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Conversation with Samuel Kassow

A renowned Holocaust historian talks about the passage of a controversial new Polish law criminalizing the use of terms such as ‘Polish death camps.’

By Judie Jacobson

HARTFORD —The timing could not have been more offensive. On Feb. 2 — International Holocaust Remembrance Day — the Polish Senate passed a bill criminalizing statements linking Poland to the murder of Jews that occurred on its soil during the Holocaust. The move was an attempt to lay blame for the crimes that left more than one million Polish Jews dead during World War II squarely on German Nazis.

The bill states that anyone who uses the term “Polish death camps” or “accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich … shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.” The law applies to both Polish citizens and foreigners.

Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia have passed similar laws since 2010.

The bill passed both houses of the Polish parliament and was then signed into law by Polish President Andrzej Duda. It next goes to the country’s Constitutional Tribunal for final approval.

The bill caused an avalanche of criticism in Israel and among Holocaust survivors, many of whom protested outside the Polish embassy in Tel Aviv.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the law “baseless,” adding “I strongly oppose it. One cannot change history and the Holocaust cannot be denied.”

Historians, including some from Yad Vashem, joined him in opposing it. The U.S. State Department, via Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, also criticized the bill for limiting freedom of speech, expressing concern over its effect on Poland’s relations with the United States and Israel.

Defending the law, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki posted on Twitter that the Auschwitz concentration camp “is the most bitter lesson on how evil ideologies can lead to hell on Earth. Jews, Poles, and all victims should be guardians of the memory of all who were murdered by German Nazis. Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work will set you free) is not a Polish phrase.”

For insight into this new law, as well as a look at the complicated relationship between the Poles and the Jews, the Ledger spoke with Dr. Samuel Kassow, the Charles H. Northam Professor of History at Trinity College and author of several books, including Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto.


Q: Overall, what is your take on this new law?

A: It’s a terrible law. It was proposed by the PiS, the party in control of the government, ostensibly to defend the good name of Poland and the Polish people against baseless and slanderous accusations. The new law is appealing to many people — not the people I associate with — but many people, because a part of it is aimed at a very easy target — the expression “Polish death camps.” That’s an inaccurate expression; the Poles did not set up death camps and they are not responsible for the Holocaust.

That said, it then goes on to threaten criminal action against those who would say that the Polish state or the Polish nation shares responsibility for German crimes. That is very problematic for many reasons. First of all, because who can define “Polish nation” and, secondly, because even though the law includes an article that exempts academic research from this accusation of slander, the line between academics and public intellectual is not a very clear one. That would very clearly serve to intimidate Poles — especially Poles without tenure or good job prospects — from writing the truth about the Holocaust and conducting open research. For example, writing that the Polish underground army was complicit in killing Jews might expose one to difficulties.


Q: What was this law’s genesis?

A: The new law was passed because this present Polish government is a very nationalist one, a very populist one; and it’s getting support in part because of a lot of resentments and built-up anger in certain sections of Polish society against many different targets.

For the last 30 years there’s been a battle for Polish identity going on between those who see the future of Poland as a kind of a cosmopolitan EU [European Union], with less emphasis on the old traditions and the Catholic church, and more emphasis on a modern, forward-looking Poland. If you live in Warsaw or Krakow or Poznan and your friends are university graduates, not only is that the Poland you are going to be living in but you’re going to think that the whole country is going in that direction.

But the intellectual elite — the upwardly mobile professionals — failed to see that there was another Poland that is very determined to hang on to its traditional national identity. That Poland is defined by Catholicism and by a national myth that says: “We are heroes. We have suffered not just for ourselves but for all mankind; we’re kind of like the Christ of nations,” as [the 19th-century Polish poet] Adam Mickiewicz said. “We are only victims; we never oppressed others. Ours is a beautiful story of sacrifice and valor.” So theirs is a story of a heroic people; a people that never oppresses anybody else; a people that valiantly fought against the Germans, that valiantly fought against the communists; a people that survived centuries of occupation because of their wonderful devotion to the church. And that view of Poland leads to a kind of resentment that everyone is picking on them, especially the Jews. [They believe,] “The Jews are leading this crusade to slander us and to distort our image and to make us look bad in front of the world. It’s just a continuation of what the Jews have done to us for a long time. The Jews are like a bone in our throat.” That’s what a lot of common Poles think.


Q: It sounds as if there’s a lot of antisemitic feelings bubbling beneath the surface here.

A: This is one of the most complicated issues you can ever find.

For example, this present government is the most pro-Israel Polish government that Poland has ever had. Which is one reason why Netanyahu has had very good relations with this government until now. Jewish leaders within Poland have been appalled at what they believe is an untoward readiness on the part of certain right-wing Israelis to play footsie with Polish political figures that they view as being harmful toward the Jews. There is a lot of resentment within Poland on the part of Jews who see Israel as being ready to forget about their legitimate concerns in order to foster Polish-Israeli relations. But the fact is this present government is a very pro-Israel government.

If you want to understand Polish behavior during the Holocaust it gets very complicated. On the one hand, as [the Polish-born American historian and retired Princeton professor] Jan Gross and other Polish scholars have argued over the last 20 years, if you add up the numbers, Poles probably killed more Jews than they killed Germans during the war. That is, 15,000 Germans were killed when they invaded Poland in 1939; thousands were killed by the Polish underground, and many were killed fighting the Polish army in Italy. But Polish scholars have calculated that perhaps 70,000 to 100,000 Jews who tried to survive the Holocaust by jumping off trains, hiding, evading deportation to the camps, etc., were murdered by Poles either directly or indirectly. When Jan Gross quoted those numbers in an interview with Die Zeit, the Polish government threatened him with prosecution. And Gross said, “You want to prosecute me? Go ahead. I dare you.” Because if they dare to prosecute Poles for this it’s not going to be difficult in a court of law to show that there was massive Polish involvement in the killing of Jews.

On the other hand — and this is also what makes it complicated — Poland had more righteous gentiles than any other nation. The Germans enforced the death penalty for helping Jews and at least 750 Poles were executed for that. That’s really something, even though Poles who helped Jews had a lot to fear from their Polish neighbors. And, whereas anti-Semites in other countries, such as France, Belgium and Norway, were collaborating with the Germans and helped kill Jews, in Poland for the most part some of the most rabid anti-Semites were also fighting the Germans. In Poland, while the underground murdered many Jews who were hiding, the home army also heroically fought the Nazis. To make matters even more complicated, the woman who formed the council to save Jews in 1942, Zegota, was a leading anti-Semite. Zofia Szczucka-Kossak called the Jews parasites and enemies of Poland who, if they survived, should get the hell out of Poland. But she believed that as a Catholic she could not violate her faith by standing by and watching people being murdered. So there are layers within layers within layers.

Jan Karski [a Polish resistance fighter and later a Georgetown University professor] wrote as early as 1940 that the Polish people hated the Germans, and with good reason. If you take just the two-year period between 1939 and 1941, more Poles were killed than Jews. Both the Germans and the Soviets targeted the Polish intellectual elite. During the Warsaw uprising against the Germans in August 1944, 200,000 Poles were killed. That’s more than the combined death toll in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, Poles point to their own suffering. But Karski also wrote that despite the hatred one narrow bridge linked Germans and Poles: anti-Semitism.


Q: So this law is a result of the present government using this simmering resentment to solidify their base?

A: This present government in order to get elected very cleverly picked at this sense of resentment and anger — the sense that “we’re being picked on.” They are supported by the people who live in rural areas who feel angry at the urban elites who they think condescend and look down on them; and by the many people within the church; and by the right-wing nationalists. And these right-wing nationalists are mad at everybody. They’re mad at the Jews but they demand reparation from the Germans. They accuse Putin in Russia of having assassinated their former president, Lech Kaczynski, who was killed in a plane crash, and they believe the former Polish government was in cahoots with Putin. They’re also mad at liberal elites within Poland for what they see as venality and the coddling of ex-Communists.

They’re also furious at the Ukrainians because while the Ukrainian underground (UPA) murdered 100,000 Poles in 1943 and 1944 — and, of course, they also murdered many Jews — the leaders of the UPA are now being turned into national heroes by the present Ukrainian government. So, the Poles are angry at everybody, not just the Jews. But right now this issue of the Jews and the Holocaust is one to really rally the base. And it’s a convenient and expedient issue because everybody can agree that the term “Polish death camps” is a misnomer; that it’s incorrect. Using that, they’re able to go further and say that if this term is unfair than all the rest of it is unfair too.


Q: Is this turn of events an ominous sign for what lies ahead for the relationship between Poles and Jews?

A: What’s very disturbing is that I’ve been commuting to Poland very often — I’ve gone dozens of times to work on the museum [POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened recently on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto] —  and we all agree — myself and all the Poles I know — that Poland was making an amazing effort to come to terms with the past; to take an honest look at its relations with Jews. There were new textbooks and there were seminars. The education authorities were making a real effort to present the Holocaust in a new way.

There’s a sociologist who is Jewish named Michael Bilewicz who’s been carrying on a lot of research, and until a couple of years ago the research showed that Polish young people were becoming more and more aware of what happened in the Holocaust — i.e., that Jews indeed suffered more than Poles, as opposed to Poles suffered as much as Jews. But in the last couple of years that’s been moving the other way. More and more Poles are ready to say that the Poles suffered as much as Jews and that the Jews are too powerful. A quarter of Poles interviewed even say that there’s something to the blood libel. So, anti-Semitic attitudes are ratcheting up.

That said, I don’t think this present government is anti-Semitic per se. The wife of the current president has Jewish roots, as does the prime minister. They wouldn’t say they’re anti-Semites. But the government is doing things which an impartial outside observer would suggest plays into anti-Semitism.

On the other hand, I think that in terms of anti-Semitism the real danger is anti-Zionism. And there you have Britain and Norway and Ireland, and that to my mind is much more dangerous and much more harmful than what you see in Poland right now.


Q: How should Jews respond to this new law?

A: The best thing is not to give an inch when it comes to historical truth; not to obfuscate the complicity of many Poles in the killing of Jews, but also not to forget Polish righteous gentiles. Remember that aid to Jews on the one hand and killing Jews on the other is not a zero-sum game — both things happened. The record of Polish society during the Holocaust was on the whole very negative vis-a-vis Jews. But even as Jews should remember that, they should also remember that Poles themselves suffered a great deal and in talking to Poles they should be prepared to at least adopt a respectful attitude.

The appropriate response would simply be for the Jewish community to continue to take trips to Poland; to continue to dialogue; to remember that this government is not going to be in power forever and that the law passed is yet to be implemented. This is just part of a long-range issue. This is just one chapter in the many, many chapters to come.

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