As International Holocaust Day came and went, instead of it solely being an occasion to rededicate ourselves to remembering the great tragedy, it was overtaken by news of a Polish draft law concerning Poland’s role during the Holocaust.
Let’s begin by stating forthrightly that Poland has a just case in rejecting the use of the term “Polish death camps.”
On several occasions during my tenure as national director of ADL, including in a published letter in the New York Times and in a statement released to the media, we pointed out that the death camps were German camps located in Poland and that attributing those camps to the Poles was inaccurate, offensive and harmful.
The law, which was approved by the lower house of the Polish parliament on January 26, the day before International Holocaust Day, undoubtedly goes too far in criminalizing the use of such language, but this fundamental point is valid and should be beyond dispute. Had the draft law stopped there the problems that ensued would not have come to pass.
Unfortunately, the bill opened a whole other kettle of fish, the question of how individual Poles behaved during the Holocaust.
It speaks of criminalizing false and defamatory accusations as to the role of the Polish state and Polish nation during the Holocaust.
Such language suggests that questioning and researching the role of some Poles in abetting the Nazi genocide would be beyond the pale.
Context is all-important here. I feel comfortable addressing these issues, not only because I am a Polish Jewish survivor, but also because as director of ADL, I honored numbers of Poles who rescued Jews during the Shoah. I always emphasized that doing so was vital going forward in order to recognize that courageous people did do the right thing and that had there been more such people in Poland and elsewhere, many more Jews could have been saved.
It is also true, however, that many Poles played a role in helping the genocide, by betraying Jews, by seizing their property, by acting as if they had no knowledge of what was going on in the camps. All this was documented in the nine hour-film “Shoah” by Claude Lanzmann.
And beyond, is the question of how many Jews were murdered not by the Nazis but by Poles themselves. While there are to this day disputes on the subject, the numbers clearly are in the thousands. The most infamous of such events took place in Jedwabne in 1941, when hundreds of Jews were gathered into a barn and burned to death by local residents. When the terrible tale of Jedwabne was described by Jan Gross in his book “Neighbors,” he was denounced by segments of the Polish population and leadership.
In sum, there remains a lot of work yet to be done in Poland’s coming to grips with its role during the Holocaust. Yes, Poland was a victim of the Nazis and their brutal occupation and any effort to confuse who the perpetrators of the genocide at the death camps were should be rejected. But Poles were not innocents as the Jews were being slaughtered. A law that appears to conflate the death camp issue with the broader question of individual Polish responsibility is a bad law and heads Poland in a wrong direction.
Certain Polish officials pushed back against Israeli condemnation of the law by asserting that it was only intended to stand up against false and defamatory accusations against Poland and its people. But the only significant false statements that have repeatedly surfaced speak to the death camp issue. Accusations, for example, that Gross was defamatory in his book on Jawabdne are themselves defamatory.
How can the Polish government remedy the situation? If they feel a need to pass a law on defamation, let it be solely focused on the “Polish death camp” issue. Here there should be recognition of the justice of their argument, even by those of us who shudder at criminalizing speech.
As survivors are passing away, as anti-Semitism is resurging, understanding the Holocaust, including how deeply embedded anti-Semitism in places like Poland contributed to the environment which led to the murder of six million, is more important than ever.
Poland can contribute to this understanding by fixing a bad law.