Criminalizing Holocaust Speech––Some Comments and Considerations

On the eve of this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 26, news broke that the Polish parliament, following the lead of the country’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), had voted to approve a bill making it illegal to implicate Poland in the crimes against humanity committed during the German occupation of the country in the Second World War.  It threatens fines and up to three years imprisonment for anyone who “publicly and untruthfully assigns responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish Nation or the Polish State for Nazi crimes.”  Two weeks later, having been approved by the Polish Senate, the Polish President Andrzej Duda signed the bill into law, and sent it for a final judicial review to the Constitutional Court.

The law has sparked widespread international protest and condemnation.  The Holocaust is of course one of the defining events of the twentieth century, a core contextual element of international geopolitics, especially concerning Israel, and a constant touchstone in the ongoing global campaign for human rights––and an everyday matter for many like me who spend our professional lives grappling with its legacy.  Still, it is quite some time since the Holocaust was a top news item for the global media.  In Poland, it seems that the Holocaust is undergoing a cultural renaissance of sorts.

Louise Arner Boyd, “Jabłonice, Jew returning from the synagogue,” 1934

The new law has what could be called a front end and a back end.  The front end is a campaign specifically against the term “Polish Death Camps.”  If this term is taken to mean that the Holocaust death camps were built and operated by Poles, it is obviously wrong.  The death camps were designed, built and operated by Germany, and non-Jewish Poles were among their victims.  Poland did not run these camps:  there was no collaborationist government in Poland, indeed Poland never formally surrendered.  In occupied Poland––unlike, for example, in Vichy France––the Germans did not attempt to set up a puppet government, or to work with collaborationist Poles to administer the country and implement the Nazi program of systematic, industrialized mass murder.  German policy toward Poles was not to co-opt them, but the contrary––to break them, to decapitate the society culturally, intellectually, politically, and to terrorize the populace into submission.  The Polish government, for its part, went into exile in Britain and participated as an integral part of the Allied war on Germany.   

The Polish government-in-exile was also the key channel for the contemporaneous communication about the Holocaust to the West, especially the Polish resistance hero Jan Karski’s famous eyewitness reports in 1942-43 on the Warsaw Ghetto and the transit camp at Izbica, which he thought was the Bełżec death camp.  As an anti-fascist Pole committed to the plight of Polish Jews––equal citizens of Poland––Karski was not a lone operative.  The Polish government-in-exile repeatedly and officially condemned antisemitism, proclaiming equal rights and responsibilities for Jews and all citizens of to-be-liberated Poland––and did so without denying the existence of antisemitism in Poland.  In an address given in London on April 20, 1941, the Polish government-in-exile’s Minister of Labour and Social Welfare Jan Stańczyk overtly analyzes the causes and nature of Polish antisemitism, lamenting it as a distorted response to Poland’s moribund economic structure, and distinguishing it from the “degenerate nationalism” and racial chauvinism of Nazi Germany.  Coordinated Polish resistance to the Holocaust also famously included the Polish Council to Aid Jews, known popularly as Żegota, created in 1942 by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz.  Żegota grew to include cells across Poland, more than 100, and is estimated to have provided some form of aid to about 50,000 people, half of the Jews who survived the Holocaust in occupied Poland.  

In Poland, these facts are widely known, which is why the phrase “Polish Death Camps” has only ever been shorthand for the geographical location of the German-run death camps in occupied Poland.  Karski himself used the term in precisely this way––which may well be the reason that Barack Obama used it when posthumously awarding Karski the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.  The eminent Polish writer Zofia Nałkowska also used it this way, in her 1947 book Medallions, a masterpiece of anti-fascist world literature.  

To criminalize “Polish Death Camps” is not, in other words, an attempt to redress a problem of historical understanding that many Poles actually have.  Almost no one in Poland is confused or mistaken about who ran the death camps.  And to the extent that it is aimed at foreigners who may be confused on facts, the Polish government for years has already had in place an effective method of communicating the Polish government’s preferred wording, “German death camps in occupied Poland.”  

