With Anti-Semitism on the rise, can Poland come to terms with its past?

In coming to terms with a Holocaust that played out on its own soil, Poland has staggered along a tumultuous path. The country lost more members of the Jewish diaspora to the Holocaust than any other European nation. Meanwhile, the citizens of Poland have been forced to reconcile a wide spectrum of attitudes toward their Jewish compatriots.

When the Soviet Army “liberated” Poland from its German occupation in 1945, those Jewish survivors who attempted to return to their homes frequently met with a hostile curiosity at the very fact that they were still alive. They also faced threats and sometimes outright attacks. Most infamous was the killing of 42 Jews in the Kielce Pogrom of July 4, 1946, or that of hundreds in the so-called train actions (1945-46), in which Jews were pulled from trains by Poles and killed on the spot. Unlike the actions against Communists by partisans of the Polish underground, in attacks on Jews Poles targeted also women and children, in a viciously unheroic display of greed and fear.

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For almost 20 years Polish scholars have been at the cutting edge of Holocaust research. But a law proposed this year threatened to change all that.

When they were in power, the Polish Communists banned any discussion of the fate of the Polish Jews, and Jews were often the target of intraparty feuds—most notoriously, after the events of March 1968, when about 20,000 Jews were forced to leave Poland. It was not until the late 1970s that a genuine interest in Poland’s Jewish past would begin to arise among a generation associated with the Solidarity movement. In 1987, Jan Błonski’s essay, “The Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto” (in the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny), famously challenged the widely held Polish conviction that the Poles were exclusively victims in the Second World War, and that they had heroically done all in their power to save Jews. Błonski’s essay spurred a discussion on Polish-Jewish relations, and some historical works on the subject followed. Mostly negative reactions to this essay signaled that Poles were not yet ready for a soul-searching examination of national conscience.

In 2000, however, a full decade after the fall of Communism, Jan T. Gross published his groundbreaking book Neighbors in Poland (published in the United States in 2001), which permanently altered the landscape of Polish memory, identity and scholarship on the Holocaust. Gross’s book described the Polish pogrom of the Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne in July 1941, shortly after the onset of German-Soviet hostilities. Drawing on first-person accounts, Gross reconstituted the horrific circumstances: the wanton murders of Jews around town; their humiliation by forcing them to carry a monument to Lenin; finally, the mass murder of several hundred Jews, burned alive in a barn. This pogrom—and its perpetrators—was known to historians as well as to the local authorities; some of the perpetrators were charged with crimes and served their sentences after the war.

Nevertheless, to the average Pole, the fact of this pogrom was something to be neither confronted nor even acknowledged. Gross himself had remained silent for four years after discovering the grisly details in eyewitness accounts, for he could not bring himself to face what had actually happened. A truth like this, however, could not be pushed aside. Neighbors would evoke the greatest public debate in free Poland. It inspired the creation of a prolific line of Polish research, mostly conducted by scholars from the Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw. One leading academic, David Engel, has reported to a conference that “the most cutting-edge Holocaust research is currently being done in Poland,” where it is focused on Polish-Jewish relations in the countryside and within the underground.

Poland lost more members of the Jewish diaspora to the Holocaust than any other European nation.

The debate has raised the popular consciousness of wartime crimes committed by Polish Gentiles against Polish Jews. Research performed between 2002 and 2011 has shown that, while the number of Poles who mostly blame Germans as the perpetrators of Jedwabne has remained constant at 26 percent, the number of those who mostly blame Poles has increased from 10 percent to 18 percent. (This correlates to education level; the higher one’s education level, the more likely one is to display willingness to see fellow Poles as perpetrators.) An even greater number of Poles also believed that it was good for Poland for the truth about the Jedwabne massacre to come out (85 percent in 2011). Unfortunately, the overall number of Poles who remained utterly ignorant of Jedwabne also grew, among teenagers in particular, possibly because the massacre is not included in school curricula.

