Poland’s Senate has passed a bill establishing prison terms for anyone who besmirches the nation’s good name by using the phrase “Polish Concentration Camp,” or suggests that Poles were culpable during the Holocaust. The plan has blown up like an exploding cigar.

As the son of a decorated Polish soldier who fought Nazi Germany and a Polish mother who was imprisoned in a German work camp, it pains me when people call Auschwitz a “Polish Death Camp.” It had a German motto, “Arbeit macht frei,” (work sets you free), and German sentries and German Shepherds guarded it. It was a German camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

As a journalist, I knew the best way to prevent use of this erroneous phrase was to change the stylebooks that guide language usage in newsrooms.

So in 2010, after becoming president of the Kosciuszko Foundation, I wrote a petition signed by more than 300,000 people demanding that The New York Times and Associated Press amend their stylebooks to prohibit use of the phrase “Polish Concentration Camp.” One of the first signers was former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski who asked me to change the word “demand” to “request.” His lesson on diplomacy was not lost. I followed his advice and today most media outlets across America avoid using this offensive language.

This measured approach helped me to rally Jewish allies to sign the petition, including Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Auschwitz survivor Ryszard Horowitz, and David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

But now, about the current bill, which still requires a signature from Polish President Andrzej Duda before becoming law, Harris wrote, “Polish leaders ought to withdraw the legislation and focus on education, not criminalisation, about inaccurate and harmful speech.”

He’s right. You can’t legislate sympathy for Polish wartime suffering. But you can educate people about history.

Like the children of Holocaust survivors, much of what I learned about World War Two was from my parents and other witnesses.

And then there is archival evidence. Nazi Germany’s stated goal was to murder Jews. The exiled Polish government’s goal was to stop the Holocaust. In 1942 it published a report in New York on “The Mass Extermination of Jews In German Occupied Poland.” America and its allies turned a blind eye toward the report.

War-torn Poland was the only country where Germans instituted the death penalty for assisting Jews and they killed 30,000 Poles who did so. This reign of Nazi terror lasted six years.

Yes, there were Polish heroes like Jan Karski, Witold Pilecki and Irena Sendler who risked their lives to save Jews. Yes, Poles created an underground organisation called Zegota that rescued tens of thousands of Jews.

But not all Poles acted like Sendler, who rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Germans. There were also szmalcownicy, Poles who blackmailed Jews, demanding money not to be turned over to the Nazis. It’s painful to admit that some Poles also killed Jews. There were witnesses to these events. Some of them wrote memoirs. Some are still alive. Would this law punish them?

Poland has appointed its archives, The Institute of National Remembrance, as arbiter of what is actionable and given it the vague task of “Protecting Poland’s Good Name.”

Facts are what need protection. Giving archivists authority to defend a country’s reputation will not suppress painful realities or opposing views. It will do the opposite. It already has. Usage of the phrase “Polish Death Camps” has skyrocketed on the Internet.

The proposed law also means Poland will probably try to prosecute Jan Gross, a Princeton professor who has uncovered dirt in Polish history, but sometimes presents it in a misleading way. But arresting Gross, or someone like him, will create a hero, an international cause célèbre. History has shown that attempts to ban a book make the public want to read it even more.

This law pours gasoline onto the embers of the Holocaust, baiting haters on many sides. Israeli politician Yair Lapid, tweeted “There were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that.” Poles bite back saying, see, Lapid is why we need the law.

My mother told me that before being arrested by Germans, she survived a massacre of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists. She hid from murderers in the faeces of an outhouse. The Polish law punishes those who deny this Wolyn massacre. So denial of Ukrainian atrocities is not allowed, but denial of Polish misdeeds is ok?

Who is history’s arbiter? Those who experienced it, or those who read about it?

Erasing bad guys from history won’t honour Poland’s unsung heroes. Half of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust were Polish, and another 3 million non-Jewish Poles were killed.

All of their stories deserve to be told with dignity.

Free societies do not throw journalists and historians into prison.

Alex Storozynskiis an author, filmmaker and president emeritus of the Kosciuszko Foundation.

3 Responses to “Poland’s Holocaust faux pas”

  1. Haroon Shafiuddin

    In a period of febrile nationalism across the world it is not surprising that the general populace of Poland would react the way they have. Poles often cringe at the idea that these camps set up by the Nazis in occupied Poland where many Poles were incarcerated as well would be called Polish concentration camps. Unlike the writer, many Poles you meet on the streets and cafes, in Poland and elsewhere, would tell you that it was entirely a Nazi project yet Poles are the ones left with the stigma. And they resent it.

    What’s in a name? A great deal, it seems. An unfortunate part of history harkening back to heightened ethnicity is being resurrected in many former Eastern European countries. Georgians, Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Russians, Latvians, Serbs, Hungarians, Czechs – all are reinventing their modern history and national identity against an enduring backdrop of fighting against each other for centuries.

    Donbass, Abkhazia, Crimea are only three overblown examples. On the streets of Kiev, you hear loud claims that Kiev Russians are the pure Russians; in Krakow you hear how vicious the Ukrainians were.

    It might be an essential trait of modern tribal consciousness that a group of people, when they become prosperous and politically viable, feel an urge to invent a past of glory. Go to Melaka in Malaysia, for example.

    Polish sensitivity to WWII history has, however, a rationale on its side. Inside one of the barracks at Auschwitz, a pilgrim would encounter a black plaque that reads:

    “Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp.
    In the years 1940-1945, the Nazis deported at least 1, 300,000 people to Auschwitz:

    1,100,000 Jews,
    140,000 – 150,000 Poles,
    23,000 Roma (Gypsies),
    15,000 Soviet prisoners of war,
    25,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups.

    1,100.000 of these people died in Auschwitz. Approximately 90% of the victims were Jews. The SS murdered the majority of them in the gas chambers.”

    After the mind-numbing number of the Jews who perished, the Poles were indeed the second casualty. It might be hard for a modern Pole to come to grips with the statement that his/her aunt or uncle was killed in a Polish Concentration Camp.

  2. Afsan Chowdhury

    Very good article. I think it should be translated into bangla for wider consumption. I will share it with my students. Thanks BDNews24

  3. M. Emad

    Many non-German Baltic, Ukrainian and Polish youths volunteered and collaborated with the German Nazi-SS at concentration-death camps during Holocaust.

    Similarly, in 1971, Urdu-speaking local Bihari youths volunteered genocidal Pakistan Army in military raids/roundup and guarding the rape camps in occupied Bangladesh.

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