The passage of time is supposed to be a great healer. It can also expose wounds which were only partially covered. In Poland we see the latter.
The governing right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) has announced legislation which, if enacted, will make it a crime to refer to ‘Polish concentration camps ‘or ‘Polish death camps’. It is understandable that Poles are offended about German camps in Nazi occupied Poland being called Polish, but to seek to make it a crime punishable by three years in jail is about something else.
It is about a wider push to rewrite history and further Polish nationalism. Part of that push is an attempt to whitewash centuries of Polish anti-Semitism and its role in the Holocaust in order to portray the country only as a noble victim. If the foundation story of a nation is missing a significant part of its underpinning, there will always be a weakness in the foundation.
The warning signs were apparent during last summer’s election campaign after which the PiS came to power. The then president, Bronislaw Komorowski, referred to the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom and acknowledged the historical record by saying ‘The nation of victims was also the nation of perpetrators’. His victorious opponent, Andrzej Duda later described this as an “attempt to destroy Poland’s good name.”
The behaviour of the PiS has led to the EU accusing Poland of potentially undermining democracy.
Attacks on media organizations are what most alarms the EU but there are also concerns over individual freedom of speech notably the threat to strip historian Jan Gross of his Order of Merit for suggesting Poles may have killed more Polish Jews in WW2 than did the Germans.
The government’s Defense Minister is on record as saying that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are probably genuine, and one of its MPs believes that Polish Jews are represented by the Knesset rather than the parliament in Warsaw.
These are worrying times for the 10,000 or so Polish Jews who are the remnants of the 3.2 million prewar population.
They know there was a pogrom against them in 1946, and that in 1968 the Communist party conducted a witch-hunt against ‘Zionists’. Since the fall of Communism there have been signs of anti-Semitism returning to religious education classes within the Catholic church, and in this decade hundreds of Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. A fundamentalist Christian broadcaster, Radio Maryja, which has ties to the PiS stands accused of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and has been censured by the Vatican.
A 2013 poll found that 44% of students believed that “Poles and Jews suffered equally during the Holocaust”, and a 2014 survey by Warsaw University found that 63% of Poles believed there was a Jewish conspiracy to control international banking and the media.
‘Law and Justice’ is not a fascist party, but is authoritarian, nationalistic and is the most successful of a wave of similar parties which are growing across the continent. The attempts to solidify a part of the story of the founding of the modern Poland, as if it were the whole, is something which if allowed to be successful may be repeated elsewhere.
Adapted from an article first published in the UK’s Jewish Chronicle.