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'A will to rewrite history' behind Polish Holocaust speech law

Odd Andersen / AFP | A watch tower at the memorial site of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland on January 26, 2015.

Poland’s Senate passed a law on February 1 banning people from linking the Polish state to the Holocaust. Some historians see it as a disturbing piece of legislation, and it has triggered strong reactions in Israel.


The new legislation has provoked anger in Israel, a warning from the United States and complaints from Ukraine. Aimed at defending the country’s image, the law will punish by fines or prison sentences (up to three years) anyone who attributes “to the Polish nation or state, publicly and despite facts, responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich […] war crimes or other crimes against peace and humanity”.

The law still has to be signed by Polish President Andrzej Duda in order to come into force.

For the ruling right-wing populist Law and Justice Party (PiS), this legislation is intended to prevent the use of the term ‘Polish death camps’ to refer to death camps set up by the Nazis in occupied Poland.

Phrase ‘Polish death camps’ is misleading

“This expression [Polish death camps] is absolutely false – it arose in the Anglo-Saxon press about twenty years ago, and it stems from the globalisation of memory,” said Jean-Charles Szurek, research director emeritus at Paris-based think tank CNRS and author of “Poland, Jews and Communism” (2010), in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“Because it was an easier phrase to use, the media started to use it instead of saying ‘Nazi camps in occupied Poland,’” Szurek said.

The phrase was even used by Barack Obama in May 2012, causing a diplomatic incident.

Poland was invaded in 1939 by Nazi Germany. At the time, the country had more than three million Jews, making it the world’s largest community of Jews in the world.

As early as 1940, the Nazis gathered them in ghettos; in March 1942, they began deporting them to the six death camps on the occupied territory: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. About 5.7 million people were killed there, about half of whom were Polish Jews.

The Polish government-in-exile tried to help them, through the creation of a Council of Aid for Jews. The resistance also tried to warn the US about the ongoing extermination, but without much success.

Meanwhile, no form of institutional collaboration with the Third Reich existed in Poland, unlike in many other occupied countries.

An awakening to historical facts

However, Israel and the US have other concerns. They regard this legislation as an attempt to sweep under the carpet the role of some Poles in the mass murder of Jews.

Back in 1942, when ghetto Jews were deported, about 250,000 managed to flee. By the end of 1944, only 40,000 to 50,000 were still alive.

“Many of them died of cold, hunger, sickness or ill-treatment, but many others were denounced by Polish neighbours to the national police or the German occupier,” said Jean-Charles Szurek.

“The policy of exterminating Jews was a Nazi one, but anti-Semitism in Poland is old and violent, and it existed before, during and after the war,” added Annette Wieviorka, director emeritus at CNRS and co-author of the book “Jews and Poles: 1939-2008”.

In addition to denunciations, pogroms took place in eastern Poland in 1941 and 1942, the best known of which is the massacre of 1600 Jews in the village of Jedwabne by Polish peasants in June and July 1941. Long attributed to German troops, this massacre was documented by the American historian Jan Tomasz Gross, in his book “Neighbours” (2001). Such pogroms also took place after the war. In 1946, for example, in the small village of Kielce, the local population attacked Holocaust survivors. Forty-two people were murdered – including women and children – either beaten to death, stoned or shot.

These revelations ignited a heated debate in Poland, but gradually Gross came to be taken seriously – if not amongst the population at large, at least amongst the cultural and academic elite.

“Researchers from the humanities and social sciences grouped together and formed the magazine 'Zaglada Zydow' ('Extermination of the Jews') and built a fact-based discourse that allowed Poles to lose some of their innocence about the Holocaust,” said Szurek.

In 2001, then Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski offered Jews an official apology for the role of Poles in the Holocaust.

“The massacres of Jews by Poles are historical facts, as Polish historians such as Gross and Jan Grabowski have established. There was a very rich period for research starting from the late ’90s, with newfound freedom of expression and the opening of the archives. But the arrival of the far-right government [in 2015] put an end to it,” said Wievorka.

Politicians rewriting history

Today, the academic community is more concerned than ever before about politics intruding into its work.

“The new law shows a political will to rewrite history that has only just come to be written,” Wievorka said.

Like Szurek, she denounced the warnings to researchers who go against the image that the Polish authorities want to give of their country, of Poles as nothing but “heroes and victims”.

“If the law passes, I don’t know what will happen when I publish my next article on the Jewish question in Poland,” Szurek wondered.

Wieviorka shares his concerns: “I’m very angry because it is real people – historians – who are affected by this law and it’s their work that’s denigrated,” she said.

The Law and Justice Party, which came to power in 2015, has an agenda to chip away at the separation of powers, restore socially conservative Catholic values and distance Poland from the EU. From threatening abortion rights to trying to impose executive control over the judiciary, the Polish government has launched a conservative offensive. Rewriting the national narrative of the Holocaust is part of it.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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