Q: What is the significance of Poles using the term ‘Jewish death camps’ ?
IR: The whole process of passing the notorious Polish law that aims to censor the narrative on WWII, the Shoah and the activities around them, reveals the real face of modern-day Poland. And this face, in my opinion, is an ugly one.
Who could imagine that 74 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the world would hear the phrase ‘Jewish death camps’ followed by the mocking question asking ‘who actually did run the crematoria?’ in an exchange of ‘jests’ by two Polish authors on a TV broadcast dealing with the new law.
Once the phrase was aired on Polish TV2 during a popular TV talk show, it was immediately picked up by thousands of Polish anti-Semites and those from other countries, seen in an avalanche of insults on social media. Social media experts registered the beginning of the massive trolling use of the criminal phrase within two hours after the Polish TV broadcast.
This new low of modern-day Polish anti-Semites is a qualitative change.
What is the meaning of the law and its purpose?
The vast majority of the Polish media, the government and a large number of the Polish public are stubbornly presenting an inaccurate picture of the new law. They are trying to insist that the whole thing is about one phrase denoting who built the concentration camps, and while doing so, are positioning themselves as the main victims of WWII.
In fact, the reality is that the law is about censoring the narrative of the history of WWII, and the context of it is much wider.
After all, everybody knows that the camps were a Nazi operation. No one thinks they were Polish.
But the Polish legislators have used the argument over that phrase as a cover for a far more important part of this law. In the name of ‘the protection the reputation’ of the Polish nation and Polish state, anyone who invokes the role and crimes committed by Poles during WWII and /or their collaboration with the Nazis, will be prosecuted.
This is in direct violation of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, of fundamental human rights, a violation of international law and the UN Convention of Human Rights and has no place in civilized society. It is blatant revisionism of the most terrible tragedy of the twentieth century, one in which the crimes against humanity were out of any proportion – and which do not have the statute of limitation for this very reason.
The Nazis had their accomplices and collaborators all over occupied territories, and Poland was no exception. To claim otherwise, or to demand that the world remain silent because a few hundred legislators and 57 Senators would like that to happen is nothing but delusional.
Polish legislators hope to hush the racist crimes of Polish citizens before and after WWII once and for all, but Jews have a long memory, a very long memory – corresponding to the crimes committed against our people throughout history, since 1312 BCE. Because we value human life so much.
What are the details of the law?
In this notorious law, the function of prosecution and court action are delegated to NGOs and in particular, to the Institute of National Remembrance, thus providing NGOs with the power of prosecution, an unprecedented usurpation of juridical process in a democratic society.
Even Orwell is not Orwellian enough to match this macabre justice a la Polska.
The Institute of National Remembrance in Poland, in fact, has changed its mission and is busy with witch-hunts and frantic revisionism. Many distinguished Polish historians, including those who founded the institution, have written and given interviews regarding the alarming developments there.
And do stop telling us about your victimhood, Poland; we know you suffered, that the Nazis treated you as nether-people, we know how many Poles died, but we also know the other side of the story much better that you want us to know it.
What does the very proposal of the law indicate?
This law is indicative of the atmosphere in Poland and is a visible result of two years of the rule of the current Polish leadership. It is truly surprising: Poland is a big country with a large strong stratum of intellectuals and people who used to think and act independently. It is the country of the Solidarity movement, but all that is hardly believable nowadays.
In the beginning of the current government’s term and the parliament dominated by the PiS party, the atmosphere in Poland was not as suffocated and submissive as it is today. During the first year of the new coalition, there were many demonstrations actively advocating for freedom and civil rights. According to the statistics, half the country opposed the line pushed by the new government. Poland was breathing.
Now the PiS party enjoys 40% support and according to Polish sociologists, their supporters are ‘the most vocal part of the population’. The danger is here. The danger is when the population is fed distortion; when the truth is imprisoned; when the people are fooled and kept that way.
In just over two years, observers began to notice the amazing ease with which the most controversial laws pass in the Polish parliament. And this is a strong indication of the present mood in Polish society.
In a country of 38 million, 92 persons signed the letter to the Polish Sejm against the shameful law criminalizing speech on WWII and the Shoah, and they are Jewish. There are also 85 both Jewish and non-Jewish famed scholars and writers who signed the international Open Letter against it.
And a good sign is that after the Open Letter signed by 85 prominent historian, writers, journalists and the other intellectuals, published in Gazeta Wyborcza, more than 120 thousand people did sign the corresponding petition to the Polish parliament – in just 4 days.
We know that there are good people with a moral compass working in the right directions in Poland today. We can read their articles in those still independent media, like Gazeta Wyborcza and some others, and we are glad that our friends are not giving in.
