President Andrzej Duda of Poland had 21 days to consider whether to sign a law criminalizing speech that accuses Poland of complicity in the Holocaust. Evidently, he could barely wait to sign it. The law is not only a despicable and dangerous move to suppress speech and revise history, but its passage within days of Holocaust Remembrance Day was tasteless and insensitive. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Morawiecki, said it was necessary to protect Poland’s wartime reputation. Surely, President Duda recognized the irony of bringing the world’s spotlight in the most negative way upon his country, while seeking to protect its reputation. I had hoped that President Duda would take some time to sincerely ponder the law’s goals, and weigh the dangerous implications of its passing. But alas, it’s done.
Purportedly, the law aims to uphold and whitewash Poland’s wartime reputation, as apparently it is the duty of every Pole to defend the homeland. The law comes at a time when the country’s right wing, anti-immigrant, strongly nationalist and Polish-centric government seeks to put Poland first, as an attempt to rally and stir the nation towards a united patriotic collective consciousness. It feels eerily reminiscent of another country’s leader’s goal in the 1930s to stir up the population by scapegoating Jews. Teaching and perpetuating revisionist history denies future generations the truth and opportunity to do better and prevent recurring atrocities.
All four of my grandparents were Polish. My father’s parents were lucky enough to emigrate to Palestine in the early 1930s. The families they left behind are scattered on the grounds of Auschwitz. My mother’s mother was imprisoned at Hasag in Czestochowa, as was her father until he was deported to Buchenwald after the Nazis murdered his first wife and son. When he was liberated, he made his way back to Czestochowa in an attempt to find surviving family members and restore his former life. Many of his Polish Christian neighbors expressed their shock and dismay at his survival. Reclaiming his family’s home was out of the question – a common and well-documented theme across Polish towns. Anti-Semitism was still alive and well, unlike millions of Poland’s Jews.
As part of the business of rebuilding his broken life, my grandfather traveled to Kielce in July 1946, just in time for the largest post-war pogrom, perpetrated by Polish soldiers, police officers and civilians, who murdered 42 Jews. The world looked on in horror as Poland’s long-entrenched history of Jew-hatred reared its ugly head just a year after the end of the War. My grandfather survived this atrocity by hiding on the tracks under a train.
I understand that being home to the worst Nazi extermination camps is a despicable blight that Poland would rather forget. Poland was a conquered land, which didn’t exactly invite these unspeakable factories of death into the country. Semantically speaking, these are indeed “Nazi,” and not “Polish” death camps. Historical accuracy is crucial, and no educated human can argue that fact; however, criminalizing certain language that links Poland with any involvement is not only an inaccurate revision of history, but adds insult to injury.
I had hoped that President Duda would take the time to wisely consider the implications of this law, rather than blindly follow his party’s dictates. Post-war Poland transformed itself, emerging as a democratic country, with strong ties to Israel, has recognized Polish Jewry’s 1,000-year history, and boasts a small but vibrant Jewish community. Why jeopardize progress for this law, which has generated old accusations and deep hurt from both Poles and Jews, who again stand on opposite sides of an aisle filled with ashes and hate?
No one can rationally dispute Polish suffering, torture and massive loss of human life perpetrated at the hands of the Nazis during the war. Poland did not collaborate with the Nazis, like other governments. Why not celebrate and highlight those facts? Poland has the highest number of citizens honored as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem. Polish suffering, as well as Polish courage and humanity, are undeniable.
The law’s attempt to protect Poland from negative speech surrounding Poland’s involvement in the Holocaust is a dangerous attempt to revise history and suppress speech. The history of anti-Semitism in Poland is undeniable, but years of progress since the war have helped strengthen ties and heal wounds. No country is without its historical stains, but a misguided attempt to criminalize historical speech is in and of itself criminal.
The Israeli Embassy in Warsaw has reported an increase in anti-Semitic messages in the days prior to President Duda’s signing. What will the next weeks and months bring? To say nothing of the potential progress that has now been halted. The Israeli Parliament has proposed a law stating that it would provide legal aid to any Holocaust survivor or educator charged with breaking the proposed Polish law. The world is watching you, President Duda. If painting Poland in a kinder light was the goal, you missed the mark.