Jan Karski, “Polish Death Camp:  In the Nazi slaughter pens, a patriot witnessed mass torture and slow death,” Collier’s Weekly, October 14, 1944, pp. 18-19

Likewise, no one in Poland has forgotten that Poles collectively and individually did save Jews with great bravery.  Israel’s Yad Vashem has recognized 6,706 Poles for saving Jews during the Holocaust, over a quarter of the total awards given and the most of any national group.  It is widely acknowledged that the numbers of people offering minor help was in the hundreds of thousands, not to mention an uncountable number of so-called quiet protectors who knew about major and minor help and rescue efforts, and said nothing.  It is likewise widely known that the risks Polish saviors faced were the harshest in all of occupied Europe:  death to themselves for giving or selling Jews food or even giving a Jew a ride in a vehicle, and death to themselves and all members of their household if a Jew was found to be hiding in their home or on their property.  Between 30,000-50,000 Poles are estimated to have been killed for aiding Jews, and around 450,000 Jews are estimated to have been saved from certain death at least temporarily.

The real target of the new IPN-driven law sits at its back end, and concerns crimes against Jews committed by individual Poles, self-organized gangs of Poles in various localities, institutions like the Polish Blue Police, and some units of the Polish Home Army.  And there is abundant evidence that Poles did not follow the proclamations and pleas of the Polish government-in-exile.  Jews generally did not perceive Poles as their wartime saviors, and they were right not to.

It was, after all, common knowledge that killing Poles and killing Jews were not equal priorities for the German occupiers.  Approximately six million Polish citizens died during the Second World War, almost three and a half million of whom were Polish Jews, and two to three million of whom were non-Jewish Poles.  The Jewish dead represented some 90% of the prewar Jewish population in Poland, while the ethnic Polish dead represented some 10% of the non-Jewish prewar Polish population.  To be Polish in occupied Poland meant, in other words, to endure all manner of punitive measures, to be vulnerable to arbitrary death or roundup or deportation for forced labor, and almost certainly to know someone who had been killed or abducted or raped.  It did not mean, however, to live under an explicit death sentence pronounced by an occupying state determined to hunt down and murder every last Pole.  Yet that is precisely what being Jewish in occupied Poland meant.  And that is why being Polish––in spite of everything Poles suffered––looked from a Jewish perspective like a privilege, and was a privilege, which not all but many Poles leveraged for personal benefit.

The German occupation was designed to reward Polish hooligans and thugs, and to incentivize the Polish population broadly to participate in the genocide of the Jews not at the level of Polish national policy, but at the level of individual gain.  When scholars speak of Polish cooperation or collusion, it is mostly on this level:  Poles who took the decision individually to betray Jews to the Germans for a reward, to blackmail Jews and also Poles helping Jews, to whisper information to blackmailers and betrayers in exchange for goods or favors, to trade in threats of betrayal, to exact retribution for old grievances, to profit from the underground economy in smuggled food and goods to Jews, eventually to lay claim to Jewish shops, houses, land, merchandise, furniture, clothing after the Jews were gone.  In a time when abuse and murder of Jews was state policy, and when Polish dependence on a black market economy was nearly universal, betraying Jews was business.  A comparatively privileged status under German occupation meant that individual Poles had the power to destroy the lives of individual Jews (and of other Poles).  Enough Poles exercised that power to poison Polish society, and create a pervasive condition of fear, intimidation, coldness and collusive hostility toward Jews.  That poison lingered in the near aftermath of the war in the pogroms against surviving Jews, which occurred in more than 100 Polish towns and cities, not to mention the unwillingness or refusal of many rescuers to speak of their heroism for years afterward.

