"Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." - Edmund Burke
This past week has been a sad reminder of the reality in those simple words. Last weekend ironically juxtaposed the honoring of all of the millions of men, women and children murdered in the Holocaust on International Holocaust Memorial Day with the passing of a law in Poland that attempts to rewrite history.
The annual Holocaust commemoration date was picked to coincide with the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, which was located in Poland. On January 26, 2018, the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Poland’s senate passed a law that criminalizes any mention of Poles “being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.”
Over 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. It is estimated that 3,000,000 of those murdered were Polish. The Polish Jewish community before the war was 3,300,000 and after the war there were 300,000 survivors.
This new bill was proposed by the country’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and calls for up to three years in prison or a fine for accusing the Polish state or people of involvement or responsibility for the Nazi occupation during World War II. The proposal requires approval by President Andrzej Duda, who supports it, to become law. The harshest penalties are reserved for those who refer to Nazi-era concentration camps such as Auschwitz as “Polish death camps.” Only scientific research into the war and artistic work are exempted.
Poland was occupied by Nazi German during WW II and was responsible for the building and operating of the death camps. However, historical records show that Poles were complicit in the murder of its Jewish population. It is important to note that Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Israel, has identified more non-Jewish from Poland than any other country—6,532. These brave individuals risked their lives as helping a Jew in Poland was punishable by death. Unfortunately, these were rare exceptions.
Anti-Semitism was rampant in Europe over centuries and resulted in expulsions, killings, forced conversions and pogroms. Nazi Germany exploited European systemic anti-Semitsim in Poland and elsewhere needing little encouragement for citizens and officials to collaborate in the “Final Solution,” the complete elimination of Jews. One trip to visit any of the concentration camps in Europe, particularly Poland, illuminates the complete complicate nature of Polish society.
A succinct description of Polish involvement in the Holocaust can be found on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website which reads: “Prior to World War II, antisemitism in Poland had been growing, and Polish authorities had taken various measures to exclude Jews from key sectors of society. Some Polish politicians pressed for the mass emigration of Poland’s Jewish population.
“Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the country was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. Then in 1941, after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, all of Poland came under German control…
“With the occupation of all of Poland, Germany had more than three million Polish Jews under its control. The Germans established close to 700 ghettos throughout occupied Poland where tens of thousands of Jews died due to harsh conditions of starvation, overcrowding, and disease.
“After killing in mass shootings almost 1.5 million Jews in hundreds of locations in occupied Soviet territories, the Germans decided to construct stationary killing centers in occupied Poland, Auschwitz-Birkenau being the most well-known. The ghettos became “holding pens” for Jews before deportation to a killing center.
“As German forces implemented the killing, they drew upon some Polish agencies, such as Polish police forces and railroad personnel, in the guarding of ghettos and the deportation of Jews to the killing centers. Individual Poles often helped in the identification, denunciation, and hunting down of Jews in hiding, often profiting from the associated blackmail, and actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property.
“There were incidents, particularly in the small towns of eastern Poland, where local Polish residents—acutely aware of the Germans’ presence and their anti-Semitic policies—carried out or participated in pogroms and murdered their Jewish neighbors. The pogrom in the town of Jedwabne in 1941 is one of the best-documented cases.
“By the end of the war, three million Polish Jews—90 percent of the prewar population—had been murdered, one of the highest percentages in Europe.”
It is unfathomable, yet shockingly true, that a little more than 70 years later, Poland is attempting to rewrite history by making it illegal to mention its own responsibility and collusion in the worst genocide in history.
Some say about history that past performance is the best predictor of the future. If this is the case, Poland is living up to its reputation.
What can we do to ensure that history is not re-written? We must know our history so that it is not repeated. And, we must communicate the truth. Please share with others that this is happening today. I also encourage you to call and send letters to the Polish Consul General in New York and their Ambassador to the UN Embassy in Washington to express our deep upset over this pending legislation.
Today we are strong and we have the power to make a difference. It is our responsibility to stand up for those murdered in the Holocaust and let the world know that we will not be quiet when anyone attempts to harm us or rewrite our history.
Shabbat Shalom -