No more ‘Polish concentration camps’

Over 70 years after the conclusion of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, a battle is being fought in Poland over how to think about the atrocities that occurred.

Since we wrote this post, about how the government was blocking plans for a groundbreaking new museum about the war, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has ramped up their campaign to rewrite history according to a highly nationalist agenda.

Recently the party has made it illegal to refer to “Polish concentration camps,” as opposed to concentration camps established by Nazi Germany in occupied Polish territories. Millions of Jews, political prisoners, homosexuals, other persecuted minorities, and prisoners of war were killed in almost 500 camps in Polish territories.

While such a measure is understandable, the government is taking it a step further by making it a crime to indicate that Poles or their government collaborated in any way with Nazi occupiers. Not only does this stifle healthy debate and historical research, but it flies in the face of well-documented evidence that some elements of the population facilitated, assisted, or participated in Nazi crimes.  Seen in this light, it’s clear that the government’s attempt to define language is also an attempt to shape a narrow and selective understanding of history.

This comes at particularly bad time, with antisemitism once again on the rise in Poland and other parts of Europe. A 2014 survey by the University of Warsaw found that 63 percent of Poles believed in an international Jewish conspiracy in banking and media.

A recent article in the Jewish Chronicle wrote that

These are worrying times for the 10,000 or so Polish Jews who are the remnants of the 3.2 million pre-war population.

They know there was a pogrom against them in 1946 and that, in 1968, the Communist party conducted a witch-hunt against “Zionists”. Since the fall of Communism, there have been signs of antisemitism returning to religious education classes within the Catholic church and, in this decade, hundreds of Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. A fundamentalist Christian broadcaster, Radio Maryja, which has ties to the PiS, stands accused of Islamophobia and antisemitism and has been censured by the Vatican.

It’s hard to believe that the lessons of Auschwitz have not been learned. The only hope for the survivors of this tragedy was Europe could not make such a mistake ever again. The behavior of the Peace and Law Party and other emergent nationalist groups across the continent is an unsettling reminder that history cannot be taken for granted. The past must be revisited often, and with rigor, explored in all of it’s messiness and complexity, or it may be repurposed as a political tool.