The Obligation to Remember


The Holocaust is never far from mind. It churns on the horizon of Jewish consciousness like some malevolent poisonous cloud. It takes only one throwaway picture of smokestacks. The mention of the word ‘camp,’ or ‘gas,’ not to mention ‘German.’ It’s not like that all the time – but the atmosphere is always charged. The Jewish psyche has a hair trigger when it comes to anything even vaguely Holocaust-related.

In these last few weeks, the Jewish sensitivity to Holocaust conversation has been blasted from the subliminal and ambiguous to the explicit by a very controversial law that’s set to pass in Poland.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party vowed to push through the “Death Camps Law,” soon after coming to power in 2015, depicting it as a way of protecting Poland’s good name. A key paragraph of the bill states: “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich… or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to 3 years.”

After an initial uproar, the issue seemed to have been dropped, only to reappear last week, when the lower house of parliament approved it on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Polish government officials argue the law is needed to fight expressions like “Polish death camps” for the camps Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II.

Poles were among those imprisoned, tortured and killed in the camps, and many today feel Poles are unfairly depicted as perpetrators of the Holocaust. While “Polish” is almost always used as a geographic designator, Poles still object because they feel it defames Poland for the Nazi-run camps, where Poles made up the largest group of victims after Jews. Germany occupied Poland in 1939, annexing part of it to Germany and directly governing the rest. Unlike other countries occupied by Germany at the time, there was no collaborationist government in Poland. The pre-war Polish government and military fled into exile, except for an underground resistance army that fought the Nazis inside the country. The Polish Senate approved the bill Thursday despite mounting international opposition. The final step will be approval by President Andrzej Duda, who strongly supports it.

The Polish government is not the first to try to shape the history to its advantage. The Soviet Union long preferred to refer broadly to “victims of fascism,” avoiding any specific reference to Jews, and Austria for years painted itself as the “Nazis’ first victim,” denying all responsibility for its crimes.

Yet it is… undeniable that Poles were directly or indirectly complicit in the crimes committed on their land and that Poles were guilty of anti-Jewish pogroms during and after the war. These are the facts of that terrible history, and the Poles, like all other nations conquered by Germany that became embroiled in the Nazi atrocities, have an obligation to the victims and to the future to seek the full truth, however painful.

The response has been swift. Historians have vehemently protested, suggesting that this law allows the state to determine what is permitted or forbidden to say or write. State-sanctioned history is not history at all, but rather a form of propaganda. The Holocaust Memorial Museum stated its “deep concerns” about the law that would “chill a free and open dialogue addressing Poland’s history during the Holocaust” which takes place in “Polish schools and universities as well as in the media.”

Holocaust survivors are livid, contending that this bill defames the victims of the Holocaust who were murdered in Poland. It is, for many of them, a horrible betrayal of their suffering. For some Israelis, including the prime minister, it is an attempt to rewrite history and deny any complicity of Poles with Nazis working together to round up and execute Jews.

This Death Camps Law is an odious endeavor. It comes from an emergent nationalistic right-wing party in Poland seeking to rebrand Poland’s reputation. The new Polish law is fundamentally wrong. We should not be deterred from telling the historical truth that there were many cases in which Poles killed their Jewish neighbors before the Germans got to them and that in some places after the war, pogroms broke out as the Jews tried to return to what had once been home. But Polish suffering must have its space in the collective Holocaust memory as well. And Jewish life, not only death, should be celebrated in the thousand-year historical memory of what was one of the largest and most successful Jewish communities of the Diaspora. Poland was so much more for the Jews than just a massive graveyard.

This is one of the central conundrums of Jews in the 21st century. As we move further away from the Holocaust, it begins to look different and feel different. As the example par excellence of genocide, it is referred to by many cultures. It cannot be – must not be – our historical touchstone only. We can say Poles suffered during WWII without diminishing our own historical truths.

The last survivors of Auschwitz are in their 80s and 90s. It will be up to us to understand the Holocaust and the complexities of our history to explain them to the next generations. This Polish law is way off the mark, but it won’t deter us from speaking our deepest truths.

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