Whitewashing Evil: Poland’s New Law about the Holocaust
The country can’t whitewash its guilt of complicity and the guilt of joining in the evil all around them.
The irony of its timing is inescapable.
This past Friday marked the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz–Birkenau, the horrific site in Poland where more than one million Jews perished in barbaric murders beyond our imagination. Friday was also the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day meant to serve as an everlasting reminder to the world of the sin of silence in the face of evil and the crime of complicity associated with those who made German genocide possible.
And this past Friday the Polish government passed a law which would place fines or up to three years in jail for claiming that Poland bears any responsibility for crimes against humanity committed by Germany on Polish soil.
True, the bill still needs final approval from the Polish Senate as well as the signature of the president. But its intent is clear. Poland, in the words of Beata Mazurek, spokeswoman for Poland’s ruling Law & Justice party and deputy speaker of the lower chamber of parliament, proclaims with righteous indignation that “We have had enough of accusing Poland and Poles of German atrocities.”
In short, Poland, a land where three million Jews lived before the war and only about 380,000 survived, a country selected by the Nazis for six extermination camps – Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek – and more than 700 ghettos, dare not any longer be challenged for the role it played during the Holocaust!
Historians, beware. Authors, journalists, even diarists and survivors of Polish anti-Semitism – be prepared for dire and severe consequences for failure to adhere to the new narrative of Polish victimization by Germany comparable to the fate of the Jews.
In all fairness, about 6,700 Poles were commemorated by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial for rescuing Jews, the largest number in any country. Yad Vashem has also, for many years, acknowledged the possible misinterpretation of the phrase “Polish death camps” as referring not to location but to its creators – an unfortunate wording which does indeed need to be corrected to “Nazi death camps”.
Yad Vashem continues to make clear that it was Poles who made the Nazi Holocaust in Poland possible.
Yet at the same time Yad Vashem continues to make clear that it was Poles who made the Nazi Holocaust in Poland possible. Without the cooperation of the local citizenry, sometimes passive and many times enthusiastically supportive, a program of mass murder would simply have been impossible. “[With that in mind] restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people’s direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion,” Yad Vashem said.
Similarly, the United States Holocaust Museum concluded: “To carry out the Final Solution across an entire continent, the Germans required the collaboration and complicity of many individuals in every country, from leaders, public officials, police, and soldiers to ordinary citizens. In every country locals participated in a variety of ways—as clerks, cooks, and confiscators of property; as managers or participants in roundups and deportations; as informants; sometimes as perpetrators of violence against Jews on their own initiative; and sometimes as hands-on murderers in killing operations.”
That is what is so upsetting about Poland’s attempt for legal whitewashing.
Yair Lapid, a member of the Israeli Parliament and son of a Holocaust survivor, made the case strongly: “I utterly condemn the new Polish law which tries to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust. It was conceived in Germany but hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier. There were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that.”
Polish anti-Semitism has a long and well documented history. The eminent Polish historian Jan Grabowski, also the son of a Holocaust survivor and currently a history professor at University of Ottawa, made it his life’s mission to expose the truth of Polish participation in the killings of their Jewish neighbors, even though for decades Polish society denied that anti-Semitism motivated the slayings. Winner of the 2014 Yad Vashem’s International Book Prize, his book Judenjagd tells the heart-breaking story of Jews who, having survived ghetto liquidations and deportations to death camps in Poland in 1942, attempted to hide "on the Aryan side" where the majority perished as a consequence of betrayal by their Polish neighbors.
It is a story with horrible sequels.
The by now famous story pictured in Claude Lanzmann's myth-shattering documentary film Shoah demonstrated that many Polish peasants were keenly aware of the Nazis' mass murder of Jews on Polish soil; “Neighbors,” by Polish-American sociologist Jan Tomasz Gross, which explored the murder of Jews by their Polish neighbors in the village of Jedwabne, documents how nearly all of the Jews of Jedwabne, Poland, were murdered on one day, most of them burned alive by their non-Jewish neighbors.
Following the script of the “new narrative”, in a mid-July interview on Polish public broadcaster TVN, Education Minister Anna Zalewska insinuated that the Jedwabne massacre, when Poles burned alive more than 300 Jews in a barn, was a matter of “opinion.”
What might be called a post-Holocaust sequel is the tragic story of the 200 Jewish survivors who returned to their homes in Kielce following the war. They began to slowly rebuild their lives. They established a synagogue, a kibbutz, and an orphanage. On July 4, 1946, a blood libel spread through the town, falsely accusing the Jews of kidnapping a Christian child. Kielce’s residents descended on the Jewish area. Repeating a scene so familiar to these Jews, the police and soldiers stood by and watched as the mob attacked them, murdering 42 Holocaust survivors and injuring scores more. No one could blame the remaining Jews who saw no other option but to flee the place they wrongly believed they could find a measure of peace and freedom. This was the beginning of a mass emigration of Jewish survivors from Poland.
True, Poland was not Nazi Germany and, although in Poland, it was not the Poles who conceived the concentration camps. Yet any serious historian recognizes Polish guilt. The guilt of collusion and complicity. The guilt of silence in the presence of open and well-known barbarity. The guilt of avidly taking for themselves the possessions of innocent neighbors who they witnessed being taken to their deaths. The guilt of joining in all too often in the evil all around them, at times with even more joy and pleasure than the Nazi perpetrators.
This guilt can’t simply be erased by a law which forbids expressing it. Alongside the commission of the crime itself, making it a crime to remember and record it is itself immoral and depraved.