“The history of the past is but one long struggle upward to equality.” – Elizabeth Cady Stanton
If any one point in history should leave us ashamed, the Nazi led Holocaust during Second World War is it. The war itself was enough of a stain on our history with an estimated 60 million people dying in one of the world’s deadliest military conflict. World War II left nations torn; patriotism had ruined lives, dictator Adolf Hitler manipulated citizens and caused unforgivable torture to those who didn’t quite cut their audition into being good enough for the ‘master race’.
But the holocaust remains the most barbaric, gruesome and abhorrent element of a brutal conflict.
And for over the past 70 years it seemed that humanity has been striving to learn from a truly despicable act, to guarantee such a travesty should not occur again; from Remembrance Day to documentaries and movies, Holocaust history is mapped all over the school curriculum, to ensure it need not be forgotten and rewritten.
Yet in recent news, Poland earlier this year passed a controversial Bill which outlaws blaming Poland for any crimes committed during the Holocaust. If caught breaking the law and accusing the Polish state and its people of being involved or responsible for Nazi occupation during the war, you could face up to three years in prison, or a fine.
In Polish Parliament Patryk Jaki, a Deputy Justice Minister reportedly commented: “We have to send a clear signal to the world that we won’t allow for Poland to continue being insulted.” So, refrain yourself from saying ‘Polish death camps’, and replaced it with the obviously much more respected and polite version: ‘concentration camps’.
By making it illegal to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in crimes committed by Nazi Germany, some argue, this legislation is trying to amend or rewrite history and with Poland’s Jewish societies stating their communities feel unsafe[i], we ask why this Bill was ever passed.
And even though the ‘battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man’, Poland is focusing on the notion that good conquers evil. Many Poles helped the Jews, sheltering them from torture during the war, which in itself is a brave act of kindness[ii]. So when Obama uttered “Polish death camps” back in 2012[iii], altering the perceptions of the country’s stance in the war, a metaphorical dagger pierced through Poland’s heart.
Obama apologised, but the hurt remained.
“When someone says ‘Polish death camps,’ it is as if there were no Nazis, no German responsibility, as if there was no Hitler,” Donald Tusk, Poland’s president at the time, said.
“That is why our Polish sensitivity in these situations is so much more than just simply a feeling of national pride.”
But you can’t escape facts. There were 457 camp complexes[iv] and even though these camps were conquered by Nazi Germany, we cannot ignore that some would have helped or ‘handed over’ Jews to their deaths; an estimated 200,000 Jews were killed by Poles, either by handing them over to the Nazis or being extorted for money and murdered for not complying[v]. There were anti-Semitic pogroms[vi] during and after the war, one of which whereby 400 Jews were set on fire in a barn by their not so trusted neighbours.
By imprisoning those that attribute to “the Polish nation or state, publicly and despite facts, responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich…”, we are silencing the truth of what happened.
Israel has strongly criticized the law, claiming in inhibits free speech and will be used to repress and shift blame of Poles that had killed Jews in the War. Freedom of speech goes a long way, and muting the mouths of those that speak the honest truth can distort the present and thoroughly amend the future.
We could go back and forth on whether Poles were forced, or if they volunteered, but Jewish people were oppressed, discriminated against and tortured in Poland.
In an era where the alt-right has risen up once more in spite of history and Fake News is considered fact by too many, Holocaust deniers have new platforms to spread mistruths, this Bill seems a dangerous precedent for a country to set. There is a palpable sense of dread, particularly among the Jewish communities, that a blueprint is forming to allow other countries to follow suit in an attempt to exonerate themselves through legislation.
The bill is certainly creating apprehension and fear in Poland’s remaining Jewish population, with many suggesting that it is time to leave a place they call home and that a change in the public perception of the holocaust and potential imprisonment for those who recognise the Polish contribution to it may be forced into exile: A worrying echo of events during the Second World War.
The ‘Holocaust Law’ has caused controversy: Holocaust survivors, governments and international media have voiced concern and castigation The legal system and its Law are here to regulate behaviour which thus has the power to shape politics, economics, history and society around us. Where legislation such as the aforementioned may silence history, what it cannot do, however, is refute it.
Speaking to Aleksandra Kowalik, a Polish lawyer based in the UK, she explains how the law does not express the most mature approach to such a situation: “1st February 2018 remains a milestone in collapsing of Polish honour and painting drew by the previous generation which fought for the free, independent and open- minded country during WWII.
“[The Bill] constituted a great stain of a shame on Polish image due to the Institute of a National Remembrance Act amendment which has been ruled by the government at 2am.”
“Where the intention of penalising war crimes and protecting innocents is a laudable idea, falsification of the history certifies immaturity and a lack of understanding the importance of the past and its’ consequences.”
And at the end of the day, history remains to move us all when we remember it, speak about it and are open to its flaws, in order to prevent such an event occurring again.
As Aleksandra continues: “It must be strongly underlined those facts have taken place and it is a high time for us as a nation to admit history in order we could mentally move forward and create a new quality and open-minded society which will avoid repeating a past.”
And even though the law was approved by the Polish parliament and signed by President Andrzej Duda, the Polish Justice Ministry said it wouldn’t enforce the legislation until it is reviewed by Poland’s Constitutional Court.