. All that should be common sense. But the Poles have a very conflicted attitude toward the camps, especially Auschwitz.

You may not be allowed to say that Auschwitz was a “Polish camp,” but Auschwitz is very much Poland’s. As you drive there on the road from Kraków, signs point you toward the “State Museum” and you are left in no doubt that this is where the Polish people commemorate their national calamity. For non-Poles, and especially for Jews, there can be a rather unnerving feeling upon reaching Auschwitz – of competing narratives.

Survivors and guests arriving for the prayer and tribute service at the Monument to the Victims at the former Nazi German extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, January 27, 2018.
\ KACPER PEMPEL/ REUTERS

I saw those twin narratives on clear display three years ago when I reported on the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. The event, which drew a great deal of international attention, was jointly organized by the Polish government and World Jewish Congress. Guests of honor were the survivors, and they arrived in two very separate groups. The Polish survivors sat to one side, while the Jews were on the opposite side of the aisle. They barely mingled. The reunions of these elderly men and women who had been there took place the previous night, in different hotels. Each group was serving a different purpose of memory – of the Polish nation and the Jewish people. 

Their experiences of the camp had been different as well. Actually, they had been at two different camps. 

While most of the Poles had been prisoners in Auschwitz I (the konzentrationslager), relatively few Jewish prisoners spent much time there. Most of them had arrived at Vernichtungslager Birkenau, the extermination camp a mile down the track. And while dozens of prisoners were murdered daily at Auschwitz I, it was Birkenau where over a million Jews were brought from across Europe in cattle cars, for industrial slaughter in the massive gas chambers. And yes, Poles were murdered there as well, as were groups of Roma and Soviet prisoners of wars. But the fact is that for a Polish Jew, passing herself off as a Catholic prisoner would greatly increase her chances of survival (men’s chances of doing so were, of course, very slim due to the strip searches).

Auschwitz was a killing factory for non-Jewish Poles as well – some 150,000 perished there – but the scale, the survival rates and conditions were still different. The memorial events could be held separately at Auschwitz I and Birkenau, but they are not and that is a good thing. 

There is only one Auschwitz, and you can understand the frustration of many Poles that, around the world, it is a name associated only with the Holocaust of the Jews and not a symbol of Polish suffering. That frustration goes some way to explaining why the Poles are so sensitive to any suggestion that they were somehow perpetrators: Not only has their terrible national tragedy, which befell them on their own soil, been overshadowed by the Jewish tragedy, they even get some of the blame.

A sign reading "Stop!" in German and Polish at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, during an International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, in Poland, January 27, 2018.
Kacper Pempel/Reuters

As children of the victims, we should be sensitive to Holocaust-blaming. Ask any survivor who settled in Israel immediately after its independence and they will tell you that during that Spartan period, when the Jews were finally fighting in their own army and ensuring their survival themselves, they were made to feel guilty for having “gone like sheep to the slaughter.” Holocaust commemoration then focused on the ghetto rebellions, the small bands of young men and women who had fought the Nazis, rather than on the multitudes in the killing pits and death camps. Survivors still of school age were often bullied and teased for being “soaps.”

It was only after the Eichmann trial in 1961, when camp survivors took the stand to relate in public the stories of their deportation, lives and near-deaths in the camps, that they began receiving the respect they deserved.

And of course, Holocaust-blaming and Holocaust guilt is a political tool, utilized by all of Israel’s leaders. None as cynically as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has not only tried throughout his career to liken Israel’s current-day enemies to the Nazis, but has also played fast and loose with historical facts, claiming that Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini – the father of Palestinian nationalism, and without doubt a rabid anti-Semite and admirer of Hitler – was the original author of the Final Solution.

But Holocaust-blaming is a double-edged sword. The Shoah has become such a potent and universal symbol of human cruelty and suffering that it is being turned back on the descendants of its victims. There should be no justification for comparing current-day Israel and its policies to those of the Nazis. But when you use a symbol in such a careless and cynical way, these comparisons become almost inevitable. Some people will always compare – that’s what symbols are for.

The new Polish law is fundamentally wrong. We should not be deterred from telling the historical truth that there were many cases in which Poles killed their Jewish neighbors before the Germans got to them, and that in some places after the war, pogroms broke out as the Jews tried to return to what had once been home. But Polish suffering must have its space in the collective Holocaust memory as well. And Jewish life, not only death, should be celebrated in the thousand-year historical memory of what was one of the largest and most successful Jewish communities of the Diaspora. Poland was so much more for the Jews than just a massive graveyard.

Holocaust commemoration and education, in Western countries at least, has been a phenomenal success. But in transforming the Holocaust into the greatest example of genocide and the most profound lesson on the threat of dehumanization, we Jews have by necessity lost some control of the narrative. We may not always feel comfortable with some of messages being added onto the memorial events and that we have been pushed slightly aside in favor of other victims as well. This loss of control will increase as the survivors are no longer with us. But that is a price worth paying.

There is an inescapable contradiction in our desire for the whole world to treat the Holocaust as a unique symbol of suffering for all humankind, but at the same time to retain a complete monopoly on how it is to be defined and commemorated. There is a limit over how much we can have it both ways, and everyone wants some recognition for their suffering.

That’s why, 73 years after its liberation, we’re still arguing with the Poles over who owns Auschwitz.