It is a sad irony of post-Holocaust history that as the world marked Holocaust Remembrance Day this past weekend, the government of Poland seemed intent on rewriting the past.
Upping the ante on a controversy that has simmered in Poland for decades, the nation’s increasingly nationalist government is seeking to make it a criminal offense for anyone, including foreigners, to refer to “Polish death camps.”
The legislation was passed by the lower house of Poland’s parliament but requires approval of the upper house and the president, both of which are considered likely. The bill’s intent is to make clear, in public speeches or media reports, that Nazi Germany was the perpetrator of the massive crimes against civilians, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in Poland during World War II.
The effort was denounced as “baseless” by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A number of Jewish organizations spoke out against the proposed legislation, which threatens to fuel many Poles’ antagonism toward Jews and remove any blame, responsibility, or culpability on the part of Poland’s population for helping to carry out of the Germans’ Final Solution, which largely took part on Polish soil.
The debate is partly linguistic — the term “Polish death camps” is primarily geographic, indicating the location of the killing centers, not necessarily suggesting that Poles were in charge. Officials of Yad Vashem noted that “the term ‘Polish death camps’ is a historical misrepresentation,” but added that it is a “serious distortion” to attempt to restrict statements about “the complex truth regarding the attitude of the Polish population towards the Jews during the Holocaust.”
Many Poles assert that they, like Polish Jews, suffered, with about three million Poles dying at the hands of the occupying Nazi army. Jews, of course, suffered disproportionately; 90 percent of Polish Jewry was decimated.
The Polish record during the Holocaust was decidedly mixed. While the Germans unquestionably coordinated the widespread killing effort throughout Europe, many Poles participated as collaborators, turning in their Jewish neighbors, fearing Nazi retribution if they protected Jews. An estimated several thousand Jews died at Polish hands during and after the war. The Polish resistance movement often acted to save endangered Jews, but many members of the underground army were known to turn away Jews who sought safety in their ranks. Yad Vashem has honored far more Poles as Righteous Gentiles than citizens of any other nation.
This battle of competing historical narratives is behind the current controversy over the Polish legislation. Many Jews view Poland as a land hostile to them, agreeing with Israel’s late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that Poles absorbed anti-Semitism “in their mothers’ milk.” Poles, on the other hand, resent this denigration and generalization.
Surely the proposed legislation, which seeks to curtail debate about Poland’s involvement, directly or indirectly, in the Holocaust, only draws more attention to it. What is needed is not a new law but a commitment to learning the lessons of that dark period. “Education, not punitive laws, is essential to building greater awareness of all the facts of what transpired during World War II and the Holocaust,” noted Agnieszka Markiewicz, director of AJC’s Central Europe office in Warsaw.
Indeed, the point of Holocaust commemorations is to confront history, not whitewash it.