The controversy over Poland’s so-called “Holocaust law” has developed into the Central European country’s biggest international conflict since it regained independence in 1989. The law, which took effect March 1 (coincidentally, but somewhat ominously, on Purim), makes it a crime punishable by up to three years in jail to accuse the Polish state or nation of responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes of World War II. Facing a chorus of international outrage, including from the Israeli government, the law has already done great damage. The debate around its passage, which was built on the false premise that Poland is subject to an avalanche of references to Nazi concentration camps as “Polish death camps,” has brought forth an anti-Semitism that was thought to have largely disappeared from Polish public opinion.
It is true that Poland had nothing to do with the German decision to build the camps on occupied Polish soil, nor were Poles involved in running them. Yet Google Trends shows that the supposedly injurious expression “Polish death camps” was barely ever being used—until this year, when the law was passed and sparked widespread outcry. Ostensibly designed to punish this phrase, the law in fact is much broader. Critics legitimately believe it is intended to gag free discussion of Polish attitudes and actions toward Jews in World War II.
For some reason, the Polish government was surprised when Jews in Israel and the diaspora reacted with outrage. In Jerusalem, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid tweeted that the camps were actually Polish and that his grandmother had been killed “by Germans and Poles” in one of them. The Polish embassy responded by saying that his tweet “shows how badly Holocaust education is needed, even here in Israel,” and things went downhill from there.
But many Polish reactions have been even more outrageous. Journalists and politicians claim that Jewish protests are in fact an unacceptable attack on Poland, that “Poland is at war with the Jews” and that “this is a struggle to the death.” The accusations and paranoia are well beyond the reach of facts—sometimes on the Jewish side as well. For instance, last month an American Jewish charity, the Ruderman Family Foundation, posted a video online that the Polish Jewish community thought worsened the situation—it declared there had indeed been a “Polish Holocaust,” called for American retaliation for “this disgraceful law” and used death numbers that scholars now consider too high. Polish Jewish organizations persuaded the foundation to take down the video. Polish right-wing portals—the online news aggregators that are an important opinion-maker in today’s Poland—were briefly stunned. But by the next day, they were ridiculing an opposition MP who had the temerity to call the Polish Jewish organizations “friends in need.” Jews can never be friends of Poland, the portals argued. The disrupted concert of anti-Semitic innuendo resumed.
The new Polish law is, in fact, disgraceful. Although Poland as a state had nothing to do with the Shoah, all too many individual Poles blackmailed, denounced and even murdered thousands of Jews who tried to survive in hiding. The law’s loose wording makes it a gag order, liable to punish anyone investigating this dark chapter of Polish history. Initially directed at historian Jan Tomasz Gross, whose book Neighbors first brought to light the 1941 Jedwabne massacre, it now threatens everyone. To test the law, I recently published a column in my Polish newspaper stating that “numerous members of the Polish nation had participated in certain Nazi crimes” and calling on the prosecution to investigate me. With a law this unclear, only a court ruling can help clarify matters.
Meanwhile, headlines warning of “Jewish slander” have been appearing not only in right-wing portals but also on government-controlled public TV. Two leading commentators agreed that the camps should really be called “Jewish”: “After all, who ran the crematoria?” An ecclesiastical expert commented that “Jews have a different concept of the truth. While we Poles consider it to be consistency of words with fact, for the Jew it is their consistency with a value the Jew holds dear, such as the interests of Israel.” Things degenerated so badly that Poland’s de facto strongman, Jarosław Kaczynski, chairman of the ruling party warned: “The devil is suggesting to us a grave disease of the soul: anti-Semitism. It must be resolutely rejected.” His followers not only did not listen, their outrage was such that the chairman had to water down his words by claiming that “anti-Polonism”—an alleged widespread Jewish hatred of Poles—was just as bad.
The notoriously disunited and feuding Polish Jewish organizations surprised even themselves by issuing a strong and common condemnation of this political climate. “On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the anti-Semitic events of March 1968 and 75 years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” it reads, “Polish Jews do not feel safe in Poland.” The document is unequivocal: “While we appreciate verbal condemnations of anti-Semitism on the part of President Andrzej Duda, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczynski, these politicians’ words ring empty and, without strong supporting action, can do nothing to stop the spread of evil.”
None of this means a pogrom is about to happen; the statement stresses that there is no physical intimidation. Nor does it mean that the huge progress made over the past 30 years in dialogue and understanding with the majority of Polish society was an illusion. But we have to recognize that we have underestimated the limitations of that dialogue and the persistence of old and new anti-Semitic stereotypes. Twenty-five percent of Poles (up from 12 percent in 2009) now say they believe Jews commit ritual murder, 44 percent that Jews strive for world domination. If Poland believes it needs to protect itself from malicious disinformation about its past, surely it can do more to protect its Jewish citizens from malicious slander in the present.
Konstanty Gebert is an international reporter and columnist with the leading Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza and the author of 11 books in Polish.