Polish cultural figures like Jan T. Gross, Irena Grudzinska-Gross and Jan Grabowski who are abroad, and Pawel Machcewicz who is also outside Poland, are raising their voices. There are important Polish historians and observers like Anna Bikont, Barbara Engelking, Jacek Leociak, and some of their brilliant colleagues within the country, honest and brave people who not only know the truth, but also are writing and talking about it, protesting. There is no doubt that there are many people in Poland who are against this macabre, this political and moral suicide carried on by the current Polish government now.
Those people are maintaining sanity and decency of the Polish society, and I personally am very grateful to them and admire their stand and activities.
Recently our Foundation has awarded historian Dr Pawel Machcewicz with the Humanist of the Year 2017 Special Award and Diploma in recognition of his efforts for the sake of truth and objectivity in history, for his essentially important work as the director of the Museum of the WWII in Gdansk. Not only Dr Machcewicz had been ousted from his position by the current Polish leadership in April 2017, just after the Museum’s opening, not only he had to leave his country, but he and his family now are harassed and intimidated by the Polish security agencies, as Dr Machcewicz has informed the international community via the AP recently.
This explains to the certain degree the weakening of the opposition against the arrogant revisionism of the history in Poland currently. People are under pressure, they are intimidated, and it is accelerating. The world needs to realise it.
Where is Polish society going?
There are grave implications for the future of Polish society. In the beginning there was hope that the clever, well educated, independent-minded Polish people would withstand the brainwashing of the ruling revisionists of history. But some thoughtful and experienced people in Poland voiced concern.
My colleagues, distinguished Polish historians with tough personal experience of the Solidarity movement, were telling me back in 2016: “The biggest worry is the development of the young generation of the country. We have a large young population, a good thing in itself, but they are the easiest to brainwash. And active brainwashing is going on. Additionally, many of them are under-educated, and their ideas and ideals are formed at the football stadiums, with a lot of violence involved. This is dangerous, and we are worried about what will become of that youth.”
We are witnessing it now. We see the barrage of insults, racist and anti-Semitic attacks on social media carried on by so many young Polish people. We see the ultra-nationalist rallies of Polish youth today, with a rising number of people there. The world cannot afford the luxury of turning away from the looming danger of rising Polish ultra-nationalism.
The fact is that never ever during the 45 years of the post-WWII pro-Soviet Polish state was the issue of the Polish participation in the atrocities against its Jewish population brought to light. It was absolute taboo not until the end of the pro-Soviet regime, but for almost a decade after that, when the first information about the well documented atrocities were published there. This was prompted by Jan T. Gross’ revealing and highly moral analyses of what really happened. This is the truth with which with Poland has to deal.
What is happening in the streets?
Israeli journalists were invited and granted time with the Polish Prime Minister so he could explain, or is it whitewash, the law. Journalists came in droves, but they did not report what was happening in Poland at the very time when they were at the place, for inexplicable for me reason. But we saw it with our own eyes.
We saw the two simultaneous demonstrations a night before president Duda’s statement .There was youth demonstrating against nationalists, like any normal student youth. But the nationalists were there in much higher numbers, and much, much louder. They were aggressive, better organized, very determined, and more self-assured.
Several leaders of Polish ultra-nationalist organizations were the speakers. The crowd was chanting non-stop and violently in Polish addressing the president: “Take off ( your) kippah ( yermulka in Polish), Sign the law!”, “Enough Jewish lies!” , “Jews try to rob Poland!”, “Stop Jewish aggression in Poland!”
We also saw and heard the nationalist leaders’ speeches. Some quotes: “So my daughter would need to learn in her school that Poles killed Jews in Jedwabne, is not it scandalous?! Jedwabne lies, that baloney!..”, ” It all is about money. Jews would like to rob us of everything what we has build here after 1945″. “Those who came here now under the red flags and in Israel’s interest, to attack Polish patriots”.
It was like Germany in the 1930s, after Kristallnacht, when the line had been crossed. And this crossing line-phenomenon is palpable in Poland today, very unfortunately and alarmingly, as it is.
How you see the line of the Polish leadership in such blind determination regarding the law?
What is really stunning in these days of modern international politics with regard to Poland, it is such utter provincialism of it.
The very well documented truth about the complicity of the certain part of Polish population has been brought to light of public attention in the country twenty years ago. No politician cannot deny people’s, individuals’ strive for truth. That was the reason of collapse of the totalitarian regimes. They fell soon after reaching the point when children in schools were laughing on their teachers even before they would open their mouth because they knew what a total rubbish their teacher was about to say now – especially at the history lessons.
Does pan Kaczynski and his party remember the footage from November 1989 when the DDR citizens were storming out that notorious Wall? Or do those delusional Polish politicians prefer the North Korean mode of behaviour of their population? But what they think that fooled & sealed off information-wise, their population would be able to be proud of , then? As we know, a pride is the central element of the Polish psyche.
