By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Misuse and exploitation of the Holocaust has become the leitmotif of western civilization. Everyone is called a “nazi” and compared to nazis. The manipulation of Holocaust history is ever-present in our time. It spans left and right, Israel and America, Europe and the Middle East. The Holocaust and its memory is also part of modern political debates. These debates are often difficult and rancorous.
The latest example that has spiraled out of control is one between Poland, Israel and some in the Jewish diaspora. It was set off by media reports that Poland was passing a controversial law about the Holocaust. The immediate outpouring of anger was out of all proportion to the law. In Israel politicians rushed to blame Poland for “complicity” in the Holocaust. Education Minister Naftali Bennet claimed in early February “The government of Poland canceled my visit, because I mentioned the crimes of its people. I am honored.”
Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich said, after the law was signed that “My sense is that no one anticipated this strength of a negative response…Part of it clearly is that for many Poles it’s been too painful and too long to hear expressions like ‘Polish Death Camp;’ it’s blaming them for something they didn’t do.” The law could levy “a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years” for those who “accuse, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.”
Instead of the controversy relaxing after the law was passed. At the Munich Security Conference Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was asked by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman if telling his own family story would be illegal now. “Of course it would not be punishable or criminal if you say there were Polish perpetrators, just like there were Jewish perpetrators, like there were Russian perpetrators, like there were Ukrainians, not just German perpetrators” the Prime Minister responded.
Bergman went on to write at Ynet about his experience. He was lauded as a hero in Israel for standing up to Poland. He noted that growing up “there was one more thing we always knew, that ‘the Poles were worse than the Nazis.’ It’s something mother occasionally spoke about.” The actual story he writes is interesting. “She and other family members, she told us, had paid a Polish peasant money to hide in his farm.” He also said that his grandmother and mother had escaped to the woods with partisans. Polish partisans? Bergman said that after he had asked the Polish Prime Minister the question, “I was approached by senior German officials from different government organizations, who thanked me for saying what they are unable to say.” One wonders, do the Germans want to accuse Poland of the Holocaust?
The Polish PM’s “Jewish perpetrators” comment has unleashed a new torrent of anger. In Poland the Jewish community has said the anger has produced uncertainty. Swastikas were drawn on the Polish embassy in Tel Aviv. In early February Holocaust survivors had also pushed their way into the embassy.
Now an Israel Channel 10 writer has claimed at Ynet that “clearly, the Israeli ambassador must be recalled, but that’s just the beginning. Israel must act against Poland in European Union institutions. It must use its influence in the United States, and this kind of influence exists.” He claimed that Israel’s radical right had appeased Poland. “Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are the children and grandchildren of Polish Jewish citizens whose property was stolen by the state or by their neighbors. The limited and ridiculous return provisions made sense when the Polish state still upheld an alliance with Israel.” So now he suggests using the EU against Poland to get property back.
The most extreme example of the new campaign against Poland is a video posted online in the US calling for the US to “suspend relations with Poland now.” Posted “in the name of the six million” the video attacks Poland and accuses it of carrying out a “Polish Holocaust.”
Given the extreme anger and threats, a lot of damage has been done. The constant accusations of Polish “complicity” and the accusation that “Poland was worse than the Nazis” and insinuations that Poland carried out the Holocaust. There has been a purposeful attempt to rub salt in the anger of Poland, to provoke as much anger as possible. Knowing that Poland was angry about the use of the term “Polish death camps,” people have purposely used the term again and again. Now things have entered the realm of bizarro. A Polish politician said there should be a museum to the “Polocaust,” illustrating the millions of Polish non-Jews killed by Nazi Germany.
A shameful broiges
The dispute has brought out the worst in Polish and Jewish history and discussions. It has brought out extreme anti-Polish views, resulted types of Holocaust denial on both sides and led to anti-semitism. This is unfortunate since Poles and Jews suffered together in the Holocaust. I’ve written about the tremendous suffering Poland at the hands of the Nazis, the killing of millions of non-Jewish Poles and the heroic resistance of hundreds of thousands of Poles who joined the Home Army.
So why can’t Jews and Poles discuss the Holocaust and see beyond the cliches? Poland has a very real desire to not be accused of the Holocaust and hated. Many Poles want history to tell of their suffering and resistance. Poland was betrayed in 1939, carved up by the Nazis and USSR, occupied and destroyed. Then it fell under the Soviet boot. Jews want the memory of the Shoah to be forefront. It is true that death camps were built in Poland by the Germans, but this has been falsely interpreted as because of Poland, somehow. No matter how much someone points out the historical fallacy of accusing Poland of collaboration, when in fact it was one of the least collaborationist countries, the rumors remain. This is because although there was greater collaboration in France, Hungary, Croatia, Austria and elsewhere, there were more Jews in Poland and memory has a way of reinterpreting pre-1939 anti-semitism and post 1945 attacks on Jews as part of the Shoah.
So, for instance, the fact that there were more than 50,000 SS volunteers in the Netherlands and Belgium, and few if any in Poland, is forgotten. This is also because the West dominated Holocaust history and narrative until the fall of Communism. Poland didn’t get to tell its story, busy dealing with the Soviet suppression. So the Holocaust was told through French, Belgian, Danish, Norwegian, Germany and other eyes. And in that telling Austria became a “victim” of Nazism, and forgotten was the fact it welcomed Hitler. These western European countries didn’t pass laws like Poland, they didn’t have to. They simply re-wrote history and made it seem like they were all victims and “resisted,” when in fact there was very little resistance. The real resistance was in Yugoslavia, Belarus and Poland.
