The Washington Post reported that Poland’s President Andrzej Duda signed into law a bill outlawing the use of language that associates Poland as responsible for the Holocaust. Within it, penalties for the phrases like “Polish death camps” could include up to jail time for potential violators.
This move has reaped a backlash, but not for the right reasons, I fear. The concerns over free speech and historical debate are ones I share. It’s reprobate and tyrannical to criminalize the articulation of certain kinds of phrases.
However, the lion’s share — or at least loudest — critics condemn Poland’s government here not so much with liberal ideals of free expression in mind, but for anti-semitism. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, implies Polish officials are guilty of Holocaust denial. Yair Lapid went as far to tweet:
I find Netanyahu’s and Lapid’s reactions unhinged. “Polish death camps,” as anyone with a basic understanding of the World War II and the Holocaust knows, is a misleading term. Auschwitz, Treblinka, and many of those horrendous places were Nazi installations located in Nazi-occupied Poland. Putting aside the law seemingly is clumsy in what it permits and just ill-conceived legislation, it’s understandable that the Polish government doesn’t want Poles to be defamed as genocidal butchers as culpable as the Third Reich.
Well, what about them? It’s consistent to recognize both that the camps in occupied Poland were Nazi in origin and administration, and Polish anti-semitism was contemporaneous and played a factor in the Holocaust. Is anyone of consequence in the civilized world denying the evil of either of them? This isn’t to say Poland doesn’t have a history of anti-semistism prior, during, and after the war, or anti-semitism isn’t significant force in the world today (on the contrary, I affirm the negation of both claims). However, atrocities like Jedwabne, Kielce, and other unsettling anecdotes of Polish misconduct involving Jews and their Nazi killers — acts committed by a relatively small few in a nation of millions — though perhaps inspired and or coaxed by the Nazis, weren’t part of the Holocaust as it pertains to the operation of the extermination camps as implied by the imprecise phrase “Polish death camps” at the center of this controversy. Overall, these regrettable acts are irrelevant to the matter at hand, namely whether Poland as a nation — not some number of individual Poles or segments of the Polish underground — can be credibly blamed as part of the Holocaust or anti-semitism wholesale.
Moreover, Lapid’s tweet leaves no room to distinguish between those among the conquered Poles who assisted the Nazis and those who didn’t actively resist their rule. It implies both were equally complicit in the systematic extirpation of European Jewry.
It also disregards the ethical difficulties of the Polish situation during World War II. Keep in mind Polish Slavs weren’t considered perfect Aryan specimens either. Viewed as inferior, they too were sent to the camps to be killed. Perhaps every living Pole at the time in Poland ought to have risen up against the barbarism of the Nazis, but Lapid ignores that every living Pole at the time in Poland had a gun to their heads — that, everyday Poles were under duress, oppressed, and faced a legitimate moral dilemma. As such, some, whatever their feelings toward Jews, decided their best option at survival was to keep their heads down or unfortunately even abet the Nazis. Even if some of this behavior was based in anti-semitism, it’s unfair, with almost 80 years of hindsight, to denounce categorically the Poles for some Poles failing to be decent human beings when mired in indecent circumstances.
It seems because there existed some Polish collaborators and anti-semites, Poland can’t be largely seen as innocent of the Holocaust or the great European anti-semitic ether from which it apparently materialized (never mind that many Poles risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis and the long, complex history between Jews and Poles). As Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is recorded in The Guardian:
The Jewish people, the state of Israel, and the entire world must ensure that the Holocaust is recognised for its horrors and atrocities…Also among the Polish people, there were those who aided the Nazis in their crimes. Every crime, every offence, must be condemned. They must be examined and revealed.
So given the examples of Netanyahu, Lapid, and Rivlin, the outrage here seems to be all about collective guilt-mongering. That, European anti-semitism wholesale is responsible for the Holocaust. And non-Jews, especially those of European descent, must always be aware of that and the fact that they and or their fellow countrymen have ancestors who committed heinous crimes against Jews seemingly in order to foster a perpetual feeling of penitence.
Let me be lucid: I don’t buy those anti-semitic conspiracy theories about the “Jews controlling everything” found on the far right. They repulse me. Plus, I’m far from callous about Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis.
However, it’s obvious there are prominent Jews and Israelis who are invested in promoting a simplified narrative about what happened in Poland before, during, and after World War II to impute guilt, I suspect, on the non-guilty for ethnocentric reasons. There’s too many who equivocate “Poland,” “Polish people,” and other similar phrases, as well as fail to use “the Holocaust” univocally, for it to be otherwise. It’s tribalism, us vs. them, Jews against gentiles/whites identity politics. Lest we forget, identity politics led to the Holocaust, whose victims’ descendants ironically are not above engaging in their own version of them. So I call them out for it.
See Danusha V. Goska for a nuanced take on the relationship between Poles and Jews.