For years, Poles have bristled at terms like “Polish death camps” or “Polish concentration camps.” Rightly so. Places like Auschwitz-Birkenau were Nazi German camps on Polish soil. Calling them Polish camps was misleading and imputed the murder of millions of Polish Jews (and many other Poles) to Poles themselves. This is a linguistic formulation that should be avoided.
But it should not be illegal. There are few, if any, words that should be illegal, in our judgment. But the Polish government thinks otherwise and has passed a law that penalizes any suggestion that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. So, anyone who uses such terminology as “Polish death camps” could face fines or up to three years’ jail time.
However, while the camps were German, there has never been any question about the willing complicity of plenty of Poles in the extermination of most of their Jewish compatriots. Many Poles were conscripted into the Nazi killing program, but others willingly advanced the mission. Notably, the murder of Jews in Poland did not end with the Nazis’ defeat. There were many instances of Holocaust survivors returning to their homes after the war only to be murdered by their former neighbours, the most notorious example being the Kielce pogrom of July 1946, in which about 40 Jews were killed and as many injured. To utter these facts in Poland now is presumably illegal. On the other hand, it is presumably not illegal to state the fact that many Poles risked their lives to save the lives of Jewish Poles.
The dreadful and confusing new law has been condemned by the American and Israeli governments, among others. Israel’s criticism hit a particular nerve with Andrzej Zybertowicz, an advisor to the Polish president and a sociology professor at Nicolaus Copernicus University. He suggested that Israel’s response to the law resulted from a “feeling of shame at the passivity of the Jews during the Holocaust” and he accused Israel of “clearly fighting to keep the monopoly on the Holocaust.” He went on to say: “Many Jews engaged in denunciation, collaboration during the war. I think Israel has still not worked it through.”
The irony is as stark as it is distressing, that Zybertowicz could accuse Israel of failing to work through its Holocaust history when his own country has just codified its own refusal to do just that.
Conversely, Germany has just announced that it will acknowledge as Holocaust survivors Jews who lived in Algeria under the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy French regime. This means about 25,000 people will be eligible for some compensation under the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. This is a positive development, no matter how late it has come.
These two very different present-day actions, 73 years after the liberation of the camps, are but two examples of how we are still navigating the facts of the Holocaust. We are still determining, among much else, who are to be included among the perpetrators and who among the victims. And these are not even the much more difficult, perhaps impenetrable, moral questions and issues raised by the Holocaust. We have not come close to understanding the patterns of antecedents, the human and historical prerequisites that allowed the Holocaust to happen – and which permit genocides to continue happening.