Polish Law on Holocaust Draws New Attention to Anti-Semitism in Poland’s Past and Present

Recent historical research makes it plain that Poles rarely opposed and were frequently complicit in the persecution of their Jewish neighbors by the Nazis.

Far-right protesters hold a banner during a demonstration to support a controversial new Polish bill regarding the Holocaust and the definition of Nazi death camps on February 5, 2018 outside the presidential palace in Warsaw. The placards (R) read "Stop Jewish agression against Poland", "Never again, 15 million victims of communism, 15 million victims of Nazism".The legislation, which still needs President Andrzej Dudas signature to take effect, is intended to stop people from erroneously describing Nazi German death camps as being Polish. / AFP PHOTO / JANEK SKARZYNSKI (Photo credit should read JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Far-right protesters hold a banner during a demonstration to support a controversial new Polish bill regarding the Holocaust and the definition of Nazi death camps on February 5, 2018 outside the presidential palace in Warsaw. The placards (R) read "Stop Jewish agression against Poland", "Never again, 15 million victims of communism, 15 million victims of Nazism". The legislation, which still needs President Andrzej Dudas signature to take effect, is intended to stop people from erroneously describing Nazi German death camps as being Polish. Photo: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

There is no doubt that Polish Jews were not the only ones singled out for terror, persecution, and murder by the Nazis during the German occupation of Poland that began in 1939 and lasted until 1945.

As Hannah Arendt reported from the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1962, the judges in Jerusalem had before them the minutes of two conferences of senior Nazi officials, from September 1939 and January 1940, in which “the fate of the entire native population in the occupied territories was discussed — that is the ‘solution’ of the Polish as well as the ‘Jewish question.'”

“Even at this early date,” Arendt noted, “the ‘solution of the Polish problem’ was well advanced; of the ‘political leadership,’ it was reported, no more than three per cent was left; in order to ‘render this three per cent harmless,’ they would have ‘to be sent into concentration camps.'”

In May 1940, the Holocaust Museum in Washington explains, the German occupation authorities launched AB-Aktion, an operation to eliminate the Polish intelligentsia: “The Germans shot thousands of teachers, priests, and other intellectuals in mass killings in and around Warsaw, especially in the city’s Pawiak prison. The Nazis sent thousands more to the newly built Auschwitz concentration camp, to Stutthof, and to other concentration camps in Germany where non-Jewish Poles constituted the majority of inmates until March 1942.”

Five years later, at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians were dead, and another 1.5 million Poles had been deported to German territory for forced labor.

It is those facts, not the murder of 3 million Polish Jews during the same time period, that Polish nationalists, who now control Poland’s government, want to put at the center of wartime histories.

But an effort to refocus attention on Polish suffering, and away from the Holocaust, through a change to Poland’s anti-defamation law — which now makes it a crime for anyone, in any part of the world, to accuse “the Polish Nation” of complicity in Nazi war crimes — has backfired spectacularly.

The new law, which took effect this week, prompted widespread criticism from Israeli officials and Jewish groups in the United States — as well as Polish historians, Germany’s foreign minister, and the State Department. In an effort to defuse tensions, Poland’s far-right, nationalist government has promised that the law will not be enforced in the coming weeks, until it can be reviewed by the nation’s constitutional court.

But even if the law is never enforced, the debate over the text of the amendment has already profoundly damaged Poland’s past and present reputation.

The clearest impact of the legislation has been to draw fresh attention to recent historical research that makes it plain that Poles rarely opposed and were frequently complicit in the persecution of their Jewish neighbors by the Nazis, following the annexation of western Poland to Germany.

The increasingly hysterical response from Polish nationalists to valid criticism of the law has also revealed a virulent strain of anti-Semitism among supporters of the ruling Law and Justice Party, known by the Polish acronym, PiS.

The amendment to Poland’s criminal code began as an effort to placate nationalists enraged by the frequency with which foreigners carelessly used the misleading phrase “Polish death camps” to refer to Nazi concentration camps where large numbers of non-Jewish Poles were also imprisoned. But the text was written so broadly that historians are concerned that the law could be used to prosecute even Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust for testifying to their own experiences of the prevailing anti-Semitism of Polish society in that period.

After the international outcry, when Polish President Andrzej Duda seemed to hesitate before approving the legislation, supporters of the measure rallied outside his office in Warsaw last month displaying a large banner that read: “Take Off the Yarmulke — Sign the Law.”

Another banner at the same rally called on foreigners to “Stop Anti-Polonism.” News reports on the rally showed that one man even held up a sign that read: “Stop Jewish Aggression Against Poland.”

An image posted online by the Polish broadcaster eMisjaTv showed a protester in Warsaw in February with a sign that demanded an end to “Jewish Aggression Against Poland.”