Many Jews and others will say, of course, that Polish society was already anti-Jewishly poisoned long before the war.  Polish folk culture is replete with images of Jews as deceitful, manipulative, greedy, sometimes also idiotic and buffoonish, and followers of a foreign religion that the Catholic Church long implicated in deicide.  For centuries Jews had stood between the Polish nobility and the peasantry, in an arrangement that produced social stability through a nexus of mutually tolerable, sometimes fraternal resentments.  By the early twentieth century, as the Polish nationalist movement passed the hundred year mark in its struggle against the trio of empires that had literally erased the country from the map of Europe, modern and widely-held anti-Jewish stereotypes took root in Poland as elsewhere.  Modern antisemitic mythology is replete with images of Jews as conspirators out to dominate and rule the world, whether by capitalism, socialism, communism, or Zionism.  After Poland’s rebirth in 1919, these stereotypes increasingly acquired political traction.  In the grip of the global economic crisis of the 1930s, the pluralist vision of Polish society associated with Józef Piłsudski gradually gave way to the ethnonationalist politics of Roman Dmowski and the National Democrats, whose antisemitism cast the Jews as the face of everything un-Polish and anti-Polish––the Jew as internal enemy.  Dislike of Jews, on a continuum from low-grade to virulent was not universal in prewar Poland, but it was powerful enough to produce boycotts and destruction of Jewish property across the country, and represented the ascendant force in Polish politics when the war broke out in 1939.  Indeed, antisemitism in Poland was sufficiently normalized that even determined rescuers like Zofia Kossak-Szczucka could, with no contradiction to themselves, despise fascist Jew-hatred while keeping the question of Jewish legitimacy in Poland open.  Saving lives––and so being a “good Pole”––while viewing the people one saved as not good for Poland were compatible positions for many wartime Poles.

But no matter what its source or how deeply penetrated, Polish antisemitism before the Second World War was not generally murderous.  That it became so in many places during and after the war is an uncomfortable fact that Jan T. Gross, Jan Grabowski, Irena Grudzińska, Barbara Engelking, Dariusz Stola, Joanna Michlic, Bożena Umińska-Keff and indeed a generation of scholars has devoted itself to studying.  The most famous and emblematic act of Polish-led mob violence against Jews during the war occurred on July 10, 1941 in the town of Jedwabne, where a group of at least 40 local Polish men––under German occupation but on their own initiative––locked at least 340 Jews in a wooden barn and set it on fire.  Similar but less famous massacres occurred in the nearby Podlasie towns of Radziłów, Szczuczyn and Bzury, and anti-Jewish repression, harassment and perhaps massacres occurred in the Wąsosz, Grajewo, Tykocin, Kolno, Suchowola, Wizna and Zaręby Kościelne.  Polish-led torture, rape and massacre occurred on the other side of the country too, notably the Galician village of Gniewczyna near Przeworsk, about which Jakub Nowakowski and I conducted original research in 2011, available in my book Report from Gniewczyna.

The drafters of the new Holocaust speech law who actually concede Polish atrocities such as these would have Poles and the rest of the world believe that the spectrum of Polish wartime behavior against Jews––from indifference to passive hostility to active hostility to outright murderousness––may have coincided with the Nazi program of genocide, but was itself something different.  This kind of claim is utterly wrong.  It is insulting to Poles who did save Jews, to Poles who died saving Jews, to Jewish survivors and the memory of murdered Jews, and to people of conscience everywhere.  That Poles, acting under German auspices, abused and killed Jews not just in rogue and indiscriminate ways but in patterned and predictable ways is quite enough to say that Poles participated in German-directed crimes against humanity.  This participation was not committed by or in the name of the Polish government-in-exile, and was not condoned by Polish political leadership (even as the Polish underground’s own quite robust judicial apparatus was very infrequently directed against Poles for crimes against Jews).  But Polish leadership does not have to be implicated for us to speak meaningfully of Polish responsibility or co-responsibility.  Indeed, it is the absence of Polish leadership that most acutely defines the distinctively Polish place in the German genocidal program.  

