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The Polish Government’s Holocaust ‘Truth Campaign’ Is a Weird Mix of Authoritarianism, Ignorance, and Injured Pride

Contrary to Stanisław Żaryn’s excuses, no reputable historian believes that ‘the Polish nation’ was responsible for Nazi German crimes in Poland. Which is why the Polish government should leave the writing of history to historians.

Havi Dreifuss
February 26, 2021
Omar Marques/Getty Images
Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawieck, delivers a speech on the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Auschwitz Foundation, in Oswiecim, Poland, on Dec. 6, 2019Omar Marques/Getty Images
Omar Marques/Getty Images
Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawieck, delivers a speech on the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Auschwitz Foundation, in Oswiecim, Poland, on Dec. 6, 2019Omar Marques/Getty Images

In his Feb. 22 Tablet article, Stanisław Żaryn shared an astonishing perception of the history of the Holocaust in Poland and of wartime Polish-Jewish relations, as well as of the complex context of Poland’s past and current ties with Germany, Russia, and of course, the Jews. This perception, as painted by the spokesperson for the Polish Minister-Special Services Coordinator and Head of the National Security Department, calls the current international debate over the wartime involvement of Poles in the murder of Jews a supposedly dire “security threat” to the welfare of the Polish nation. This in turn seems to serve as a justification for the surprising public involvement of a high-level Polish government official in an essentially historical dispute.

The immediate catalyst for Żaryn’s stance is apparently the widespread international condemnation of the recent verdict of the Polish judiciary, finding two world-renowned Polish historians of the Holocaust, professors Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski, guilty of libel regarding a passage in a groundbreaking publication they edited. Numerous international academic and professional associations and research institutions, as well as public figures in the United States, Canada, Israel, Poland, and other countries, expressed grave concern regarding the Polish policy of dragging scholars to court. The American Historical Association, Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Polin Museum, Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the Canadian Association of Slavists (CAS), the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and the Polish Academy of Sciences were among the many organizations and institutions that issued statements on the matter.

Repeating old anti-Semitic tropes, Żaryn and the government he represents would have us believe that this worldwide concern for academic freedom in Poland is in fact evidence of coordinated German-Russian-Jewish collusion against Polish integrity and identity. Evidentially, my own expertise in security issues can be compared with Żaryn’s apparent ignorance of contemporary history. Just as I have no business enacting laws, so, too, governments have no role in writing history; this must be left solely to historians and scholars. Therefore, I am not sure what he means by the need for Poland to “control [sic!] Holocaust memory,” a concept unheard of in a free democratic society, and certainly not in the world of academia. As an historian in this field, I fear that we are facing a further pinnacle in the current Polish regime’s attacks on history, and its attempts to revise the fact-based historical narrative of the Holocaust.

For years, Yad Vashem has fought against the misconception regarding the term “Polish Death Camps.” It supported IHRA and the Polish government’s request in 2006 to amend UNESCO’s records to refer to the concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau officially as the “former Nazi German Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.” In fact, it has stated clearly that Poland is not responsible for the Holocaust despite the fact that it is the location where many atrocities were perpetrated. The facts are that no distinguished scholar nor reputable author has written differently, which is why it should be in Poland’s interest to encourage professional, well-informed research. In such research, one will find no indictment of Poland for the crimes committed by Germany and its collaborators on its land, but the discussion rests primarily on instances where Poles took part in those crimes—and sadly, such cases are well documented.

Just as I have no business enacting laws, so, too, governments have no role in writing history.

In early 2018, the Polish government sought to amend the Polish law that allows for a sentence of up to three years in prison for anyone found guilty of making statements “against the facts” (partial or in full) regarding responsibility of the “Polish nation” and/or the “Polish people” for crimes committed in occupied Poland during World War II. In the wake of immense international pressure, the amendment introduced into the law was ultimately altered slightly. It omitted the cause of action as one that must be contrary to the facts; yet it allowed, and even encouraged, the filing of civil (rather than criminal) lawsuits. Additionally, the new law deputized the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN)—a central institution with state-sponsored prosecution powers—to “protect Poland’s good name” by law.

We are now seeing the fruits of this law: a situation in which leading scholars in the field are targeted; journalists are intimidated for referencing well-documented involvement of a large number of Poles in the persecution of Jews; and high-ranking Polish officials are participating in an ongoing attempt to impose a distorted narrative of the Holocaust in Poland. According to this political abuse of history, the Polish nation, as a nation of heroes, enlisted, en masse, to assist persecuted Jews despite the draconian German occupation and regardless of some entirely marginal acts of betrayal. As my colleagues from Yad Vashem and I presented in our detailed response to the Polish-Israeli Joint Declaration in July 2018, this narrative stands in complete contradiction to the extensive historical knowledge in the field. Żaryn’s article provides an appallingly clear example of how invented “facts” can be falsely presented as inalienable truths.

