The law change is welcome and it’s time for damage limitation
AFTER FIVE months of controversy, the Polish government is back-tracking on its “Holocaust Law”. However, the change comes only after damage has already been done.
The legislation making it a criminal offence to suggest that the country bore responsibility for crimes committed by Nazi Germany and imposing a maximum three-year prison term for referring to Nazi German death camps as “Polish” was introduced earlier this year. Critics said the law was unenforceable but that is not reason for the government’s change of tactics.
Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance authority claimed that the law promotes Holocaust denial and limits debate on the part that some Poles played in the Holocaust. In reality, the legislation allowed extremists on both sides to dominate the debate.
But the facts are not as black and white as the cyber warriors on Twitter would like to make out.
No one has worked harder to get Poles to face up to the reality of what happened in their country during and immediately after the war than campaigner Bogdan Bialek.
For the past 30 years, he has run an educational campaign to encourage the people of Kielce, in southern Poland, to recognise the role their town played in the bloody pogrom of 1946.
When I asked what went wrong with Polish-Jewish relations in the 1930s and 1940s, he quickly pointed out that all of Europe was extremely antisemitic at the time.
Mr Bialek said what was needed is recognition of the horror inflicted on Poles during the war: “Violence became an everyday thing in Poland and was normalised. We can see in veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq how exposure to violence changes behaviour, and in Poland we see this on a mass scale.
“Those veterans meet with psychologists but there was no psychologist for the Polish people.”
Mr Bialek said he stepped into that void and Kielce is now devoid of antisemitic graffiti, has a low incidence of racist crimes and local football fans do not engage in racist chants as they do in the rest of the country. But the Holocaust law, Mr Bialek added, “was a huge mistake that exacerbated [poor] Polish-Jewish relations in spite of the intentions of its authors.”
He said it had serious social repercussions because it “encouraged xenophobic, antisemitic and racist attitudes.” But he added it did not affect his educational campaign — and herein lies the problem.
The debate on the Holocaust law has sadly detracted from the reality of what is happening in Poland, where many individuals and organisations have taken positive steps in recent years to improve Polish-Jewish relations. The new museums being built at the sites of the former death camps of Kulmhof and Sobibor are evidence of the efforts to record the historical facts of what happened during the war.
Andrzej Pawluszek, an adviser to the Polish Prime Minister, has rightly pointed out that, while antisemitism has risen in Western Europe, it has declined by 40 per cent in Poland.
There are no armed guards outside the country’s synagogues and Jewish culture is regarded as trendy and alternative. None of which makes an exciting truth to tweet for radical warriors.
Antisemitic incidents have declined in Poland
Mateusz Morawiecki visiting a Jewish family museum in January