Volume 22 Issue 5, May 2018


The Polish government and its Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki appear to be in hot waters. In January 2018, Poland introduced the Amended Act on the Institute of National Remembrance that imposes a three-year jail term for “public and contrary-to-fact conduct that attributes responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich to the Polish nation or the Polish state.”

The Act subsequently passed through legislation in February 2018 turning it into law, thereby according imprisonment to anyone suggesting that the country was complicit in the deaths of millions of Jews during the Holocaust. The move has drawn sharp international criticism, particularly following the Prime Minister’s remarks in which he equated “Jewish perpetrators” with Poles and others as aggressors during World War II.

The move is increasingly viewed as Poland’s authoritarian efforts to manipulate history. The current ruling party, the Law and Justice Party, a right-wing nationalist party, has so far derailed democracy and hopes to play on the “patriotism” card to rally the nation and defend its position (masked as the nation’s honour). There is no doubt that Poland resisted the Nazi invasion in 1939 and many Poles risked their lives to help Jews escape. There were, however, plenty who actively assisted Nazi forces in hunting and persecuting Jews during the Holocaust.

At this point in European history, Poland housed the largest Jewish community. As a result, four concentration death camps operated by the Germans were built on Polish soil, including the two most infamous Aushwitz and Treblinka. Approximately three million Jews who lived in pre-war Poland were murdered by the Nazis, accounting for about half of all Jews killed in the Holocaust. In addition, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum estimated that the Nazis, who invaded Poland in 1939,also killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians that included homosexuals, gypsies and those with disabilities.

The Holocaust is the most well-documented event in history, with testimonies and data that prove that the Nazis set out to annihilate the Jews around the world and succeeded in killing close to six million of them in brutal, unimaginable ways. By building a national narrative that Poland was solely a victim, Morawiecki has been accused by the international community for distorting facts. The Polish government justifies its move as defending its nation’s sentiment; Poles often feel shifty when, despite the brutalities they suffered under Nazi occupation, their country is often referred to as the home for “Polish death camps.” The new law is expected to defend the “good name of Poland” from slander but in the eyes of the world it


instead masks historical fact.

The move has drawn considerable ire from one of Poland’s strongest allies – Israel - that views the Polish move as an attempt to rewrite history and deny the Holocaust in its very fact and essence. Responding to the new law, Israel's centrist opposition leader, Yair Lapid tweeted, "hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier." The Israeli parliament is also believed to be expanding the law banning Holocaust denial to include "denying or minimizing the involvement of the Nazi helpers and collaborators." The amended Israeli Holocaust denial law is expected to also introduce a five-year jail term for anyone denying or minimizing the role of Nazi collaborators, including Poles, in crimes committed in the Holocaust. It could potentially also offer legal aid to any Holocaust survivor telling their story who is prosecuted in a foreign country.

It remains to be seen how the Polish law will be enforced. It is expected that artists, historians and journalists will be exempt from prosecution. “Witnesses of history” are also expected to be dealt a similar exemption. However, editorials in leading western newspapers and signed letters from historians addressed to world governments show remarkable concern about preserving facts and sentiments of one of the most atrocious and well-documented events in history. According to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, non-Jewish Poles helped save between 30,000 -35,000 Polish Jews during the Holocaust. Yad Vashem has also honoured more Poles as the “Righteous Among Nations” than those from any other country for their heroic acts in saving Jewish lives.

Yet, it is undeniable that many Poles worked with the Gestapo to report their Jewish neighbours and were directly or indirectly complicit in anti-Jewish programmes and related crimes committed on their soil. This is true for all countries invaded by the Nazis during World War II and not unique to Poland’s history. The Soviet Union for the longest time referred to the victims as “victims of fascism” without making any direct reference to Jews. Austria too once pitched itself as the “Nazi’s first victim” in an attempt to absolve itself of all responsibility and participation in war crimes.
A move deemed as ushering in a new wave of anti-Semitism in Poland has triggered concerns about safety amongst the country’s Jewish population. As Israel and other world governments, including the United States and France, continue to put pressure on the Polish government, it remains to be seen how seriously the Poles consider this new law as a clear reflection of defending national honour.

The writer is a policy analyst based in Islamabad. She writes on issues of international conflict and youth engagement.

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