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February 21, 2018 10:31 am

Polish Minister Sees ‘Catharsis’ in New Holocaust Law

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Polish Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki attends a conference at his former primary school in Opole, Dec. 21, 2017. Photo: Agencja Gazeta / Roman Rogalski via Reuters.

Patryk Jaki, the politician behind Poland’s new Holocaust law, wants to end what he calls a misleading culture of shame surrounding his country’s treatment of Jews in World War Two.

The 32-year-old deputy justice minister is a polarizing figure in Polish politics. He opposes what he sees as the Islamization of Europe and once said immigrants from Africa and the Middle East will only enter the country “over his dead body.”

He also loves football, dotes on his young son who has Down’s syndrome and prides himself on his lowly origins in the Soviet-era tower blocks that still house millions of his compatriots.

Many Poles like his anti-elitist posture, which chimes with a strain of populist right-wing thinking in parts of Eastern Europe that has alarmed some Western capitals.

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But the law making it a crime to suggest Poland was complicit in the Holocaust has proved even more controversial, sparking a crisis in Warsaw’s relations with Israel and the United States. For Jaki it marks a moment of national catharsis.

Jaki, who steered the legislation through parliament, says young Poles like him have been taught to feel ashamed, not proud, of their nation’s wartime behavior by successive liberal governments.

It was their decision, he says, to “establish the politics of shame … to ensure that future generations were formed without the foundation of a strong national identity.”

“There comes a time when our country needs catharsis and the current debate about Polish-Israeli relations provides it,” he told Reuters in his office at the Justice Ministry.

This argument has become a central message of the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party since it came to power in 2015, promising patriotism and conservative Catholic values.

It has sought to portray the politicians who ruled Poland since the fall of communism in 1989 as self-absorbed elites steeped in communist-era thinking and disrespectful of the nation’s history.

The party accuses previous governments of being too ready to accept research published since 1989 challenging the national narrative that Poles had generally risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

An admirer of Donald Trump and supporter of the death penalty, gun ownership and stricter limits on abortion rights, Jaki is determined to promote laws to correct that view.

“I am not saying that we shouldn’t speak about difficult moments in the history of any country, any nation,” Jaki said. “But if we are to build our international image as a state, we should base it on positive things.”

He has emerged as a leading PiS candidate for the post of Warsaw mayor in municipal elections later this year.

The party is expected to announce its nominee in the spring. The conservatives knows that winning liberal Warsaw will be a symbolic victory for a party seeking a mandate to redefine Poland.

“People are never indifferent to Jaki. He has fans or bitter enemies,” said Tadeusz Cymanski, deputy head of the PiS parliamentary caucus. “He doesn’t dodge difficult tasks, such as (the Holocaust law). He is tough and consistent, which PiS likes, but he can also reach voters.”

Reframing history

The Holocaust law has added to international outcry against the PiS government, which critics say has shown an authoritarian tilt by moving to control courts and public media.

PiS rejects such criticism, but it faces legal action from the European Union over reforms the EU says have politicized courts. It is also at loggerheads with Brussels over immigration policy.

Israel reacted angrily at legislation to introduce jail terms for those claiming that the Polish nation may have been complicit in the wartime killing of 3 million Polish Jews.

It accused Poland of seeking to curb free speech and criminalize basic historical facts. The US State Department said relations with Warsaw could suffer if the law is enacted.

Many senior PiS officials acknowledge historians’ claims that thousands of Poles had participated in killing their Jewish neighbors or denounced those who risked their lives to hide them.

But, like Jaki, they argue Poland on the whole has been unjustly vilified. Nearly as many non-Jewish Poles died in the war as Polish Jews, according to various estimates.

By passing the new legislation, they have reopened a debate about guilt and reconciliation, which started nearly two decades earlier with the publication of evidence that locals from a town of Jedwabne in eastern Poland killed at least 340 Jews in 1941.

“It’s not normal that what Poland exports abroad is Jedwabne,” Jaki told Reuters.

Jaki took the limelight last year, when he was appointed chairman of the Property Restitution Commission, which he says will expose the failure of post-communist elites to establish impartial state institutions.

The body was tasked with investigating irregularities in how land and buildings seized by the Nazis and, later, the communist government in Warsaw, are returned to their pre-war owners.

The issue has long divided Poles, with some believing historical wrongs must be corrected whichever government caused them, and others saying the country cannot afford it.

As a result, Poland became the only post-communist government in central Europe without legislation addressing the issue of post-war property return, giving rise to a flood of litigation and, critics say, corruption and abuse. Warsaw is particularly hit.

Jaki says opposition politicians, including Warsaw’s centrist mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, and their allies in the courts have created a climate of impunity in which judges and municipal clerks have allowed the return of properties through falsified documents and witness testimony.

“A legal mess may have been deliberately maintained so that some groups could get rich illegally,” he said.

Gronkiewicz-Waltz was summoned before Jaki’s Commission, whose proceedings are aired live on television, and fined thousands of euros for refusing. The former central bank governor says the panel has no legal basis.

Jaki has also spearheaded regulation to better enforce child support payments and a museum to commemorate controversial groups that fought Soviet authorities after World War Two.

While many are seen as national heroes in the struggle against Soviet domination in Poland, some led killings of Jews, Ukrainians, Belarussians and other minorities.

“He is the people’s tribune,” said Konstanty Gebert, a liberal analyst with the European Council for Foreign Relations think tank.

“What he says makes sense at first glance. One should not speak badly about Poland. Irregularities in Warsaw should be corrected, property should be returned. Trouble is, if the people’s justice was enough then we wouldn’t need laws.”

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