Poland’s ‘Death Camp’ Law Tears at Shared Bonds of Suffering With Jews
Posted February 6, 2018 10:17 p.m. EST
Updated February 6, 2018 10:25 p.m. EST
OSWIECIM, Poland — When the Nazis looked to build Auschwitz, the most notorious death camp of the Holocaust, they chose this out-of the-way village that had been home to a Polish army barracks.
Unlike in France or Norway, there was no collaborationist government in Poland. The Nazis wanted to destroy their state and enslave the Poles. By the end of World War II, 6 million Poles had been murdered, including 3 million Jews — nearly half of all the Jews killed in the Holocaust.
That shared pain has at times been a source of understanding. But it became a source of anger Tuesday, when Poland’s president — over furious objections from historians, the Israeli government and others — signed legislation making it a crime to suggest that Poland bore any responsibility for atrocities committed by Nazi Germany.
The law has two parts. One outlaws the phrase “Polish death camps,” a term that scholars agree is misleading since the camps were erected and controlled by Nazi Germany.
More troubling, historians say, is the second part of the law, which makes it a crime — punishable by a fine or up to three years in prison — to accuse “the Polish nation” of complicity in the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities. They say that the nationalist government is trying to whitewash the role of Poles in one of history’s bloodiest chapters.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticized the law, saying that it “adversely affects freedom of speech and academic inquiry.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has gone further, likening the law to Holocaust denial.
Poland’s government on Monday canceled a planned visit by Israel’s education minister, Naftali Bennett, after he criticized the law. “The blood of Polish Jews cries from the ground, and no law will silence it,” Bennett said in response. The law is the latest controversial act by a government that has curbed media and judicial independence, while pushing a populist narrative that casts Poland in a bitter battle with the European Union to regain its sovereignty.
Germany is the dominant power in the bloc, and analysts say it is no coincidence that Poland’s nationalist government talks regularly about the crimes of World War II. For instance, it routinely brings up the idea of Germany paying war reparations, an issue that nearly all of the authorities consider settled as a matter of international law.
Critics say the new law pits two narratives of immense suffering against each other.
“It is understandable that Poles want people to know their story,” said Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian who lamented that few people know that the death toll in the failed 1944 Warsaw Uprising was higher than in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.
“But the worst thing about a law like this is that it convinces you that you understand yourself,” Snyder added. “Your confidence in yourself grows as your knowledge of yourself goes down.”
There is a widespread feeling among many Poles — even those who oppose the ruling Law and Justice Party — that the nation’s wartime experience, as victim and resister, has not been properly told and is not adequately understood. Invaded first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets, Poland and its people, gentiles and Jews alike, suffered immensely.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has compared the Nazis to bandits invading a home shared by two families: If the bandits slaughtered one family and killed several members of the other, he suggested, how could the second family bear any culpability in the bandits’ crimes?
But nearly all scholars who have weighed in call that analogy dangerously simplistic.
Although many Poles risked their lives to save Jews, others energetically took part in pogroms, murdering at least 340 Jews in the town of Jedwabne in 1941 and killing 42 in the city of Kielce in 1946, after the war ended, to take two notorious examples. Still others extorted or betrayed their Jewish neighbors.
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, formally recognizes more than 6,700 gentiles in Poland as “righteous among the nations” because they risked their lives during the war to save Jews — more than from any other country in Europe. It estimates that 30,000 to 35,000 Polish Jews were saved because of such efforts.
In a statement last week, the center said that the term “Polish death camps” was undoubtedly a historical misrepresentation, but that it was a mistake to restrict what scholars can say about the “direct or indirect complicity” of Poles in the Holocaust.
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, said he would ask a Constitutional Court to review the legislation to determine whether the law violates freedom of speech and is clear about what kind of speech could be prosecuted.
But the court is controlled by people appointed by the governing party, and it is unclear when the review would be conducted.
Historians say Poland has generally been a responsible steward for the six main Nazi extermination camps in Poland, including Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here, visitors learn about suffering by Poles, Soviet soldiers, Roma and Jews, largely without politics getting in the way. There are no audio tours; artifacts like the vault of human hair that is slowly turning to dust make interpretation seem unnecessary.
But how to refer to places like Auschwitz is a matter of contention. Poles have long chafed at the term “Polish death camps.” For years, one of the tasks of interns in Polish embassies across Europe was to scour news media accounts for the phrase so that complaints could be filed, said Jagoda Walorek, who worked in the Berlin Embassy in 2007. Even presidents are not spared. The White House apologized after President Barack Obama used the phrase in 2012, when posthumously honoring a war hero, Jan Karski. On Tuesday, the State Department called the phrase “painful and misleading,” but added: “We believe that open debate, scholarship and education are the best means of countering misleading speech.”
Jonathan Ornstein, the executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, said one of the sad side effects of the dispute has been that it obscured the “miracle” of the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland. “What is happening here is real and strong and will survive,” he said.
Last week, the prime minister flew with a group of foreign journalists to visit a museum dedicated to a Polish family who were killed for sheltering Jews. On March 24, 1944, Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma were executed along with their six young children and the eight Jews the family had been harboring.
The aim of the new law, Morawiecki said, was to ensure the telling of “true history,” adding that it simply needed to be explained better.
Jan T. Gross, a Polish-born historian at Princeton, was not reassured, saying that the law was an attempt “to falsify the history of the Holocaust.”
In an opinion piece for The Financial Times, he said it could even put Holocaust survivors at risk of prosecution. “I’ve read hundreds of survivors’ testimonies, yet I do not recall a single one where the writer has not described an episode of betrayal, blackmail or denunciation on the part of their fellow Polish citizens,” he wrote. Snyder, the historian, said the new law was strikingly similar to legislation adopted in Russia a few years ago that made it a crime to speak of Russia as an aggressor in 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union carved up Poland. The Russian law also made it illegal to talk about any war crime not covered at the Nuremberg trials. Since the Soviets were among the victors, Soviet crimes were not discussed at the trials.
He also said the new Polish law was an attempt to distance the country from the European Union.
“The folks in power now in Poland tend to identify the EU with Germany,” he said. “The notion of wartime victimhood at the hand of Germans follows pretty easily into one of sovereignty.”
“Sovereignty,” he said, “is the right to define yourself as innocent.”