There are three issues raised by this new legislation that confront how Poland deals with the legacy of Nazi Germany’s occupation and the Holocaust.
The first, a question of misused language, is one where the Polish stand is absolutely correct. The concentration and death camps in Poland are often referred to as “Polish camps” instead of the correct term “German camps on occupied Polish soil”. No serious organisation or government will disagree with that position, but the constant harping on this non-issue arouses the suspicion that it is done to hide the true purpose of the legislation.
The second issue is that this legislation criminalises any statement that accuses the Polish nation or state of being responsible for the crimes committed on Polish soil during the Second World War. This is very odd.
Poland was conquered, occupied, and terrorised by Nazi Germany, which intended the Polish nation to become slaves to Germans. There was no Polish state; only a government-in-exile in London whose control over the Polish military and civilian underground network was problematic at best.
This Polish nation or state could not be responsible for crimes on Polish soil because it did not exist as a sovereign entity on the ground.
The third issue raised by this legislation is the main one: an established academic or student, a journalist, a tour guide, or just an ordinary citizen who finds one of the very, very many cases of Poles who murdered Jews, or delivered them to the collaborationist Polish “blue police” or directly to the Germans, could serve a lot of time in jail for smearing Polish “honour”.
No, the legislators say, we exempt genuine academic and artistic work and thus guarantee freedom of speech.
Really? Who determines what research or art work is “genuine”?
And, in any case, what business does a government have to determine what are historical facts – facts beyond some obvious and universally accepted truths, such as that Poland was brutally occupied, that the Jews were murdered, and that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union destroyed Polish independence in 1939.
The anti-communist Polish government is employing communist methods of threatening freedom of speech, research and publication.
The picture that emerges from mainly Polish research is that a very large proportion of the Polish population harboured anti-Jewish views, and many — especially in the countryside — either killed Jews hiding in villages and townships, or delivered them to the police or the Germans.
Estimates, which are difficult to prove, put the number of victims at 200,000 or more.
Yet there was a very important minority of ethnic Poles who either rescued Jews or at least helped them. No Jew could survive in Poland unless helped by Poles – in the plural, because rescue usually involved a number of individuals. The heroism of these people is so remarkable because they had not only to avoid falling into German hands, but to protect the rescued from their Polish neighbours.
How many rescuers were there? Yad Vashem has recognised some 6,700, but most of us historians would say that there may have been double or treble that number – close to 20,000.
That does not include the many helpers who gave a piece of bread, provided a roof over the heads of Jews for a night or more, or who helped procure documents.
We will probably never know the true number; they were real heroes out of a Polish population of 21 million.
But the present Polish establishment misrepresents the reality: their argument is that the Polish nation was a nation of rescuers and the Jews could have saved themselves by turning to their Polish neighbours. In other words, the Jews were at least partly responsible for their murder.
This distortion is best shown in the newly established Museum of the Rescuers in the small township of Markowa, where a Polish family, the Ulmas, tried to save two Jewish families. The Ulmas were betrayed by a neighbour; they, and the Jews they tried to hide, were brutally murdered by Germans. The exhibit implies this was typical Polish behaviour.
However, Polish research has also shown that peasants (and especially the local fire brigades) in Markowa and the surrounding villages went out with pitchforks, knives, clubs and some firearms to hunt and kill Jews, or hand them over to be murdered.
Besides the Ulmas, there were only two other cases of Polish rescuers in that whole area. The museum is guilty not only of misrepresentation, but of distortion.
Will anyone who points that out, first and foremost the large minority of democratic, liberal, and thoroughly decent Polish people, be subject to prosecution?
Yehuda Bauer is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem