When 60,000 Poles took to the streets of Warsaw last November brandishing signs with phrases like “clean blood” and “White Europe” streaked across them, it was perhaps a harbinger of events to come.
Polish-Israeli relations kicked off to a rocky start in 2018 when the Polish government announced a bill that would make it illegal to accuse Poland of complicity in the Holocaust. For example, uttering the phrase “Polish death camps,” rather than “Nazi death camps,” could lead to a hefty fine or three years in prison.
Since that announcement, pandemonium ensued across both nations. Israeli MKs tweeted vociferously against the law. The Jerusalem Post’s own Knesset reporter Lahav Harkov tweeted the phrase “Polish Death Camps” 14 times – a post that went viral in Polish social media and made her the target of numerous antisemitic attacks.
On the Polish side, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki insinuated at the Munich Security Conference in February that Jewish perpetrators are equally to blame as other groups involved in World War II.
“You’re not going to be seen as criminal [if you] say that there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators as well as Ukrainian perpetrators – not only German perpetrators,” Morawiecki said, doubling down on the bill.
A day after those controversial remarks, the Post spoke to renowned Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt who was dismayed but not surprised by these developments.
“It’s horrible, horrible, horrible,” said Lipstadt, who is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, unequivocally. “I was asked about the bill ten days ago when the law was first passed whether I believed it was a form of Holocaust denial and I hesitated. Now I wouldn’t hesitate. I think the comments by the Polish Prime Minister were outrageous.”
Lipstadt endured an arduous seven-year libel trial against Holocaust denier David Irving in 1996 which was portrayed in the film Denial, which was released in 2016. The film, where she is played by Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz, is about that dramatic showdown between her and Irving. But it also tells the story of an independent woman’s blind faith in her representation and our obligation as a society to respect and defend the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust.
It is clear, then, why this Polish legislation touches a nerve where Lipstadt is concerned.
“Of course there were Kapos and Jews who turned in Jews,” she said. “They did horrible things to fellow Jews, but they often did it to save their own lives or other people’s lives. To compare that with people who turned in Jews for a couple of Zlotys, or turned in Jews because they wanted a Jew’s house - there’s no comparison.”
“They were German concentration camps built on Polish soil. People shouldn’t talk if they know nothing about history,” Lipstadt said blaming politicians and the media for fanning the flames.
“While there were many Poles who did hide Jews - I heard the number estimated anywhere from 7,000-10,000 - there were many Poles who ratted on Jews. When you read testimonies of Polish Jews, invariably you find a vast majority who confess to being betrayed by a fellow Pole and that’s quite striking,” she said.
In other words, the bill signs into law a selective memory regarding the Holocaust which, at its core, is a form of Holocaust denial.
“What the Poles are doing is Holocaust denial. It’s rewriting of the history. This is playing to their base – the Polish government is playing to a national base that hates a discussion of Polish antisemitism and Polish complicity,” she said.
This law tore apart open wounds that never really healed between two people very much grappling with the horrors of the past.
Approximately six million Poles and three million Polish Jews died as a result of the Nazi occupation. But, somehow, those facts have become obfuscated as the years march on, leading both sides to spew misleading information.
“Poland is really grappling with its past. Have you seen the Polin museum in Warsaw? It’s amazing!” she gushed, referring to the state-of-the-art POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in April 2013.
“So you have a dichotomy – a previous Polish government who thought the best way to preserve the past is to be honest about it and to make sure it’s not replicated. Now you have a Polish government who says ‘no, no, no.’ You deny and rewrite. It’s very parallel to the development you’re seeing here in the United States. To acknowledge [the] wrong, is to show weakness. We’re seeing it in a number of places and it’s very disturbing,” she said.
As such, Lipstadt believes the rise of antisemitism in the Right is turning into a looming trend in the West – as Hungarian, Austrian and even members of the fringe alt-right group in the United States are displaying signs of blatant hatred for Jews and other minorities.
To a casual observer it may be somewhat surprising that the suffering of Jews is still a matter of debate in 2018, but Lipstadt – who has perhaps seen and heard it all – is nonplussed.
“There’s a part of me that’s flabbergasted that we are [talking about this]. People thought after the war that antisemitism was dead and gone because look at its legacy and what it achieved and the damage it has done. I’m not surprised by anything when it comes to antisemitism and the persistence of hatred,” she said.
But while some Israelis have suggested that Jews should no longer go to Poland as a result of this law, Lipstadt believes the opposite is true.
“I think Jews should continue to visit Poland. I think they should go to the museums and continue to visit the sites. There are lots of good people in Poland, the people who work in these museums are heroes. They stand by historical truths and they’re under great pressure from the government,” she said. “So I think we have to continue to go and recognize what’s going on there.”
As for March of the Living, Lipstadt, who attended in 1994 recalls the powerful onslaught of emotions participants felt during the ceremony. However, as the march marks two auspicious occasions – the 30th anniversary of the march and Israel’s 70th anniversary – she cautions against letting this devastating tragedy define Jews and the story of Israel.
Her message to those joining the march this year, is that they not be consumed by the victimhood of the Jewish people.
“This was something that was done to Jews, we’ve so often been victims in history. But that is not the sum total of who were are or our identity. At the same time we should be vigilant about that,” she said.