“Polish death camps” censorship bill angers Israeli government
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has criticized a bill passed last week by the Polish Sejm which would make phrases like “Polish death camps” illegal.
“I strongly oppose it,” Netanyahu said in an official statement on Saturday. “…We will under no circumstances accept any attempt to rewrite history.”
The bill would amend an existing law to make use of the term by Poles or foreigners punishable by a fine or up to three years’ imprisonment. It still requires approval by the Senate and a signature from Polish President Andrzej Duda, which is likely.
The phrase “Polish death camps” has long provoked controversy, perhaps most notably when then-US President Barack Obama apologized for using it in a 2012 speech. Critics feel it unfairly shifts the blame for the Holocaust to Poland rather than Nazi Germany.
(Notes from Poland: “Fighting the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ with education, not censorship)
In fact, Poland was just one of many countries in which Nazi Germany erected and administered concentration camps during their occupation of much of Europe during World War Two. About six million Poles were murdered by the Nazis (nearly 1/5 of the population), only around half of whom were Jewish – though this accounted for 90% of Jewish Poles.
Although some individual Poles did aid the Nazis, nearly 7,000 Poles are recognized by Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust memorial organization) as having helped rescued tens of thousands of Jews, and the Polish government did not collaborate with Adolph Hitler’s regime.
While generally discouraging the contentious phrase, Yad Vashem also opposes the bill, with a spokesperson saying it was “liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population.”
Representatives of Poland and Israel are meeting in both Warsaw and Jerusalem to discuss the bill, and Netanyahu spoke with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki over the weekend about how to move forward.
For his part, Morawiecki tweeted, “Auschwitz is the most bitter lesson on how evil ideologies can lead to hell on earth. Jews, Poles, and all victims should be guardians of the memory of all who were murdered by German Nazis. Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase.”
The bill’s author, Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki, said that the Israeli government’s response was “proof how necessary this bill is.”
25 thoughts on ““Polish death camps” censorship bill angers Israeli government”
A discussion on the subject here, although anyone commenting might find his/her comment appearing, then vanishing, then reappearing:
Why the two wars came to Poland in first ?
It is possible the same reasons could bring the third war t come to Poland ?
Much of the fighting of the first war was on Polish territory, except there was no actual modern Poland before the end of WWI. I recommend ‘Heart of Europe – a short history of Poland’, by Norman Davies.
Finally Poland is standing up for what is right, my family fought for Poland , helped the Jews during the war, yet my grandfather died post torture of the UB , the interrogator was a Polish Jew.
Why Poland does not publish a list of Polish Jews who killed the Polish people?
Judging by the tide of recriminations from both sides of the debate, which the ruling party has managed to unleash by proposing this law, there is still a lot of work to be done in accounting for crimes committed many years ago. Perhaps, instead of seeking to criminalize words or phrases, this government might think about setting up some kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission – on the South African model – in order to allow victims to tell their stories openly and honestly. The world could find out – in this internet age – about the ordeal of all Polish citizens, during and after the war.
But to suggest that a list of Polish Jews should be published would only inflame an already volatile situation, it seems to me. There were undoubtedly Jews in the security services in Communist Poland – particularly in the fifties – but there were also non-Jews who happily went along with the orders of their Stalinist masters.
If we are going to make lists, then perhaps we ought to think about lists of Jewish patriots who served – and died – as members of the Polish forces in WWII.
A very well thought out reply for an extremely complicated situation. I’m an American with polish heritage and I’ve visited the camp of birkanau (probably spelled it wrong). The crimes committed by the Nazi party were horrendous and hopefully will never again be repeated.
These debates must end continuous
Remembering only a small portion of the
Excellent article here by Daniel Tilles:
All these years since the end of WWII why start this. I have yet to hear or see a Jew say that Poland was responsible for the death camps. My mother-in-law was in a slave camp from 1939 to 1945. She never said a thing about Poland being responsible.
The problem raised by this proposed law is that the PiS leadership has suddenly realized that Poland is in danger of completely losing the little international support it has enjoyed up until now.
This proposal will be unworkable. How can anyone prove that the phrase is being used as a deliberate insult and not as a geographical description? How will the government police all the instances where anonymous below-the-line commentators eagerly and deliberately use the phrase, as they are already doing? Don’t the exemptions for academics and artists make the whole idea pointless?
How, then, to resolve this crisis? Firstly, when anyone finds themselves in a hole, the wise thing is to stop digging. Next, look for a face-saving solution. A compromise here might be to abandon the proposed law and go back to the existing one, namely the one which this one is supposed to amend. If Poland has a law making Holocaust denial illegal, then this same law could be used to penalize the “Polish death camp” phrase (if it can be proved that it was used as a deliberate insult – good luck with that.) “Polish death camp” is a denial of Nazi-German responsibility, and therefore, denies the Holocaust.
The government of Poland has made a tragic mistake. It appears as if the Polish government wishes to absolve those Poles who robbed and murdered Jews of which there were many more than the relatively few “righteous” Poles. Many, many more, numbering in the hundreds of thousands if not millions. Poland has not recognized its willing and active participation in the Holocaust. Poland was complicit, and not in a small way. Hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews were robbed and murdered by Polish neighbors. Yes, hundreds of thousands. Little is known of these wholesale murders. The dead cannot speak.
I absolutely agree that this government has made a huge mistake. This proposed law will make people like you and me think twice before engaging in any kind of debate. But statistics, for instance, need to be discussed. As far as I am aware, the only person talking about a figure of hundreds of thousands is Prof. Jan Grabowski. Nevertheless, even any kind of debate on this topic. would risk the heavy hand of this proposed law. I personally would never say “Poland was complicit”, as many people seem to be saying. The state of Poland had been destroyed by the double invasion, so Poland, as an entity, cannot be held responsible. I think this may be the purpose behind this law, but I fail to see how a law will change anyone’s entrenched attitudes.
