Magazine article Newsweek

Did Poland Take Part in the Holocaust? New Claims Contradict Law That Makes It Illegal to Blame the Country; Millions of Polish Jews Died during the Holocaust. Who Is to Blame?

Magazine article Newsweek

Did Poland Take Part in the Holocaust? New Claims Contradict Law That Makes It Illegal to Blame the Country; Millions of Polish Jews Died during the Holocaust. Who Is to Blame?

Article excerpt

Byline: Orlando Crowcroft

Three decades ago, Konstanty Gebert broke the law. Constantly. He took part in anti-government protests. He wrote for underground newspapers. And he helped organize a secret university that taught subjects forbidden by the state.

But since the fall of Poland's Communist government in 1989, Gebert says, he's tried to respect the rule of law that Poles fought so hard for. That is, until earlier this year, when Poland's ruling far-right Law and Justice Party (PiS) made it illegal to blame the country for Nazi atrocities during World War II. Gebert felt he had to speak out. So in March, days after the law went into effect, the 64-year-old Jewish journalist made such a claim in an article for his Warsaw-based newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. "Many members of the Polish nation," he wrote, "bear co-responsibility for some Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich."

For now, Gebert remains a free man, but as a result of his article, he faces a three-year prison term or a sizable fine. "I'm still waiting," he tells Newsweek. "The prosecutor's office has published a press release saying that there have been 44 complaints based on the new law and they are examining them. I hope I am on the list."

Warsaw has argued that the law protects the country's history by outlawing claims that Poles were involved in Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz, which is near the town of Oswiecim. Between 1939 and 1945, Poland suffered a brutal occupation by the Nazis, who killed up to 3 million Polish Jews and 2.5 million ethnic Poles. Yet every year, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki says, the country's embassies overseas record more than 1,500 instances in which people blame Poland, not Germany, for Nazi atrocities. This includes everything from references to "Polish" death camps, to allegations that Warsaw collaborated with Adolf Hitler during World War II. "We [have] witnessed a wave of articles, opinions and commentaries which prove that many [people] have no basic knowledge about the history of Poland," he says. "The situation we have somehow [is] that when people think of the Holocaust--there are only Jewish victims and Polish perpetrators."

But critics of the bill say it's a broad, vaguely worded assault on free speech, designed by the PiS to muzzle critics and stifle historical debate. "It is a general bludgeon blow that is supposed to be hanging over the heads of people who want to discuss the Shoah," says Gebert (using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust), "to make sure that the government can hit them any time that it considers it politically expedient."

Many Poles resisted the Third Reich, and Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Center recognized more than 6,000 of them as "members of the righteous" for sheltering or helping Jews to escape the Nazis. For Poles, the country's anti-fascist resistance during World War II is a source of pride and national identity. "Poland never created a government that collaborated with the Third Reich and never formed an SS division," Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki argued in Foreign Policy magazine in March. "My close family rescued Jews. [In] the darkest hour Polish-Jewish bonds proved to be stronger than the unimaginable brutality of the Nazi German occupation."

But over the course of almost three decades--especially since the government released archives after the fall of Communism in 1989--new scholarship has highlighted a darker issue: collaboration. In 2001, Jan Gross, an American-Polish historian, sparked a nationwide debate when he published Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, which examined the 1941 murder of 340 Polish Jews who were locked in a burning barn by local villagers. In 2006, Gross published a second book, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz, which documented violence against Jews in the years following liberation from the Nazis.

The allegations went further. …

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