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February 11, 2018 4:17 pm

The Situation in Poland: ‘Jewish Death Camps’ and Moral Illiteracy

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Pope Francis walks through the main gate at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, July 29, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Kacper Pempel / File.

The interview below was conducted in response to a new Polish law that criminalizes speech recognizing any Polish role in the Holocaust; the possible sentences for violating this law include up to three years in prison. 

The interview was conducted by Rochel Sylvetsky.

Q: What is the significance of Poles using the term “Jewish death camps”?

IR: The whole process of passing the notorious Polish law that aims to censor the narrative on World War II, the Shoah, and the activities around them, reveals the real face of modern-day Poland. And this face, in my opinion, is an ugly one.

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Who could imagine that 74 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the world would hear the phrase “Jewish death camps” followed by the mocking question asking “who actually did run the crematoria?” in an exchange of ‘jests’ by two Polish authors on a TV broadcast dealing with the new law?

This new low of modern-day Polish antisemites is a qualitative change.  

Q: What is the meaning of the new law and its purpose?

IR: The vast majority of the Polish media, the government, and a large number of the Polish public are stubbornly presenting an inaccurate picture of the new law. They are trying to insist that the whole thing is about one phrase denoting who built the concentration camps, and while doing so, they are positioning themselves as the main victims of World War II.

In fact, the reality is that the law is about censoring the narrative of the history of the war. After all, everybody knows that the camps were a Nazi operation. No one thinks they were Polish.

But the Polish legislators have used the argument over that phrase as a cover for a far more important part of this law. In the name of “the protection of the reputation” of the Polish nation and Polish state, anyone who invokes the role and crimes committed by Poles during WWII and/or their collaboration with the Nazis, will be prosecuted.

This is in direct violation of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, of fundamental human rights. It is also a violation of international law and the UN Convention of Human Rights, and has no place in civilized society. It is blatant revisionism of the most terrible tragedy of the 20th century, one in which the crimes against humanity were out of any proportion.

The Nazis had their accomplices and collaborators all over their occupied territories, and Poland was no exception. To claim otherwise, or to demand that the world remain silent because a few hundred legislators and 57 Senators would like that to happen, is nothing but delusional.

Q: What does the very proposal of the law indicate?

IR: This law is indicative of the atmosphere in Poland, and is a visible result of two years of the rule of the current Polish leadership. It is truly surprising: Poland is a big country with a large strong stratum of intellectuals and people who used to think and act independently. It is the country of the Solidarity movement, but all that is hardly believable nowadays.

In the beginning of the current government’s term, the atmosphere in Poland was not as suffocated and submissive as it is today. During the first year of the new coalition, there were many demonstrations actively advocating for freedom and civil rights. According to the statistics, half the country opposed the line pushed by the new government. Poland was breathing.

Now the PiS party enjoys 40% support and, according to Polish sociologists, their supporters are “the most vocal part of the population.” The danger is here. The danger is when the population is fed distortion; when the truth is imprisoned; when the people are fooled and kept that way.

In just over two years, observers began to notice the amazing ease with which the most controversial laws pass in the Polish parliament. And this is a strong indication of the present mood in Polish society.

We know that there are good people with a moral compass working in the right directions in Poland today. We can read their articles in those still independent media, like Gazeta Wyborcza and some others, and we are glad that our friends are not giving in.

Q: Where is Polish society going?

IR: There are grave implications for the future of Polish society. In the beginning there was hope that the clever, well educated, independent-minded Polish people would withstand the brainwashing of the ruling revisionists of history.

But some thoughtful and experienced people in Poland were worried.

My colleagues, distinguished Polish historians with tough personal experience of the Solidarity movement, were telling me back in 2016: “The biggest worry is the development of the young generation of the country. We have a large young population, a good thing in itself, but they are the easiest to brainwash. And active brainwashing is going on. Additionally, many of them are under-educated, and their ideas and ideals are formed at the football stadiums, with a lot of violence involved. This is dangerous, and we are worried about what will become of that youth.”

We are witnessing it now. We see the barrage of insults, racist, and antisemitic attacks on social media carried on by so many young Polish people. We see the ultra-nationalist rallies of Polish youth today, with a rising number of people there. The world cannot afford the luxury of turning away from the looming danger of rising Polish ultra-nationalism.

