Content Block


Poland should face up to its anti-Semitic past

Attempts to ban references to "Polish death camps" are part of an aggressive new nationalism

"This will be a project that meets the expectations of Poles, who are blasphemed in the world, in Europe, even in Germany, that they are the Holocaust perpetrators, that in Poland there were Polish concentration camps, Polish gas chambers.”

These were the words of Polish justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, after he announced last week that his government would make it a crime for anyone to use the phrase "Polish death camps" when referring to the Holocaust.

“Enough with this lie,” he told reporters. “There has to be responsibility".

Since the right-wing Law and Justice party seized power in the autumn of 2015 on a familiar wave of anti-immigrant bile and Brussels bashing, Poland has moved to ignore its past as a way of coming to terms with its present.

The move to ban the "Polish death camps" phrase is merely the latest attempt at historical engineering by a government desperate to paint Poland as a noble victim. A country suppressed and brutalised by decades of rule by Nazi and then Soviet outsiders.

For Ziobro, the fact that some Poles were viciously anti-Semitic enough for 3.5 million Polish Jews to die in World War Two, while at the same time others worked to save thousands, are two opposing positions that cannot be reconciled. The idea that his people might have done wrong during the war is anathema to his concept of what it means to be Polish.

In this way, national identity, like personal identity, is a construct. We create narratives. Draw lines that show continual progress. Paper over the cracks. Ignore the failures, the embarrassments, the shameful episodes and imagine a present that is good.

Foundation myths

But how can a society flourish if its foundational myth is based on a half truth? And why do we find it necessary to create these false narratives? Is the truth really so hard to bear?

On 10th July 1941, 1,600 Jewish men, women and children were butchered and burned alive in the small Polish town of Jedwabne.

The massacre followed on from other pogroms in other Polish towns Radzilow and Wsosz, where similar numbers were killed.

Princeton University professor Jan Tomasz Gross uncovered the story of Jedwabne while researching his 2001 book Neighbours.

Contained within Polish archives were vivid descriptions of villagers massacring scores of Jews. One section describing the scene at Jedwabne reads: “Around the tortured ones [they included a 90-year-old rabbi] crowds of Polish men, women and children were standing and laughing at the miserable victims who were falling under the blows of the bandits.”

At a separate pogrom, villagers are described burying an eight year-old boy alive.

As George Steiner recounts in his review of Neighbours, published in the Observer in 2001: shortly after the war, footage emerged from German military archives of crowds of Poles “cheering and laughing at the spectacle of the last defenders of the Warsaw ghetto leaping into the flames rather than surrender”. The footage never made it to Poland.

Recently, reports emerged that the Polish government was considering stripping Gross of his “order of merit” awarded to him in 1996. Months earlier, Polish prosecutors threatened to sue Gross over he claimed in a German newspaper that Poles had killed more Jews than Germans during the war. While, before coming to office, President Andrzej Duda criticised his predecessor Bronislaw Komorowski for issuing an apology for the Jedwabne massacre; describing it as an “attempt to destroy Poland’s good name.”

Poland has long battled over its legacy of anti-Semitism. Polish war and holocaust memorials, of which there are many, tend to play up Poland’s role as Nazi resistors, and highlight individual acts of kindness.

In 2013, controversy raged about where to place a monument to the “righteous gentiles” of Poland who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust inside what was once the Warsaw ghetto.

As researchers from the Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw said in a public appeal at the time: "These few streets and squares stand as a unique space of memory which should above all pay tribute to Jewish suffering, not Polish heroism.

Doomed to repeat

All this speaks to the contradictions inherent in all forms of nationalism, even within the UK.

Speaking before the Jamaican parliament a few months ago, David Cameron lauded Great Britain for its part in abolishing the slave trade, but refused to apologise for the country’s equal role in setting it up. He avoided questions about reparations or apologies, and instead urged the people of Jamaica to “move on”.

Again, these two positions, Britain as enslaver and emancipator, appear irreconcilable. A country cannot be built on fair play, justice and democracy if it enslaved people. Cameron ignored this contradiction, and took credit for Britain ending something that he wasn’t sorry it had started.

In Poland’s case, the famous quote from the philosopher George Santayana,"those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”, seems almost too passive.

Polish nationalists, at least those within the Law and Justice party, have not merely failed to learn their history, they have actively looked to rewrite it. All the while, anti-Semitism has frequently reared its head in the country since the end of the war.

In 1968, a third of the few thousand Jews who had stayed in Poland after the war fled the country, after a sustained anti-Semitic campaign was carried out by the Polish communist party. In a bitter fight for the party leadership, sparked by student protests in March of that year, conservatives led by the minister for the interior Mieczyslaw Moczar looked to distinguish themselves from incumbent leader Wladyslaw Gomulka by launching a campaign based on anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism. There were two types of communists, they contested, honest, working-class Poles and “Zionist” intellectuals from Moscow. In a bid to stay in power, Gomulka joined in, denouncing the student protesters as “Zionist agents”, and in the following months thousands of Polish Jews were stripped of their citizenship and fired from their jobs.

Today’s Polish nationalists face a challenge. Free from the outside influence of German and Russian occupiers they have been forced to make their own way in the world and develop a new sense of what it means to be Polish. A sense of identity unencumbered by the need to define itself against the other.

It is perhaps no surprise that since coming to power, Law and Justice have looked to criticise immigrants, the EU and Russia; all part of an attempt to create new foreign enemies in complicated a new world.

From the outside looking in, it seems clear that by focusing on the other, by refusing to take responsibility for its past, Poland has been left with an incomplete view of itself.

During the Polish election last autumn, President Duda exemplified this when he warned that Syrians would bring “disease” and “epidemics” if they were allowed to enter Europe. When opponents suggested that this rhetoric reminded them of the Nazis, their words fell on deaf ears.

Joe Sandler Clarke is a journalist based in London who works for Greenpeace's investigations unit, as well as writing for the Guardian and Vice.

Related Posts

  1. Timothy Snyder is Housum Professor of History at Yale University, and has written and edited a number of critically acclaimed and prize-winning books about twentieth-century European history: Bloodlands won the Hannah Arendt Prize, the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award in the Humanities and the literature award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

    Snyder is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. He is a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a permanent fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences, and sits on the advisory council of the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research. Tim’s latest book is Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.