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The new Polish law is not going to change the world for the better

Far from fixing a bad law, the amendment will muzzle those who try to tell inconvenient historical truths
A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) Nazi concentration camp, photographed just after the liberation by the Soviet army, in January 1945. (AP Photo/ File)
A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) Nazi concentration camp, photographed just after the liberation by the Soviet army, in January 1945. (AP Photo/ File)

As a result of the recent amendment to the amendment of the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, researchers and journalists will no longer be facing imprisonment for speaking about the dark sides of Polish history. Instead, they will have to pay compensation if they lose their court case with someone who felt offended by their words. This is not a concession on the part of the Polish Government, nor backtracking from a bad law. It is an attack on freedom of speech, strangely praised by the US Department of State, the country where this freedom is most valued.

Polish history has been falsified for a long time and it is by no means an invention of the Law and Justice party. In the history textbook that my son used to learn from last year, in the part devoted to Poles’ attitudes towards the Shoah, the authors tell young people about Zegota (Polish Council to Aid Jews), Irena Sendler (the head of the children’s section of Zegota; awarded Righteous Among the Nations title) and the Ulma family (executed in 1944 for hiding Jewish families in their home), giving the impression that their extraordinary acts of heroism in protecting Jews were the social norm. The word ‘szmalcownik’ (blackmailer) does appear there, but it is immediately followed by an explanation that such cases were punished by the Underground State with death. Did Poles kill Jews during the war? The authors of the textbook admit that they did, but it happened only once in Jedwabne.

Recently, the Prime Minister has said that there was no Poland in 1968. And can we be sure that it exists today and that nobody will question it in a few years’ time?

For me, the most glaring symbol of the gradual erasure of the Jewish past from our space is the mass grave in my hometown. After the liquidation of the ghetto, the Germans left a group of young and relatively strong Jews alive, sending them to do cleanup work. Then they took them to Piękna Street, ordered them to dig a hole and shot them. According to sources, there were from several dozen to 300 Jews there. After the war, the survivors who returned to the town laid a modest concrete slab in the place of the mass grave. Several years later, someone added the inscription “To the victims of fascism”.

In 1956, representatives of the TSKZ (Socio-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland) organization wrote to the municipal authorities that “two citizens set up homesteads adjacent to the mass grave of 400 victims of the Hitlerite genocide, and that there is a barn just by the grave and that the area next to the grave is littered with waste”.

I don’t know if TSKZ ever received a reply, but I do know that in the 1990s the plot of land with this mass grave was sold to a private owner who built his house there.

The new law on IPN (Institute of National Remembrance) is not going to change the world for the better. On the contrary. It will close the mouths, or at least try to do so, of those who want to tell the truth. Because having to prove the truth in court is a long and exhausting process. Not everyone can afford it. This way, false textbooks will become the official interpretation and the only possible version of events. Poland will lose because it will have another generation brought up on falsehood. “Dumb folk’s gonna buy it” but what are those who don’t want to be dumb are supposed to do?

About the Author
Katarzyna Markusz is a journalist and Editor-in-Chief of Jewish.pl and a correspondent of JTA. She is doing research about Jewish life in Sokolow-Podlaski, Poland before and during the WWII.
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