A memorial to Janusz Korczak, who died in the Treblinka death camp in 1942 together with the children of the Jewish orphanage that he ran in the Warsaw Ghetto. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
A memorial to Janusz Korczak, who died in the Treblinka death camp in 1942 together with the children of the Jewish orphanage that he ran in the Warsaw Ghetto. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

At the same time, the higher-level disciplines of Jewish and Holocaust studies have been booming in Poland, as almost every institution of higher education now offers courses or sponsors institutes devoted to these areas. Poland’s cultural memory of its Jewish past has demonstrated an impressive commitment to coming to terms with its history, so much that it could be perceived as a model of the self-critical work that other nations, such as Lithuania or Ukraine, have not yet been able to face. At least, that is how it has appeared until now.

An International Crisis

Many participants and observers of this historic shift feel that we have been deluding ourselves that the work of the rectification of the Polish cultural memory has been mostly achieved. While over the past three years it became apparent that there were certain setbacks—for example, an increased polarization along pronationalist and prodemocratic lines, or a public display of xenophobic behaviors—nothing prepared us for the shock that came last January when the Polish parliament passed amendments to the Polish law concerning the Institute of National Remembrance. The law evoked an international crisis. One controversial element was the criminalization of the use of expressions like “Polish death camps.” But the real source of Polish and international outcry lay in other injunctions, like the following:

1. Whoever publicly and contrary to the facts attributes to the Polish Nation or to the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich..., or for any other offences constituting crimes against peace, humanity or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the actual perpetrators of these crimes, shall be liable to a fine or deprivation of liberty for up to 3 years.... 2. If the perpetrator of the act specified in section 1 above acts unintentionally, they shall be liable to a fine or restriction of liberty.... [T]his Act shall be applicable to a Polish citizen as well as a foreigner.

Poland’s cultural memory of its Jewish past has demonstrated an impressive commitment to coming to terms with its history.

Critical international reactions to this law have included official responses from Israel, the United States and Ukraine. Meanwhile, public opinion in Poland has remained deeply divided. In general, the ruling Law and Justice Party, known as the PiS, as well as many Catholic bishops, supported the new law, seeing in it a tool for defending against defamatory characterization of Poles as an international “whipping boy” for anti-Semitism. This perspective focuses on the offensiveness and incorrectness of the term “Polish death camp.” Those who were critical of the law, on the other hand, including Catholic circles concentrated around Tygodnik Powszechny, in which the future Pope John Paul II and his fellow scholars published, point to the detrimental effects the law would have on the future of Polish scholarship, education and public debate.

 Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, during a parliament debate on changes to a controversial Holocaust law, Warsaw, June 27. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)


Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, during a parliament debate on changes to a controversial Holocaust law, Warsaw, June 27. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

On June 27 the Polish government unexpectedly backed down from the amendment. In a procedure described as an “urgent project,” both houses of parliament did away with the law within five hours. The president signed the change immediately afterward. The lightning speed of this process, in which members of parliament had a limited chance to ask questions, was probably due to a desire to appease Poland’s most powerful ally. The dots are not difficult to connect. On his visit to the United States in May, President Andrzej Duda was not invited to a meeting with President Trump or Vice President Mike Pence. The Polish deputy prime minister later acknowledged that the new law was blocking talks about American military presence in Poland. During the July NATO summit in Brussels, however, President Duda was able to secure an invitation to the White House, as well as American promises of greater military presence in Poland and sale of military equipment. On the same day as the removal of the amendment, the prime ministers of Poland and Israel also signed a controversial joint statement about cooperation, in which “anti-polonism” is mentioned on a par with anti-Semitism, a correlation that has since gained severe criticism in Israel. The new version of the law removed the threat of jail sentences and established that expressions perceived as defamatory toward the Polish nation will become civil offenses, not criminal.

