Polish historian: Penalties for new Polish law resemble pre-war punishment

“The pre-war maximum for insulting the Polish nation in the late 1930s was three years, exactly as stipulated in the contemporary Polish legislation."

February 20, 2018 05:42
3 minute read.
THE PERIMETER fence of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is enveloped in a thick evening fog during the ceremoni

THE PERIMETER fence of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is enveloped in a thick evening fog during the ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Remembrance Day, near Oswiecim, Poland, January 2018. (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)


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The maximum jail time given in Poland before WWII for insulting the Polish nation was three years – the same amount specified in the new controversial “death-camp legislation,” a prominent Polish historian said on Monday.

Speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Prof. Jan Grabowski showed a small group of journalists a clipping from a Warsaw newspaper in 1936. The article was about a Jewish woman who was evicted from Warsaw University by nationalistic Poles, he explained.

“In the course of being evicted she shouted ‘Polish animals.’ They beat her up but she was the one the police arrested and she was put in prison for two months for insulting the Polish nation,” Grabowski continued.

“The pre-war maximum for insulting the Polish nation in the late 1930s was three years, exactly as stipulated in the contemporary Polish legislation. Where are the examples coming from? Go figure,” he said.

In his opinion, the new law is unlikely to actually be implemented: “In legal terms it’s nonsense. A non-starter. However, it has a ‘freezing effect.’”

“You throw on the table legislation that will probably, hopefully, will never be implemented – but it’s hanging over their heads,” he said. The law, he explained, is likely to deter history graduates or journalists, for example, from delving into related subjects for fear of losing jobs and opportunities as a result.

“It is the freezing effect which will be the long-lasting legacy of this legislation, regardless of what happens with its implementation,” he opined.

Grabowski himself has been the subject of criminal investigations over his work on Polish crimes against Jews during the Holocaust.
The historian says his research shows that more than 200,000 Jews were killed directly or indirectly by Poles during WWII. He says there were no bystanders to the Holocaust in Poland, and that many local residents were involved in denouncing, handing over and killing Jews. His latest book, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, studies the fate of the Jews who escaped the ghettos and tried to survive by blending in. “Most of them died in the process,” Grabowski says.

Asked whether he believes the latest law is connected to his work and that of other historians who have exposed Polish crimes against Jews during the Holocaust, he says he believes a small group of historians, of which he is part, did have an impact on the legislation.

He was not surprised by the legislation. “The writing was on the wall,” he states.

Grabowski is in Israel to participate in a conference on Holocaust remembrance, organized by the Center of Organizations for Holocaust Survivors in collaboration with the Shalom Hartman Institute and Yad Vashem. The conference is being held Tuesday and Wednesday at the Yad Vashem “Beit Wolyn” branch in Givatayim. It will address the manner in which the memory of the Holocaust should be embedded in the next generations.

“Our role is to fight for the rights of survivors so they can finish their lives in dignity. But also commemoration is important to them,” said Colette Avital, chairwoman of the Center of Organizations for Holocaust Survivors. “Our task is to think together what message we are leaving behind,” she said, stressing that as the number of Holocaust survivors decrease, that responsibility will increasingly lie with future generations.

“As the Holocaust is becoming more distant and the voices of the survivors diminish, the memory of the Holocaust becomes extremely significant,” said Prof. Michal Govrin of the Hartman Institute. “The Holocaust as a landmark emerges in almost every contemporary discussion in Israel – the Polish law, the Iranian threat, the expulsion of infiltrators, refugees, the tension between Ashkenazim and Mizrahi, the rise of antisemitism in the world, and so on. In many cases, Holocaust remembrance deepens the wound of division in Israeli society.”

The institute will unveil a tool for Holocaust remembrance that seeks to encourage Israelis “to find their place and add their voices to the common story” in a variety of forums.

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