The same people who like to highlight Polish heroism should also admit that a proportion of Polish people were certainly complicit in German crimes. The question is – what proportion? It needs to be remembered that many thousands of Poles (and not only Christians, but other Polish citizens) were either in Stalin’s Gulag at the time, or else were fighting the Nazis in Polish formations abroad. The question of what proportion of Polish citizens back in Poland were engaged in crimes is something to be determined by historians, it seems to me, and not something to be regulated by a new, unworkable law which will only stifle debate.
The exemptions for artists will be an interesting case. How will this new law apply to Kosinski’s “Painted Bird”, for instance? If a work of fantasy like this remains unaffected, then is there any point to the law?
As for any criminality by Polish citizens against other Polish citizens, it’s important, I believe, to allow historians the freedom to research the context, without fear of falling foul of any laws. It is probably true to say, without in any way justifying criminal acts, that extreme conditions make for extreme behaviour. Here is a good article on the subject:
Hundreds of thousand News murdered by Poles? Where did you get those statistics from? Evidence?
Maybe you should look into the Jews who collaborated with the Germans to save their own skins.
“To save their own skins” is the important qualification. Citizens were no longer under the protection of any kind of civilized law. The Third Reich’s genocidal policies were in operation. A barbaric invader could shoot anyone in the street with impunity for no other reason than their physical appearance. So people were murdered en masse, as we know. How many of us would have acted heroically in the circumstances of those times?
I note Mr K is condemning anti-Semitism, and rightly. But a little bit of humility on the part of this government might be in order. There are voices on all sides of this debate shouting “what about this?” or “what about that?” What about the alleged enthusiasm of some Polish citizens who greeted the invaders, both the invading army from the west as well as the invading army from the east. These are matters for objective historians and not for any government decree.
I don’t think the Prezes actually knows what’s hit him. Does he not realize that it was the failure of his own government to confront the extreme right-wing xenophobes and anti-Semites which has brought about this state of affairs? Granted, there are people out there right now accusing Poland of “Holocaust Denialism”, which is not strictly fair – since no-one is denying the reality of the Holocaust – but this proposed law will not only inhibit academic discussion of history, but it has already alienated Israel and Ukraine, and is making no friends in the USA. Historians should be able to establish who did what when without being afraid of upsetting any governments.
Kosinski was a troubled soul. Perhaps he is best remembered for the brilliant satire ‘Being There’ instead of the grotesque ‘Painted Bird’
Enough from me. Arrivederci.
PS – I think I preferred the film to the book.
To make words and phrases illegal suggests that there is something to be hidden. What are you trying to hide? It would be much wiser to use this as an educational opportunity. The truth will speak for itself. Bring things out in the open for discussion and debate. I am of Polish descent and would like to believe that Poland did not support the Nazi actions. But if you use censorship and threats of legal actions, it makes it sound like the Poles were involved and have something to hide. Keep the discussion open, let the truth speak for itself.
Your grandfather did NOT die after a “Polish Jew’s interrogation
I call you a liar.
Not much of an argument, Mae. Unfortunately, a lot of people on both sides of this debate are reacting in pretty much the same way that you just did. What we need to do is listen to the historians, those who have no axe to grind, and are not prejudiced one way or the other. But are we really prepared to discover some unpleasant truths about our ancestors?
As a matter of fact, the Krakow Post ran a feature exactly two years ago arguing against this legislation. You didn’t have to be Cassandra the prophet to predict that this furore was going to happen.
PS – Great article in the New York Times (paywall) from Jonathan Ornstein, Krakow’s own “Man of Hope”.
Identity politics. Ain’t it a hoot? Each man is a cartographer, constructing maps of the world with his mind and then striving in vain to make the terrain fit the map because men are fools, forgetting that the map is not the territory. There is no such thing as a German, a Pole, or a Jew. There are only human beings who think they are Germans, Poles, and Jews. We’ve worn our masks for so long that we’re unable to see each other without them.
“When you strip yourselves naked, without shame, and cast your clothes beneath your feet, dancing upon them like little children, then you will be a child of the Living One.” – Jesus (Gospel of Thomas)
Stop hiding behind your masks as costumes. Become real men and women.
I would like to see a world wore more Christians actually read Christ’s words instead of reading words about Christ, a world where Jews reflect on the fact that Jesus’ real name was Yehoshua and that he was a devout circumcised member of the Nazarene Essene Jewish sect. Then maybe Christians might see they are just a branch off of the same tree and Jews today might realize Jesus was just 2,000 years ahead of his time.
An afterthought on the topic of a certain phrase
If the ideologues of PiS, who would like to legislate away a certain controversial and potentially offensive set of words, are not already familiar with the work of Zofia Nałkowska, then they might like to read her short but utterly harrowing collection of stories entitled ‘Medaliony’.
I don’t know if the English translation uses the same phrase, but in the Polish original, in the very last piece about Auschwitz, she finishes a shocking sentence with the words “w polskich obozach śmierci”. Given that the book appeared in 1946, then the formulation clearly refers to geography. But this only illustrates the problem with trying to legislate in the contentious field of use and abuse of language.
However, anyone tempted to use the phrase in order to shift the blame for Nazi atrocities away from Hitler’s Third Reich onto occupied Poland ought to read Nalkowska’s book. A word of warning, though – the text still has the power to shock after all these years.