Former ADL chief: Poland's nationalist gov't is trying to rewrite history

A bill that aims to criminalize claims of Polish complicity and participation in the Holocaust have drawn ire from Israeli and Diaspora leaders alike.

January 30, 2018 13:19
3 minute read.
Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, shows the book "The Bible, the J

Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, shows the book "The Bible, the Jews, and the Death of Jesus" . (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Abraham Foxman survived the Holocaust as a child in Poland thanks to a Polish Catholic nanny who took him in. But many of his Jewish countrymen suffered a very different fate, and Foxman is concerned that his freedom to say that is being threatened by legislation advanced by the Polish government.

“This is a political move to do two things: first, to rewrite history, but more importantly to prevent new history,” the former longtime national director of the Anti-Defamation League told The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview from New York on Sunday night.

In the past 20 years, he stressed, more sources have opened up and more research has been conducted into Poland’s Holocaust history. “Yes, Poles were victims but they were also victimizers, and more and more of this is coming out, and this new jingoist, [the] neo-nationalist government doesn’t want it, and one way to prevent it is to legislate and criminalize,” Foxman said.

“We understand they don’t want to hear ‘Polish concentration camp’ – nobody is arguing that. Nobody says that is not a legitimate sensitivity and concern. But what we’re seeing is something different. What we are seeing is a political move to rewrite history, deny history and to make sure that honest history is not written,” he stressed.

“But you don’t legislate and criminalize against it – that’s contrary to freedom of speech,” he continued. Foxman added that a great concern of his is that the law could include testimonies by Holocaust survivors’ and historians.

“So if I say, I was saved by a Polish woman but there were a lot of Jews that were led to their deaths by Poles – that could be criminalized today if this legislation passes, because I’m defaming the Polish people and the Polish nation by saying that some Poles were collaborators – which they were,” he asserted.

Foxman has spoken out for historical accuracy for both Poles and Jews. For years he has written letters and made phone calls to the media, opposing the term “Polish death camps,” partly at the request of the Polish government and partly off his own accord.

“We have to protect historical fact and not permit distortion. We are very much concerned about Holocaust denial. Therefore, in the same way, we have to stand up to other distortion and to say ‘Polish concentration camp’ is a distortion. And if you permit it you are legitimizing ‘fake history,’ as [US President Donald] Trump would say,” Foxman continued.

But the Polish government, he said, is trying to distort history. This history, he emphasized, is still being written, particularly given the short amount of time that Poland has been independent.

Poland reestablished itself as a democratic republic in 1989. It had been a Soviet satellite state since 1945, and during that time the country’s Jewish history was buried under propaganda.

“It’s just beginning and the political elements want to contain it and prevent it from happening,” Foxman warned.

Foxman pointed to a criminal investigation against Polish historian Jan Gross, author of the controversial 2001 book Neighbors, which became a pivotal point in Polish research of the country’s history during the Holocaust. The book is about a 1941 pogrom perpetrated against Jews by their non-Jewish countrymen in the town of Jedwabne. The opening of a libel probe against Gross by the Polish prosecution, Foxman said, was a “tell-tale sign.”

“These are very troubling signs of a democracy being curtailed. And this is just one element of it: Jewish history, Jewish psyche, Jewish memory,” he said.

He expressed hope that the outrage coming out of Israel, which has a strong relationship with Poland, will have an impact.

“President [Andrzej] Duda said he would examine it carefully, so I’m confident that he either won’t sign it or they will amend it in a way that will protect our concerns... although I’m not sure you can write it in a way which won’t raise our concerns...but at least he said he hears and will think about it, so we got their attention,” Foxman concluded.

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