By Jackson Richman
Earlier this week, Polish president Andrzej Duda signed a bill into law that bans people from accusing the country of its role in the Holocaust, such as referring to concentration camps, like Auschwitz, which my grandmother survived while members of the other side of my family perished, as “Polish death camps.” Violators of the law can be sent to prison.
Opposed to the now-law, The Washington Examiner‘s Tom Rogan wrote:
While this legislation is a play to the PiS populist base and an effort to broadcast growing national confidence on the international stage, it’s also an effort to correct what many Poles believe are external misconceptions of their wartime history.
For a start, it’s an effort to push back against overly used references to “Polish death camps.” Just as al Qaeda’s attack on September 11 was not an “American attack,” death camps like Auschwitz, Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibór, and Majdanek were not “Polish.” To suggest otherwise isn’t just wrong — for Poles, it’s an insult to the exceptionally brutal Polish experience under Nazi occupation.
Valiantly resisting Nazi invasion, then being cut in half by a Nazi-Soviet agreement, then seized entirely by the Nazis, the Polish people had their nation repeatedly and brutally stolen from them.
And the truth is that many Poles did help their Jewish neighbors to survive. They provided food, jobs, and support to those imprisoned in the ghettos and thousands sheltered Jewish families in their homes. Without them, Poland’s Jewish community would have been almost entirely eliminated.
Although, like myself, Rogan is opposed to the legislation, the counterargument cited is misguided for a few reasons.
One, whereas 9/11 was not aided and abetted by the U.S., the aforementioned death camps were aided and abetted by the Poles, who helped eliminate nearly all of Polish Jewry by reporting them to the Germans who sent them from the ghettos to the death camps. Even Rogan wrote, “The simple truth is that some Poles in positions of formal power did collaborate with the Nazi effort to eliminate the Jewish people. Even if only perceptibly, this legislation would deny that fact.”
Regarding the notion that “it’s an insult to the exceptionally brutal Polish experience under Nazi occupation,” sometimes the truth hurts. While, as Rogan correctly mentioned, there were non-Jewish Poles, like Irena Sendler, they were few to the many Poles unafraid to contribute to their country’s history of virulent anti-Semitism from, at least, the Khmelnytsky Uprising during the 17th century, to the 18th-century land-restrictionist Pale of Settlement, which consisted of pogroms; even including World War II’s aftermath, which included pogroms that consisted of the deaths of 800 Polish Jews and caused another 150,000 to emigrate. This bigger picture cannot be ignored.
Additionally, the Polish Resistance, including partisans, resisted the Nazis not for the sake of the Jews, but for their own. It is irrefutable that they cared less about the Jews, as evidenced by excluding Jews from their ranks. According to Holocaust historian Joshua Zimmerman, most Holocaust survivors view the Polish underground as not only anti-Semitic, but complicit in the Shoah.
Two, Poland’s Jewish population was “almost entirely eliminated,” as it dwindled from 3.3 million to 240,000.
Three, the message of “Never Again” includes remembering and preserving the legacy of those who perished. To absolve itself from its role in the Holocaust, Poland is doing nothing but the opposite. This law gives fodder to Holocaust deniers amid an endless increase in anti-Semitism across Europe.
Renowned Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt has refuted Poland’s attempt to whitewash its role in nearly eliminating its Jewish population. “The central assertion for the deniers is that Jews are not victims but victimizers,” Lipstadt said. “They stole billions in reparations, destroyed Germany’s good name by spreading the ‘myth’ of the Holocaust and won international sympathy because of what they claimed had been done to them.”
Lipstadt added, “In the paramount miscarriage of injustice, they used the world’s sympathies to ‘displace’ another people so that the state of Israel could be established.”
Part of the rallying cry of “Never Again” includes remembering the Holocaust and taking action to prevent something like this again. Despite genocides, like in Rwanda, that have succeeded the Holocaust, whitewashing the history of the event that has caused us to speak out for the marginalized is just as bad as staying silent for its victims and those facing genocide in the Rohingya, Syria, South Sudan, North Korea, Tibet, and elsewhere.