Surviving the ‘Holocaust law’ controversy

While the legacy and lessons of the Holocaust itself must be constantly highlighted and honored, putting this problematic law behind us is in the interest of everyone who matters.

August 2, 2018 23:15
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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Against the rapid news epicycles of Brexit, Israel as a “Jewish state”, Iran, Russia and refugee crisis, the debate over Poland’s so-called “Holocaust law” seems much longer ago than five or six months. While the legacy and lessons of the Holocaust itself must be constantly highlighted and honored, putting this problematic law behind us is in the interest of everyone who matters. And it’s better to make inroads before the next Jewish-Polish crisis hits.

Jews need to know the full story of 1,000 years of Jewish life in – and impact on – Poland, and Poland needs to tell it. But such empathy and open-ended discovery are impossible under a cloud of mutual resentment and recriminations. With open minds and hearts, the unfinished story of Jewish-Polish relations can still become a model for resolve and reconciliation around the world.

The new law effectively criminalized claims that Poland was complicit in the Nazi extermination campaign that murdered three million Polish Jews and many others. The right flank of Poland’s nationalist ruling coalition had pushed this legislation through to constrain more moderate pragmatists like President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. Delivering such “feel good” declarations boosts their own popularity, even if they do nothing to help Poland economically or geopolitically.

The Polish law initially criminalized public claims that Poland as a nation was complicit in the Holocaust. It tapped into Polish resentment at being blamed for the fact that Nazi extermination camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka were built in Poland. The government eventually rescinded criminal penalties for referring to “Polish death camps,” reportedly under pressure from the Trump administration.

In managing the fallout from the Holocaust law, Israeli and Polish leaders mostly resisted the temptation to trade insults or appeal to the palpable pain and anger in both countries. Somehow, and imperfectly, they managed to salvage mutual respect and opened the door to shared respect for all who suffered the atrocities of World War II.

Identity politics is enjoying a comeback in Poland and among its neighbors like Hungary and the Czech Republic, as well as the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, and even Israel. Israel’s ruling coalition recently adopted its own highly controversial Nationality law, angering Israeli minorities and Diaspora Jews, but enhancing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity among right-wing Israelis. As in Poland, where the Constitutional Tribunal is reviewing the Holocaust law, Israel’s Supreme Court will also be passing judgment on the Nationality law.

Underpinning these tensions is a deep confluence of national interests. Whatever US President  Donald Trump’s complaints about NATO and the European Union, European unity and collective deterrence against Russian ambitions remain U.S. priorities. Poland is second to none when it comes to defense spending, sharing the burden on the continent and in Iraq and Afghanistan, confronting the Iranian threat, and supporting the State of Israel.

The Holocaust law distracts from this positive news as much as it impedes genuine understanding of Poland’s painful history. But the Polish government can’t retreat much further than it already has and expect to stay in power. What it can do, most immediately, is emphasize the spirit of dialogue that led to the latest compromise with the Israeli government:

• Bring Jewish leaders and Holocaust scholars to Poland to promote shared inquiry into the history of the Holocaust, including the killing and collaboration, as well as the awe-inspiring stories of sacrifice to save Jews.
• Address the remaining fallout from the Holocaust law as a necessary springboard to reclaiming a spirit of cooperation and building mutual trust that can go well beyond it.
• Express pent-up grievances within a context of common purpose, also listening to each other, to move beyond reciprocal stereotypes. As with Yelp or Google results, the way to replace bad reviews is not with acrimony but with good reviews.

JEWS DESERVE to internalize centuries of rich Jewish heritage as well as the history of antisemitism and the ultimate destruction at Nazi hands. March of the Living and other organized visits focus almost exclusively on Auschwitz, contrasting the victimhood of the Holocaust to the triumph of modern Israel. Groups that do visit pre-war synagogues do so on their own, and usually without spending any time with Poland’s vibrant present-day Jewish community.

Poles – gentile and Jew – also deserve to be seen as much more than victims or bystanders, which was part of the thinking behind Warsaw’s new Polin Museum. And even though the thousands of Poles recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations represent a minority, every Polish family the Nazis executed for hiding Jews deserves to be honored; the Ulma Family Museum is barely a two-hour drive from Auschwitz.

Expanding the itinerary for Jewish pilgrimages should be a priority for Jewish organizations and the Israeli government, and no less so for the Polish government. As of now, Poland’s brand among most Jews is 100 percent Holocaust, and no Holocaust law will change that. Poland will benefit from a broader conversation about the Holocaust, about the collaborators and the heroes, about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, about the centuries of Jewish life, about the deepening Poland-Israel alliance.

Beyond good will and respect, such forums also stimulate greater tourism and investment, and U.S. support. With Jews mostly footing their own bill for visits to Poland, Polish institutions could step in with expanded guides, group encounters, and planning and logistics for those willing to learn the bigger story of Poland and the Jews – past, present, and future.

Jews living in Poland are not mere caretakers for the graves of our ancestors. They are part of a new Europe, which rebuilt from World War II and endured over four decades of Communist rule. When American Jews and Israelis reduce Poland to a Holocaust memorial, we do a disservice to our own history and future. And by allowing this to happen, Poland risks losing some of the best chapters in its story. It is a story worth telling and hearing, and the more we can instill a cooperative spirit, the less impact extremists on all sides will be able to have.

The author, a partner with Gotham Government Relations, has served as an executive with the World Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations. (Twitter: @shaifranklin

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