Even if Jan T. Gross is wrong to claim that Poles killed more Jews than Germans during the Second World War––a claim I find statistically credible but quite misleading insofar as it suggests Polish acceptance or endorsement of the German occupation––it is clear that sizable numbers of Poles in every corner of Poland took mortal advantage of people comparatively worse off than themselves, and played critical roles in the genocide of the country’s Jews.  Polish anti-Jewish actions may have been opportunistically rather than ideologically driven, and may not have shared an intentionality with German plans for the complete physical destruction of the Jewish people.  However, German and Polish viciousness, each its own phenomenon, converged in their genocidal consequences for Jews, and that is the bottom line.  To put it simply:  to be a Jew in occupied Poland was to be at the mercy of a formal regime of German terror and of a different but no less dangerous informal regime of Polish terror.  This truth is as fundamental to the history of the Holocaust in Poland as Polish rescue and attempted rescue of Jews.

For my part, I oppose ascribing collective blame to Poles for the collusive or murderous roles of some Poles––many Poles––in the Holocaust itself.  I oppose it as a thinking person and as a Jew.  Of all peoples, Jews should understand the dangers of collective blame––we who have ourselves for centuries been objects of collective blame.  Likewise I oppose collective blame against Poles today––many more in number, I suspect, than Poles directly guilty of wartime crimes against Jews––who accept or rationalize the new Holocaust speech law.  Poles during the war were not collectively guilty for the worst things that some of them did, and Poles today are not collectively guilty, either.  But guilt is not to be confused with responsibility.  In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “...morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings…indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, [and] in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”  Just as a parent is responsible for the crimes a child might commit without being guilty of them, a child is not guilty of the crimes a parent may commit, but is responsible to learn them, to internalize them in order not to reproduce them.  Responsibility and co-responsibility are precisely what Poles should claim at this moment vis à vis the crimes committed against Jews during the German occupation.  Again, this is not a matter of extracting collective guilt from Poles then or now.  Rather it is to argue that shared responsibility for specific guilt is what drives social change and maturation.

And so, overtly and publicly, against the letter and also the spirit of the new law, we should ask that Poles agree to responsibility and co-responsibility for the Holocaust in Poland.  We should make this request from a place of compassionate understanding––for me, a Jewishly compassionate hunger to see the inner workings––of how the Holocaust is a Polish trauma in different ways than it is a Jewish trauma.  As a visual artist living in Poland off and on over the last years, I have learned to see several dimensions of what looks to me like a specifically Polish trauma concerning the Holocaust, several varieties of Jewish-themed demons with which Polish society wrestles.  

Polish Holocaust consciousness is what I would call off-genocidal, or genocide-adjacent:  Polish wartime experience was near to the genocide of the Jews, and in various ways implicated in what happened, but not fully cognizant of itself as witnessive.  Off-genocidal:  Polish collective memory of the Holocaust has a certain fertile emptiness at its core, a lack that gives.  It is easy to say in retrospect––too easy––that the majority of Poles who were, of course, not thugs and criminals should have shared a common consciousness of exactly what was happening to their Jewish neighbors, in the streets of their cities and towns, under their noses.  But as Michael Steinlauf writes in his study of Jewish-Polish relations, Bondage to the Dead––a book of great insight––it is just as likely that many Poles did not, could not comprehend what they witnessed, much as the wider world could not comprehend the scope and penetration of the German genocide of the Jews when it was first revealed.  So although near to and in the midst of the genocide, Poles in their collective consciousness did not fully see what they saw.  They did not form a “community of witnesses,” in the words of Shoshana Felman, especially when Jews were physically removed from Polish society and confined in ghettos.  Polish witness-bearing in this sense fell between the cracks of the genocide.  On one side were the crimes of the genocide––the complementary brutalities of public German military actions and private Polish betrayals––and on the other side was the end result of a Jewless Poland, a strange and alien world after a thousand years of Jewish life in the country.  