The current policy and stand of the Polish leadership is stunningly short-sighted. There are always Novembers like the one in 1989 in DDR. The walls are always broken eventually by the people subjugated to lies.
What are the implications?
After Duda’s announcement which I saw in full, the Polish plan is going ahead. The head of the region of Lublin has demanded the names of both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Maidanek camps be changed instantly. There was an article in Tablet of an eye-witness report from Poland whose young Jewish author was ‘shocked’ by what he saw there. What was very disturbing in that report is that, according to their guide in Maidanek, there is a process under way there during which the testimonies of Jewish survivors are quietly replaced with the testimonies of the Poles, and – the actual data, the figures of the Jewish victims has been already altered to make them substantially lower.
They are gradually changing the whole narrative in Maidanek, the guide told a group who visited Poland recently. This is exactly what is going on in the Gdansk WWII museum – where Pawel Machcewicz and three of his former colleagues from his team recently filed a case against the newly installed leadership of the museum for infringing on copyrights, because they are changing the focus of the exhibition. This is the pattern. The other recent American visitor to Poland has told about ‘the fear’ that he saw in the eyes of the Polish Jews there. Is it the reality which the current Polish government, blind in their utterly provincial ignorance would like to instil into the life of their country and its image and prestige? It could be laughable unless the subject would be so dramatic.
What about international uproar against the law?
What we have seen so far with regard to international reactions to the new law and the wave of anti-Semitism in Poland is the statement of the US State Departmentwhich appeared too late, in my opinion, just a few hours before the voting in the Polish Senate, the Upper House of their Parliament.
The reaction from the European Union has come also too late and is too weak.. It was a short statement by the president of the EU Council Donald Tusk, the former prime-minister of Poland who is regarded as enemy number one by the current Polish leadership. There has been no other reaction from the European Union which is not surprising given their attitude towards Israel under the guidance EU foreign policy chief Mogherini.
Unsurprising as it is, this is completely unacceptable. The EU has a paid position of envoy for fight against anti-Semitism whose voice is largely undetectable. The EU has also an array of various mechanisms to influence Poland, but nothing has been heard from Brussels, despite the fact that in the Brussels corridors EU officials lament that “Poland is the biggest problem within the EU”.
As for the governments of many European countries: are they content with the current Polish line in their desire to control and censor the narrative of the WWII, and the new Polish-made definition of the death camps, “the Jewish death camps”? This silence is preposterous, to me.
The issue here is not the matter of a diplomatic spat between Poland and Israel. The issue here is the public re-appearance of blatant, criminal racism – and the world is largely silent again. Now we know how it was from 1938 onward, first-hand. We can feel it. It is in the air. No movie on the subject is needed any longer. It all is real-life again. Given the existing precedent of the applied Nazism during the Shoah and WWII, this almost zero international reaction, except Israel and USA, is simply outrageous.
There has been quick help coming to Poland from Germany though, provided by its Minister for Foreign Affairs.
The first reaction by Germany came from the country’s current foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, stating two things: “This organized mass murder was carried out by our country and no one else”, and that “Individual collaborators change nothing about that.” By this, the German foreign minister was so quick to support Poland on their bill, in fact, their censorship on the WWII history. Here we are, now Germany is trying to assert its authority on how to tell the history of Holocaust. A macabre has become the new reality now.
Well, despite the gratitude to the German functionary for educating the world on Nazi Germany’s role in Holocaust, I think it is important to comment on the second phrase he said. Jan T.Gross, one of the most intellectually honest international historians and thinkers on WWII used the term ‘moral idiocy’ which he felt was manifested by the Polish accomplices in unspeakable atrocities against Jewish population in Poland “yet before Nazi propaganda would make its effect” on those people who were murdering their Jewish neighbours with such atavistic atrocity.
Moral idiocy is quite essential element in both human psyche and human behaviour when in transforms into inhuman one.
In turn, I would like to speak on moral illiteracy, the one which transpires from the behaviour of Sigmar Gabriel and alike. No one in his normal stand of morality would be able to state that a complicity to the Nazi crimes as the factor does ‘change nothing’ in our perception of the picture of the Shoah .
There is specific background to the German foreign minister’s action: he had recently received in Berlin his newly appointed Polish counterpart whose first official visit was made, emphatically, to Germany. The two countries are wrestling currently on the issue of extra reparations demanded by the Polish leadership from Germany, a staggering sum of it. To put this ahead of an elementary human conscience is not surprising in politics, but it does not mean that people like Gabriel for whom Israel is ‘an apartheid state’, has any right to stamp the Polish papers as the ‘clean’ ones in the essential issue of the complicity of their citizens to the crimes against humanity.
