The recent controversial amendment to Poland’s law on the Institute of National Remembrance, which bans blaming the Polish nation or state for the Holocaust, is misguided. However, the hysterical reactions to the law from Israel and part of the Jewish diaspora show that while jail sentences are the wrong way to correct historical falsehoods, there is a need to educate the world about Polish history.
Poland’s new legislation reads: “[Anyone] who, in public and against the facts, ascribes to the Polish Nation or to the Polish State, responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich […] is subject to a fine or imprisonment for up to 3 years.” Intended to protect Poland’s image internationally, it has backfired. Newspapers around the world condemned the legislation, presenting Poland as an undemocratic state bent on curbing free expression and discussion of dark chapters in its past.
Missing the Target
The major flaw of this legislation itself is its talk of ascribing Nazi crimes to the “Polish Nation”. It is correct that the Polish state was in no way complicit in any of the Third Reich’s war crimes. But how can we define the complicity of a nation?
During the German occupation of Poland, some Poles participated in Nazi crimes, just as some Poles heroically resisted. How many members of a national group must participate in war crimes for their nation to be complicit? The ambiguous definition of a nation makes it possible for a prosecutor to interpret the law as meaning that discussion of Poles participating in pogroms or blackmailing Jews is illegal.
Next, there is the question of if three-year prison sentences are the best way of fighting for the truth about history. If the law is adopted without further amendments, it could lead to an ignorant Israeli politician or journalist accusing Poland of being co-responsible for the Holocaust becoming a Salman-Rushdie-style martyr.
What’s more, the new Polish legislation will be difficult to enforce. Poland and Israel do not have an extradition agreement. Many commentators believe that it will be a dead law, whose meaning is above all symbolic. Was a dead law worth this crisis?
Although the bill itself is flawed, the reaction from Israel (which nearly recalled its ambassador to Warsaw) and a large part of the Jewish diaspora shows that while it chose the wrong means, Poland’s government is right to fight against distortions of its history.
After Poland’s parliament adopted the bill, an Israeli journalist tweeted “Polish death camps” fourteen times. Yair Lapid, a major Israeli opposition politician who might be the country’s next prime minister, said that the Germans built death camps in occupied Poland because they counted on local anti-Semites, an accusation universally dismissed by historians. The Washington Times published a text by a rabbi propagating similar falsehoods alongside an image of Poland’s flag and national emblem with a swastika.
Naturally, the law has provoked negative responses on the Polish side as well. For example, the prominent right-wing journalist Rafał Ziemkiewicz used an anti-Semitic slur on his Twitter. In Munich, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki spoke of “Jewish perpetrators” of the Holocaust. While in my opinion, the latter’s statement resulted more from carelessness than malice, it was certainly inappropriate and insensitive.
However, Seth J. Frantzman has written in the Jerusalem Post that there have been many more hateful comments on the Israeli side than the Polish one. What’s more, the outrage has been selective.
Poland’s chief rabbi has said that technically the law does not criminalize the truth, but rather false accusations against Poland. By contrast, many countries in Central and Eastern Europe glorify their wartime Nazi collaborators. The Kotelba party has fourteen seats in Slovakia’s parliament. Kotelba openly praises the government of Mons. Jozef Tiso, which during the war deported almost all Slovak Jews and Roma to the death camps and sent 50,000 Slovak troops to aid in the German invasion of Poland.
Ukraine has passed laws honoring its wartime nationalists, responsible for the deaths of more than 100,000 Poles. In Latvia, SS men who seven decades ago participated in the Holocaust march in public each year.
All these disturbing examples of revisionism were widely reported in the international press, so Israel’s less vehement reaction cannot result from being uninformed. Rather, the stereotype of Poles as Nazi collaborators and congenital anti-Semites thrives among wide segments of Israeli and Jewish society.
Certainly, anti-Semitism flourished in Poland in the twentieth century, and it did not need the Germans to encourage it. In the 1930s, most Polish universities required Jewish students to sit separately from Gentiles, while right-wing politicians organized boycotts of Jewish businesses.
In 1945-1946, after the Germans had gone, a wave of anti-Jewish violence claiming perhaps up to 2,000 lives swept across Poland. In 1968, Poland’s communist regime initiated an anti-Semitic purge, forcing many Jews to emigrate.
However shameful these events are, they do not equal genocide. Ludwik Hirszfeld, a Polish Jew and the co-discoverer of blood types, wrote in his memoir that in the 1930s: “Poland was literally sick with [anti-Semitism]… When I look back at the German atrocities, Polish anti-Semitism seems mild to me. Nationalism was young and, seeking to discharge itself emotionally, fell up on the Jews as the nearest suitable object.”
While some Poles participated in the Holocaust, the level of collaboration was smaller than in many other countries. There was no Polish SS division, and there was no Polish collaborationist government. This was not because the Nazis saw the Slavic Poles as subhuman, as the Tablet Magazine recently claimed.
Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and the Czech lands were all Slavic countries, but the Germans formed puppet states there. In fact, the Germans tried to recruit two prewar prime ministers, Wincenty Witos and Kazimierz Bartel, to head the quisling governments, but they were uninterested. Consequently, Witos was sent to prison and Bartel was shot.
Above all, there were no Polish guards at Nazi concentration and death camps, and Poles had no role in running them. The only thing “Polish” about these camps was that next to Jews, non-Jewish Poles were the second largest group of inmates.
One-quarter of the inmates at Majdanek were Poles, and until 1942 Auschwitz served primarily to kill the Polish elites. Up to 3 million non-Jewish Poles were killed during the war. The wartime losses of most other European countries pale in comparison.
What’s more, Poles formed the largest resistance in occupied Europe. Polish armed forces fought on both the Eastern and Western fronts, making up the fourth largest Allied army. When Poland’s prime minister recently invited Israeli journalists to the Warsaw Rising Museum, most hadn’t heard of this courageous struggle, which led to Warsaw’s total destruction and the killing of up to 200,000 Varsovians.
Likewise, many Israeli journalists and politicians are unaware that aiding Jews in German occupied Poland was punishable by death, while in Western Europe the punishments were much milder. This does not justify the fact that not all Poles acted like Irena Sendler during the war, but it provides a necessary perspective when comparing Poland with Denmark, for instance, which endured a very mild occupation and whose people were racial equals of the Third Reich.
If more Israelis were aware of these facts, it is likely that they would have reacted less passionately to the recent events in Poland. Again, this proves that education and cultural diplomacy, rather than prison sentences should be the solution to ending anti-Polish prejudice. Hopefully, the recent crisis will teach the Polish government to approach its history policy differently. However, history policy itself should not be scrapped altogether.
Filip Mazurczak is a translator, journalist, and historian. Currently, he is pursuing an MA in oral history at Columbia University in New York.