Polish Government Sending History Of Polish Collaboration With Nazis Down The Memory Hole

The Polish Parliament is currently considering a bill that would eradicate mention of the collaborationist role that many Poles played in the Holocaust while the country was under Nazi occupation:

The lower house of the Polish parliament has approved a controversial bill that would forbid any mention of participation of the “Polish nation” in crimes committed during the Holocaust. The bill would also bar use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the death camps where Jews and others were murdered in Nazi-occupied Poland during the Second World War.

Anyone who violates the legislation, including non-Polish citizens, would be subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to three years, The bill still requires approval by the upper house of parliament before it becomes law.

According to the bill approved on Friday by the lower house, anyone who publicly attributes guilt or complicity to the Polish state for crimes committed by Nazi Germany, war crimes or other crimes against humanity, would be subject to criminal proceedings. Punishment would also be imposed on those who are seen to “deliberately reduce the responsibility of the ‘true culprits’ of these crimes.”

The bill would apply both to Polish citizens and to foreigners regardless which country the statement is supposed to have been made in.

Some lawmakers have taken to Twitter to call it out. Emmanuel Nahshon, the spokesman of the [Israeli] Foreign Ministry, tweeted that it was “amazing and sad [that] the Polish embassy trying to preach to us about the memory of the Holocaust.”

The implication of the new bill means that in theory, a Jewish Holocaust survivors from Poland who lives in Israel, who may make a statement such as “the Polish people were involved in the murder of my grandfather in the Holocaust,” or “my mother was murdered in a Polish extermination camp,” would be liable for imprisonment in Poland.

Polish Deputy Justice Minister Patrick Yaki told parliament on Friday: “Every day, around the world, the term ‘Polish extermination camps’ is used – in other words, the crimes of Nazi Germany are attributed to the Poles. So far Poland has not been able to effectively combat this kind of insult against the Polish nation.”

Quite understandably, the bill has aroused no small degree of outrage in Israel:

JERUSALEM — Legislation in Poland that would outlaw blaming Poles for the crimes of the Holocaust has prompted swift and furious condemnation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Israeli lawmakers across the political spectrum.

The measure, which passed in the lower house of the Polish Parliament on Friday, would make it illegal to suggest Poland bore responsibility for atrocities committed on its soil by Nazi Germany during the occupation in World War II.

“The law is baseless; I strongly oppose it,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement on Saturday. “One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied.”

Mr. Netanyahu said he had instructed the Israeli ambassador to Poland to meet with the Polish prime minister and express his disapproval.

The bill, which would need approval from Poland’s Senate and the president to become law, sets prison penalties for using phrases such as “Polish death camps” to refer to concentration camps set up by the Nazis in Poland.

Defenders of the bill say it is meant to indicate German responsibility for the Holocaust.

“Jews, Poles, and all victims should be guardians of the memory of all who were murdered by German Nazis,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland said on Twitter Saturday night, after the backlash began. “Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase.”

But critics, including those in Israel, home to tens of thousands of aging Holocaust survivors, believe the law would hamper dialogue about the Holocaust and distort history.

Yair Lapid, leader of a centrist opposition party in Israel and the son of a Holocaust survivor, wrote of the Holocaust on Twitter: “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.”

The Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv responded, saying that Mr. Lapid’s “unsupportable claims show how badly Holocaust education is needed, even here in Israel,” and that the legislation was intended “not to ‘whitewash’ the past, but to protect the truth against such slander.”

Mr. Lapid fired back.

“My grandmother was murdered in Poland by Germans and Poles,” he wrote. “I don’t need Holocaust education from you. We live with the consequences every day in our collective memory. Your embassy should offer an immediate apology.”

Many pointed out that the effort to outlaw mention of Polish complicity in the Holocaust coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp on Polish soil.