How do you feel personally about what has happened?
Today, I am glad that my dear friends, Simon Wiesenthal and Elie Wiesel, did not live to see what Poland has become today. I do not like to think how they would feel.
I remember how our dear friend Simon Wiesenthal has told me on the meaningful episode which occurred in May 1945 in Mauthausen, after the liberation of the camp by the US Army. The Americans has told to Simon who weighted 36 kg at the time, being 180 cm of height, and who lost his entire family as many of his co-prisoners, that they would be ready and willing to send him home. Simon asked them: “Home? What home? Poland? Every stone, every tree there is a cemetery for me. What home you are talking about?..”
Hearing the story from Simon, I thought: “What a tragedy it must be for a person to feel this way about the place of his birth, the place where his family lived, the place of his childhood home, where his life has developed”. I always felt deeply sorry for my dear friend, great and brave man whose life has been crushed in the most cruel way. And many, many other lives like Simon Wiesenthal’s and his wife Cyla’s. Too many, an ocean of lives. And now, I know precisely what Wiesenthal and many others who just could not return to Poland, meant. I do feel it. And this is reality of today, three generations after the Shoah.
I also am thinking about our other dear friend, Elie Wiesel who would be coming to the Auschwitz for the commemorations and whose son Elisha had replaced him the last year after Elie’s passing away in 2016. Do you think it was easy for Wiesel to come there again, and again, and to live through those horrors which he never erased from inside himself, because if you are a normal human being, not a joking moron with an IQ and a sense of humour of a Neanderthal, your innermost is affected by the crimes of the Shoah for good. He did it fulfilling his mission of reminding to the rest of the world on what it was then, back in the 1940th.
I am also thinking about our another dear friend, great Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who did survive the Shoah being left along with his brave brother Naftali and found behind the colossal pile of corpses in Buchenwald on the day of its liberation. 70 years later, Rabbi Lau who is principal, illuminating figure at all Marches of Living since the beginning of the tradition, gave the interview, one moment of which did struck me.
Rabbi Lau said then: “Seven decades after the Holocaust, we learned nothing”. I could not find a peace with myself until I would speak with Rabbi Yisrael and ask him what he meant by that chilling phrase. I did ask him about it at the first opportunity, during the Pesach 2016, while talking with him in Tel-Aviv. Rabbi Yisrael looked at me attentively, and went silent for a long time. Then he said: “Yes, sometimes, I do think like that”. I asked further on: “But why, Rabbi Yisrael, tell me why? What makes you think this way?”, – and the great Rabbi Lau said: “Well, I think this way when I see what’s going on in some European countries”.
I knew then what Rabbi Lau meant, but now I can see it myself too, with all chilling clarity. We learned nothing after the Shoah – except that the death camps were ‘Jewish’.
What action is required?
In my opinion the pre-mediated insult to entire Jewish people does require comprehensive counter-action.
Israel, of all countries, cannot allow itself to be ‘taken by surprise’ in international relations, and this is exactly what was reported by Israeli media in the case of the Polish law and its passing, and with the unleashing of the vile anti-Semitism broadcast via the state media, instigating the wave of demonstrations and verbal Kristallnacht going on now in Poland .
Polish Prime-Minister Pan Morawiecki who fed us with a sweet tales of his “Jewish-related aunts” at the time of his appointment in early December 2017 now is telling us that Poland “understands the emotions in Israel”. Well, it is not about our emotions. It is about the Israeli national memory, the history of the Shoah which includes Jedwabne, Kielce, Radziwillow, plus 15 to 20 more massacres of that scope. And please, do not try to patronize us.
I can see all the reasons for recently proposed legislations in the Knesset to counter the Polish scandalous law. It is unthinkable that we have to apply a special law to defend the Holocaust survivors 73 years after the end of the WWII.
The response to the explosion of today’s Polish anti-Semitism, in my opinion, should include measures all across the spectrum, rethinking participation in the March of the Living and the trips to the camps in Poland to the military, economic and other fields of cooperation.
There are other concentration camps in the tragic history of the Shoah which can be visited by Israeli students and groups who wish to study the Holocaust where it happened. The trivialization of the Holocaust essence, Elie Wiesel was so persistently vocal about, is enforced by the macabre scenes of commemorations attended by the same people who are pursuing forward the shameful legislation censoring the history of the events they came to pay lip service to.
Poland was not provoked by anyone or anything to implement this attack on fundamental human rights and to start its crusade against the truth. Their behaviour has to be confronted by strong will and determination.
Jews and our friends all over the world must not be silent in the face of such vile hatred. Unlike some Polish hacks, we do know who ran the crematoria. And we remember who helped it happen so efficiently there in Poland, in the country of the haunting forests soaked with Jewish blood.