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Poland’s Misunderstood Holocaust Law

A visitor at the entrance of the memorial site of the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, on Jan. 25, 2015. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

World War II altered not only the fate of nations but also that of millions of families in Europe. From the viewpoint of Poland, it was the end of a multicultural, multiethnic world that had flourished for more than seven centuries. The borders of prewar Poland in the east included cities such as Nowogrodek, Rowne, and Stanislawow.

Nowogrodek was the birthplace of Adam Mickiewicz, one of the greatest ever Polish poets, who was personally involved in the process of creating a Jewish legion as part of his efforts to fight for Polish independence in the 19th century. Rowne was the birthplace of the mother of Israeli author Amos Oz, whose novel A Tale of Love and Darkness inspired actress Natalie Portman to make a brilliant movie about Israel’s difficult beginnings seen through the lens of a family of Polish Jews. As for Stanislawow, it is a place close to my heart. My mother’s family comes from this city, which is now called Ivano-Frankivsk and lies within Ukrainian borders.

The world my mother knew ended when Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia invaded Poland in 1939. In Stanislawow, my close family rescued Jews; the same happened in the city of Nawarzyce on my father’s side. I grew up surrounded by these stories. They taught me that in the darkest hour Polish-Jewish bonds proved to be stronger than the unimaginable brutality of the Nazi German occupation.

This is the background for understanding my government’s recently adopted bill dealing with the falsification of Polish history. It has a very simple aim: to protect the truth about World War II and about those who were truly responsible for it. It penalizes public accusations against Poland, contrary to all facts, of responsibility or complicity in Nazi German crimes. Attributing complicity in the Holocaust to Poland blurs the responsibility of Nazi Germany.

During World War II, Poland experienced a German- and Soviet-orchestrated genocide in which more than 6 million Polish citizens perished, half of whom were Polish Jews. Poland never created a government that collaborated with the Third Reich and never formed an SS division.

Instead, when the Holocaust started, Poland’s government in exile endeavored to make the world hear about the tragedy of the Polish Jews and to convince the Allies to undertake appropriate action. The Polish Underground State not only created an organized platform to help Jews called the Polish Council to Aid Jews, known by its code name Zegota, but also punished by death those who helped Germans in murdering Jews. Meanwhile, the Home Army, the largest underground force in occupied Europe — 400,000 people strong, including members of my family — resisted the occupation. Graves of these brave Polish soldiers can be found in Siberia, Iraq, North Africa, Monte Cassino, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland.

And even as the Nazi Germans made it punishable by death to hide or assist Jews, many Polish families engaged in this noble, and indeed heroic, enterprise. Hans Frank, the de facto ruler of Nazi-occupied Poland, once admitted that if he were required to print posters about every seven Poles who were killed, there would not have been enough wood in Poland to make paper necessary to produce them.

Having said all that, we must also remember that there were individual cases of Poles who collaborated with the Nazi Germans, as well as those who murdered Jews and other innocent people. This fact has never been denied in Poland and is acknowledged in our educational system. We must bear in mind, however, that each of these heinous crimes should be judged individually and that individual acts of wickedness should not burden with responsibility the entire nation, which was conquered and enslaved by Nazi Germany.

Only about 300,000 Polish Jews survived the war. This constituted as little as 10 percent of the prewar Polish Jewish population. Each one of those lost innocent lives was a tragedy, and the destruction of a nation on such a scale is heartbreaking. But those who did survive, in almost every case, depended on some sort of help from the Poles. Those Polish Jews who encountered Nazi Germans did not have any chance to survive.

In the 16th century, a famous Krakow-based rabbi, Moses Isserles, called Poland a paradis Judaeorum, a “paradise for Jews” — four centuries later, this paradise, in a tragic twist of fate, became the place where Nazi Germany built Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Using a phrase such as “Polish death camps” is a disgrace not only to Poland but also to the victims of Adolf Hitler’s state. Our bill has never been intended to deny the right of people who survived the Holocaust to speak about their personal tragedies or to limit any kind of freedom of research or artistic freedom.

But the truth remains that Poland decided to fight against Hitler and the Holocaust. Those individuals who disobeyed the orders of the Polish government in exile, and contributed to the Jewish tragedy, were criminals and should be condemned.

Not only Israel but Poland, too, is morally obliged to protect the memory of the Holocaust. We wish to be partners in these efforts, and no misunderstanding should ever lead to any conflict between our nations. We should never forget that the Holocaust was one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Poland.

Today, Poland is committed to the renewed flourishing of Jewish life in our country. The culture of Polish Jews is an inseparable element of our Polish heritage, of which we are deeply proud.

Pope John Paul II believed that anti-Semitism was a great sin and stood firmly against it. The Polish government is faithful to his teaching. At the same time, as someone who survived the war in occupied Poland, he stood strongly against blaming the country for complicity in Nazi German crimes and underlined the role that Poles played in rescuing the Jews while they were under brutal occupation.

Soon there will no longer be eyewitnesses to Nazi German crimes. It is our collective moral duty to transmit the lessons — and warnings — to our children.

© 2018 | Foreign Policy

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