Well, after months of trying to defend an indefensible law, Poland has rolled back the so-called “Polish Holocaust Law,” which made it a criminal offense to discuss Polish involvement in the Holocaust, punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine. Since January, when the law was passed, the Polish government has faced a lot of criticism from the international community with many groups calling for the law to be overturned. I was happy to hear that a day after the IAJLJ filed a brief in the Polish Constitutional Court, the Polish government put an end to this terrible law.
Contrary to what may have been intended by the Polish government, the law did nothing to heal Poland’s image or protect its legacy — it only cast aspersions and made Poland seem like a place where Holocaust denial is not only allowed but encouraged.
Thankfully, groups like the IAJLJ, (International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists) an international organization that works to preserve human rights, challenged the law and helped bring about its reversal. This cause was certainly in the IAJLJ’s wheelhouse; since 1969, the IAJLJ and its members have used their legal expertise to effect positive change in the world.
Despite the seemingly overwhelming groundswell of anti-Semitism in the past 20 years, the IAJLJ has had numerous successes, both to help humankind as a whole and to help individuals overcome the biases within themselves.
The IAJLJ was certainly the best positioned to challenge the “Polish Holocaust Law,” as it is an NGO recognized and respected by the United Nations and the European Parliament. Through strict adherence to the law and to morality, the IAJLJ has worked for decades to strike down unfair laws and protect those who are being unjustly oppressed.
In its challenge of the “Polish Holocaust Law,” the IAJLJ cited the law’s vague wording as unconstitutional and its abrogation of freedom of expression. While this law may have been enacted to protect Poland’s image, it certainly did not protect Polish citizens; instead it took away their ability to speak freely and set their country upon a slippery slope that could have led to censorship and suppression.
This law silenced Holocaust survivors and all those who yearn to learn the true, unabridged facts of history. To deny Polish involvement in the Holocaust is to deny that fish live in water; it is simply a fact. Certainly not all Polish citizens were involved; thousands of Polish citizens gave everything they had — including their lives — to save their Jewish neighbors. But, to deny Polish involvement in the Holocaust is to also deny Polish heroism in the Holocaust. The courage and unextinguished morality shown by the more than 6,500 Polish citizens who have been named “Righteous Among the Nations” is all the more incredible in light of the fact that they met resistance not just from Nazi occupiers but from their own neighbors. Despite the many forces against them, they still chose to rise up and protect those who needed them.
Rather than remove freedom of speech and prevent people from discussing Polish complicity in the Holocaust, Poland should be encouraging speech and promoting conversations about Polish resistance and the Polish people who fought back against hatred, violence and debasement.
It is true that Poland does receive a good deal of misdirected anger. Among its many goals, this law, even in its amended form, aims to eradicate the phrase “Polish death camp.” The Polish government is correct; this phrase is misleading and inaccurate. The nation of Poland did not set up the concentration camps and they did not run them; the Nazis, who occupied Poland during World War II did.
Because the most famous concentration camp, Auschwitz, was built on Polish soil, Poland is forced to bear the stain of this horror. As such, many people do overlook the fact that Poland was a victim of the Third Reich and suffered horrible atrocities.
But this law did not correct that. If anything, this law made it worse, causing it to look as if Poland were desperately trying to pull a cover up. Rather than acknowledging the grave errors in its past and seeking ways to move ahead, Poland appeared to be moving backward.
Firstly, this law did nothing but bring even more attention to Polish complicity in the Holocaust, with researchers turning a laser focus to the Polish citizens who worked in the camps, who turned over their Jewish neighbors, who participated in massacres.
Secondly, this law paved the way for burgeoning anti-Semitism. Since the Holocaust, Poland has had to deal with its lingering anti-Semitism and the knowledge of where such hate leads. But with this law, Poland made it easy — nay, state-sanctioned — to deny the Holocaust. It is an old aphorism, but a true one nonetheless: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We are already seeing increases in Europe of nationalism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. What’s next?
Thirdly, this law harkened back to the Nazi occupation when Polish citizens were afraid to speak, when an overhead conversation could kill you. That was the ultimate step backward. Poland suffered under the Third Reich and then as a Soviet satellite, another form of government in which freedom of expression was illegal. Thankfully the Polish government has seen reason and is turning away from returning their country to that.
Thankfully, with organizations like the IAJLJ to light the way, the Polish government has begun the hard work of continuing to move Poland forward without denigrating the past. Poland has fought back over generations to be a proud and independent country with a strong Constitution and strong values; it is important that no law tarnishes this legacy.