Justice Louise D. Brandeis once said, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” A truer statement could not be made pertaining to Poland’s new law criminalizing Poland’s connection to Nazi death camps. True enough, Poland was not responsible for the death camps on its soil which were set up by the German Nazi occupiers.
But the Polish government’s move to silence research about collaboration by Polish nationals has generated an opposite effect. If the intent of its president was to silence critics, he has actually succeeded in bringing Poland under the microscope for years to come. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has charged that “Poland has now turned Holocaust distortion into law and joins those who are attempting to evade any historical responsibility for Holocaust crimes.”
In a scathing reply to my letter of concern about the new law, Polish Ambassador to Canada Andrzej Kurnicki wrote that the “purpose of this act is to restore the historical truth about the German Nazi concentration and extermination camps….” There was never much of a debate about the camps. It’s mainly about the concern that the new law, as articulated by the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research, “would constitute an unprecedented intrusion into the debate about Polish history…which can muzzle discussions…on the complex history of the Holocaust.”
The law threatens free speech, free inquiry and, most importantly, a historical reckoning of the slaughter that took place in Poland in those years. Konstanty Gebert, a Polish journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza, wrote in an article: “I affirm that many members of the Polish nation bear co-responsibility for some Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.” Similarly, Slawomir Sierakowski, the founder of the Institute of Advanced Study in Warsaw, expressed that this event gives Poland another “black eye while stoking nationalist fervour.” Even former Polish prime minister Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz recently admitted that “of course Poles took part” in the Holocaust during an interview with the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita.
Poland certainly has its share of suffering under Nazi occupation, and Yad Vashem has acknowledged some 6,700 Polish nationals as righteous gentiles for saving Jewish people during the war. Who could forget the tremendous effort, for example, of Irena Sendler who smuggled some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto? That type of heroism should be encouraged, honoured and remembered.
At the same time though, history records instances like Jedwabne, where in 1941 non-Jewish Poles murdered some 1,600 neighbours. They herded them into a barn, sealed the doors shut and burned it down to the ground. Reports indicate that only seven of the town’s Jews survived. Survivors of the Holocaust attest to the brutality of their Polish neighbours and the vicious antisemitism that prevailed. That antisemitism made it easier to give up Jews to the Nazis or participate in hunting them down in exchange for food.
Antisemitism in Poland still prevails. Walk into almost any gift shop in Warsaw’s Old City and you will see little Rabbinic-looking figurines – their noses are hooked and their hands outstretched begging for money. The surge of antisemitism, as a result of this law, brings to view that Poland – after its occupation by the Nazis and then the Soviets – still needs time to mature and confront its demons. After all, instead of silencing historical truth, Poland has put itself under the microscope.