Despite international criticism, a new “Holocaust law,” criminalizing the mention of “Polish death camps” and talk of Polish collaboration with the Nazis, passed both houses of Poland’s parliament and is set to be signed into law by President Andrzej Duda.
With the signing of the law, violators who “slander” the Polish nation by suggesting Poles had anything to do with the destruction of Polish Jewry can expect to be jailed and fined. Theoretically, this includes individuals anywhere in the world.
The White House has warned Poland of “repercussions” if the new law –viewed as an attempt to suppress historical truth—is passed in its present form. The EU registered its own protests on the encroachment of civic freedom, while Israel went so far as to recall its ambassador, warning the Knesset would draft counter-legislation that would make deliberate falsification of Holocaust history a crime.
Ignoring the outcry, Poland’s ruling party pushed the Holocaust law through Parliament in less than a month. The more the world protests, the more the government congratulates itself on defending the nation against the world –inviting ridicule at home and abroad.
A member of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party, President Duda was elected in 2015 in part on the basis of his campaign promise to take action against those who “falsely accuse the Poles of participating in the Holocaust.”
Over the past two years, his government has tightened its control over the courts, the media, and domestic rights groups. The Holocaust law is in consonance with what many see as a power grab; aimed at pandering to the upsurge in nationalistic sentiment among rank and file Poles, especially the young.
Nationalistic fervor mixed with ideological extremism and hatred of minorities is on the upswing in some Europe states, as far-right populism escalates alarmingly.
Criticized for steadily eroding democracy in Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party is using “slander against the Polish state” as a rallying issue for stoking patriotic fervor and boosting the party’s ratings.
The new Holocaust law was slammed not only by critics outside the country but also by respected public figures in Poland.
“With this misbegotten law, the party has actually raised the profile of the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ in a botched attempt to suppress it… The authors of this legislation have promoted this slander on the world stage more effectively than ever before,” Polish politician and president of the European Council Donald Tusk railed.
JEW HUNTING AND BETRAYAL
Last month, in a visit to Israel, Polish President Duda sounded a more diplomatic tone, admitting that historical truth is not always savory. “As in every nation, we had decent people but there were also cruel people, and those who acted despicably should be utterly condemned,” he said.
Poles who took part in the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust were the exception, he asserted. “They removed themselves from the Polish people.”
Leading historians dismiss this view as a whitewash. “Poland’s attempts to rewrite history are the latest twist on Holocaust denial,” commented Canadian historian Jan Grabowski who has studied the phenomenon of tens of thousands of Polish Jews escaping deportation and Nazi killing raids only to be betrayed by their Polish neighbors.
In his recent book, Hunt For the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland (published 2014), Grabowski, the son of a Holocaust survivor, starts with the known fact that out of a population of 3.5 million Polish Jews, only 35,000 the survived the Holocaust.
“We know that close to 10 percent of Jews fled the Polish ghettos before they were liquidated in 1942 and 1943 – which means about 250,000 Jews tried to survive in hiding,” noted Grabowski. “But only 35,000 managed to stay alive to the end of the war. What happened to the rest?”
There is no doubt, he writes, based on years of research in Polish and German archives, that the great majority of Jews in hiding perished at the hands of Poles who betrayed them. They were denounced or simply seized, bound and turned over to the nearest station of the Polish police or to the Germans where they met their death.
A broad system of Jew-hunting was orchestrated by the Germans to ferret out Jews in hiding, he explained. The ranks of the “hunters” were filled with Poles: villagers who conducted night searches; Polish policemen, firefighters and rank and file local informers who, in exchange for turning over Jews, received payment in the form of vodka, sugar, potatoes, oil – along with clothing and other personal items stripped from the victims.
Together, Grabowski maintains, these hunters, for the most part willingly and without coercion, created a dragnet that made it almost impossible for Jews in hiding to escape detection.
Hunt for the Jews follows the publication of two other books authored by Polish historians that shine a light on horrific but little known Holocaust-era crimes perpetrated by local Poles against their Jewish neighbors.
One of these books is the electrifying Neighbors, by Jan T. Gross that shocked the whole of Poland with its revelations. Published in 2000, it tells the story of July 1941 massacre in Yadobna (Jedwabne). In this ghastly act, an entire village was slaughtered. 1600 Jews were axed, stoned and eventually burned alive in a barn by their Polish neighbors.
In 2004, the Polish journalist Anna Bikont published The Crime and the Silence which contains interviews with eyewitnesses, murderers and survivors of the Yadobna pogrom described in Neighbors, corroborating Gross’s account down to minute details.
