Since the end of World War II, the world has looked at the Jewish history in Poland through the prism of gas chambers and crematoria. A vibrant Jewish heritage has been overshadowed by the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis and their accomplices. How many Poles or visitors to Poland remember the rich contributions of the Jewish community in Krakow? Few have heard of the diverse religious rites and political convictions of the Jewish community in Oświęcim: a little Polish town today associated with ultimate terror and extermination. For decades following the War, the Polish historical narrative excluded the history of the Holocaust from public discourse. Instead of focusing on proper education, free of simplifications and distortions, the Polish government recently took a step backwards by introducing amendments to the Act on Institute of National Remembrance. The new law will not only affect scholarly research and education about the Holocaust, but also the debate about Poland’s difficult past. Needless to say, politics should stay away from history – particularly when politicians create a new historical narrative against history and in spite of historians.
According to Polish government officials, a new Polish law, commonly referred to as the “Holocaust bill” or “Holocaust law,” is a necessary step toward preventing the intentional defamation of the Polish nation. Passed by the Sejm – Poland’s lower house of parliament – a day before the commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the law has created a firestorm around the world, precipitating the largest crisis in trilateral relations between Poland, Israel, and the United States in 30 years. So, why is the international community shocked given the government proposed this legislation almost two years ago? What are the particulars of this law and what political and legal consequences can be expected?
Polish political leaders from the ruling Law and Justice Party, including party leader Jarosław Kaczyński and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, have declared that Poles must defend their dignity. This notion fits into a centuries-old narrative concerning Polish perennial victimhood and the idea of Poland being a “Christ of nations.” This romantic vision dates back to the nineteenth century mantra that the mission of the Poles is brotherhood and sacrifice for others. A statement by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs read: “the purpose of the amendment passed by the [Sejm] after two years of legislative work was to eliminate public and contrary-to-fact conduct that attributes responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich to the Polish Nation or the Polish State. Using expressions such as ‘Polish death camps’ was one manifestation of such conduct.”
The phrase “Polish death camps” is a harmful historical misrepresentation, implying that the Poles, and not Nazi Germans, built the camps on occupied Polish soil. However, approving this bill, which criminalizes the use of this phrase and threatens a three-year prison sentence, is ludicrous. The law is unfeasible as it does not introduce any workable judicial tools allowing prosecutors to enforce the law and penalize people who indicate that the Polish nation was complicit in the Holocaust. Art. 55a.1. of the law reads “Whoever publicly and contrary to the facts attributes to the Polish Nation or to the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich… shall be liable to a fine or deprivation of liberty for up to 3 years. The judgment shall be communicated to the public.”
Most likely, this law will stifle open discussion on Polish participation in the crimes of World War II and facilitate the distortion of historic truth. Even more concerning is that the “Holocaust law” will restrict the freedom of speech protected by the Polish Constitution. This new law will likely affect Holocaust education and awareness in Poland. Although scholars and artists are technically exempt from the law, researchers could still be given the potential for interpretive fluidity. Teachers certainly will not be allowed to incorporate the questions of Polish participation in the crime in their curricula. The Polish Center for Holocaust Research responded by saying, “We consider the adopted law a tool intended to facilitate the ideological manipulation and imposition of the history policy of the Polish state.”
Sadly, this law will likely affect Holocaust survivors and their rescuers such as Polish, Jewish survivor Ben Helfgott, who was only 10 years old when the Germans invaded Poland. After the war Helfgott recalled that he was both saved by the Poles and almost killed by the Poles. He stated, "they can pass a law but it cannot work. Many people, Jews and Poles, have written about this history. It is there in books. You cannot change it." However, for decades following World War II, Jewish history and experience of the war was never incorporated into the Polish narrative. The Jews were considered “the other” by the majority of the Polish population during and after the war, and the myth of Polish victimhood wouldn’t allow Polish nationals to look at themselves as persecutors. Over the last seven decades, Poles have not honestly addressed this issue. Instead of penalizing people for their ignorance, Poland should focus on the creation of proper education.
Poles did not engage in organized, political collaboration with the Nazis or help to build and run the machine of systematic annihilation of the Jews – unlike other states in Nazi-occupied Europe. Nevertheless, it would be irresponsible to downplay the responsibility of Poles who willingly acted against, betrayed, or murdered Jews during the Holocaust. This law is a huge step backward for Poland. During communism, the memory of the Holocaust was distorted, and the public could not openly talk about the historic truth. This new legislation reverts to that dark period of Polish history, nullifying two decades of work by Polish NGOs to introduce important educational and research programs across the country. In these programs, tens of thousands of young Poles learned about the centuries-long coexistence between the Poles and Jews. Inevitably, they learned that many of the Jews living in Poland were murdered by their Polish neighbors. This is not to say that Poles did not suffer during World War II. They did; Poles suffered immensely compared to other European nations. Yet it is inadequate and wrong to equate the suffering of Poles and Jews during the Holocaust; being a victim does not rule out complicity in a crime.
In the discussion about this new law many commentators have neglected to recognize that it has reignited a new wave of anti-Semitism in Poland. Over the last thirty years Poles and Jews have worked together to create a narrative to fully explain their complicated past. Although the bill has revived old hatreds among some Poles, it must be made clear that the government is not inciting anti-Semitism. Rather, the increased acts of anti-Semitic sentiments can be seen as a response to the Polish government’s legislative action.
This year Poland commemorated the 50thanniversary of the state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaign, in March 1968, which lead to expulsion of more than 12,000 Jews from Poland. One of the victims of this purge, Sabina Baral, recently commented on the present situation in Poland, saying “the atmosphere is similar [to March 1968]. And methodology too. I'm experiencing deja-vu. I read in Gazeta Wyborcza a neat text that Poles have been wondering what gift to give Jews on this 50th anniversary of ‘March’ and they created a perfect reconstruction of the events from several decades ago.”
Today when looking to Poland’s dark past while pondering its future, one needs to remember that, however the past is perceived, we are now at a critical moment in Polish history. The time is now to preserve history and memory free of simplification, distortions, trivialization, instrumentalization, and politicization. Certainly, this new law in its current form, if upheld by the reviewing Constitutional Tribunal, will make these efforts more difficult and all the more imperative.
Anna Sommer Schneider is Associate Director and Professor for the Center for Jewish Civilization, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She received her Ph.D. from the Department of Jewish Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. She is the author of She’erit Hapletah: Surviving Remnant. The Activities of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Poland, 1945-1989, 2014 (published in Polish) and co-author of Rescue, Relief and Renewal: 100 Years of the Joint in Poland, 2014. She is also the author of numerous scholarly and critical articles on Holocaust memory and the history of the Jews in post-World War II Poland, published both in Polish and English.