The Polish Holocaust law – what next?

The unnecessary ‘Holocaust law’ passed by the Polish Parliament and supported by its government and president has caused significant damage, placing a wedge between Poland and Israel and the Jewish people.

Irrespective of how often Polish leaders claim that the law is misunderstood, the damage has been done, and now, extra effort is needed to repair it.

Jaroslaw Gowin, Poland’s deputy prime minister, wrote an open letter to the Israeli public (Haaretz, March 4), in which he tried to ease concerns about the new legislation. He referred to the joint history between Poles and Jews, including the hundreds of years during which Poland was home to the largest Jewish community in the world, and to the strong ties that grew between post-communist Poland and the State of Israel.

Gowin outlined many areas of fruitful dialogue, and blamed ‘miscommunication’ for the present uproar. Crucially, he argued that Poland was a victim during Second World War and the German occupation, and not a victimizer, and that it therefore cannot accept terms like “Polish Holocaust” or “Polish death camps.”

It is clear that many in Poland believe that they are being wronged by the prevailing narrative on those darkest of years.

However, correcting that narrative cannot be achieved through a law that deters historical research, open public discourse, and genuine acceptance that there were those individuals, and even small communities, that did act against Jews or murder Jews.

Those actions do not characterize the polish people as a whole, but studying and talking about them is as important as educating about the many wonderful and brave Poles who risked their lives to hide and save their Jewish neighbors.

One can understand the frustration felt by many Poles over the labeling of Nazi death camps, created and run by Germany on polish soil, as “Polish camps”.

This narrative links Poles – themselves victims of cruel Nazi occupation – with the genocide of Jews. However, the attempt to change the narrative through legislation is not only wrong, but also dangerous.

Historical research on the events of the Holocaust cannot occur under the shadow of criminal legal action. It is undeniable that many Poles risked their lives to save Jews. In fact, more Poles have been awarded Yad-Vashem recognition as being among the Righteous Among the Nations than any other nation (keep in mind that the Jewish community in Poland was by far the largest in Europe).

The acts of these brave, selfless Poles must be taught to every generation. But it is also true that there were Poles that cooperated with the Nazi occupiers, reported the presence of Jews, and even acted independently to kill Jews.

The mass murder of Jews by their polish neighbors in Jedwabne (1941), and other incidents, like the pogrom in Kielce (after the war, in 1946) cannot be swept under the rug. These acts of evil are also part of the history of Poland. They too have to be part of the discussion, and of the lessons taught to future generations.

Furthermore, the public discourse in Poland surrounding the Holocaust law has led to a spike in anti-Semitic sentiments. This only proves the importance of conducting historical research free of threats, as well as open, brave public discourse.

The question going forward is what needs to be done to decrease tension, and salvage relations, in a manner that deals with the concerns of both sides. The official dialogue held in Jerusalem on March 1 was a step in the right direction. This effort should continue, based on the hope that it will affect the Polish legislative court, which can still issue a ruling about the law.

But additional steps are necessary. Statements by officials in Poland that were stained by anti-Semitism must result in reprimand. Historical research should improve in quality, preferably conducted by joint Israeli – Polish teams, free from the threat of legal punishment.

Israel has steps to take as well. It should reexamine the project that has taken tens of thousands of youths to Auschwitz, and other sites in Poland, where millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

The idea behind the visits is to reveal to young Israelis (and others) the horrors conducted by Nazi Germany. The visits were made possible after the end of 40 years of communist rule in Poland. The idea was well intentioned, but it also produced a negative byproduct. Not all the youths fully understood the chronological and historic context. Some found it hard to separate the Nazi-German ideology and murder industry from the land on which many of the the atrocities were carried out.

Professor Shlomo Avineri has called (Haaretz, March 2) for study tours to Poland to come after visits to camps in Germany. This would create a proper perspective. It is a call worth examining.

In addition, both governments should invest much more in developing a large scale youth exchange program. Joint online classes could powerfully supplement such a program too.

Nazi Germany planned and stood behind the Final Solution, and it is responsible for the Holocaust. It also directly occupied Poland, bringing misery and death to many Poles. If the Polish people believe that their narrative of the events during World War Two is being misrepresented, the way to fix this is via education and study, including a direct look at real, historical stains. Legislation and threat of criminal action can only backfire, since it suggests that there is something dark to hide.

Edited By Yaakov Lappin

Co-Edited By Benjamin Anthony

Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF or the Foreign Ministry. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.

About the Author
Ambassador Arthur Koll is the former Deputy Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he concluded his service as the head of the Media and Public Affairs Division. He is a former Ambassador of Israel to the Republic of Serbia and to Montenegro and served as instructor of the National Defense College. Mr. Koll also served as Consul of the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta, USA.
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