Poland’s Holocaust Speech Law

The Politics behind Poland’s Holocaust Speech Law

by Sam Rubin

The bus from Warsaw to Rzeszów, Poland, breaks in Kielce, a small city where over 50 Jews were killed by their Polish neighbors in 1946 upon returning from concentration camps and displacement. The bus stopped and I needed a drink, but could I spend money where Jews had been slaughtered in the streets? A young Polish girl a few seats ahead of me, smiling and playful, exited the bus towards the town. Surely she holds no responsibility, but what of her grandmother? Who holds blame 70 years on? Over 1,500 murders of Jews by Poles in the immediate years following the Holocaust have been recorded, not to mention the overwhelming body of primary source recollections affirming Polish complicity and aid in the extermination of Poland’s Jews – how is a Jew to live here?

This past Friday, ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, the lower house of the Polish parliament voted in favor of a bill aimed to quell certain language and ideas in Holocaust scholarship and journalism. While the exact strictures are at this time unclear, the law if enacted would constitute an infringement of free speech. The effect on foreign correspondents and writers remains unclear. Nevertheless, the politics of this moment have been long in the making.

I was in Kielce on my way to a Holocaust Commemoration week in Poland’s Podkarpackie Voidodeship, a mostly rural, deeply conservative region that before the war was home to many significant Hasidic communities. Organized by the venerable Professor Wacław Wierzbieniec, a Catholic Pole profoundly committed to the history of Podkarpackie’s Jewish past, Jews and allies had come from around the world to pay homage to their ancestors, to remember the victims, and to spread a message of tolerance.

Despite good intentions, the Commemoration was infiltrated by the very historically revisionist narratives and policies at the core of Poland’s populism and this most recent law.

In contemporary Poland, Holocaust and World War II history are invariably intertwined the politics of the “Righteous Among the Nations”. An honorary status bestowed by Yad Vashem, the Righteous Among the Nations recognizes gentiles who aided Jews during the Holocaust and associated pogroms. In recent years, the Polish government, with the help of British-Israeli Jonny Daniels and anti-Semitic elements of the Catholic Church, have begun to confer the title to Poles without Yad Vashem’s authentication. (For those interested, Larry Cohler-Esses has contributed excellent reporting on Mr. Daniels’ work with the Polish government and Catholic Church for The Forward.)

The presence of the “Righteous” was constant throughout the Commemoration: on the table in the room where a Jewish survivor was speaking, pamphlets from the government-allied Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej) with titles such as “Discover the stories of Poles who helped Jews”; Righteous Poles were the crux of Rzeszów’s mayor’s speech during a prayer service in the former Jewish cemetery; Jews were asked to read the names of Righteous Poles in one of multiple church services held throughout the week. As Elżbieta Janicka of the Polish Academy of Science puts it, within the dominant Polish culture, “merely tolerating Jews… is seen as an act of benevolence. After all, a benefactor deserves gratitude, not exegesis”. And thus the commemoration of Jewish victims becomes in practice an opportunity for today’s Jews to thank the Poles, and to stoke the Polish nationalist ego. It becomes a means for what Jan Grabowski has termed the “de-Judaization” of the Holocaust, the practice of Holocaust remembrance becoming the conduit of Polish martyrdom.

While the truly, authenticated Righteous should be celebrated as role-models, the government’s appropriation and manipulation of this narrative is nationalistic, ahistorical in emphasis, and a disgrace to the memory of the Jews who died by Polish hands.

And yet, like on the bus in Kielce, we must reconcile competing ethics:

Teaching about the Righteous could engender a sense of responsibility to not be a bystander. This compassion is sorely needed in a country refusing African and Middle-Eastern refugees. It is sorely needed in our own country. Can we teach, honor, inspire through the Righteous narrative without denying the history of anti-Semitism?

I was raised in a country, in a state built on the grave of an indigenous civilization and people – is this so different than the ‘forgetting’ of the Polish pogroms by the contemporary Polish populace? As Jews, as a people who know genocide so closely, we must recommit as allies to the Native-American community. We are two peoples sharing one deep wound.

The little girl from the bus, the young Poles who lit torches and marched on November 11th, myself, none of us created this. But we don’t have the choice not to engage it. Regardless whether we find a way together or apart, regardless whether the government’s law portends further crackdown, there is but one certainty: this is a place of profound hurt, for Jews, Poles, and all who remain to live in the past’s wake.

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