Recently the Polish cabinet approved a law that will punish and possibly imprison anyone claiming that Poles killed Jews during the Second World War or referring to concentration camps like Auschwitz as “Polish.” The Polish ambassador to Israel defended the law in Haaretz, several writers criticized it, but everyone missed the point: What’s so egregiously offensive about this law is its assault on storytelling.
The year-old government supporting the law, led by the far-Right, nationalist, anti-abortion, anti-LGBT and Euro-skeptic Law and Justice Party, has been condemned internationally for refusing to accept refugees, purging the ranks of the police and intelligence services, passing laws that inhibit the power of the judiciary and dismissing inconvenient public broadcasting directors.
In February President Andrzej Duda announced his intention to revoke national honors bestowed on Jan Tomasz Gross, a Polish historian who researched Polish complicity in the Holocaust. In July, Law and Justice’s education minister, Anna Zalewska, denied outright the well-documented participation of Polish citizens in Poland’s two most infamous pogroms against Jews.
Based on all of that anti-democratic flag-waving as well as the previous attempts at repackaging Holocaust history, it’s fair to assume that the new law is designed to whitewash the story of wartime Poland and act as a sword of Damocles hanging over free speech.
The Polish government is not alone; all communities and nations tell stories about themselves to create meaning. Indeed, all of history is a form of storytelling, “not a monument erected once and admired ever after, but an infrastructure tended,” as Rokhl Kafrissen wrote in Haaretz, “inevitably shaped by those who take it up.” Even renowned Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, after writing his magnum opus, The Destruction of the European Jews, admitted that storytelling and poetry were tools to convey horrors that evaded normal language.
I can express exactly why the Polish law is so offensive by telling my own story.
My grandfather, Joseph Sarna, one of six brothers, was born in 1921, to a simple, hardworking family in Dzialoszyce, a small town located an hour’s drive north of Krakow. Dzialoszyce was inhabited mostly by Jews (80%) making it a rich, albeit small, oasis of Jewish life, whose humble landscape was punctuated by a majestic synagogue, the skeleton of which still stands today.
When the Nazis arrived in Dzialoszyce in September 1939 my grandfather fled, was arrested, and spent the war in horrific concentration camps.
After liberation, his brothers returned to Dzialoszyce to search for any surviving family. They were greeted, on the night of June 16, 1945, with the sound of gunfire and grenade explosions, as local Poles killed five Jewish returnees and wounded dozens more. My family survived by hiding and fleeing their home a second time.
IN JANUARY 2014 I went to Poland to see my family’s hometown and search local archives. I rented an apartment in Krakow’s old Jewish neighborhood for two weeks; I wound up staying for more than a month.
I was doomed to be spellbound: raised on nostalgic stories of life before the deluge and my grandfather’s inexplicable survival in Krakow’s Plaszow Concentration Camp, made famous in Schindler’s List, I was walking with ghosts in a postcard-pretty landscape that, 70 years earlier, was my family’s crucible.
It felt like cheating, but I loved Krakow.
I must have visited every church and museum. I procrastinated away whole afternoons beside the fireplace of an antique- stuffed cafe that hadn’t changed since 1939. I discovered the most sublime plum cake I’d ever eaten at a tiny bakery on Dominikanska Street. I didn’t mind the knee-deep snow; it made for some gorgeous photos. I sort of fell in love with Pawel, a blond, blue-eyed hipster from a small village, working hard to make ends meet while getting a master’s degree and dreaming of a career in art.
He and his friends were of a generation of Polish millennials who post photos of artisanal baked goods to social media, devour H&M clothing and laugh about Poland’s obsolete reputation as a dusty post-Communist backwater.
When it came to antisemitism, what I found in Poland was surprising: I didn’t really find any. What I did find was the Krakow Jewish Center, where a busy schedule of events is a heartbeat of Jewish culture, raising awareness of the city’s Jewish heritage among its non-Jewish residents. In Dzialoszyce I was warmly welcomed by the mayor’s office and a local historian, who spent time showing me his research. In Warsaw I became friends with Michal Pirog, a gay, Jewish prime-time television host whose tremendous popularity proved changing attitudes. I watched contemporary Polish films like Poklosie, Ida and Demon, which raise questions about Poland’s destroyed Jewish heritage, wartime crimes and culpability. I attended concerts and lectures at both the Warsaw and Krakow Jewish festivals.
My experience wasn’t all a bed of roses.
I became the pitiful protagonist of a cliché when I had the door of my grandfather’s childhood home slammed in my face by its current resident. I stumbled upon mock-folk-art wooden dolls depicting Jews with money bags, for sale as good-luck souvenirs. One morning I found “Jebac Zydow” (f**k the Jews), a gem of antisemitic Polish football jargon, spray-painted on my apartment building.
But only because I subsequently spent a lot of time in Poland is it clear to me that what’s most ridiculous about Law and Justice’s revisionist legislation is that it does not reflect the opinion or will of a huge portion of Poles. The scars, questions and vacuum left by the Jewish absence in contemporary Polish life are subjects for cultural consumption.
And, quite honestly, the cat is already out of the bag. Polish intellectuals like Jan Tomasz Gross, Anna Bikont and Jan Blonski have already researched the facts of Polish wartime wrongdoing; young people are taking interest in Polish-Jewish heritage, and Polish presidents like Bronislaw Komorowski and Aleksander Kwasniewski have repeatedly apologized for Polish wrongdoing.
It’s essential to mention that my family has another indispensable story: my aunt’s mother, like thousands of Jews, was saved by a courageous Polish family during the Holocaust.
But instead of nobly exploring complex parallel narratives of heroism and injustice, Law and Justice’s legislation rewrites history to massage the national ego, spits in the face of stories like my grandfather’s and cripples the pen of young Poles and Jews who are ready write their own, new chapter about Poland, its complicated history, handsome blond guys, and plum cake. The writer is a former editor at Haaretz. He works for a nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv.