On Tuesday, Poland’s president signed a controversial bill into law allowing punishment of up to 3 years in prison for any person who claims “that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.” This development has sparked an angry debate, particularly in Poland and Israel, over the tragic history of Poles and Jews during the Second World War. But the new law cannot be understood without an appreciation of the unique context from which it emerged. The following points bear consideration:
- The 1939-1945 occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany, which organized the worst genocide the world has ever seen.
- The subsequent 44 years of Communist rule, during which Poles were taught only that they helped Jews during the war and that discussion of contrary facts was forbidden.
- The opening up of Polish society after 1989, including revelations of cases where Poles persecuted and killed Jews.
- The careless use of the phrase “Polish death camps” by Western politicians and media to refer to Nazi-run camps like Auschwitz.
- The rise of a populist right-wing government in Poland which views itself as the redeemer of what it perceives to be Polish historical honor.
It is interesting to consider why this debate is occurring now, so many years after the end of the war. Before his death last year, an elderly Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor confided in me his fear that what happened during the war would eventually be forgotten. At the time, this seemed hard to believe, given that the Holocaust is one of the most studied events in history. But the passing of the war generation appears to be changing things more quickly than expected.
Today, even the youngest Holocaust survivors are elderly, and those who reached adulthood during the war years are in their nineties. In recent years, Poland has lost important public intellectuals who were active participants in the key events of the war and subsequent post-war discussions. These include Marek Edelman, a Jewish leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising who later became a prominent doctor and member of the Solidarity movement, and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a Catholic member of the Zegota underground group which helped Jews during the war. Bartoszewski was imprisoned in Auschwitz and became Polish Foreign Minister after the fall of Communism.
Without voices like these, which spoke about the war with clarity and nuance from personal experience, the discussion is increasingly dominated by those who were not there and who are not interested in understanding its complexity. The Holocaust and the events of the war appear to be undergoing a rapid process of ‘historical compression.’ Professional historians will continue to research and write histories, of course, but as events recede into a past beyond personal recollection, public knowledge of those events shrinks greatly. Consider how little public acknowledgement there is of cataclysmic events like World War One, which ended less than a century ago, to say nothing of enormously important events from prior centuries.
Hard as it may be to believe, the Holocaust and Second World War might eventually slip below the surface of public memory. Events which claimed the lives of tens of millions of people may eventually be reduced to a few fragments of knowledge except among the most interested students of history. This process of historical compression informs much of the debate about Poland’s new law.
The desire to achieve a simplified understanding of the role of Poles and Poland in the Holocaust is understandable. It is also impossible. It is not an abdication to say that the events were too complex, the actors too numerous and varied, to permit an easy conclusion. At the start of the war, there were over 20 million ethnic Catholic Poles, and over 3 million Polish Jews, each an individual with a unique character, motivations, and moral compass.
Take, for example, the role of collaborators.Edelman’s 1946 memoir The Ghetto Fights recounts pogroms against Jews committed by Polish “hoodlums” just months after the war started, and the role of the Polish police in the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. More recent histories have recounted the murders of hundreds of Jews at Jedwabne and elsewhere by Poles. But we also know that during the war the Polish underground executed thousands of Poles who collaborated with the Germans, and extended some organized help to Jews through Zegota. Clearly some Poles were “co-responsible for Nazi crimes,” to use the language of the new law, even if the entire nation was not.
On the other side, Edelman also recounts the role of the Jewish Ghetto police in rounding up Jews for deportation to the death camps, and in a chilling aside, mentions the death sentences carried out by the Jewish resistance against “Jewish Gestapo agents” who were informing on their own people. What conclusions can be drawn from these facts? Only that a collaborator or opportunist could be of any background, even that of the group most persecuted by the Nazis.
If there is a broader lesson here, it is that virtue and vice are personal. During the many centuries they shared a common land, there were Poles and Jews who behaved decently or even beneficently, and others who behaved shamefully. This does not mean that both groups suffered equally during the war — clearly the Jews of Poland were victimized more than Catholic Poles. It is just a reminder of the obvious fact that good and bad are not designations that can be applied simply by looking at ethnicity.
There are two points here that apply to Poland’s new law: first, Poland as a nation, and Poles as a group, are not collectively responsible for the actions of the worst among them. Poland differs in this respect from Germany and countries with collaborationist governments (such as Hungary) because Polish collaboration was individual, rather than organized; indeed, the organized Polish wartime response to collaboration was to punish collaborators.
However, the heroic deeds of a minority of Poles during the war also do not belong to Poles as a group. The vast majority of Poles who helped Jews did so as individuals, and not as part of a collective effort. Setting aside the work of Bartoszewski’s small group Zegota, there were very few organised efforts of significance made to help Jews trapped under Nazi occupation. The vast majority of Poles were simply passive in the face of Nazi terror.
That is the fundamental flaw in the new Polish law: it punishes those who wrongly claim that Poles are collectively responsible, while doing nothing to stop those — including the Polish government itself — who build myths of a collective virtue that never existed.
John Litwinski is a former attorney and entrepreneur living in the United States.