Renowned Holocaust Historian Weighs In on ‘Polish Death Camp’ Bill

NEW YORK -
The corner of two main Warsaw streets, formerly Gesia and Nalewki, in ruins. That is what was left of the Warsaw Ghetto which was crowded with close to half a million Jews, Hy”d. (Witness to History)

Controversy has swirled for several days since the lower house of the Polish parliament approved a bill criminalizing certain terms and references assigning blame for the mass murder that occurred within the country’s borders during the Second World War. Israeli statesmen, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, joined several leaders, scholars and others throughout the world in condemning the move as an effort to “whitewash” the history of the Holocaust (see related news story in Week in Review on page 48, and editorials on pages 5-6 and 9 of the Features Section).

Hamodia spoke to world-renowned historian Dr. Michael Berenbaum to get his thoughts on the past week’s storm over the Polish legislation.

“I feel both anger and sadness,” he said of the proposal. “The anger is simply over the distortion of history being perpetuated, but it’s also sad that this essentially means three generations of Poles will be lied to. They were lied to by the Nazis, then lied to by the Communists, and unfortunately, the first generation born into freedom is being lied to as well.”

The bill, which passed on Friday, is a response to cases in recent years of foreign media using the term “Polish death camps” to describe Auschwitz and other Nazi-run camps in the country. Should the bill become law, it would assign fines and possibly prison time for use of that phrase and similar references, a move that has been defended by the country’s President Andrzej Duda, who said that he cannot allow for his nation or countrymen to be “vilified” through “false accusations.”

Dr. Berenbaum said that use of the term “Polish death camp” is indeed inaccurate and said that Poles, millions of whom were killed during World War II, were truly victims.

“The proper way to refer to it is a Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland; the occupation was an act of the state of Germany, which denied Poland’s sovereignty, and the camps were built as part of the Nazi ideology,” he said. “They [the Polish government] are one hundred percent correct that anybody calling it a Polish camp is misrepresenting the situation. The Poles did not build the camps and they did not staff them. In fact, one of the three parts of Auschwitz, Auschwitz I, was a prison camp for Poles.”

On Monday, amid harsh criticism, President Duda offered an explanation as to the motivations behind the legislation, admitting that Polish citizens committed “wicked” actions against Jews in the country, but added that there was no institutionalized participation in the atrocities of the Holocaust by Poland. The bill is focused on outlawing statements that assign guilt to “the Polish nation,” but does not speak about the actions of individuals.

“There are institutions in Poland that were certainly complicit,” said Dr. Berenbaum, taking exception to President Duda’s comments. He cited a 2015 book by Joshua Zimmerman that chronicles many examples of anti-Semitism by the Polish underground as one example. “This is an institution that reflects national life in Poland and which is certainly exalted in their society until today, but to tell that story could get you in trouble now.”

The bill does allow for exceptions to be made for statements made “within artistic or scientific activity.” Still, Dr. Berenbaum felt the bill itself and vagueness of exceptions would inevitably “cast a shadow” on any historical work on the Holocaust done in Poland.

“They are asking historians to lie or at best tell a half-truth,” he said. “They are demeaning their own historians. How can I believe anything a Polish historian writes, knowing he did so with this threat hanging over his head? It criminalizes an entire enterprise and historians have to be able to tell the unbridled truth.”

With reporting by Associated Press