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Scrubbing Poland’s Complicated Past

Jendrzej Wojnar/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters A worker cleaning a memorial to the victims of the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom after it was defaced by neo-Nazis, Poland, 2011

This month, Poland marks fifty years since the “March events” of 1968, when mass protests erupted in response to the stagnant Communist regime of Władysław Gomułka and its campaign of censorship and chicanery directed at Jews and intellectuals. The anniversary comes at a time when the current government is facing criticism at home and across the world for undermining free speech and the independent judiciary, and for refusing to take in any refugees. Among its crude moves to establish ideological control at home and flout opinion in the West is a recently passed amended law criminalizing claims that the Poles were complicit in or jointly responsible for the Holocaust.

The law certainly invites comparisons between now and 1968. This time around, though, Poland’s government is not backed by Moscow; its current isolation is from both West and East, and the country seems to be caught, not for the first time, in a vise—ideal conditions for a new cycle of xenophobic hysteria and bigotry.

There is nothing so reminiscent of Communist-era censorship culture as the coercive, patronizing ideological commentaries with which cultural officials of the Law and Justice party, also known by its Polish initials as PiS, have in the last few years been responding to books, plays, and films related to the Holocaust. When Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Ida, about a convent novice who discovers she is Jewish, was shown on Polish television in 2016, it was framed by an introduction and “discussion” by state-approved experts, who kindly explained to the unsuspecting viewer how the film “insults the Polish nation.” Last month, the cover of the newsletter of the Institute for National Remembrance (IPN) which is at the center of the latest efforts to defend Poland’s “good name,” showed a photo of concentration camp inmates on the top half of the page and, on the bottom half, a photo of smiling Nazi officers, with the bold title “Germans Dealt This Fate to People.”

The visual message—the Germans are the historical villains—is clear enough for a non-Polish audience, but the title is a more specific reference to, and subversion of, a classic literary text commonly used in Polish high schools to teach the history of the Holocaust. In 1946, the eminent Polish novelist Zofia Nałkowska (1884–1954) published a slim, devastating collection of prose titled Medallions (available in Englishsince 2000 in an excellent translation by Diana Kuprel) and gave it the epigraph Ludzie ludziom zgotowali ten los: “People dealt this fate to people.” In the hands of Poland’s current state arbiters of truth, a statement about human evil (inviting readers to inhabit it and reflect on their own potential for good and evil) must be shrunk and adapted to a narrow partisan view of history. There are grounds for worrying whether the plan is to carry out such a shrink-fit operation on all of Polish culture.

On February 7, Andrzej Melak, a Law and Justice member of parliament, called for Medallions to be provided with editorial commentary. He had discovered that Nałkowska uses phrases the recent Polish legislation was designed to combat. In the last piece in the collection, “The Adults and Children of Auschwitz,” Nałkowska writes: “Not tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands, but millions of human beings underwent manufacture into raw materials and goods in the Polish death camps.” And a few paragraphs later: “The Germans promised Jews arrested in Italy, Holland, Norway, and Czechoslovakia prime working conditions in Polish camps.” (My italics, in both cases.) There is the phrase, not mentioned in the recent law but reflecting precisely the language against which the amendment is aimed. Nałkowska is beyond the reach of a legal suit, and the wording of the law suggests it will not be applied to historians or artists, but this only raises the question of how and to whom it will be applied. In a statement in English on its website, the IPN points to “the media” as chiefly responsible for what it considers the repeated slander of Poland, but the fact that many scholars and artists involved in the debate on Polish-Jewish history are also regular contributors to media outlets makes it clear that they, too, may be liable for prosecution if their views receive a sufficiently wide airing.

The sociologist and journalist Karolina Wigura wrote in a recent article that the law was drafted as if to shut up a single person: the historian Jan T. Gross, who broke the silence that had formed around the story of the Jedwabne massacre—in which the town’s Jews were killed on the streets and in their homes or rounded up and burned in a barn—and stubbornly defends his thesis that the Poles “actually killed more Jews than Germans during the war.” As Gross has said himself, though, the government did not need the new law to harass him, and it makes more sense to see the legislation as the Law and Justice party’s way of playing to its own far-right nationalist constituency. In doing so, the government has only exposed its provincialism and insecurity.

