Just before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the lower house of the Polish parliament voted in favor of a bill that condemns anyone who acknowledges Polish complicity in the Holocaust to up to three years in prison. According to the Polish state narrative, the Holocaust was an entirely German affair, and both the Polish government and the Polish people are entirely innocent of it. Although I was dismayed to learn this news, I was hardly surprised. After spending some time in Poland this month, I would expect no better.
Before leaving the United States, I researched the history of the Holocaust in Poland and quickly began to suspect the Polish government of whitewashing. For example, the website of the State Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau includes an Orwellian tool called “Remember.” It invites visitors “to correct collective memory errors” by reporting journalists who use the phrase “Polish death camp”—referring to death camps established by the Nazis on Polish soil, sometimes in Polish cities, where Jews who were turned in by their Polish neighbors and others were sent to their deaths—to the Polish authorities. I also read about efforts by Polish politicians to discredit and silence those who have dared to tell the story of Jedwabne, the site of a particularly egregious pogrom perpetrated by Poles against their Jewish neighbors and culminating in the burning alive of more than 300 Jews in a barn (over 1,500 total were murdered). By the time that I boarded the plane to Europe, I was very wary of the intentions of the Polish state in retaining control over the Holocaust-related sites I was planning to visit.
Even in my short time in the country, I noticed the strange national attitude toward the Jews. Many superstitious Poles, for example, furnished their households with representations of “lucky Jews,” who, by virtue of their shrewdness with money, were expected to bring fortune to the homeowners. For that reason, street vendors sold cooking utensils featuring Jews with payot, prominent noses, and coins. The walls of a pub/home that my tour group visited were decorated with a portrait of a money-counting Jew among myriad mounted crosses and depictions of Jesus’s mangled corpse. On Shabbat, when a number of us were wearing kippot and tzitzit, Poles videotaped and photographed us as though we were exotic animals in a zoo. What was once the Krakow Jewish Quarter had been turned into a virtual theme park, with kosher-style (but not kosher) restaurants and an annual klezmer festival for the pleasure of the Christian Poles but with very few, if any, remaining Jews.
Strangest of all, however, was the Polish state’s approach to the concentration camps themselves. For example, visitors were banned from singing at Auschwitz, and one of our group’s rabbis was briefly detained on-site (and threatened with a letter to the embassy) by a Polish officer for chanting Am Yisrael Chai (“The People of Israel Lives”). At Majdanek, we learned from our tour guide about the gradual replacement of the Jewish survivors’ testimonies that were once displayed at the camp with non-Jewish Polish testimonies. The plaque in the biggest gas chamber, which had once described its use in the mass murder of innocent Jews, had also been replaced with a new sign claiming that the lethal Zyklon B poison was dropped into the Auschwitz-style chamber merely to disinfect clothing. Meanwhile, the Majdanek site administration had dramatically reduced its estimates of how many Jews were murdered in that camp. Thus the administration of the Majdanek site, over time, seems to have moved toward the erasure of Jewish experiences and the distinctly Jewish history of the Holocaust.
The combined effect of the new law, the regular suppression of Jewish voices at the Auschwitz site, and the effort at Majdanek to render Holocaust history Judenrein is a form of Holocaust denial, or at least Holocaust distortion. The Polish state is consciously endeavoring to minimize the severity of the Holocaust and to exonerate Poland and Poles from guilt over their participation in it.
The reality, however, is that the Holocaust in Poland was not only German. Although some brave Poles chose to act as “righteous gentiles” and protect Jewish families, and although some others participated in an armed underground rebellion (not against the Holocaust as much as against the German occupation of Polish land), the vast majority chose to do nothing or to actively participate in the killing. Polish police and civilians helped gather their Jewish neighbors and shoot them into pits. Jews who fled into the Polish countryside were generally caught and killed or turned in by Poles. And even after the Nazis withdrew from Poland the locals carried out pogroms against Jewish survivors. In that sense, everyday Poles were as guilty as everyday Germans, as were everyday Ukrainians, Romanians, Greeks, and many others. Even the Allied countries, which are portrayed heroically in today’s popular culture (Dunkirk was a recent example of the glorification of the Allied war effort), were partially responsible. The Americans refused to open their borders to Jewish refugees or to bomb the gas chambers or the train tracks to death camps. The British steadfastly guarded the borders of Mandate Palestine against Jewish immigration so that very few Jews could survive by fleeing to their homeland, and the French police eagerly assisted the Nazis in rounding up Jews for deportation and death.
A few important exceptions to Europe’s mass participation in the Holocaust support the rule that most were complicit. Hannah Arendt, in her famed Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, details some such exceptions. Finland, although its clashes with the Soviet Union placed it on the Axis side of World War II, did not surrender its Jewish citizens to the Nazis. Sweden welcomed Jewish refugees. Bulgarians protested the Holocaust, and consequently Bulgarian Jews were spared. The mass demonstration of Danish solidarity with the Jews is now legendary. Although each of those nations acted under unique circumstances, the fact is that the Nazis consistently crumbled before popular resistance. But they faced no such resistance from the Poles.
Holocaust denial is not a uniquely Polish issue. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the “rate of Holocaust denial among those who are aware of the Holocaust” in Eastern Europe as a whole is 24 percent, with 18 percent never having heard about the Holocaust at all. The numbers are even worse in Southwest Asia and North Africa, with a 63 percent denial rate. In Palestine, 82 percent of those who have heard of the Holocaust deny it, and in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a close ally of Israel and the United States, the rate is 70 percent. Moreover, younger people anywhere in the world are far less likely to be aware of the Holocaust than past generations and far more likely to deny it if they are aware. The Iranian regime has taken a leading role in promoting the worldwide Holocaust denial movement, and chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine on American college campuses often engage in “soft denial” for their own ends (one anti-Zionist leader even published an op-ed in my campus newspaper chastising me for mentioning the Holocaust as an important example of the danger of anti-Semitism).
Nevertheless, it was Poland that hosted white supremacists from across Europe in a mass rally just a couple months ago. Nazi-era imagery was employed to promote an anti-Semitic and Islamophobic agenda, and, according to the Washington Post, Polish police arrested dozens of anti-fascist protesters while allowing the 60,000-strong “nationalist” rally to proceed unhindered. Clearly, Poland has an anti-Semitism problem that its government is refusing to address.
This new law makes painfully clear the unwillingness of the Polish government to take the memory of the Holocaust seriously. It should serve as a wake-up call to the Jewish community and to the world that Holocaust denial is still alive and well, and that in fact it is a growing movement. From anti-Zionists who want to see the six million Jews now living in Israel burn to racists plotting against the Muslims of Europe and the United States, many people have reasons to deny or minimize the Holocaust. We cannot let them get away with it.
Benjamin Gladstone studies Judaic Studies and Middle East Studies at Brown University and has written for the New York Times, The Forward, and The Tower, among other publications.