Israel, the Diaspora Jewish community and Poland have been in the midst of a crisis since early February when a controversial law was passed in Poland. The law provides for a penalty 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.” However, the law has been interpreted abroad, usually via media organizations and politicians who knowingly distort it, to be a form of “Holocaust denial.”
Instead of trying to discuss the issue and find a compromise, voices on both sides have purposely fanned the flames. This is particularly true on the Israeli and Diaspora side. Journalists have purposely used the term “Polish death camps” to offend Poles, a Jewish NGO called on the US to suspend relations with Poland, claimed Poland was denying the Holocaust and then accused Poland of carrying out the Holocaust.
An article at a US-based Jewish newspaper asked why Jews “spend money in Poland” while an Israeli politician claimed that Poland was complicit in the Shoah because one of his ancestors was deported from Yugoslavia to Poland by the German Nazis. A well known Israeli journalist suggested that it is now time that Israelis reclaim historic family property in Poland. “The ridiculous return provisions made sense when the Polish state still upheld an alliance with Israel.”
In short, if Poland doesn’t do what Israel says then “hundreds of thousands of Israelis” who he claims are children or grandchildren of Polish Jewish citizens will work with the European Union to get back property.
Polish politicians and the press have dished it out as well. Online some Poles used the term “Jewish death camps” in response to “Polish death camps.” One Polish politician suggested building a “Polocaust” museum to commemorate Poles murdered by the Nazis. In response to a question in Munich, the Polish prime minister said “there were Polish perpetrators [during the Holocaust], just like there were Jewish perpetrators, like there were Russian perpetrators, like there were Ukrainians, not just German perpetrators.” This comment angered many, who saw it as blaming Jews for their own murder.
The outpouring of anger at the law is out of all proportion to what the law says. It is more than the outpouring of anger against Nazi Germany, which actually planned and executed the Holocaust. It is more than the outpouring of anger against Iran’s regime, which has pushed official Holocaust denial. Obviously the Jewish-Polish crisis then is not really about the law, it is about unresolved issues. There is a rawness to the anger and accusations that indicates a wound left unhealed since 1945.
The main road to healing the Polish-Jewish wound is to talk openly about history. Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt addressed this in a 2007 blog post. She says that when traveling in Poland she kept having to stress that it was “wrong to depict Poland as a place of unending anti-Semitism or to fall prey to the absurd but, nonetheless, oft-heard comment made by Jews who visit the place, ‘the Poles were worse than the Nazis.’”
Lipstadt noted that many Jews mistakenly believe that Poles were guards at Auschwitz or members of the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi mobile killing units. “Wrong,” she writes. The fact is that Poles were one of the least collaborationist nations in Europe. Yet a populist myth remains in Israel and the Diaspora that Poland as a country did something wrong. In reality Poles were victims alongside Jews, but this fact has been lost to historical memory when Holocaust is taught in the US and Israel.
I know this first-hand. I grew up reading Night and building scale models of Auschwitz in school. We learned that the “Nazis” (never the “Germans”) were responsible. We never really learned where the Holocaust took place; it didn’t happen in a specific location. I couldn’t find Dachau on a map. What we learned is that there were Jews and Nazis in Europe. Then the Allies liberated the Jews. Not the Soviet Red Army. The Americans liberated Auschwitz. That’s how it was implied in school.
And Germans are not Nazis – many Germans didn’t support Hitler, we were told. And Austria was a “victim” of Nazism. France also resisted. Denmark saved the Jews.
So it’s no wonder that given such an education my generation can be so easily misled to believe that Poland was responsible. We were not given a real Holocaust education. Educators think it is confusing to explain the difference between Bulgaria and Romania, between Ukraine and Belarus. And forget about learning the difference between Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. We can’t even find them on a map.
There is a tendency in Holocaust education to portray Nazi Germany as an aberration in an otherwise civilized record of German history. Intellectuals like Hannah Arendt worked hard to influence us to believe Germany was “civilized” and “European” and even leading Nazi philosophers like Martin Heidegger were acceptable. Nazis were “banal,” she claimed, just boring. So it’s no wonder that when Nazis are “banal” we can be told eastern Europeans were “responsible.”
Who wants to believe the truth, which is that in “civilized” Holland and Belgium men joined the SS in massive numbers, and that in Serbia, Belarus and Poland the men joined the resistance? That actually, collaboration was the norm in Western Europe, whereas millions of men fought the Nazis in the east. We are taught about Holocaust in such a way as to lead us to believe that the men who went ashore at Normandy in 1944 defeated Hitler, rather than the millions of men and women in Soviet Red Army.
Once we understand that our notion of European history is skewed then we can begin to discuss the Polish-Jewish history. That means a fair discussion about the role of the Home Army resisting the Nazis, and the stories of Poles who died at the hands of the Germans. Holocaust history when we want to discuss it outside a purely Jewish context must include the martyrs and murdered of other countries. Every discussion about the Holocaust and Poland cannot only focus on Nazis, Polish collaborators and Jewish victims. That is the false history that has been taught.
The true history involves Jewish victims, Polish victims, Polish resistance, Germany Nazi occupiers, German perpetrators and some Polish perpetrators. Jews want to emphasize that we were victims, but it should not be a cudgel to blame Poles and ignore Polish victims. Instead of blaming Poland for the fact Nazis built camps there, the blame should always begin with Germany. If we are reluctant to say “Germans” when saying “Nazis” then it is also unfair to say “Nazis and Poles were complicit.” Why do Germans get a pass while Poles are categorized as a group?
Educating a new generation to understand the complexities of the Holocaust and stop seeing it from a western European point of view will take time. What is also needed is less harsh rhetoric on both sides. Poland is an ally of Israel. The mutual strategic and economic benefit should not just go one way. Both countries can gain from each other.
The constant threats to take away “money” from Poland, or end the March of the Living, are not helpful. It is not Poland’s fault the death camps were built there, so “punishing” Poland is a sick response. Poland should not be treated as a museum of death.
Too often some in the Diaspora view the Holocaust as central to our identity. The Holocaust is a tragedy, but Jews existed thousands of years before it and will exist for thousands of years after. The Polish-Jewish relationship should not hinge on the death camps. The death camps should be the focus of a German-Jewish discussion, not a Polish one, since Poland was not responsible for German planning that situated the death camps there.
Poland has one of the lowest levels of antisemitic attacks in all of Europe (101 in 2016 compared to 1,300 in Germany). However, there are increasing numbers of voices online and in media attacking Jews, partly in response to the latest crisis. Some of them blame Jews for Soviet communism. This is a mistake. If Poles do not want to be blamed as a group simply because some were complicit in crimes against Jews, then the attempt to attack Jews as a group for Communist crimes is illogical and disgusting.
Israel and Poland can work together on issues related to the Holocaust. What would be good is a meeting at the highest levels to issue a joint statement condemning the crimes of the Nazis and memorializing Jewish and Polish victims. There should be an acknowledgment in Poland about the antisemitism that existed in the 1930s and the tragic cases of Poles who turned on their neighbors. At the same time Israel should ensure that children learn about the Home Army and the resistance to the Nazi hordes.
For many decades ignorance and even hateful views against Poles were allowed to grow unchecked and this burst forth in February 2018. At the same time there are antisemitic tropes that exist in Poland. The communities should confront these stereotypes. Israel and the Diaspora should relate to Poland as a living country with a complex past, and not as a museum of the Holocaust to be bashed as perpetrators. Taking time to listen to Poles who agree and disagree with the current law would be a good first step as well.