While that demonstration was not large, it was followed by evidence that more influential figures share some of the same sentiments. An adviser to Poland’s president said in a newspaper interview last month that Israel was “clearly fighting to keep its monopoly on the Holocaust.” The adviser, Andrzej Zybertowicz, also speculated that “anti-Polonism in Israel” might be motivated by “a feeling of shame at the passivity of the Jews during the Holocaust.”

“Many Jews engaged in denunciation, collaboration during the war,” Zybertowicz added. “I think Israel has still not worked it through.”

Polish state television, which acts as a propaganda arm of the current government, broadcast an extraordinary interview last week with Father Henryk Zielinski, a priest who edits a Catholic weekly, Idziemy. Zielinski attacked Jewish critics of the law as liars, claiming that Jews have “a completely different system of values, a different concept of truth.”

“For us, the truth corresponds to facts,” Zielinski added. “For the Jew, truth means something that conforms to his understanding of what’s beneficial.”

Even the nation’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, dismissed criticism of the law as an expression of anti-Polish racism. “Anti-Polonism around the world has been gaining in power because of a lack of reaction from Poland and the weakness of this reaction for the last 10 years,” Morawiecki told Bloomberg News last week.

Morawiecki then provoked an uproar in Israel when he seemed to suggest that there were as many Jewish collaborators with the Nazis during the German occupation as Polish collaborators. In a recent exchange in Munich with the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, who asked if he could be prosecuted for recounting his own mother’s experience of fleeing from Polish informers during the war, the prime minister said that it would not be considered criminal offense merely “to say that there were Polish perpetrators — as there were Jewish perpetrators.”

Anger over Poland’s attempt to deny that many Poles were indeed guilty of helping in the Nazi persecution of their Jewish neighbors during the war eventually prompted an anti-Polish backlash that only distorted the historical record further.

“There were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that,” Israeli politician Yair Lapid tweeted in January.

Faced with objections from historians and the Polish embassy in Tel Aviv, Lapid, whose great-grandmother was arrested in Serbia and murdered in Auschwitz, doubled down. He argued in an opinion piece defending his tweet that the death camps had been built in Poland by the Nazis not because that country had the largest prewar population of Jews, or as part of an attempt to liquidate the native population so that the territory could be incorporated into the Reich, but because “the Germans knew that at least some of the local population would cooperate.”

Lapid’s claims, which are not supported by historical research, tapped into a strain of anti-Polish racism that does exist in Israel. His comments even echoed the anti-Polish remarks of a former Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, a native of Poland whose parents were killed there in the Holocaust. In 1989, Shamir claimed that anti-Semitism among Poles was so “deeply imbued in their tradition, their mentality,” that they “suck it in with their mother’s milk.”

Perhaps the most inflammatory response to the new Polish law came from an American Jewish organization, the Ruderman Family Foundation. In support of the foundation’s petition drive calling on the United States to sever relations with Poland over the law, it produced an intentionally provocative YouTube video in which a series of American Jews pledged to break the law by saying that there had indeed been a “Polish Holocaust” of the Jews.

The foundation withdrew the video after the Jewish community in Krakow, the American Jewish Committee, and the Holocaust museum in Israel, Yad Vashem, all complained about its inflammatory tone and inaccurate account of history.

David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, called the video “deeply troubling and misguided.”

“Whatever its intentions,” Harris added, “it only makes a bad situation worse by sweepingly and inaccurately accusing Poland of waging a ‘Holocaust’ against the Jewish people during the war.”

That video, which was front-page news in Poland, provoked a furious response from the far right. In its commentary, one Warsaw publication, Do Rzeczy, made aggressive use of the Star of David — in an editorial cartoon that suggested that Poles had been the victims of a Holocaust perpetrated equally by Nazis and Jews, and in a cover illustration that suggested Poland was under an “information warfare” attack from Jewish enemies.

As the historian Eva Hoffman explains in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, Poland’s reckoning with its wartime history only began in earnest after 1989.

In Poland, as in other formerly Soviet-dominated countries, the cold war decades were an era of censorship and deliberately falsified versions of historical events, including World War II and the Holocaust. Between 1939 and 1945, Poland was the epicenter of several violent upheavals: the Soviet invasion from the east under the auspices of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact; the Nazi conquest and occupation, which resulted in the deaths of three million non-Jewish Poles; and the attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe, perpetrated largely on Polish soil, in which three million Polish Jews—90 percent of the country’s pre-war Jewish population—were murdered. In addition, Poland lost its eastern territories, now part of Ukraine, to the Soviet Union, and the region’s Polish residents were in effect deported westward. The enormity of these events, combined with the suppression of basic truths about them, meant that their legacies were preserved covertly by their various inheritors, all with their own adamant loyalties and wrenching recollections, and that Poland in the postwar period became a place of often conflicting and fervently defended forms of collective memory.