As soon as the new “Holocaust law” entered into force this month, a non-profit group called Reduta Dobrego Imienia (literally “The Good Name’s Redoubt,” usually translated as “The League Against Defamation”) moved to bring a civil suit against an Argentinian daily, Pagina 12, for having sullied Poland’s honor. The offense was “mixing two threads”: that of the Jedwabne massacre, and the story of the “doomed soldiers” (żółnierzy wyklęci) of the Polish nationalist resistance during and after World War II. Train stations across Poland have been decorated this March with IPN-sponsored posters commemorating these soldiers, who are an important part of the Polish history right-wing commentators feel has been neglected. The fact that the Argentinian editors illustrated an article on the agonizing subject of Jedwabne with a photograph of Polish soldiers was like waving a red rag to a bull.


The eight grim tales that make up Medallions were the result of Zofia Nałkowska’s work as a member of the Central Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes, which was established in the spring of 1945. The Commission (in 1949 renamed “for Nazi Crimes”) was the institutional precursor of the IPN, and its history illustrates the perils of entrusting the legislation of historical truth to a state institution. Launched under the aegis of the postwar Polish government (led by Moscow-trained Communists), the Commission always acted under the influence of political imperatives. Should its members have come across evidence of Soviet war crimes (such as the Katyń massacre of Polish officers), they were obliged to ignore or obfuscate them, just as all Poles were under the strongest possible pressure to refer to the Soviets as “liberators” instead of “occupiers.”

Despite these severe limitations, the Commission did invaluable work in documenting the Nazis’ campaign of mass murder and enslavement in Poland, and Nałkowska’s own prose, exemplary in its purity and sobriety, captures its horrors better than any other work of literature I know, except the writings of Holocaust survivors. The Commission, in which Jewish lawyers, researchers, and a few remaining representatives of Jewish communities participated, collected and preserved German documents, interviewed witnesses and perpetrators, and helped prepare the trials of the main criminals of the Nazi-occupied General-Government: Rudolf Hess, Hans Frank, Amon Goeth, Jürgen Stroop, and their fellows. At this moment in Polish history, when the Institute of National Remembrance is crying out against what it calls the “deficit of historical truth” in the attribution of guilt for the Holocaust, it is important to note that the Commission charged Polish collaborators, too.

But when loyal servants of Stalin consolidated their hold on the Polish state after 1949, the Commission’s activities were curtailed and fully subordinated to Communist-dominated prosecutors’ offices. For over a decade, the Commission was powerless to do much except preserve the documentation that had already been gathered. In the 1960s, party ideologues reactivated the Commission, but this time it was purged and put to use as an instrument for the shameful state-sponsored campaign of antisemitism that led to the emigration of a large part of Poland’s remaining Jews. Under a new director, Czesław Pilichowski, himself a former member of the extreme-right movement ONR (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny, or National Radical Camp), the Commission approved a new policy “to rebut the slanderous campaign of lies” about antisemitism in Poland. Jewish intellectuals were publicly accused of slandering Poland, supposedly with the aid of both Zionists and neo-Nazis. Many of them, including Jan Gross, spent time in prison.

As the successor to this tainted institution, the current Institute of National Remembrance is just as subject to the changing tides of political power. Under the Law and Justice administration, it was the Institute that drafted this new law; but under another government in 2001–2004, the Institute carried out a thorough and entirely creditable investigation into the Jedwabne massacre, whose “perpetrators sensu stricto,” the prosecutor Radosław Ignatiew found, were local Poles.

Incorporating the earlier commissions, the IPN came into being in 1998 as primarily the keeper of a great hoard of documents, those left by the Communist-era secret service. In the lugubrious game of competitive martyrology that Poland seems to be playing again, millions of documents of Communist crimes are pitted against millions of documents of Nazi crimes. It is a pitifully accountant-like approach to the immeasurable losses and injuries of war, as many have remarked. Missing from the current debate about what can and cannot be said about history is the presence, so strongly evoked in Nałkowska’s brief stories, of the dead themselves.

