The promise of the internet was that people could access unprecedented volumes of information for the benefit of themselves and society as a whole. What has regrettably proven to be the case is that it is a fount from which people draw to “prove” falsehoods they choose to believe – or, for nefarious reasons, claim to believe.
Amid the oceans of “information” online, it is sometimes difficult to tell what people genuinely believe as opposed to what they say they believe in public to mislead their audiences. For example, does the U.S. member of Congress Marjorie Taylor Greene actually believe that reliance on solar energy means the lights will go out when the sun goes down? Or is her apparent stupidity a deliberate foil for her support of polluting energy sources? If she believes what she said, this is misinformation. If she knows she is telling a lie, it is disinformation.
The terms “misinformation” and “disinformation” are sadly necessary to understand what is happening in our era, as we have said in this space before and feel moved to repeat. In few places is this difference as consequential as in discussions of the history of the Holocaust.
Correspondence between Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and right-wing journalist Bronislaw Wildstein (and two others) leaked last week defines some of the world’s foremost Holocaust scholars as “enemies of the entire Polish nation.” There is other chilling language in the back-and-forth, detailing how top Polish authorities are expending enormous energies to rewrite the history of Polish collaboration in the Shoah.
A 2018 law forbids any suggestion that the Polish state or Polish people participated in Nazi crimes against Jews. International pressure saw the penalties for breaking this law reduced from a criminal conviction to a civil matter potentially resulting in a fine. But the intent and impact remain clear. Prof. Jan Grabowski, a Polish-born Canadian academic, and a Polish colleague, Barbara Engelking, were victorious in a 2021 appeal that saw an earlier court decision order to apologize to a descendant of a Shoah-era perpetrator for betraying Jewish neighbours to the German Nazis. But this court decision has not quenched the thirst for revisionism.
The obsession among top Polish officials on this subject is unabated. The email exchange includes the suggestion that Polish authorities should strategically coopt the Jewish experience in the Holocaust to their own benefit, recasting Poles as the Nazis’ primary targets and victims.
Poland also recently extended its Holocaust-related legislation to explicitly forbid financial restitution or compensation to survivors or their heirs.
The Polish government has steadfastly asserted that Nazi atrocities catastrophically affected non-Jewish Poles, which is plainly true. But two things can be true simultaneously. Many Poles were victimized by the Nazis and many Poles collaborated with the Nazis – and, in some cases, both involved the same individuals.
Wildstein, the journalist who seems to have the prime minister’s ear, makes threatening noises about top Holocaust research and archival bodies, including the Jewish Historical Institute, in Warsaw, and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and mentions “the possibility of introducing our people into their midst.” He accuses the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research of presenting “an almost obsessive hatred of Poles.”
There is paranoia in the idea that exposing historical truth is identical to hatred. Ironically, while Germany is the European country that has engaged in the most introspective contrition, as much as a society can hope to do for so unparalleled a crime, Poland has steadfastly dug in its heels. The society that bears more blame for complicity with the Nazis than any other is the one that is not only refusing to confront its grotesque past but most stridently whitewashing it.
All of this has led to strained relations between Israel and Poland. It should also be a source of friction with other countries, including Canada, partly because it is a Canadian citizen, Grabowski, who is among the most targeted objects of Polish scorn, and partly because all democracies should stand up to this appalling historical revisionism.
There is a grim silver lining in this “debate.” The Polish authorities understand, as too few in the world seem to, that history matters. What happened in the past informs our present and future. If they can recast the past, they can affect the future.
The question for us is whether we, as a society, have the same understanding of and commitment to historical power. Are those who seek truth as motivated as those whose goal is to subvert it?
Editor’s Note: For a contrary point of view, click here to read the letter to the editor that was published in the Jewish Independent’s Sept. 2/22 issue.