The proposed Polish law aiming to whitewash history by criminalizing any reference to Polish complicity with the Nazi regime – and the horrific timing of its lower parliament voting on it hours before International Holocaust Remembrance Day – came as a shock to many.
But for journalists who have encountered the Polish government’s determined campaign to stifle even minor associations of Poland with the Holocaust, it didn’t come as a surprise.
I only became aware of the Polish government’s crusade a year ago. After publishing a story about President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and his family, I received an email from the Polish Embassy in Israel, protesting two words in the article.
The piece included a description of a detailed witness account that Kushner’s Holocaust survivor grandmother, Rae Kushner, had given of her wartime experiences, which I described as a “harrowing ordeal in a Polish ghetto which included the loss of much of her family to Nazi brutality.”
The communiqué I received from an official at the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv registered his objection to what he described as a “mistake” in my story that he hoped would be “corrected promptly.”
“You recount the poignant story of Mr. Kushner’s family in occupied Poland,” he wrote. “When referring to a ghetto that was established and administered by German Nazis on occupied Polish soil, you have chosen to use the adjective ‘Polish,’ thus inadvertently – I believe – suggesting to the readers who are less acquainted with the facts about World War Two that Poland, or Poles for that matter, were behind the atrocities inflicted upon the Jews in the ghettos built by Nazi Germany. Please edit the article and instead of ‘Polish ghetto’ use ‘German Nazi ghetto (in occupied Poland)’ as is historically accurate. Judging by your professionalism, I trust that this mistake is a slip of the pen that will be corrected promptly.”
I was taken aback by the amount of effort and energy the official was expending over such a small phrase.
Mulling how to respond, I consulted with colleagues who write about World War II matters more frequently than I do. They were not at all surprised by the Polish embassy’s “correction” – they get them all the time, they said. I learned that such attempts to pressure and censor journalists in this manner were common and all too familiar for those on the “Holocaust beat.”
My colleagues urged me to stand up to the pressure, refuse to cave to the embassy and keep my wording as it was, making it clear that Kushner’s grandmother had suffered in a ghetto located in a Polish city.
My day-long hesitation was noticed by the official, and the next day he sent me a follow-up email – as politely worded as the first – saying that surely I had forgotten to change my article.
Maybe it was the flattery or his ultra-gentlemanly, over-the-top polite tone – or maybe I just wanted him to stop writing to me – but ultimately I decided to make an effort to accommodate his concerns without allowing him to dictate the precise wording of my article.
I changed the wording and stated that Rae Kushner’s experiences happened in “the ghetto Novogrudok in Poland, under Nazi occupation during the Holocaust.”
When news of the Polish legislation broke on Saturday, my immediate outraged instinct was to contact Haaretz and ask them to change my article back to its original wording. Other journalists in Israel – like Lahav Harkov at the Jerusalem Post – had an even more forceful reaction (she wrote out the phrase “Polish death camps” 14 times in a row in a tweet).
The draft legislation states that “whoever accuses publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich or other crimes against peace and humanity, or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the actual perpetrators thereof, shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.”
But how does one define “the Polish nation?” It is indisputable that many Polish people were victims of the Nazis. But it is equally impossible to dispute that many of them were victimizers of their Jewish neighbors, cooperating all too eagerly with the murderous policies of their German occupiers. And it is simply a fact that an overwhelming amount of Nazi genocide took place on their soil, and that the largest ghettos and extermination camps were located in Poland.
Should the law pass in the upper house, will basic journalistic descriptions like “Polish ghetto” or “Polish death camp” criminalize reporters and scholars – or anyone else who dares state the facts?
If it does, it will surely have a boomerang effect. Journalists who once acceded to Polish sensitivities, and bent over backwards to find wording that is both considerate of their concerns and true to history and respectful of the suffering of victims of the Holocaust, won’t do so in the future. At least, I won’t.
The Polish Embassy in Israel responded: "We, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its diplomatic missions, have been campaigning against the so-called defective codes of memory since 2004. ... 'Polish death camp' is the most jarring and most frequent example of those distortive expressions that we are trying to stamp out from the public discourse. Sadly, we also come across 'Polish gas chambers,' 'Polish Holocaust,' 'Polish Nazis,' 'Poland’s death camps,' and many others.
"Over the past three years we ... have received more than 30 corrections (or additions to articles) from Israeli media outlets. In most cases our requests were met with understanding, some newspapers decided to introduce the correct phraseology into their style books. This is acknowledged and has always been appreciated by us."