2018 Polish-Israeli Crisis: History, Trauma, and Politics of Cultural Memory

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 10:11am

The risk of the Holocaust is not that it will be forgotten, but that it will be embalmed and surrounded by monuments and used to absolve all future sins.  

- Zygmunt Bauman

The future of Polish-Israeli relations can be driven by compassion and forgiveness, or a retreat behind walls of fossilized antisemitism, essentialist prejudice, nationalistic egotism, and fear.


Today, Polish-Israeli relations are at the lowest point since the 1968 outburst of an antisemitic campaign waged by the Polish communist party[1] and the ousting of many Polish Jews from Poland. On Friday, January 26, the lower house of the Polish parliament passed the bill that makes it illegal to suggest that the Polish nation bears responsibility or co-responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust committed by the German Nazis on the Polish soil. The controversial part of the bill, which is an amendment to an existing Polish law[2], states that (emphasis added):

“Article 55a. 1. Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich (...) or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to 3 years.


Article 55b. Irrespective of the regulations in force at the location of committing the criminal act, this Act shall apply to Polish and foreign citizens in the event of committing the offences referred to in Articles 55 and 55a.”

Disregarding Israel’s strongly voiced concern about the pending legislation and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s invitation to bilateral talks, the Polish Senate approved the controversial legislation on February 1, criminalizing public claims that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. At the time of writing, the bill awaits President Andrzej Duda’s signature.

The current crisis did not occur spontaneously. It reflects Poland’s ongoing struggle with its Cold War baggage of collective amnesia about the persecution of the Jews by their Polish neighbors. It also reveals Poland’s frustration with being implicated in systemic, systematic, and industrialized crimes of the Holocaust committed by the Nazis on the Polish soil. Lying at the nexus of post-1989 national identity and politics of memory, the current crisis is entangled in individual, collective, and institutional ways of processing the traumatic history of WWII and the Holocaust.

One Bill, Two Conversations

Defenders of the bill view it as a way of legally curbing the use of the misleading phrase “Polish Concentration Camps” in the international media. Despite the fact that the phrase does not feature in the text of the bill, “Polish Concentration Camps” has been at the crux of the debate in Poland since last week. What some have dismissed as a discussion of semantics that has little bearing on the global WWII discourse, Poles view as a matter of national interest, identity, and dignity.

Many journalists and politicians outside of Poland have used this shortcut to denote German Nazi concentration camps that were built in Poland but overseen from Berlin.[3] Poles, however, view it as an expression of historical ignorance, conflation of the Holocaust with Polish antisemitism, and insensitivity to the approximately 3 million non-Jewish Poles who died during WWII (hundreds of thousands of whom were murdered in Nazi camps)[4]. The problem of strengthening Polish national identity through historical narratives of Polish WWII martyrdom has become a central issue for the ultraconservative right-wing party, ‘Law and Justice’. The proposed bill is part of their domestic agenda.

A few main issues were brought to light by the current crisis. The bill was drafted and voted for by the conservatives, yet it is not only the ultra-right that opposes the usage of the term “Polish Death Camps” in international media. Across the domestic political divide that sharpened in 2015 when ‘Law and Justice’ won an outright majority, the Polish public strongly rejects this phrase as historically incorrect. On February 3, abstaining from commenting on the new Polish legislation, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel issued a statement that the use of the phrase “Polish Death Camps” was wrong: “There is not the slightest doubt as to who was responsible for the extermination camps, operated them and murdered millions of European Jews there: namely Germans.”[5]

While historically sympathetic to Poland’s contestation of the term “Polish Death Camps”, Israel strongly opposes the ambiguous wording of the new bill that leaves too much open to interpretation. Israelis fear that the new bill will lead to whitewashing of the history of Polish antisemitism and crimes committed by the Poles on their Jewish neighbors before, during, and after WWII. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted that the Israeli government “will under no circumstance accept any attempt to rewrite history.”[6] Indeed, many historians, political commentators, and Holocaust scholars in Poland and Israel alike view the new legislation as a type of preventive censorship that evokes the worst type of Cold War connotations.

To many, the bill registers as an attempt to negate the fundamental and unquestionable value of individual and subjective witness and survivor testimonies. This strikes a particularly painful chord in Israel and among the Diaspora alike. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, opposed the new legislation as

“liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust. There is no doubt that the term ‘Polish death camps’ is a historical misrepresentation! The extermination camps were set up in Nazi-occupied Poland in order to murder the Jewish people within the framework of the "Final Solution." However, restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people's direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion. (...)”[7]

The proposed law has been met with a strong wave of criticism inside of Poland. On February 5, anti-bill protesters gathered outside of the Chancellery of the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda voicing their opposition. Professor Paweł Śpiewak, Director of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, said in an official statement that, “In our opinion, the wording of the proposed amendments is highly imprecise and leaves a large margin for confusion. (...) In our opinion, the amendment (...) is a regress in terms of freedom of research, freedom of speech and popularization of knowledge.”[8] Similarly, Professor Dariusz Stola, Director of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, stated that, “Passing a law that may exert a negative influence on historical research, that is on searching for the truth about the past, is not a good solution.”[9]