A Disturbing Reality

While the change in law, even under pressure, was a positive development, the affair revealed a disturbing reality about Polish society and its latent anti-Semitism. The timing of the amendment, on the eve of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, only added to its incendiary effect. The amendment’s phrasing, apart from major legislative flaws that would make it tortuous to apply, demonstrated monumental myopia of historical reasoning. Past Polish leaders have recognized the role the country played in the horrors of the Holocaust. One of the earliest attributions of “co-responsibility” for Nazi crimes to the “Polish Nation” was by no other than Jan Karski, courier of the Polish Government-in-Exile, who tried in vain to alert the Allies to the annihilation of Poland’s Jewish population. In a February 1940 report, he assessed Polish attitudes toward the Jews as...

overwhelmingly severe, often without pity. A large percentage of them are benefitting from the rights the new situation gives them. They frequently exploit those rights and often abuse them. This brings them, to a certain extent, nearer to the Germans.... “The solution of the Jewish Question” by the Germans—I must state this with a full sense of responsibility for what I am saying—is a serious and quite dangerous tool in the hands of the Germans, leading toward “moral pacification” of broad sections of Polish society...although the nation loathes them [the Germans] mortally, this question is creating something akin to a narrow bridge upon which the Germans and a large part of Polish society are finding agreement.

Ironically, Karski—a national hero who, as a “man who tried to stop the Holocaust,” became an icon for a certain Polish narrative in which Poles did all in their power to save Jews but became a target of “anti-Polish” prejudice—could have been imprisoned had the amendment not been changed.

The new law was not really about the semantics of “Polish death camps.” It was rather about muzzling the scholarly research.

This possibility points to the conclusion that the new law was not really about the semantics of “Polish death camps.” It was rather about muzzling the scholarly research that has burgeoned in free Poland since the publication of Neighbors. Whatever one thinks of Gross’s book, politicians have attempted to charge him with libel against the Polish nation for publishing it, and the current president has attempted to deprive Gross of the Order of Merit he received for outstanding scholarship in 1996, when he was widely hailed as a historian of safer topics, such as the Polish society under German occupation or under Soviet rule. The amendment represented the success of an anti-Gross narrative that sees him as a liar and a traitor.

Jan Gross has long been a controversial scholar in Poland, challenging the nation to confront anti-Semitic violence perpetrated by Poles against Jews during World War II. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Jan Gross has long been a controversial scholar in Poland, challenging the nation to confront anti-Semitic violence perpetrated by Poles against Jews during World War II. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

The final report of the Institute of National Remembrance itself substantially confirmed Gross’s basic finding concerning the participation of Poles in the massacre of several hundred Jews in Jedwabne (while disputing Gross’s numbers), stating that at least 40 Poles brutally murdered several hundred Jewish inhabitants of the town, including women, children and even infants, with no more than a passive, “inspirational” role ascribed to the Germans. A former president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former prime minister, Jerzy Buzek, and a number of Polish Catholic bishops have already acknowledged the guilt of these Poles and have expressed their apologies for these acts committed by Poles.

Unfortunately, political changes in the Institute of National Remembrance have now created a different climate. Its current director, when he was interviewing for the position, claimed—against the evidence and contrary to previous institute findings—that the Jedwabne pogrom was executed by Germans forcing innocent Poles, in fear for their lives, to kill their Jewish neighbors. His nomination in 2016 coincided with a purge of precisely those historians who had been crucial for deepening our knowledge of Polish behavior toward the Jews from the outset of German-Soviet hostilities in 1941.

In the present context, the mounting anti-Semitic demonstrations in Poland can no longer be characterized as marginal.

Recent actions of the Law and Justice Party threaten to reverse the important academic advances made in post-Communist Polish scholarship. Polish governmental institutions have, I have learned, reneged on support for academic conferences dealing with Polish-Jewish subjects, and Holocaust courses have been cancelled at Polish universities. I have also heard that Polish academics are even refused institutional and financial support to publish on Jewish history not directly related to Polish-Jewish relations and are told, “It is not the right time.” Both students and scholars, faced with such a hostile atmosphere, may decide not to risk their academic careers by working on similar topics.

