Poland has decided to make it a crime to mention or talk about “Polish concentration camps”. The ones that were built by the German Nazis in Poland. Punishment is 3 years in jail for uttering an opinion.
This is more than a little bit troubling. While many Poles protected Jews and fought valiantly against Hitler, there is also a protracted history of anti-semitism in Poland, and not a few Poles helped the Nazis exterminate Jews. From the Guardian article linked above:
in the words of Konstanty Gebert, a journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza whose most recent column dared prosecutors to come after him. “I hereby state,” he wrote, “that numerous members of the Polish nation are co-responsible for certain Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.”
What he has in mind is, for example, Jedwabne, where in 1941, one half of the town murdered the other half, the non-Jewish Poles turning on their Jewish neighbours – people they’d known for ever, people they had sat next to in school – eventually herding hundreds of them into a barn and burning it to the ground. All told, they murdered 1,600 people. Only seven of the town’s Jews survived.
Jedwabne is a singular case, but of the 3.2 million Jews who were murdered in Poland a sizeable number died at the hands not of Nazi Germans but of their fellow Poles. In Hunt for the Jews, the Polish-born historian Jan Grabowski estimates some 200,000 Jews met their end that way. His meticulous mining of the archive revealed a damning picture. Grabowski found case after case of Jews who had escaped the ghettoes and fled into the forests, only to be handed over to the Nazis by the Polish villagers who found them. Some Poles were coerced into taking part in this hunt for the Jews, but others were eager volunteers.
I am a child of Polish refugees in WWII. They escaped to Britain by circuitous routes, including my grandfather, my mother’s father. He escaped the Katyn Forest massacre of Polish soldiers by the Soviets, and ended up living in our home because the post-war economic circumstances made multi-generational co-habitation routine. He had started off as a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that’s how far back it goes.
While I don’t remember the details, I recall he was virulently anti-semitic. I inherited his hair, but not his politics or prejudices. So I know first hand that anti-semitism is a Polish vice, despite the fact that many Jews lived in Poland before WWII. It comes as no surprise to me, or even news though it wounds, that many Poles were complicit in the Jewish Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis.
This is not an indictment of Poles as a class or ethnic group. Many were against the Nazis and helped Jews where they could. But this infamy by the Polish far right government is close to making them complicit in Holocaust denial. They want to shove all the blame on the Germans, but that just doesn’t wash.
Trying to stifle debate and education about this sorrowful history is a villainy. And the fact that this is being done by far right Polish nationalists shows they have learned nothing from history, and would be perfectly capable of repeating it,