While Poland as a state did not exist under the Nazi occupation and had no puppet regime collaborating with the Nazis, a law that forbids discussions of the involvement of both “the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland” prevents any type of meaningful dialogue about the history of Polish antisemitism and the violence Jewish communities experienced at the hands of their non-Jewish Polish neighbors. It also limits discussion of such traumatic events as the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom, the 1946 Kielce pogrom, and other cases of deliberate, repeated, and targeted persecution of the Jewish Poles by non-Jewish Poles.

Silenced Topics Revisited

The controversial bill marks a turning point in the process of post-Cold War Polish-Jewish reconciliation. Between 1945 and 1989, the relationship between the official Polish discourse and the memory of the Shoah was problematic. For both geopolitical and ideological reasons, Soviet propaganda exploited forms of popular antisemitism in periodic swings throughout the Cold War. This trickled down into public and political discourses of Eastern European satellite states and added to their already hostile attitudes towards the Jews. Structurally, the Iron Curtain prevented Poland and other Eastern European states from participating in the process of working through shared WWII trauma for almost 50 years.

This collective amnesia of the Holocaust lasted in Poland until the 1989. The end of the Cold War gave voice to a previously silenced topic of Polish anti-Semitism, significantly enriching Holocaust discourse over the past twenty-nine years. As both Poland and other Soviet satellite states were previously engaged in falsification of memory and manipulation of cultural productions, the post-1989 period became a fertile ground for the celebration of counter-memory.

In 2001, such efforts became pronounced when Jan T. Gross’s book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland was published. The text sent shockwaves through Polish intelligentsia circles and sparked a national debate on the Polish responsibility for crimes committed on Polish Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. Simultaneously, many champions of the Polish-Jewish reconciliation continued to verbalize their disapproval of the phrase “Polish Death Camps”: Professor Bronisław Geremek, Władysław Bartoszewski, Radek Sikorski, and others. While there was no national consensus on the issue of Polish involvement in the persecution of the Polish Jews, the painful dialogue existed.

2018 - ?

The current crisis reveals the fragility of Polish-Jewish reconciliation and a disturbing, albeit not unexpected, turn to nationalism and isolationism in Poland. It also heralds a reversal of a short-lived post-2001 tendency to discuss the complicated triangular relationship between victims, witnesses, and perpetrators. While phrases like “Polish Concentration Camps” expunge nuance from Polish-Jewish history, they also confirm Polish bias about the lack of international recognition for Poland’s own WWII trauma. As a result, seeds of fear and suspicion find fertile ground in notions of Polish martyrdom and nationalism that constituted the core of Polish identity throughout the decades of Nazi and Soviet oppression and political subjugation.

Paradoxically, Israel’s strong response to the proposed bill might strengthen its defenders, as many in Poland interpret Israel’s objections as an attack on Polish sovereign right to draft its own regulations. Unfortunately, the proposed bill will further retard the maturity and subtlety necessary for continued progress in Polish-Jewish relations.

Given the complexity and sensitivity of topics at hand, it is important to support allies of the Polish-Israeli dialogue, both in Israel and Poland. As the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and Memorial Piotr Cywinski exclaimed, “The Great Silence will not happen!” The allies of the Polish-Israeli dialogue and reconciliation will continue to preserve the memory of those who perished under the umbrella of the Nazi terror.


[1] Polish United Worker’s Party.

[2] Amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance. 


[3] Including President Obama in 2012. See: Mark Memmott, “White House Offers Regrets For President Referring to ‘Polish Death Camp,” NPR, May 30, 2012, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2012/05/30/153982099/white-house...

[4] According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Between 1939 and 1945, at least 1.5M Polish citizens were deported to German territory for forced labor; hundreds of thousands were also imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. (…) It is estimated that Germans killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians during WWII. In addition, the Germans murdered at least 3 million Jewish citizens of Poland.” Source: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005473

[5] See: Noa Landau and Ofer Aderet, “German FM Weighs in on Polish Holocaust Bill: Germany Alone Was Responsible for the Holocaust ‘And No One Else,” Haaretz, February 03, 2018, https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/german-fm-calling-auschwitz-a-...

[6] See: Jeffrey Heller and Marcin Goettig, “Israel and Poland Clash Over Proposed Holocaust Law,” Reuters, January 28, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-poland/israel-and-poland-clash...

[7] See: Press Release, “Yad Vashem Response to the Law Passed in Poland Yesterday,” January 27, 2018, https://www.yadvashem.org/press-release/27-january-2018-18-43.html

[8] Original translation.

[9] Original translation.

Maria Zalewska