In the present context, the mounting anti-Semitic demonstrations in Poland can no longer be characterized as marginal. Events like the burning of Jews in effigy, pro-fascist demonstrations and a massive neo-Nazi march during the recent celebration of Polish Independence, are not normal signs of a functioning free society. Although the government officially dissociates itself from such demonstrations, it fails to signal that they lie outside of acceptable discourse, even as it passed this new law regulating contrary speech. Government officials downplayed the neo-Nazi march, but they prosecuted members of a countermarch. If free speech is good for one side of an issue, why not for the other?

Even such demonstrations, however, do not compare in their impact to the expressions of certain government officials since the law was proposed. One presidential advisor has claimed that Israel’s protest stems from a “feeling of shame at the passivity of the Jews during the Holocaust.” The PiS has renewed its plans to outlaw kosher slaughter, with a penalty of four years imprisonment. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki poured gasoline on the fire when, at the Munich Security Conference, he answered a question from an Israeli journalist on whether the new law would criminalize him for saying that his parents’ family members were killed after their Polish neighbors reported them to the Germans. Prime Minister Morawiecki replied, “You’re not going to be seen as criminal [if you] say that there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators as well as Ukrainian perpetrators—not only German perpetrators.” This response was, understandably, interpreted as a blurring of distinctions between perpetrators and victims and relativizing—thus erasing—any responsibility that certain Poles had in the elimination of their Jewish neighbors.

Expressions like these convey a desire to whitewash the Polish national memory, erasing any notion of complicity by Polish citizens in crimes against their fellow citizens.

Expressions like these convey a desire to whitewash the Polish national memory, erasing any notion of complicity by Polish citizens in crimes against their fellow citizens who happened to be Jews. There is also a not-so-subtle link between the vox populi and the party in power. When President Duda received the new law to sign it, demonstrators before the presidential palace brandished posters and shouted the following slogans: “Stop the Jewish aggression against Poland!” “Enough, enough Jewish lies!” and “Take off your yarmulka. Sign the law!”

Anti-Semitism has also breached the mainstream media: Dr. Adam Sandauer, a Polish-Jewish physicist and social activist, found it necessary to walk off the set of a television talk show when he was ambushed with anti-Semitic canards by an audience member, who was not stopped by the talk show hosts. Two other television hosts have told “Holocaust jokes.” Written screeds have since appeared in mainstream newspapers.

The increase in public manifestations of anti-Semitism is not the only symptom of growing hostile attitudes toward the other in Poland. Verbal attacks on foreigners tend more often now to turn to violence, from which even children are not spared. A 14-year-old Turkish girl was beaten on the street while the attackers were shouting “Poland for Poles!” Foreigners from Africa or India are routinely insulted with the “n-word” and also physically attacked. Crimes committed from racial prejudice are on a sharp rise. There were 835 cases in 2013, 1631 in 2016 and 947 in the first six months alone of 2017.

This is the climate in which this new law sought to limit free speech and open debate that was recently restored after Communism, a climate that is essential for Poles to face a history in which they are not exclusively victims. The effects of the law could have been not only long-term losses in scholarship. More ominous is what it appeared to sanction in the public sphere: an outburst of unlimited expressions of anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia that present to the Poles a very unpleasant self-image.

Polish historians already ask whether the situation is beginning to resemble the 1930s, with its anti-Jewish street violence, attempts to outlaw kosher slaughter, numerus clausus and press assaults on prominent Polish Jews, or, perhaps, 1968, with its state-sponsored “anti-Zionist campaign,” but also with the popular social exclusion of Jewish Poles. There are not many Jews left in Poland to harass or expel, but what will happen to the Poles and to their soul as a “nation” as anti-Semitism is left unchecked?

At Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust remembrance center, Pope John Paul II remembered Poland’s Jews and warned the world to be attentive to their unique suffering: “How can we fail to heed their cry? No one can forget or ignore what happened. No one can diminish its scale.” We owe it to them to tell the whole truth, not just that which certain Polish politicians find appealing to a nationalist base.

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