In the decades since the end of the cold war, Polish historians have unearthed sobering new evidence that relatively few Poles tried to protect their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis, in large part because of how widespread anti-Semitism was in Polish society.

One of the most prominent researchers, Princeton historian Jan Gross, found historical records that documented the slaughter of 1,600 Jews by their Polish neighbors in 1941 in the village of Jedwabne, outside Warsaw.

Gross, who has been threatened with prosecution for his work by the Polish government, also completed a broader survey of Polish-Jewish relations during the Nazi occupation based on firsthand accounts from the time which make evidence of Polish complicity clear.

One of the accounts Gross quotes comes from was a report to the Polish government in exile by Jan Karski, a liaison officer of the Polish underground who infiltrated both the Warsaw Ghetto and a German concentration camp and delivered the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to the West. In one report from 1940, Karski was so frank about the prevalent anti-Semitism of the Polish population that the government in exile declined to share his information with its allies.

“One can feel all over that the [Jews] hoped Poles would recognize that both nations are injustly exploited by the same enemy, and that the Poles attitude toward them would reflect this awareness,” Karski wrote. “But such an understanding is lacking among the broader masses of the Polish society. Their attitude toward Jews is ruthless, often without pity. A large part avails itself of the prerogatives [vis-a-vis the Jews] that they have in the new situation. They use these prerogatives repeatedly, often even abuse them. To some extent, this brings the Poles closer to the Germans.”

“The anti-Semitism of a broad strata of the Polish society did not diminish at all,” Karski noted, even as millions of Polish Jews were isolated in ghettos and had their property seized. Even as the Nazis ruthlessly oppressed Poles, persecution of the Jews, Karski concluded, had created “something akin to a narrow bridge upon which the Germans and a large portion of Polish society are finding agreement.”

After the first wave of mass killings of Jews began in 1941, the commander of Poland’s Home Army, Gen. Stefan Grot-Rowecki, sent a telegram to the exiled government in London complaining that its pro-Jewish rhetoric was costing it support. “Please accept it as a fact that the overwhelming majority of the country is anti-Semitic,” the general wrote. “Even socialists are not an exception in this respect. The only differences concern how to deal with the Jews. Almost nobody advocates the adoption of German methods. Even secret organizations remaining under the influence of the prewar activists in the Democratic Club or the Socialist Party adopt the postulate of emigration as a solution to the Jewish problem. This became as much a truism as, for instance, the necessity to eliminate Germans. … Anti-Semitism is widespread now.”

Gross also discovered a contemporaneous account of the Holocaust from a provincial Polish doctor, Dr. Zygmunt Klukowski, director of the county hospital in the town of Szczebrzeszyn. Klukowski recorded in dismay the breakdown of “public order” under the Nazis, to the point where the looting of Jewish homes and businesses became accepted, and there was frequent collaboration in the hunting down of Jews offered to the Germans by Poles. “Quite a few Poles, especially boys, eagerly help in the search,” Klukowski wrote on August 8, 1942, when the town’s Jews were ordered to assemble and had to be tracked down and dragged from their homes.

Looking at hundreds of other accounts from the time, Gross concluded one reason that so relatively few Poles risked their lives to hide Jews was the very great risk that they would be denounced to the Germans by other Poles.

In an interview with an Israeli broadcaster last month, Gross said that the true aim of the new law seemed to be to stifle the uncovering of difficult truths by historians like him.

“Unfortunately,” Gross said, “it’s a disastrous attempt to stifle first of all historical research and historical debate, and a totally lame effort to transform and change historical consciousness in Poland through just legislating a falsehood.”

On Saturday, a Polish group close to the government, the League Against Defamation, filed the first complaint under the new legislation, accusing a newspaper in Argentina of violating the law by using a photograph of dead anti-Communist Polish resistance fighters to illustrate an article about the Jedwabne massacre Gross exposed in his 2001 book, “Neighbors.”

Top photo: Far-right protesters rallied outside the office of Poland’s president in Warsaw on Feb. 5 carrying banners that demanded an end to “Anti-Polonism” and “Jewish Aggression Against Poland.”

Update: March 6, 9:29 a.m. EST

After this article was published, the Ruderman Family Foundation’s president, Jay Ruderman, said in a statement that the group’s “campaign was meant to be controversial using the term ‘Polish Holocaust’ to point out the fallacy of attempting to legislate the truth of the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered.” Despite intense criticism from Jewish groups in the United States and the Holocaust museum in Israel, Ruderman called the campaign, “hugely successful” in generating “an international conversation on the Polish Law.”

“We stand by the video,” he added, “and only pulled the video from our campaign after the pleas of Jewish leaders in Krakow concerned for their safety based on growing anti-Semitism in Poland.”

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