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December 11, 2018

Against Poland’s attack on Holocaust history

June 27, 2018
Entrance to the German concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. (Bettmann / Bettmann Archive)

Holocaust denial takes many forms — from denying the concentration camps ever existed, to downplaying the severity of the genocide, to altering facts. It is a disease, and anything that allows this disease to grow must be rooted out. For this reason, our organization Tuesday filed a brief with the Polish Constitutional Court that demands the court overturn the nefarious Polish law that criminalizes discussing Polish involvement in the Holocaust.

To deny Polish involvement in the 20th century’s worst human rights crime is to discredit and further abuse Holocaust survivors. Approximately 3 million Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Whereas the Third Reich of Germany was primarily responsible for this atrocity, many survivors tell tales of both German and Polish brutality, of German death camps and of Polish complicity.




This law implies that these people are liars. My wife’s grandfather, David Yakobovitch, was not a liar; this native of Lodz, Poland, survived the Auschwitz work camps and the Death March. He survived, but many of his friends and all of his family did not. He lived to recount how many of his Jewish contemporaries were turned over to the Nazis by Polish citizens. Some of his friends were even murdered by Polish citizens. I was very close to my wife’s grandfather and I will not allow these historical atrocities to be denied or forgotten.

I find it inconceivable that the Polish government can attempt to suppress the truth of Polish complicity in the Holocaust or in the resulting murder of Jews, especially when a government-led investigation of the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom found that, though the pogrom was instigated by the Germans, it was carried out by Poles.

Is the Polish government now calling itself a liar? Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance released a 203-page report in 2003 stating that approximately 40 Polish men played a “decisive role” in the brutal murders of approximately 340 Jews in Jedwabne. Under this law, has the government now made it illegal to discuss the findings of this government-led investigation?

Of course, I know that not every Polish person supported the Holocaust; no one is saying that. It is well-documented that there were many, many Polish individuals who risked — and in nearly 1,000 instances gave — their lives to protect their Jewish neighbors. Compared to every other country, Poland has the highest number of citizens named “Righteous Among the Nations,” a designation given to gentiles who risked everything they had to help Jews during the Holocaust.

Our organization’s challenge of this law is not an attack on Poland. We have many Polish members and members of Polish descent, including our president; in fact, some of our Polish members who reside in Poland are helping us with this case, because we are all in agreement that history must be preserved.

I am sympathetic of the fact that, due to Auschwitz and Treblinka being built on Polish soil during the Nazi occupation and the resulting “Holocaust tourism” to Poland, the Polish people feel villainized. Poland has received a great deal of blame for the Holocaust despite the fact that Poland itself was a victim of Nazi brutality and conquest. But this law will do nothing to shift the balance of blame away from Poland; if anything, it makes it worse. By suppressing free speech, the Polish government appears as if it has something to hide.

This law casts a dark shadow over Poland’s reputation vis-à-vis the Holocaust because it makes Poland seem evasive, secretive and defensive; one does not defend oneself unless one has something to defend.

If this law’s intent is to protect Poland’s reputation, it has failed miserably. Not only has it drawn ire from the international community, which sees it as an attempt at obfuscation and rewriting history, but it has caused many people to wonder what Poland is trying to hide. This in turn has emboldened many researchers to begin looking into atrocities committed by Poland during the Holocaust, which was certainly not the law’s intent.

The best way to rehabilitate and protect Poland’s reputation when it comes to the Holocaust is not to advance draconian laws that violate international standards of freedom of expression and journalism, but to encourage more research, documentation and commemoration of the many Polish heroes who fought back against the Nazis and worked to save their Jewish neighbors.

Because I view the people of Poland as members of the family of developed and enlightened cultures, I firmly expect the Supreme Constitutional Court in Poland to declare this law unconstitutional in its current form, as it does not comply with the democratic values of freedom of expression and of press, which Poland adopted both in its internal code of constitutional principles and by virtue of belonging to the European Union and European conventions.

We filed our amicus brief as “friends of the court” for a reason. We are not acting against the Polish people, its legacy or its laws, but rather against an amendment that, in its current version, contributes greatly to erasing the memory of the Holocaust and its horrors. We have no doubt that this was not the intention of the legislature, which is why we are taking action. We must all partner to fight anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, racism and human rights violations in all corners of the globe.

Myers is deputy president of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.




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