And if Polish collective memory of the Holocaust pivots on the event’s original unseenness or quasi-seenness, pre-existing fears and misgivings were ready guides to making meaning of the lacuna.  Apart from the limitations of what Poles could understand, pervasive low-intensity dislike of or distaste toward Jews distanced many Poles from wanting to know what was happening to Jews as it was happening.  Disliking others is certainly not the same as wanting to see them murdered, but maybe tantamount to learning to live with ignorance about exactly how they are being murdered.  Cognitive dissonance seems the predictable outcome when good people realize, even a little, that their distance from their neighbors had the unintended consequence of abetting mass murder, quite apart from realizing what more venal Poles actively did to contribute to it.  And then there is an awareness of what good and decent Poles could not have accomplished even with strong collective will.  In the circumstances of the German occupation, determined Poles might have been able to mitigate the genocide, at great cost to themselves––and in the face of the horrific dilemma of choosing, for example, to risk the lives of one’s own children to save the lives of strangers––but very likely they could not have disabled it.  It seems predictable that this situation should result in something like a collective case of survivor’s guilt, or at the least a collective stupor with regard to the fate of the country’s Jews.  

The postwar situation in Poland was not conducive to airing and working out this trauma.  Unlike in Germany, where crimes could be expiated by holding a leadership responsible for them (even if in practice that meant for many a self-serving transfer of guilt), in Poland there was never a discredited high leadership of Polish antisemites.  Polish wartime antisemitism was led significantly from the bottom, with the result that the everyday or vernacular quality of Polish antisemitism was slow to be isolated and problematized in Polish cultural discourse––emerging in earnest only after 1989.  With the triumph of communism in postwar Poland and the country’s incorporation into the Soviet sphere, the Holocaust proceeded to undergo what might be called a double suppression.  First, communist orthodoxy did not distinguish the Jewish dead as against other German victims (except as propagandistically useful), but rather diffused Jewish victims into a larger narrative of communist triumph.  Second, Polish misery displaced everyone else’s misery in postwar Polish collective consciousness.  The victory of the communists was for many Poles not a liberation, rather the replacement of one occupier with another, and a sense that the West had betrayed Poland.  The strongly martyrific dimension of Polish national identity only got stronger, a Polish self-understanding as a people preyed upon, partitioned, occupied, and savaged from the east and from the west in wave after wave of aggression and false friendship, extending back at least to the 1790s.  

The transition to capitalism and the integration of the country into the European Union has brought significant social and material benefits to Poland, including widespread and popular improvements to the country’s infrastructure.  Polish cities have for years looked like giant construction sites, with cranes along the skylines, and Poland has been viewed in the West as the post-communist bloc’s great success story.  But that success has come at the cost of pronounced increases in wealth concentration and income inequality.  The growth rate of Poland’s GDP has fluctuated strongly in the last decade, and economic policy has followed a neoliberal approach, favoring urban voters at the expense of non-urban voters.  Top income groups have been the biggest beneficiaries.  Between 1989-2015, the share of the country’s income going to the top 10% almost doubled, and the top 1% took home twice as much as the bottom 50%.  These trends of course mirror those in many other countries, including the United States, but many in Poland experience them as yet another form of betrayal––not a correction of communist ills but a continuation of them in another form.  “In Poland,” an artist friend of mine told me recently, “there is still not really a society in the sense of a collective trust that ordinary people can rely on that they will be taken care of.”  Such a situation is ripe for the rise of authoritarian politics and right wing demagogues who offer discontented Poles not technocratic solutions but an angry, bitter balm for the soul.  The appeal of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) is premised on a defiant stance against urban and international “elites,” which PiS politicians manage to convince voters do not include them, and bromides against enemies old and new––Russians, Germans, Muslim terrorists, and Jews conspiring to tarnish Poland’s good name.

