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February 19, 2018 2:12 pm

Poland and Its Jews

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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The entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Poland recently passed a law making it illegal and a criminal offense to claim that the Nazi death camps built during the Second World War on Polish territory were “Polish” camps. The first part of the law says:

[Anyone] who, in public and against the facts, ascribes to the Polish People or to the Polish State, responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich, [as] defined in Article 6 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal, Annex to the Agreement for the prosecution and punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis, signed in London on August 8, 1945 … or for other offences which are crimes against peace [or] humanity or [that are] war crimes, or who otherwise grossly reduces the responsibility of the actual perpetrators of said crimes, is subject to a fine or [to] imprisonment for up to 3 years. The judgment shall be made public.

I agree that these places were not Polish death camps. And I don’t believe we can say that the Polish people as an entity were responsible. But I do believe it is a waste of time and counterproductive to have laws that ban saying things you don’t agree with — even about Holocaust denial.

Laws against denying the Holocaust have not stopped Holocaust denial. Even in Britain, psychologically and intellectually challenged individuals still stand up in court and deny it happened. Trying to force people by law to change their prejudices has never worked.

What about the second part of the law? It seems on the surface to want to deny any complicity in the Holocaust on the part of any Poles:

Article 55a. 1. Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich, as specified in Article 6 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal enclosed to the International agreement for the prosecution and punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis, signed in London on 8 August 1945 (Polish Journal of Laws of 1947, item 367), or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to 3 years.

If this is intended to argue that the Polish government was not officially complicit — again, I cannot argue. There is no evidence of official legislation or a government decree. But many individual Poles were indeed complicit and willing participants in murder. This lie must be counteracted, although I repeat that legislation is the wrong tool.

For the life of me, I do not understand why Israel is making such a fuss over this, any more than the stupid Polish nationalists are. Leave the neo-fascists to stew in their own stupidity. Our role should be to continue to document and publicize the facts, to try to educate, and to provide centers for this purpose wherever possible.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MK Yair Lapid have accused Poland of Holocaust denial. Lapid wrote on Twitter:

I utterly condemn the new Polish law which tries to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust. It was conceived in Germany but hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier.

Both Netanyahu and Lapid are guilty of overkill, and playing politics.

In every country that the Nazis occupied, much of the local population willingly complied, aided, abetted, and actively participated in the anti-Jewish activities of the German Reich. In almost every case — France, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus — it has taken many years for these countries to admit it. Even then, many still refuse to do so. Only the historical records and documentation, rather than pressure, have forced them to acknowledge the truth.

In America, an official Republican candidate in Illinois publicly stated that the Holocaust was a hoax perpetuated by Jews to extort money. And it seems that there are many in the US who agree.

The Polish record is a long and bittersweet one. It is true that in the middle ages, Polish rulers such as Boleslav and Casimir the Great welcomed the Jews who were driven out of England, France, and the German states. Under some of the later Polish monarchs, the Jews flourished so much that Poland was often referred to as Po Lin (“stay here” in Biblical Hebrew). But if Jews felt welcomed, it was relative. The Catholic Church and much of the peasantry did not want them. In the Chmielnicki Cossack invasions of the 17th century, Jews joined forces with non-Jewish Poles to fight and repel the Cossacks. But in many cases, as soon as the danger was over, the Poles turned on the Jews.

Poland was constantly being carved up by Russia, Germany, and Lithuania during the 19th century. Russians who invaded were violently antisemitic –no less so than Poles. The Russian record throughout the 18th and 19th centuries is even worse than that of Poland.

After World War I, Poland became independent under the relatively sympathetic, democratic Marshal Pilsudski. His government tried to protect Jews. Jews participated in the democratic process and sat in its parliament — the Szem. But Jews were not popular. They were always regarded as outsiders.

In World War II, they were accused of either supporting the German invasion or the Russians. They were either fascists or Communists, or both. Many Jews did indeed support Marxism in the mistaken hope that it would give them equality. Most units of the Polish resistance excluded Jews and usually refused to help those on the run. More assistance came from the Poles in exile in London than those on the ground.

But worse, Poles themselves massacred Jews. And this was not an isolated case. After the war, Jews who had survived were not welcomed either. (Incidentally, I highly recommend the Hungarian movie 1945, which movingly describes a Jewish survivor returning to his home village in the face of suspicion and opposition.)

After World War II, the Polish communist government pursued a vigorous antisemitic campaign. It made no mention of Jews murdered at Auschwitz, focusing exclusively on a Marxist, anti-Fascist narrative. And the Catholic Church tried to Christianize Auschwitz, establishing a convent nearby.

Things improved after Polish independence. But in recent years, things have regressed. Symptomatic of this decline has been the support of some Polish bishops for the very popular Catholic, but rabidly antisemitic, xenophobic, and nationalist Radio Maryja.

For years now, Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora have been participating in annual Marches of the Living, bringing thousands of young Jews to the camps in Poland as part of an educational experience to reinforce Jewish identity — and to remember what happened. This too has caused a reaction. There has been a tendency amongst some marchers to assume that all Poles were responsible. On the other hand, local louts and nationalists have attacked marchers or abused them.

A rise in nationalism has always been bad for the Jews. There is no doubt that the problem of extremism is on the rise again — from both the Right, the Left, and others. Speech expressing hatred of Jews is once again common on the streets of Europe.

I believe that we must prevent any physical attacks on Jews. But passing laws against expressing views, however, is no answer. I also believe that trying to bully people into changing their minds or eliminating prejudice will likewise fail. Only through education and information can the truth drive out the falsehoods.

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