So history was manipulated. Germany also appeared to apologize for the Holocaust and pay reparations. It appeared to make up for it, even though many war criminals remained after 1945. It appeared to accept its role. But in fact it didn’t build a major memorial until 2004. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the ‘stumbling blocks’ project came to Germany. In fact Germany betrayed the memory of the Holocaust in the Munich Olympics and in the fact that it produced extremists who collaborated with Palestinian terrorists. Even today the Berlin Film Festival wants to host a movie humanizing German terrorists at Entebbe. There were 1,453 antisemitic incidents in Germany in 2017, far more than Poland. And historians have successfully sought to turn the Holocaust into a “Nazi” crime, to make it unrooted from the society that planned it. There has been an attempt to make the Nazis also “banal”, and whitewash them as simply “following orders.”
So what account then for the outpouring of hatred at Poland over a law that has merely done what the rest of Europe did without a law through re-writing history. A law that doesn’t deny the Holocaust at all.
There is a lot of arrogance in attacks on Poland. It is the arrogance of not respecting history and respecting suffering and seeking to intentionally harm the feelings of Poles. What about the thousands of Poles who saved Jews? Why accuse them of “complicity.” Why not blame the Polish government for a bad law? Iran’s president Ahmadinejad was invited to Columbia despite being a Holocaust denier. We were told not to blame Iran but just him. So why with Poland is all of Poland blamed. Because of arrogance. Because of a feeling of thinking we have a “right” to tell Poland what to think and say whatever we want, no matter how rude and hurtful.
The source of arrogance can be found in the feeling that the Holocaust can be owned and packaged and abused. It is this idea that the Holocaust can be used, like a tool. How dare Poland tell us about it. We tell them. Uri Avnery correctly captures the unwillingness to see things from Poland’s perspective or to even acknowledge multiple perspectives.
A lot of the anger has to do with memory. There is no doubt the constant reference to “Poles were worse” or “they imbibe anti-semitism with their mothers milk” are things people heard. Because there are so many Polish descendant Jews in Israel, it is no surprise that Israel is especially sensitive. but many of these Polish Jews in Israel left Poland before the Holocaust. Their memories passed on related to what they had heard about anti-semitism. Poland had anti-semitism, perhaps a disproportionate amount. But that’s different than being “worse” than Germany. Nazi Germany created the SS and planned the death camps. Why attack Poland for that and accuse it of complicity?
However memory is an interesting thing. People may memorialize stereotypes and cliches. When it comes to Poland they have. Anti-semitism in Poland was not likely worse than many places. There were millions of Jews in Poland because at one time they had been welcomed while Western Europe forced them out and while parts of the Russian Empire forbid them from settling. Yet those worse countries get a pass today, while Poland is a target.
Ignorance plays a role as well. As Lipstadt showed, there is a lot of ignorance about Polish “collaboration.” People believe Poland collaborated because Holocaust education tends to focus on the Jewish experience and doesn’t look deeply at each other country’s experience. This leads to ignorance and the continuation of misreading of history.
The anti-Polish outburst is based on populism. Israeli politicians and journalists want to score points against Poland and come back heroes to Israel for “standing up.” They don’t bother to stand up to real anti-semitism in Germany or other places. They don’t ask for Croatian textbooks to discuss the Ustache. But Poland has become an easy target. NGOs and others also may want to profit off the anger. So they ride the tiger of nationalism and populism, making more and more extreme statements. The video of people pretending they would go to jail is classic virtue signaling by wealthy, privileged people in the US boasting of doing something they won’t. They pretend to speak on behalf of the 6 million to boast. They want to pretend to be victims today, and burnish their credentials of “standing up.” But it’s mostly boasting.
There is an unwillingness to acknowledge Polish resistance because there is an intention to monopolize Holocaust history. Polish resistance creates a more complex narrative of only victims and perpetrators. If Poles could resist then it asks about others who didn’t resist. 400,000 Poles joined the Home Army. There is a quiet attempt not to discuss that or even to give credit to Poles who saved Jewish people. This is in order to create one narrative about the Shoah that doesn’t include other suffering and other national struggles.
There is hatred of Poland and Poles. Unfortunately while people find it easy to point out anti-semitism online, there is also anti-Polishism. There is open hatred of Poles. This is a kind of national and historic hatred. When people say “Poles are worse” or “they drink it with their mothers milk,” these are extreme anti-Polish statements. If they were made the other way around they would rightly be labelled antisemitic. Unfortunately there is anti-Polish hatred.
A reasonable discussion
What should follow is a more reasoned and respectful discussion. Poland should be respected and its desire to have its history respected should be accepted. That means the law can be opposed, but not through purposeful attempts to offend. Poland’s suffering and resistance should be acknowledge. We can’t only talk about Polish perpetrators. It’s important to talk about both the tragic stories, such as those murdered in 1946, and the positive stories. A full and complex history should be seen, not a caricature.