By Larry Gordon
It was just a few years ago—two and a half to be exact—when we joined a group and walked with others through the gates of Auschwitz and Majdanek in Poland. It was summer, the skies were clear, and the weather was warm. And though decades had passed, our hearts were heavy and our minds filled with disbelief at what happened in those places.
These were just two of the so-called camps in Poland where Jews were systematically led to their deaths and murdered during World War II.
Today the grounds of these sites are open only for tourists to walk through and retroactively mourn, in a sense, for those who were victims of what became routine horrors that were perpetrated with specific purpose at Jews. The stunning thing about Majdanek is that what looks to be hundreds of private homes and apartment buildings that have been there from before the war seem to border what became a death camp. History asked the question, and we, who walked the grounds of this place in July 2015, had the same question—how could people who lived nearby and even worked in the camp claim now that they did not know what was taking place there?
Poland as a country and its new generation may have repented or tried to repent for their sins. But this new law that was passed last week by their version of the House of Representatives declaring it illegal to use the term “Polish Death Camps” is both astounding and shocking.
For a number of reasons, Poland as an entity finds it convenient and even vital that history see them as victims of the Nazis during World War II just like the Jews. The rationale for this is twofold. First, they do not want to be seen by history or the modern world as a country that either committed or at least cooperated with and facilitated the wholesale murder of over three million Jews. And more than that, they do not want to have to pay billions of dollars in reparations to their victims and their families the way the German government has been doing for the last many decades.
The fact that so many Jews were murdered in Poland made it difficult to come to grips with that fact for many years. Critics of the Polish government have written these last few days that there was a good reason why the Germans decided to locate their death camps on Polish territory. Somehow they knew that the Jew hatred in Poland was so overt and profound that Poland would be the perfect killing ground.
Rabbi Edgar Gluck is today the chief rabbi of Galicia and splits his time between Warsaw, Krakow, and New York. We reached him in New York a few days ago to ask about the new legislation and its implication for the future.
His first reaction was that it is important to understand that the new policy was not yet passed by that country’s version of the Senate, and if it is passed then it still has to be signed into law by the president.
“I hope that if it gets that far—and there is a good chance that it won’t advance—that the language will be significantly watered down and will not become Polish law,” the rabbi said.
On the other hand, he says that it was not helpful that Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel publicly condemned the introduction of the new law. “After the prime minister said what he did, that put Polish officials on the defensive. The president of Poland responding by saying, ‘Did we build Auschwitz? It was built by the Nazis.’
“I think this would not have blown up like it has if Mr. Netanyahu would have had a private conversation with President Duda. Now we have to give it time and see what happens,” Rabbi Gluck says.
At this point, the legislation calls for a penalty of up to five years in prison for using the term “Polish Death or Concentration Camps.”
This is not intended to be a diatribe against modern Poland, though there is ample evidence from survivors who are still alive today that many Poles took advantage of the Nazi invasion and were complicit in the murder of more than three million Jews.
A great deal of time has passed, and while we cannot blame today’s Poles for not wanting to be lumped together with the Nazis, it is history that unfortunately tells the real and true story about how aggressive and vicious average Poles dealt with their Jewish neighbors once the war was under way. The passage of time, even a great deal of time, is not a valid reason that should be used to induce a world to forget those atrocities.
The New York Times in a lead editorial on Tuesday said that the introduction of this type of legislation is “needless, foolish, and insulting.” Polish leaders believe that all these decades after the war and with the generational changes taking place, this might be the perfect time to revise a bit of historical reality.
But that reality was too violent, cruel, and extreme for the employment of any type of tactic to induce forgetfulness. The exhibit “Neighbors” at the U.S. Holocaust Museum tells the poignant story in video testimony of countless Jewish survivors who, short of being murdered, experienced the most extreme type of brutalization at the hands of their Polish neighbors.
Survivors recall in vivid detail how those living in the same building with them or next door just pushed them out into the streets and took their homes and property because they were supported by the invading Nazis and they could get away with it.
Trying to outlaw the use of the expression “Polish Death Camps” is rather unusual and is perhaps an all-too-obvious sign of something being obscured in a free and democratic country. It is sadly well-known how Jews were beaten and murdered by average Poles. Outlawing what people can say cannot impact on what we are thinking or that which is clearly known—that it was not an accident that the death camps were in Poland.
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