Of the many inaccuracies and distortions his article contains, it is sufficient to focus on three of them.

First, according to Żaryn, “Poles were the first nation the Germans had selected for extermination in the Auschwitz death camp.” In fact, they were not. While tens of thousands of Poles perished in Auschwitz, the Polish nation was never “exterminated” there (nor anywhere else). True, the first prisoners sent to Auschwitz were Poles—728 political prisoners deported as early as June 14, 1940. However, Auschwitz at this point was a concentration camp—horrible, horrific, and often deadly—but not yet part of the machinery of systematic mass murder (of Jews, not of Poles). Only in mid-1942, with the implementation of the so-called “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” did Auschwitz (mainly Auschwitz II-Birkenau) become an “extermination” camp, where Jews from all over Europe were brought for annihilation. According to the most up-to-date statistics, nearly 1 million Jews were murdered there, along with perhaps somewhat more than 100,000 non-Jews, among them about 75,000 Poles and 21,000 Sinti and Roma. Blurring the fate of all Jews who faced systematic genocide during the Holocaust with that of those Poles who were killed during WWII is a well-known characteristic of Poland’s current “history policy.”

Second, Żaryn maintains, “It is indisputable that among the Poles there were many more ‘righteous’ people than traitors.” Wrong again. The fact-based information, as well as the latest research, including that which is found in the cutting-edge study Dalej jest Noc [Night with No End], edited by Engelking and Grabowski, indicates that a great many more Poles were involved in persecuting the Jews than in assisting them. Even numerical acrobatics cannot suffice to pave the road for the ambitious current governmental Polish journey of heroism. It was, in fact, the State of Israel that initiated the title of Righteous Among the Nations on behalf of the Jewish people, and the rigorous research-based process each and every case must follow before being awarded this most coveted recognition. Attributing the courageous actions of Righteous Among the Nations to the whole Polish nation, while omitting the much more prevalent acts in which Poles blackmailed, persecuted, informed upon, and murdered Jews, is nowhere near a reflection of the complicated reality that existed in German-occupied Poland. It only fits the current wishful thinking of PiS.

Third—Irena Sendler, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, and Wiktoria and Józef Ulma were indeed noble people whose heroism has earned them the appellation of “Righteous Among the Nations,” and rightly so. Yet it might be worth mentioning that all of them were forced to hide their courageous actions for fear of revenge attacks by local Poles; and that the Ulma family was murdered only after being denounced to the Germans by a fellow Pole. Despite Witold Pilecki’s heroism in the struggle against the Germans, the Jewish issue was a marginal dimension in his activities, and one of his deputies, Dr. Władysław Dering—a Polish underground hero—committed horrific crimes against Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz. History is complex, and some so-called “Polish heroes” turned out also to be monstrous tormentors of Jews.

Nonetheless, the context of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust is only one aspect of the triangle outlined by Żaryn. Oblivious to Germany’s actions in the last decades, and despite numerous public statements, he claims that Germans are endeavoring to detach themselves from the Holocaust and to whitewash their past. Once again, Żaryn couldn’t be more wrong. Not only has Germany taken full responsibility, as it should, for the Holocaust and WWII, some people even claim that German officials’ far-reaching declarations assuming full guilt enable other nations to evade their share of responsibility for the atrocities committed against Jews throughout Europe. Is this what frightens Żaryn?

Żaryn’s mention of Russian distortion is also not accidental. In recent years, a war of remembrance has erupted between Poland and Russia over WWII. Here, one should make no mistake: Russia’s attempt to blame Poland for the outbreak of the war is baseless and completely false. Although many Western countries signed agreements with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the significance of the 1939 pact between Stalin and Hitler that led to the partition of Poland and its enslavement should not be diminished.

One must admit, however, that with Poland setting new records in rewriting and distorting history, its denunciation of Russia for using the very same tools is bizarre, to say the least. This perhaps should be a clear warning for Poland about the dangers of wielding the double-edged sword to shape its past in accordance with present needs. But when Żaryn asserts that there is a destructive quasi-plot by Yad Vashem (meaning: “the Jews”), the German government, and the Russian Federation to harm the good name of Poland, this not only leaves a sour aftertaste, it is really so ridiculous as to be beyond any need for serious refutation.

It is important to note that the Polish nation of the mid-20th century was not (solely, or even chiefly) responsible for the tragedy of the Jews during the Holocaust, even though many Poles did take an active part in it. Yet the current Polish government, and its many agencies, are defiantly responsible for trying to “control” the uncontrollable past, which reveals the not insignificant complicity of Poles in the Holocaust, by using lies and not a small measure of anti-Semitism.

Havi Dreifuss is a professor of History at Tel Aviv University and the Director of the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at the International Institute for Holocaust Research, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Jerusalem.

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