Poland’s Im­moral Refugee Pol­icy

The Baltic Times - - COMMENTARY - Sła­womir Sier­akowski

On June 13, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion filed a law­suit against Poland, the Czech Repub­lic and Hun­gary, ac­cus­ing them of vi­o­lat­ing Euro­pean Union law by re­fus­ing to ad­mit refugees. The next day, Pol­ish Prime Min­is­ter Beata Szy­dło gave a speech at the site of the Auschwitz death camp to mark the 77th an­niver­sary of the first de­por­ta­tion of Pol­ish pris­on­ers there. “In to­day’s tur­bu­lent times,” she said, Auschwitz is a re­minder of “how im­por­tant it is for a coun­try to do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to pro­tect the safety and the lives of its cit­i­zens.”

One won­ders what Szy­dło was talk­ing about, and from whom she wants to pro­tect Poles. Her re­marks seemed to com­pare to­day’s Poles to the Holo­caust’s Jewish vic­tims, and to­day’s refugees to the Nazis. In re­sponse, Euro­pean Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Don­ald Tusk, who pre­vi­ously held Szy­dło’s cur­rent post, lamented that, “A Pol­ish prime min­is­ter should never ut­ter such words in such a place.”

Still, no one was re­ally sur­prised to hear Szy­dło shame­lessly ex­ploit the tragedy of the Holo­caust to jus­tify her im­moral refugee pol­icy; or to see an ex­cerpt of her speech sud­denly dis­ap­pear from her party’s Twit­ter feed, with no fur­ther clar­i­fi­ca­tion pro­vided.

This was in keep­ing with the usual prac­tice of Poland’s cur­rent govern­ment un­der the Law and Jus­tice (PIS) party. The PIS is not in the busi­ness of ex­plain­ing it­self or apol­o­giz­ing to any­one. Ac­cord­ing to Jarosław Kaczyński, the Pis’s chair­man and Poland’s un­elected de facto ruler, apolo­gies for his­tor­i­cal sins are a part of a “ped­a­gogy of shame.”

Of course, a clar­i­fi­ca­tion would not have changed the fact that Szy­dło’s words were dou­bly false. It is non­sense to use the Holo­caust as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the govern­ment’s pol­icy of “de­fend­ing its cit­i­zens” against the threat of refugees. But, more to the point, the Shoah should serve as a glar­ing re­minder of our col­lec­tive duty to help those flee­ing from war.

In the United States, the de­ci­sion to turn away ships bear­ing Jewish refugees just be­fore the start of World War II has be­come a source of na­tional shame. Just when Jews were be­ing mur­dered in Europe, the US ex­pe­ri­enced an un­prece­dented wave of an­ti­semitism. Over the course of the war, the US ad­mit­ted just 21,000 Jewish refugees – a mere 10% of the max­i­mum num­ber al­lowed by law. Worse still, many Amer­i­cans fa­vored a com­plete ban on all refugees; and, ac­cord­ing to opin­ion polls from 1938-1945, 35-40% of Amer­i­cans would have sup­ported leg­is­la­tion di­rected against Jews in par­tic­u­lar.

In the US to­day, al­most no one dis­putes this his­tory, or tries to sweep it un­der the rug of wartime hero­ism. Amer­ica’s re­fusal to help Euro­pean Jewry is a dark episode that has been re­told in many books, and is rou­tinely taught in US schools. No se­ri­ous Amer­i­can politi­cian would dare to de­nounce these com­mem­o­ra­tive ef­forts as a “ped­a­gogy of shame.”

The re­fusal to help Jewish refugees is a cru­cial part of Holo­caust his­tory, and one that the Pol­ish govern­ment would do well to re­mem­ber in light of all those now es­cap­ing war in Syria. Al­most a half-mil­lion peo­ple have died in that con­flict, and mil­lions more have been driven from their homes.

Sadly, these hu­man tragedies have failed to move Szy­dło and her party, which would rather use the Holo­caust to den­i­grate refugees. The PIS govern­ment ap­par­ently knows no lim­its, other than the bor­ders of Poland.

In fact, Poland’s govern­ment has set the coun­try up for even more in­ter­na­tional em­bar­rass­ment. On the same day that Szy­dło made her im­moral re­marks, the govern­ment de­cided to inau­gu­rate the Auschwitz Mu­seum of the Right­eous in Oświęcim, even though a sim­i­lar in­sti­tu­tion al­ready op­er­ates as part of the Auschwitz-birke­nau Mu­seum in the same town. The govern­ment did not bother to con­sult the orig­i­nal mu­seum be­fore cre­at­ing the new en­tity.

This lat­est move is sim­i­lar to the Pol­ish govern­ment’s con­tro­ver­sial takeover of the Mu­seum of the Sec­ond World War in Gdansk. On that oc­ca­sion, the govern­ment hastily con­jured up the so-called Wester­platte Mu­seum, which it then merged with the Mu­seum of the Sec­ond World War, in or­der to ren­der the lat­ter’s staff re­dun­dant and make the ex­hibits there more “rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Pol­ish point of view.”

Like­wise, in her re­cent re­marks, Szy­dło said that an­other mu­seum in Oświęcim will serve as a re­minder that, “Poles are the most nu­mer­ous among … those who helped Jews.” And she ex­tolled the Poles in the coun­try­side around Auschwitz who helped es­cap­ing Jews, ir­re­spec­tive of “their po­lit­i­cal views or their re­li­gious back­grounds.”

What Szy­dło did not see fit to men­tion was that the Pol­ish at­ti­tude to­ward es­cap­ing Jews dur­ing World War II was not al­ways so noble. Some Poles were he­roes; oth­ers were in­for­mants or prof­i­teers cap­i­tal­iz­ing on es­capees’ plight. For­tu­nately, there are al­ready many books, films, and ar­ti­cles about this his­tory in Poland, which Kaczyński, Szy­dło, and their ilk will not be able to pa­per over.

By call­ing on Poles to “re­mem­ber who was the per­pe­tra­tor, and who the vic­tim” in WWII, Szy­dło has made it clear that Poland’s govern­ment is com­posed of peo­ple who can only cast them­selves as he­roes, and are in­ca­pable of ad­mit­ting any fault. It is cu­ri­ous that this govern­ment would take so much pride in Poles who helped Jews un­con­di­tion­ally, when it lacks the courage even to help a few or­phaned chil­dren from Aleppo.

The com­men­tary first ap­peared on www.project-syn­di­cate.org

Sła­womir Sier­akowski, founder of the Kry­tyka Poli­ty­czna move­ment, is Di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Study in War­saw.

sła­womir sier­akowski

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