And this is the point at which victim and victimizer are prone to switch places.  In the contorted psychology of competitive victimhood, vanquishing other victims becomes elemental to the claiming the crown of chief victim.  Victims become aggressors precisely as a way of refining their own victimhood to ever purer levels.  In postwar Poland, the Jew became a ready a tool for resentment-based national identity-building, and resentment-based politics.  The anti-Zionist campaign of March 1968, the last important episode of state-sponsored antisemitism until now––a spiral that has taken exactly fifty years to repeat––shares a great deal with the Holocaust speech law.  Both are largely symbolic gestures for Poles with real consequences for Jews, statelessness in the case of 1968.  The proximate cause of the new Polish law is, then, political:  a move to mobilize a xenophobic form of Polish national pride, by way of a deeply familiar trope in Polish political culture––romantic defiance against a supposedly hostile world.  This is precisely the strategy of Duda, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, Deputy Justice Minister Patryck Jaki and other PiS officials who claim a Jewish conspiratorial effort to blame Poles for German atrocities, or who insist (in a particularly bizarre convolution of history) that if Poles are to be called perpetrators of Nazi atrocities, then Jews should likewise be called perpetrators.  

Competitive victimhood has also been a Jewish preoccupation, not a matter of helping educate but of venting animus at Poles or others who would deny, minimize or dissimulate basic facts:  that Jews were the Germans’ first, last and main targets; that the Holocaust was a crime unlike other crimes; and that it precipitated a civilizational and existential crisis as the partially successful attempt by one of the world’s strongest states to make an entire people extinct, not just to kill Jews but to kill Jews off, to murder people only because they existed in the world at all.  And it is hard not to see certain strong affinities between the politics of resentment and paranoia among the Polish right and the Israeli right:  Jarosław Kaczyński and Benjamin Netanyahu are comrades-in-arms against…each other.

To my way of thinking, Jews today trying to understand the new Polish law should resist the temptation to turn to anti-Polish stereotypes, as if Poles were in their essence a nation of incorrigible Jew-haters.  Jews who turn to this sort of reductionist explanation resemble the antisemites they denounce.  Jews should beware of creating an idol of Polish antisemitism and worhsipping it.  Rather Jews should study how the Holocaust traumatized Poles, and how Poles continue to act out, to play out that trauma.  Jews, if they want to understand why PiS has made criminalizing Holocaust speech a priority, should seek to understand the Polish experience of the Holocaust in its Polish realness.  A balanced approach does not mean explaining away the crimes and injustices Poles committed, and also does not mean diminishing the trials they have endured, the heroism they managed, and the burdens of off-genocidal historical memory.

Jason Francisco, Remnant of the German-built ghetto wall, Kraków, 2018

Like others, I condemn the new Polish law as a crass political maneuver by the Polish right based on IPN’s ethnonationalist agenda, to create a simplistic picture of Poles as merely innocent victims and martyrs to German aggression, or as noble saviors of Jews.  The new law resembles nothing so much as the kind of degenerate nationalism that the wartime Polish government-in-exile fought against––an unintended and miserable irony.  In condemning the new law, however, I do not condemn the Polish people, including those with whom I disagree, in their struggle to live with the legacy of the Holocaust.  I recognize and applaud that numerous Poles have stood up to resist this law––lest there be a false impression that it is only outside of Poland that the law has met condemnation.  I do fear that this law, even if not fully enacted, will have bad consequences for the already bad situation of Holocaust education in Poland, and I desperately hope that the situation does not escalate to the point that Jews have reason to fear for their physical safety in Poland.  

Mostly, though, I am doing my best to see this moment in the larger context of Poland’s evolution toward an open society.  It is not yet thirty years that Poland has had the freedom really to work out its own Holocaust traumas.  The Jews whom Moses led from Egypt wandered in the desert for forty years.  What Poles need from Jews now is not blame, counter-stereotypes of hysteria-types.  Instead Poles need discernment and patience as they navigate the passage between the once-common sight of a Jew on the road, and childhoods spent playing in front of the remnants of ghetto walls.

Kraków, February 22, 2018