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Poland and Its Jews

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Poland has just passed a law making it illegal and a criminal offence to say that the death camps built during the Second World War on Polish territory were Polish camps when in fact they were designed, built, and commanded by German Nazis. The first part of the law says:

[Anyone] who, in public and against the facts, ascribes to the Polish People or to the Polish State, responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich, [as] defined in Article 6 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal, Annex to the Agreement for the prosecution and punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis, signed in London on August 8, 1945 […], or for other offences which are crimes against peace [or] humanity or [that are] war crimes, or who otherwise grossly reduces the responsibility of the actual perpetrators of said crimes, is subject to a fine or [to] imprisonment for up to 3 years. The judgment shall be made public.”

I do not disagree with the statement that they were not Polish Death Camps. Neither do I believe that you can say the Polish people as an entity were responsible. Although I do believe it is waste of time and counterproductive to have such laws that ban saying things you don’t agree with or. Even having Holocaust Days, as we have seen, has been turned by Europeans and indeed the UN into meaningless formalities that often become hatefests against Jews. It is right that it should also apply to all genocides—but the trouble is that political bias applies it to everyone except that of the Jews. Laws against denying the Holocaust have not stopped Holocaust denial. Even in Britain, psychologically and intellectually challenged individuals still stand up in court and deny it happened to the Jews. Trying to force people by law to change their prejudices has never worked. But we can, and of course we must, legislate to deal with actions.

What about the second part? It seems on the surface to want to deny any complicity on the part of any Poles:

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, as specified in Article 6 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal enclosed to the International agreement for the prosecution and punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis, signed in London on 8 August 1945 (Polish Journal of Laws of 1947, item 367), 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.”

If this is intended to argue that the Polish government was not officially complicit, again, I cannot argue. There is no evidence of official legislation or a government decree. But many individual Poles were indeed complicit and willing participants in murder. If individuals are to be protected, then this is a lie that must be counteracted, although I repeat that legislation is the wrong tool.

I believe this is a storm in a petty, nationalist teacup. But for the love of me, I do not understand why Israel is making such a fuss over it, any more than the stupid Polish nationalists are. Leave the neo-fascists to stew in their own stupidity. Our role should be to continue to document and publicize the facts, to try to educate and to provide centers for this purpose wherever possible.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid have accused Poland of Holocaust denial. Lapid wrote on Twitter:

I utterly condemn the new Polish law which tries to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust. It was conceived in Germany but hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier.”

They are guilty of overkill and playing politics, appealing to their own constituencies. This law does not deny the Holocaust or those charged with complicity. It simply insists that Poland never had a state policy to exterminate Jews.

In every country that the Nazis occupied, much of the local population willingly complied, aided, and abetted, and actively participated in the anti-Jewish activities of the German Reich. In almost every case—France, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus—it has taken many years for them to admit it. Even then, many still refuse to. Only the historical records and documentation, rather than pressure, have forced them to acknowledge the truth.

Holocaust denial was heard recently  in the English Courts and in the USA a Republican Candidate in Illinois has said on the National Media this week that the holocaust is a hoax perpetuated by Jews to extort money. And it seems that there are many in the USA of different ethnicities who agree.

The Polish record is a long and bittersweet one. It is true that in the middle ages Polish rules such as Boleslav and Casimir the Great welcomed the Jews who were driven out of England, France, and German states. Under some of the later Polish monarchs, they flourished so much that Poland was often referred to as Po Lin (“stay here” in Biblical Hebrew). It was the only safe place for Jews on the European continent. But if Jews felt welcomed, it was relative. The Catholic Church and much of the peasantry did not want them. In the Chmielnicki Cossack invasions of the 17th century, Jews joined forces with non-Jewish Poles to fight and repel the Cossacks. But in many cases, as soon as the danger was over the Poles turned in the Jews too.

Poland was constantly being carved up by Russia, Germany, and Lithuania during the 19th century. Russians who invaded were violently anti-Semitic—no less so than Poles. In fact they confined Jews to the notorious Pale of Settlement and wouldn’t even allow them elsewhere in Russia. The Russian record throughout the 18th and 19th century is even worse than that of Poland.

After the First World War, Poland became independent under a relatively sympathetic, democratic Marshal Pilsudski. His government tried to protect Jewish Poland. Jews participated in the democratic process and sat in its parliament, the Szem. But Jews were not popular. They were always regarded as outsiders. In the Second World War they were accused of either supporting the German invasion or the Russians. They were either fascists or Communists or both. Many Jews did indeed have high hopes and supported Marxism in the mistaken hope that it would give them equality.  And were identified with Soviet aggression. Most units of the Polish resistance excluded Jews and usually refused to help those on the run. More assistance came from the Poles in exile in London than those on the ground.

But worse, Poles themselves massacred Jews. As Wikipedia puts it:

The Jedwabne pogrom was an atrocity committed on July 10, 1941, during the German occupation of Poland in World War II. 340 Polish Jews of all ages, locked in a barn and set on fire. A group of at least 40 Poles was involved, after being invited to Jedwabne by German police battalions.”

And this was not an isolated case. After the war, Jews who had survived were not welcomed either:

The Kielce Pogrom was an outbreak of violence against the Jewish community centre’s gathering of refugees in the city of Kielce, Poland on 4 July 1946 by Polish soldiers, police officers, and civilians during which 42 Jews were killed and more than 40 were wounded. Polish courts later tried and executed nine of the attackers in connection with the incident.” 

(Incidentally, I highly recommend a Hungarian movie 1945 which movingly describes a Jewish survivor returning to his home village in the face of suspicion and opposition.)

After the Second World War, the Polish Communist government pursued a vigorous anti-Semitic campaign. It made no mention of Jews murdered at Auschwitz, focusing exclusively on a Marxist, anti-Fascist narrative. And the Catholic Church tried to Christianize Auschwitz, establishing a convent nearby. Things have improved remarkably since Polish independence. The first Polish pope, John Paul II (now Saint John Paul the Great), and Cardinal Jozef Glemp tried really hard to suppress anti-Semitism in the Church. As we see, they did not entirely succeed in their homeland.

In recent years things have regressed. Symptomatic has been the support of some Polish bishops of the very popular Catholic, but rabidly anti-Semitic, xenophobic, and nationalist Radio Maryja. Although Popes Benedict and Francis condemned it, and the Vatican officially disapproves, there is still much support within sectors of the Polish Church.

For years now Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora have been participating in annual Marches of the Living, bringing thousands of young Jews to the camps as part of an educational experience to reinforce Jewish identity and to remember what happened. This too has caused a reaction. There has been a tendency amongst some marchers to assume that all Poles were responsible. On the other hand local louts and nationalists have attacked marchers or abused them. Some have accused marchers of being provocative and abusive back. Symptomatic of the undercurrent of hatred that still exists.

A rise in nationalism has always been bad for the Jews. There is no doubt the problem of extremism is on the rise again. From both the Right, the Left and others. Speech expressing hatred of Jews is now common on the streets of Europe. And regularly offends the existing laws against incitement to hatred with impunity.

Passing laws against expressing views, however wrong, is no answer. I also believe that trying to bully people into changing their minds or eliminating prejudice will also not work. Only through education and information can truth drive out falsehood. And strong enforcement of laws against attacks (of any kind) or discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or religion will help send the message that a civilized society values equality and compassion and deplores prejudice and hatred.

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