To be certain, the Holocaust was solely the responsibility of the Nazis who concocted it and carried it out with apparently no moral doubts about what they were doing. The fact that Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious and well-known of all the Nazi extermination camps in what is now known as Oświęcim in southern Poland was a reflection of the German occupation of that country since the invasion of 1939. It’s also true that many of the people killed in those camps were Polish themselves, both Jewish and Christian. It’s also true that many brave Poles resisted the occupation of their nation and many actively fought against it either as guerrillas living in the woods or as organized forces that had escaped to the United Kingdom and elsewhere. This included the 303rd Polish Fighter Squadron, a group of Polish airmen who had escaped Poland and assisted the British during the Battle of Britain and other operations during the Second World War. Finally, Poland itself exited the war having paid a steep price due to the invasions and occupations by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the battles that took place between the two nations when the front passed through the country not just once, but twice. Given all of that, it’s understandable that Poles would be upset by versions of history that sought to tie the Holocaust to their country.

That being said, it’s also true that there are aspects of those years that don’t exactly paint Poland in a good light. As was the case in many of the other countries under Nazi occupation, there were plenty of collaborators in Poland during the war, including many who were apparently willing assistants in gathering up Jewish citizens of Poland who were shipped off to the camps. To a large degree, this was due to the fact that anti-Semitism was alive and well in Poland long before the war, and Pograms aimed at Jews were a common occurrence in the past when the nation was still part of the Russian empire. By the time the war was over, Poland’s Jewish population, which had numbered more than 3,000,000 people before the war started, was down to just 300,000. Of the six 6,000,000 Poles who died during the war, half of them were Jewish. (Source) These are the undeniable truths that this legislation seeks to bury and to even make it criminal to mention not just in Poland but anywhere in the world.

This legislation comes at a time when Poland is under the control of an exceedingly conservative government that has taken a variety of controversial steps since taking control of the government in the 2015 Parliamentary elections under the banner of the Law & Justice party.  Many of these steps have included backing legislation favored by the Catholic Church regarding issues such as abortion and LGBT rights, of course, but it has also extended to refusing to accept refugees from Syria and other nations who have flooded into Europe over the past several years due to war and terrorism. The party is rooted in a kind of right-wing nationalism that seems to be resonating far more successfully in Eastern Europe than it has in Western Europe, a phenomenon that is likely attributable to both cultural differences and the still potent legacy of nearly fifty years of living as client states of the Soviet Union. Whatever the reasons, though, there’s a difference between a conservative political party and a party that seems intent on wiping the truth of history away in the name of Polish nationalism. That kind of populist nationalism is what Donald Trump is encouraging, and what his supporters in the so-called alt-right represent, and that’s what makes them dangerous.

Photo of rail entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau via Wikimedia Commons

FILED UNDER: Doug Mataconis, Europe, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    1) Poland is the unsung hero of WW2 in many ways. They endured more horror than any other occupied country. But they fought the occupation with far more fervor and effect than the fabled French Maquis. And they get no credit in American history books.

    2) The largest number of Righteous Among the Nations – gentiles who rescued Jews – are Polish. Think what those people risked. These were Poles, not French or Dutch, Poles knew they would receive no mercy. And yet many took on this risk to themselves and their families and they deserve all the awe and honor we can accord them.

    3) Poland has always been disgustingly anti-semitic. They were fertile ground for Auschwitz and while many collaborated out of fear, many collaborated out of a hatred of Jews and a bestial indifference to simple human decency.

    Statements 1, 2 and 3 are all true. The Polish government is playing with fire, building a semi-fascist regime that will make it very hard for NATO to continue dealing with them. Whether it is willing complicity with Putin (a la Trump), or just reckless stupidity (also a la Trump) this doesn’t end well. And it’s shame, because when I think of Poland in WW2 I want to think about the Polish Corps that took Monte Cassino after Brits, Yanks and Kiwis all failed. Or of the Polish airmen, the 303 squadron, 145 pilots, who fought with the RAF during the Battle of Britain and had the highest kill ratio of anyone flying Hurricanes.

    By attempting to erase their bad history Poles will erase the good as well.