In Poland, as in virtually every country that has been occupied by hostile powers, the dead are unsettling presences not just because they are dead but also because invoking their real presences means acknowledging the humiliation involved in the kind of choices people were forced to make in wartime. In their statement, the historians at the IPN make the astonishing assertion that “the truth never humiliates.” But as much as we want them to sit still for us as martyrs (or criminals), the dead contain a discomfiting mixture of guilt and innocence. Some of the Polish soldiers who fought the Nazis and the Communists also engaged in murderous actions against Jews. Those whose identity and national pride are bound up with those soldiers may well feel humiliated by that fact. In a democracy, these complicated realities of human history cannot be left for state officials to adjudicate. These moral knots are the stuff from which the greatest Polish literature has sprung. This is why the kind of insidious ideological control that has returned to Poland under the Law and Justice party is so disturbing and bizarre.

In its cultural mission abroad, the Polish government has been industriously promoting awareness and celebration of historical figures that it feels are neglected, including the Polish citizens honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous among the Nations. Through its Book Institute, Poland has also been pushing authors regarded by the present regime as solidly “patriotic,” such as the poet and noted scholar of Romanticism, Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz. At a state-funded conference on Polish literature in translation held in Kraków last summer and organized by the Book Institute, all conference participants were welcomed with a gift bag including a big new Polish edition of the collected poems of Jan Polkowski, a Catholic poet of undeniable gifts who was active in Solidarity in the 1980s and is now one of the PiS government’s most fervent literary adherents. The bag also included a notebook bearing the handsome countenance of Joseph Conrad, who, trapped in Kraków at the outbreak of World War I, was berated by members of his own family for not being enough of a Polish patriot. Today, Poland needs Conrad, not as the face of national pride, but for his sense of tragic irony, of noble aims subverted by blind forces, his warnings that human knowledge is contingent, provisional.

To try to fix a country’s history and victim status by force of law is both foolish and futile. Like Holocaust denial laws, the Polish law will not stop people from saying things the Poles find offensive. It also leads the government immediately into inconsistencies. The Polish government resents the judgment laid upon it by the European Court of Human Rights for facilitating the CIA’s torture program—both by making available a building in the town of Stare Kiejkuty that was used to interrogate terror suspects, brutally and unlawfully, in 2002 and 2003, and by letting the US use an airport to fly detainees in and out. But when it is the United States that Poland is helping, turns of phrase suggestive of complicity (“Polish black sites”) do not excite the same legislative fervor.


There are still considerable differences in government censorship powers between now and half a century ago: in 1968, you could be sent to jail for ten years for “insulting the Polish state.” The Institute of National Remembrance in its new amendment envisions a maximum sentence of three years. In 1968, there was a rigorous system of censorship that had to be countered by an underground publishing scene; these days, the divide is chiefly between state media and commercial channels. The syllabuses and examination reading lists for Polish schools may now reflect the conservative literary taste of the average Law and Justice voter, but I have seen few signs that Poland’s writers and artists, so well trained in defiance, feel seriously inhibited in their work. And not all tides are flowing in the same direction.

In 2016, a new “uncensored” edition of Miron Białoszewski’s famous Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising appeared in Poland, restoring a number of passages removed when it was originally published, chiefly descriptions of Polish citizens laughing or cheering at Germans shooting into the Warsaw ghetto. (The recent NYRB Classics edition of Madeline Levine’s extraordinary translation includes these passages.) Writing and research on World War II and antisemitism continues unabated, and there is a large section of Polish society that vociferously resists racial and gender prejudice when it gets wheeled out as a political tool. There are masterly new books out in Poland on the Kielce pogrom of 1946 by Joanna Tokarska-Bakir and on Irena Sendler, one of Poland’s most prized “Righteous Gentiles,” by Anna Bikont. There is every reason to hope the country will choose historical complexity over historical cartoon.

At the end of the last chapter of Medallions, Nałkowska mentions a Nazi law that forbade anyone from reproaching members of the Nazi party for past crimes (after all, so many of them had been recruited from the ranks of pimps, thieves, and common murderers). The Law and Justice party is more subtle: it feels entitled to reproach Poles with some crimes, those loosely referred to as “Communist crimes,” but it wishes to protect Poles from being reproached for other crimes in the national past.

(c) 2018 NYbooks

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