The vastness of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the neatly lined-up barracks of Auschwitz and the miles of empty fields across the road in Birkenau, with the carcasses of the gas chambers left standing, don’t leave my mind, not for one day since I visited there this past August. But it doesn’t end there.
It is easy, from across the ocean, to imagine this field of horror as a lone and isolated plot of earth, rather than as being on the outskirts of a town, Oswiecim, whose population was once majority Jewish-Polish. Or not to understand that the city of Krakow is just a short drive away; taxis parked at the taxi stand between Old Town and Kazimierz, the newly renovated Jewish neighborhood of Krakow, display signs reading “See Auschwitz, Ride with Me.” But what is most difficult to understand from afar is how deeply engrained the experience of the Second World War is in the hearts and minds of Poles. In a country where decades of occupation rolled over the countryside in a tumult—the Nazis, then Stalin and the subjection of the satellite state—the past lives side by side with the present. The struggle for who comes out on top defines daily politics, especially between the elites in the urban centers and the poor and middle class in the countryside.
That’s one reason that the current Polish government—the right-wing Law and Justice Party—insisted on cementing into law the false dictum that Poles had nothing to do with sending 3 million Jews to their death in Poland during the Second World War. The new law, passed in early February, will make it illegal to accuse the Polish nation or its citizens of any involvement with the Nazi regime during the war, punishable by a hefty fine or up to three years in prison. Its clear purpose is to hamper intellectual inquiry and to silence debate. This comes even as the last survivors of the war are disappearing.
The now-infamous “Holocaust bill” was shepherded into law by deputy justice minister Patryk Jaki, a thirty-two-year-old right-wing populist who takes a long view of both his and his party’s role in reshaping Poland. (Jaki calls Donald Trump a role model.) His aim, along with the rest of his party, is not only to reshape a narrative of Polish history that will give comfort to Law and Justice’s core voters, those who disdain an elite that emerged after the fall of communism and that they see mirrored in the European Union. It’s no accident, then, that this new law also throws blame for the Holocaust back in the face of Germany, the economic engine of the EU. This comes at the same time that Law and Justice is railing against immigrants and Muslims, while presiding over a virtually homogenous nation and refusing to resettle immigrants as mandated by its EU membership.
Whatever one’s interpretation of Poland’s role in the Second World War, then, this new law can’t be seen in a vacuum. It’s true that Poland was occupied by the Germans; that the death camps in Poland were run by the Germans; and that the Germans placed the bulk of their death machine on Polish soil for purposes of efficiency—to be close to their targets, since most of European Jewry lived in Poland. It is true that 3 million non-Jewish Poles died too. It’s true that there are more than 6700 Poles among the righteous Gentiles who tried to save their neighbors, more than recorded in any other nation. Yet it is also true that there were Poles complicit with the Nazis, and who personally testified to it—all of which will be considered inadmissible under this new, heinous law. (Among the historians targeted is Dissent contributor Jan Gross, professor of history at Princeton University, whose 2001 book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne uncovered the stories of Polish citizens who killed their Jewish neighbors and became a lightning rod for Law and Justice’s defense of Polish heritage.)
Meanwhile, the debate isn’t subsiding. Just this past weekend at the Munich Security Conference, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared that there were Polish perpetrators just as there were Jewish perpetrators—an outrageous statement that aims to blame the victim while exonerating those who did collaborate.
It’s not insignificant that those non-Jewish Poles whom I met in Poland, leftists all, were deeply engaged in learning Jewish history, spending time in Israel, and fighting for democracy—all to make personal reparations for their nation’s history. It was extraordinary to behold, in a country with only 7,000 or so Jews, to witness the expanse of interest in and learning about Jewish history, Jewish culture, and commitment to a thoughtful and engaged relationship with the state of Israel. This was the only time I encountered European leftists where boycotting Israel was never discussed, even as everyone I met expressed opposition to the occupation.
My trip to Auschwitz personified this reality. I was accompanied by a non-Jewish driver who works at the Krakow Jewish Community Center (JCC) and whose non-Jewish girlfriend is finishing her PhD in Jewish Studies from the University of Krakow. Jakub, my driver, had done a stint at the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv and he knew the intricacies of Israeli politics as well as I did, down to the internal battles between the Labor Party and Meretz, the two center-left Zionist parties in the Knesset. The guide whom the JCC had hired for me in Auschwitz was from an NGO dedicated to remembering the past so as not to relive it. Also non-Jewish, my guide, who had trained as a biologist, returned to Oswiecim twenty-five years ago to become a guide at the camp, as did his wife (returned there, because he was raised there). He didn’t tell me until the very end of our time together that his father and grandfather were both imprisoned at Auschwitz. His father was a leftist and one of the political prisoners condemned to the camp. His grandfather was imprisoned and died there solely because he was related to a leftist.
In concert with the rewriting of Holocaust history upon which the ruling party has embarked is its attack on the leftist leaders of the 1989–90 revolution that brought the collapse of Communist domination. Law and Justice members have sought to link the revolutionaries’ family histories to their parents’ or grandparents’ support for precisely the communism that this newer generation disdained and toppled. One of the most famous veterans of 1989 is Adam Michnik, about whom I wrote in an earlier piece for Dissent. His father was a regional leader in the Communist Party, something the current ruling party never fails to mention at any opportunity, as they intermix it with mention of Michnik’s Jewish roots.
This newest struggle in Poland should be a warning to those conservatives—Jewish and non-Jewish—who fail to recognize the importance of democracy for a Jewish community to thrive. The same goes for neighboring Hungary, where right-wing demagogue Viktor Orban is doing all in his power to shut down democracy by using the philanthropist George Soros as a foil in the worst anti-Semitic campaigning style. Across Eastern Europe, the fate of a revived Jewish community is intimately tied up with the thriving of intellectual debate and democratic institutions.
It’s unconscionable that the Israeli Prime Minister has lent support to Orban’s anti-Semitic, anti-democratic campaign—even while protesting the Polish decision—since the strategies in both Hungary and Poland, while different in substance, are similar in practical intent. Netanyahu has been courting the four Eastern and Central European countries known as the Visegrad group, among whom Poland and Hungary loom large. He appears to have a strategy to play these nations against others in the European Union (and the European Council, the ruling body of the EU, which is unapologetically liberal in promoting both democracy and a two-state solution for the Israelis and the Palestinians).
Israelis and Jews based in Warsaw with whom I spoke as debate over the new law was unfolding in the Polish government reported that the anti-Semitic sentiment unleashed by the law was unseen in contemporary times. It is unlikely that this genie can be shoved back into a bottle, regardless of any disclaimers expressed by the Polish government. Moreover, it is difficult to believe that the current Polish government wants to shove it back inside. Their own political gain is deeply intertwined with the strengthening of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, of a worldview oriented around a homogenous, aggrieved, national community closed to soul searching of any kind.
Just today the Polish government announced that it wouldn’t prosecute anyone under the Holocaust law until it goes under the scrutiny of Poland’s high courts. This is partly due to public outrage, especially from Israel and, while not as forceful as it should be, from the U.S. State Department. However, with control of the courts also effectively in Law and Justice’s hands, the outcome is far from certain. One can always hope for a crack in the effort to diminish democracy, but it appears that even the past is not immune from Poland’s democratic retreat.
Jo-Ann Mort is a member of the Dissent editorial board.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect the Polish government’s decision (announced Saturday, February 24) to freeze the new law until it is reviewed by the high courts.