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  2. @michael reynolds:

    when I think of Poland in WW2 I want to think about the Polish Corps that took Monte Cassino after Brits, Yanks and Kiwis all failed. Or of the Polish airmen, the 303 squadron, 145 pilots, who fought with the RAF during the Battle of Britain and had the highest kill ratio of anyone flying Hurrican

    As someone of partial Polish lineage, I couldn’t agree more. The role that brave Poles played in resisting the Nazis, and later the Soviets, is deserving of high praise. This move by the legislature is sad and dishonorable.

    It also reminds me that when I was growing up in Central Jersey one of our neighbors was a Polish immigrant family. The husband and wife had both spent time in Nazi prison camps as young adults. The Grandfather who lived with them until he passed away in the 80s was a member of the Polish military (cavalry I think, but my memory may be wrong about that) who went into hiding after the Nazi invasion in 1939 and managed to escape Poland. They managed to survive, but a lot of others didn’t.




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  3. CSK says:

    If this law passes, which I devoutly hope it doesn’t, how do they plan to enforce it against non-Polish citizens resident in, say, the U.S.?




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  4. al-Ameda says:

    About 30 years ago, Claude Lanzmann, in his compelling and deeply moving 11 hour documentary ‘Shoah,’ showed us how millions of Poles, Germans and Eastern Europeans were complicit in the murder of millions of Jews.

    That Polish officials want to cleanse their official history of this unpleasant history is both appalling and not the least bit surprising, given the fear-filled world we live in today.




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  5. gVOR08 says:

    Off topic, except Reynolds mentioned NATO and Putin. Via Balloon Juice The Jerusalem Post is reporting the Turkish military is operating against Kurds in Syria, with Russian approval, and is ordering US troops out.

    ANKARA – The United States needs to withdraw from northern Syria’s Manbij region immediately, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday.

    President Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said Turkish forces would sweep Kurdish fighters from the Syrian border and could push all the way east to the frontier with Iraq, including Manbij – a move which risks a possible confrontation with U.S. forces allied to the Kurds.

    Obama was able to build a fragile coalition and could deal with this sort of thing. I certainly hope McMaster/Kelly/Tillerson/Trump can.




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  6. al-Ameda says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    As someone of partial Polish lineage, I couldn’t agree more. The role that brave Poles played in resisting the Nazis, and later the Soviets, is deserving of high praise. This move by the legislature is sad and dishonorable.

    Many years ago I had the occasion to work with 2 individuals, a man and a woman, both non-Jews from Poland, who were in the Resistance. Following the final implosion and takeover of the Warsaw ghetto, each narrowly avoided capture and sure death, fled to America.




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  7. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @al-Ameda:

    millions of Poles, Germans and Eastern Europeans were complicit in the murder of millions of Jews.

    This. Exactly this.

    The neighbors of my family members who were murdered in the Shoah didn’t kill them.

    But these good people silently and passively stood by, some even cheered, as they were being led away by by the Nazis. From a moral perspective, they’re equally stained by what happened.

    Martin Luther King Jr said it best – “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people”

    Germany – and Austria and Czechoslovakia and Hungary and France, and all of the others – including Poland, don’t get to absolve their collective conscience by pretending it never happened.

    Or pretending that somebody else was responsible for it …

    It’s not going to be that easy




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  8. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @CSK: They’ll single out non-white ones, assert that these people are non-MAGAs, and Trump’s justice department will extradite them faster than you can say “covfefe.”




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  9. CSK says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker:

    I’m sure you’re aware that the alt-right considers Jews to be non-white.




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  10. Stormy Dragon says:

    @CSK:

    YouTube, Facebook, Twiiter, etc. will enforce it for them, because they want to sell ads in Poland. Same as how they’re supresing news of the Rohingya genocide so that they can sell ads in Burma.




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  11. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    What will be interesting is if, as a result of the new law, Poland requests that the US close down the Holocaust Museum in DC. Personally, I think Trump would do it. After all, it’s not good people who go there, only radicals that don’t want America to be great again.




