Poland is charging over a cliff with its law criminalizing certain statements about Polish involvement in the Holocaust; unfortunately, many Jews seem determined to jump off the ledge as well.
The Polish legislation, which President Andrzej Duda approved Tuesday, Feb. 6, after easy passage in both parliamentary chambers, would criminalize and punish by up to three years in prison the assignment of blame to Poland or Poles for the Holocaust.
This law would outlaw free speech and bury history and is worthy of the condemnation leveled against it by the Israeli government, Israeli politicians and a broad spectrum of Jewish organizations.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki denied in interviews with Israeli media Monday, Feb. 5, that the measure criminalizes truthful statements about individual complicity or silences academic research into how Polish anti-Semitism helped the Nazis carry out the Final Solution. But the threat of prosecution could be enough to halt discourse and embolden those who would deny history.
Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz and other death and slave-labor camps operated by the Germans on Polish soil, it’s more important than ever to resist soft Holocaust denial, which starts with the questioning of the scale of the slaughter and the details of the horror and often aims to normalize the Nazi killing of Jews as just another example of civilian victims of war and even to separate Hitler from the murders committed in his name.
Phrases such as “Polish death camps” often are used by those who want to celebrate Hitler and his ideology. Poles are justified in their frustration at such comments, not only because the Nazis are guilty of the Holocaust, but also because Poland and the Polish people were major victims of crimes by the Germans and the Soviets during World War II.
In addition, thousands of Poles risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis, whether by smuggling food and other necessities into ghettos or sheltering Jewish children in Catholic families and orphanages.
This Polish legislation is as much an insult to those righteous gentiles as to the millions of Jews and others slaughtered by the Nazis and their collaborators in Poland and to the world’s dwindling population of Holocaust survivors, including about 250 in metro Atlanta.
To deny the complicity of any Poles and any Polish institutions is to deny the heroism of others. To soften the brutality of crimes by Germans and their fascist friends against Jews is to obscure the truth about the victimization of millions of Poles and other Eastern Europeans seen as subhuman by the Nazis.
Lambasting Poland for this odious legislation is justified but risks hardening the positions of Polish politicians, who won’t want to appear to buckle to international pressure. The venom unleashed from Israel also risks turning a potential friend into an enemy on the U.N. Security Council, where Poland is one of 15 members through the end of 2019.
We should use the Polish law as an opportunity to emphasize Holocaust education and scholarship, but let’s be careful about feeding the sense of Polish victimization.