Professor Grabowski, in turn, set out to track a broader phenomenon – the overall day-to-day role of Poles in persecuting and murdering Jews in the Holocaust, and the scope of those crimes.
Burying himself in the Holocaust archives in a small town in southern Poland, he came across all-but-forgotten documents that enabled him to reconstruct what happened to the Jews who had frantically sought to hide from the Nazi roundups.
One of these documents is a diary left behind by Stanislaw Zeminski, a teacher from the town of Lukow in eastern Poland who perished in 1943 in the Majdanek death camp. Retrieved from a garbage heap and eventually deposited with the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, the diary documents war atrocities the writer witnessed.
Zeminski wrote that “the orgy of murders” in Lukow was not only the work of the Germans and their Ukrainian and Latvian helpers. “It was clear that Polish policemen would take part in the slaughter (they are like animals), but it turned out that normal Poles took part as well,” he wrote.
“Local inhabitants were actively involved in pulling out Jews from the bunkers in the ghetto,” Zeminski wrote in his diary, quoted in Grabowski’s book. “They dragged them from hiding places in houses, caught them in the fields, in the meadows. The shots are still ringing, but the hyenas already set their sights on Jewish riches… The dead bodies are still warm, but people are already writing letters, asking for Jewish houses, Jewish stores, workshops or parcels of land.”
From court documentation created by hundreds of trials conducted by the postwar communist regime in Poland, Grabowski uncovered scores of narratives that painted a shocking expose of the manner in which Poles betrayed and murdered Jews in staggering numbers.
“They were realizing their own dream of a Jew-free Poland,” Grabowski said. “At the same time, they were ardent opponents of the German occupation and suffered terribly under the Nazis. It’s not a simple picture.”
Grabowski’s writings on the Holocaust in Poland have sparked death threats and an angry backlash from influential Polish officials. Not content to denounce him in Poland, some have maligned him to the University of Ottawa, Canada, where he has taught history for almost 25 years.
In two letters, the Polish League Against Defamation accused the historian of lying and fabricating historical evidence. “He falsifies the history of Poland, proclaiming the thesis that Poles are complicit in the extermination of Jews,” the authors wrote.
In an interview with a Canadian paper, Grabowski said some of the league’s founders are now either ranking members of Poland’s government or senior advisers to its ministers.
“Their actions are aligned with the wishes of the Polish state, which makes it all the more appalling,” he said of the group’s campaign.
In a display of solidarity with the historian, more than 180 international Holocaust scholars came to his defense in a letter penned to the chancellor of the University of Ottawa defending Grabowski as a scholar of “impeccable personal and professional integrity.”
The letter said the Polish group is putting forth a “distorted and whitewashed version of the history of Poland during the Holocaust.”
Confirming this appraisal in a meeting with this writer in Yerushalayim, historian Esther Farbstein, whose groundbreaking book, Hidden in Thunder explores the largely overlooked subject of spiritual heroism in the Holocaust, praised Grabowski’s work as “well-documented and courageous.”
Poland’s new Holocaust law “will likely not remain in its present form,” predicted Farbstein, whose extended family in Poland, except for her parents, were all murdered in the Holocaust. “Facing so much opposition from so many quarters, they will be forced to make changes.”
RIGHTEOUS POLES: EXTRAORDINARY HEROES – BUT A RARE FEW
Meanwhile, the same Institute of National Remembrance that investigated the destruction of Yadobna, described by Gross’s Neighbors, has also documented the crimes of Nazis in executing 700 righteous Poles for helping Jews hide.
One of the best-known cases was that of the Ulma family, peasants from the village of Markowa, who hid a number of Jews at great personal risk. After the Nazis discovered they were sheltering Jews, they murdered the entire family – parents and their six children – along with the Jews in hiding.
In 2016, a museum honoring the Ulmas’ heroism was established in their village, as well as a memorial site for other Poles who hid Jews during the Holocaust.
In comments during a lecture, Grabowski acknowledged the righteousness of the Ulma family and other Poles who were rescuers, noting that over 6000 Poles were honored as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem. Yet at the same time, he pointed out that Polish authorities are using the Ulma family “in an attempt to shield the vast majority of Poles who were anything but rescuers.”
Casting the Ulmas’ noble deeds as emblematic of Polish compassion for their Jewish countrymen is “simply false,” the historian averred. The reality is that Poles who saved Jews were very few; they were a tiny, terrorized group who feared, most of all, their own neighbors.