The legacy of the Shoah in Poland, John Paul II said, is “a wound that has not healed, one that keeps bleeding.” The Polish government’s new Holocaust law rubs salt into the wound and renders healing that much more elusive.
The measure, which is expected to be signed into law on Tuesday by Polish President Andrzej Duda, criminalizes historical claims of Polish responsibility for the Holocaust and the use of “Polish death camps” and similar expressions. Violators face up to a year in prison. The Trump administration has condemned the move on free-speech grounds. “If enacted this draft legislation could undermine free speech and academic discourse,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement last month. “We all must be careful not to inhibit discussion and commentary on the Holocaust.” The move, it warned the ruling Law and Justice party, risks straining Warsaw’s relationships with its allies in Washington and Jerusalem.
That is all correct. But the law’s most lamentable casualty is the bond of Polish-Jewish friendship that had only recently been restored thanks to the courageous efforts of figures on both sides of the divide. The restoration, as serious Jews and Poles would admit, was far from complete. Yet it had already born fruit: among them growing diplomatic warmth between Israel and Poland and a mini-renaissance of Jewish life in cities like Krakow. These achievements required “willingness and openness in treating difficult and painful problems of the past” and “brotherly dialogue,” as Archbishop Henryk Muszyński, then the primate of Poland, put it in a moving 1997 address on Polish-Jewish relations.
Now, in a misguided attempt to vindicate Poland’s historical honor, Law and Justice has brought to this delicate situation its bombastic nationalism and the crudest of tools: censorship and criminalization.
Poland’s share of the blame for the Holocaust has been the subject of long and painful debate. At various points before World War II, the country was a thriving center of Jewish learning and culture and a refuge from ill-treatment elsewhere in Europe. The 11th-century Polish ruler Władysław Herman welcomed Jews fleeing persecution in Spain, and guaranteed their safety. His successors upheld that guarantee. The Polish spirit of tolerance reached its apogee in the 16th and 17th centuries under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a period that moved the great Krakow rabbi Moses Isserles to write to a student: “Better a dry crust with peace–as it is here, where there is no fierce hatred–than in German lands. May it remain this way until the Messiah comes.”
The absence of “fierce” hatred, of course, doesn’t imply the complete absence of hatred. As Muszyński noted in his address, even in times of tolerance, “the life of Jews in Poland was not free from tensions, prejudices, mutual distrust, and various manifestations of hostile acts.” The archbishop was referring to the traditional, ethnic or religiously inspired, anti-Semitism that for long centuries stalked Jewish communities across the Continent and periodically exploded into pogroms and riots. The Law and Justice party, and others who wish to cast Poles as entirely innocent in the Holocaust, maintain that that traditional Jew-hatred had nothing to do with the Nazis’ race-based, systematic, and genocidal project.
Unlike in, say, France, Nazi-occupied Poland had no collaborationist government, and Poles had no say in the Nazi decision to locate the death camps on their soil. The Polish government-in-exile tried to alert the World War II Allies to horrors of the Holocaust (to no avail for much of the time). It is also true that in Poland, and only in Poland, the Nazis punished with death not only those who rescued Jews but also the loved-ones of rescuers. Despite that threat, thousands of Poles risked their lives to save individual Jews. Today, Poles make up a quarter of the more than 26,000 “Righteous Among the Nations” honored at Yad Vashem–the highest count among all nations.
Thus, the phrase “Polish death camps” is, indeed, “inaccurate, misleading, and hurtful,” as the Trump State Department noted it in its statement decrying the Law and Justice law. Yet the traditional anti-Semitism of Poles did at times merge or fuse with the racial anti-Semitism of their German occupiers, most notably in the 1941 Jedwabne massacre, which saw Polish villagers round up 340 of their Jewish neighbors–men, women, and children–and burn them in a locked barn. Poles, moreover, murdered an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 Jews after liberation, including 42 Holocaust survivors in the village of Kielce. As one survivor recalled, upon returning home to Lodz, she overheard two Polish women say, “Look, look, how many dirty Jews are still alive. And they told us that Hitler had managed to exterminate all of them.”
Incidents such as these are a reminder that, to its victims, the ideological origins of anti-Semitism–whether “traditional” or race-based and modern–aren’t all that important. What matters is the result. As that great son of Poland, Karol Wojtyła, remarked on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, all forms of anti-Semitism “contradict the Christian vision of human dignity.”
Barring debate about these matters won’t help Poland step beyond the shadow of the Holocaust.