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  12. Bill says:

    A couple of remarks

    1 In 2000 the wife and I toured Poland with a Catholic Priest friend of ours. We visited Auschwitz. It is the bleakest place I have ever been to. Death was still in the air 55 years after the camp was closed.

    2 While in Krakow, our priest friend began to step into a synagogue with me following. We were shooed out of it by someone. My friend was bugged by it but not me. Neither of us had a yarmulke on and it may have been the sabbath too. I forget if it was Saturday or Sunday when we were there.

    3 Talking about yarmulkes. When one of my brothers was getting married, My sister’s boyfriend was there and he was going to wear a yarmulke at the Catholic church and the family (Italian American. Which I am too in part) of my sister-in-law was not too pleased supposedly by it. My maternal grandfather told Marty. “If you don’t wear a yarmulke, I will.”

    4 My sister’s husband Marty is Jewish and both his parents were holocaust survivors. Mrs Feigen is 94 and still alive. She is one tough woman.

    Not going to say anything much on this except none of us have endured occupation by a foreign power and its hard to understand if you haven’t. My filipino wife’s family had to endure the Japanese for 3+ years. Her grandfather was missing an arm because of what was done to some people.




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  13. Bill says:

    Oops I should have said concentration camp survivors not holocaust survivors above.




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  14. Tyrell says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker: Next they will try to erase the history of the brutal treatment by the USSR and Polish leaders.




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  15. Kylopod says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Poland has always been disgustingly anti-semitic.

    Indeed, there’s a good case to be made that Poland before the Nazi takeover was more anti-Semitic than Weimar Germany.

    I’ve often made an analogy between Holocaust denial and the neo-Confederate “Lost Cause” myth here in America. Both are attempts to absolve a culture of its past atrocities by denying they happened, and they both form the basis for racist or anti-Semitic apologia in the present day.

    But one difference is that Holocaust denial was largely rejected by the German government and society after the war. In Poland, however, a form of Holocaust revisionism has long been popular. Not only do they deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust, they also deny that Jews in particular were targeted by the Nazis.

    One of the more subtle and insidious forms of Holocaust denial is where you acknowledge that the Germans murdered lots of people and that some of those people were Jews, but you don’t acknowledge they were after Jews in particular. This form of denial is compelling to many Polish Catholics, who did in fact suffer terribly under the Nazis, though they weren’t targeted for destruction like Jews and Gypsies were.

    I have particular interest in the topic because my maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors from Poland.




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  16. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Kylopod:

    This form of denial is compelling to many Polish Catholics, who did in fact suffer terribly under the Nazis, though they weren’t targeted for destruction like Jews and Gypsies were.

    It’s also particularly appalling, given the church’s deep level of involvement with both the collaborator aspects of the Shoah and with helping Nazi war criminals avoid prosecution & punishment. In their efforts to whitewash their own collaboration & claim “me too” victim status, they end up whitewashing the deplorable history of their church during the same period.

    The last time that I checked, it was called die Endlösung der Judenfrage. The Final Solution to the Jewish Question …

    Catholics may have suffered tangentially, but in many cases they were actively involved in oppression themselves. They certainly weren’t targeted for extermination.

    We were …




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  17. Slugger says:

    I want to strongly support Michael Reynolds’ contribution. My family lived in SE Poland for about a thousand years. During most of the last 250 years, Poland was under cruel foreign control. During this time the Polish people were renowned fighters for freedom often far from their home. Wvashington’s staff had Thaddeus Kosciuszko. Polish roles in the fight for freedom are often minimized; Americans talk about Reagan’s role in bringing down the USSR without remembering Lech Walesa and St. Karol Wojtila (John Paul II).
    None of this excuses any of the evils of antisemitism. History is complicated. Laws to stifle discussion hurt our understanding.
    Poland is not yet lost. As long as we can speak out, Poland won’t be lost.




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  18. Kylopod says:

    Late reply, but Tablet Magazine just published an article going into a little more detail about the long record of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in post-WWII Poland.

    http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/254259/polands-holocaust-denial-and-anti-semitism-run-far-deeper-than-just-its-latest-controversial-law




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