Q. What is happening in the streets?

IR: Israeli journalists were invited and granted time with the Polish Prime Minister so that he could explain, or is it whitewash, the new law. Journalists came in droves, but they did not report what was happening in Poland on the ground. But we saw it with our own eyes.

We saw the two simultaneous demonstrations one night before President Duda’s statement. There was youth demonstrating against nationalists, like any normal student youth. But the nationalists were there in much higher numbers, and much, much louder. They were aggressive, better organized, very determined, and more self-assured.

Several leaders of Polish ultra-nationalist organizations were the speakers. The crowd was chanting non-stop and violently in Polish addressing the president: “Take off ( your) kippah, Sign the law!”;  “Enough Jewish lies!”; “Jews try to rob Poland!”; “Stop Jewish aggression in Poland!”

We also saw and heard the nationalist leaders’ speeches. Some quotes: “So my daughter would need to learn in her school that Poles killed Jews in Jedwabne, is not it scandalous?! Jedwabne lies, that baloney!”; “It all is about money. Jews would like to rob us of everything we have build here after 1945”; “Those who came here now under the red flags and in Israel’s interest, to attack Polish patriots.”

It was like Germany in the 1930s, after  Kristallnacht, when the line had been crossed. And this crossing-line phenomenon is palpable in Poland today.

Q: How do you feel personally about what has happened?

IR: Today, I am glad that my dear friends, Simon Wiesenthal and Elie Wiesel, did not live to see what Poland has become today. I do not like to think how they would feel.

I remember how our dear friend Simon told me about a meaningful episode that occurred in May 1945 in Mauthausen, after the liberation of the camp by the US Army. The Americans told Simon, who weighted 36 kg at the time, being 180 cm of height — and who lost his entire family — that they would be ready and willing to send him home. Simon asked them: “Home? What home? Poland? Every stone, every tree there is a cemetery for me. What home you are talking about?”

Hearing the story from Simon, I thought: “What a tragedy it must be for a person to feel this way about the place of his birth, the place where his family lived, the place of  his childhood home, where his life had developed.” I always felt deeply sorry for my dear friend, and many others like him.

But now, I know precisely what Wiesenthal, and many others who just could not return to Poland, meant. I do feel it. And this is reality of today, three generations after the Shoah.

Q: What action is required?

IR: In my opinion, the passage of this law requires comprehensive counter-action.

Israel, of all countries, cannot allow itself to be “taken by surprise” in international relations, and this is exactly what was reported by Israeli media in the case of the Polish law and its passing — and with the unleashing of the vile antisemitism broadcast via the state media, instigating the wave of demonstrations and verbal Kristallnacht going on now in Poland.

Polish Prime Minister Pan Morawiecki, who fed us with sweet tales of his “Jewish-related aunts” at the time of his appointment in early December 2017, now is telling us that Poland “understands the emotions in Israel.” Well, it is not about our emotions. It is about the Israeli national memory, the history of the Shoah, which includes Jedwabne, Kielce, Radziwillow, plus 15 to 20 more massacres of that scope. 

I can see all the reasons for recently proposed legislations in the Knesset to counter the Polish scandalous law. It is unthinkable that we have to apply a special law to defend the Holocaust survivors 73 years after the end of the World War II.

The response to the explosion of today’s Polish antisemitism, in my opinion, should include measures all across the spectrum, including rethinking participation in the March of the Living and the trips to the camps in Poland — to military, economic, and other fields of cooperation.

The trivialization of the Holocaust essence, as Elie Wiesel was so persistently vocal about, is enforced by the macabre scenes of commemorations attended by the same people who put forward the shameful legislation censoring the history of the events that they come to pay lip service to.

Poland was not provoked by anyone or anything to implement this attack on fundamental human rights and to start this crusade against the truth. Their behavior has to be confronted with a strong will and with determination.

Jews and our friends all over the world must not be silent in the face of such vile hatred. Unlike some Polish revisionists, we do know who ran the crematoria. And we remember who helped it all run so efficiently in Poland — in the country of the haunting forests soaked with Jewish blood.

Parts of this interview previously appeared at Israel National News. 

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