Blog: Through Testimony

Poland's Holocaust law defies history - and embodies a troubling trend

Fri, 02/09/2018 - 5:35pm -- webmaster

Contributor: Stephen Smith

Fri, 02/09/2018 - 5:35pm

Even absent this current era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” the new Polish law making it a crime to point out Poland’s complicity in the Holocaust would be alarming. 

But that it is occurring in today’s climate of demagoguery, heightened nationalism and ethnic tension – an unholy trio that threatens to metastasize on a global scale – is a troubling development.

Poland’s effort has come under attack by Israel and stewards of Holocaust memory.

While the new Polish decree is perhaps the most barefaced attempt to reposition its past in recent memory, Poland is far from the only country to do so.

In 2014, the Hungarian government during the night erected a monument to World War II that stirred outcry: an angelic statue of Archangel Gabriel under attack by a menacing eagle. This portrayal of the country as a victim of Nazi aggressors ignored the fervent antisemitic laws that took effect in Hungary decades before Hitler’s ascent.

In 2015, the new Ukrainian government passed a law that punishes those who “publicly exhibit a disrespectful attitude” towards the “fighters for Ukraine statehood.” These same fighters promoted an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, celebrated Hitler’s arrival and killed up to 40,000 Jews without Hitler’s help.

In 2017, Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate for president of France, sought to absolve her country for Holocaust-era sins such as one in which French police helped round up 13,000 Jews in a coliseum, where they languished for days before being deported to camps including Auschwitz.

“I think that, in general, if there are people responsible, it is those who were in power at the time,” she said during her surprisingly successful campaign, which came up short. “It is not France.”

Under the new Polish law, the use of the erroneous phrase “Polish death camp” is now punishable.

This phrase – which has occasionally appeared in news accounts and was once used in a speech by President Obama – has understandably vexed Poles for decades. 

It is absolutely true that the camps built on Polish soil were established by the German government and oppressed both Jews and ethnic Poles. Jews were murdered in their millions in the gas chambers of six German death camps and Poles were murdered in their millions through German slave labor, incarceration and horrific oppressive conditions.

All of these sufferings took place on Polish soil, committed by the German nation.

But to seek to suppress the phrase by imposing legal penalties will do nothing to curb its use. It will also embolden antisemites who aim to whitewash some of the painful truths of Polish complicity during the war.

As noted by renowned Holocaust scholar Christopher Browning – who will soon spend time at USC Shoah Foundation as a fellow in residence – there were indeed Poles who took it upon themselves to alert authorities to Jews hiding in the woods. Others were opportunists who sought to exploit the situation by extorting endangered Jews.

Poles also rescued Jews; no other country boasts more Righteous Among the Nations honorees.

Poland should realize this new law shows insecurity, and weakness. Facing the facts of history need not come at the expense of national pride.

Germany took responsibility for its crimes long ago, and has benefitted from its honesty worldwide. In 2017, it became the country with the best global reputation, according to the Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index.

Poland would do well to follow suit because defending its honor in this way will only isolate it in the long run. The Polish courts should strike down the law, despite their political incentive to do otherwise.

Posts are contributed by individual authors. The opinions are solely the authors’ and are not necessarily a reflection of the views of USC Shoah Foundation.

About Stephen Smith

Stephen D Smith is the Andrew J. and Erna Finci Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 53,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He also holds the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education and is an Adjunct Professor of Religion. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict.

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