Remembrance Without Denial: Poland's Role in the Holocaust

The Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament, in session this January ( source )

The Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament, in session this January (source)


This past January, Poland’s Sejm, or Lower Parliament, passed a bill into law that could result in up to three years imprisonment for citizens who provide “public and contrary-to-fact conduct that attributes responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich to the Polish nation or the Polish state”. While it is undeniable that the Nazi war machine made the ultimate decision to carry out what was considered their ‘final solution to the Jewish question’, it is both ahistorical and asinine to claim that Poland, and the Polish people, did not play any role in the destruction of European Jewry.

A diagram outlining the setup of the Jedwabne pogrom ( source )

A diagram outlining the setup of the Jedwabne pogrom (source)

During the war several pogroms (riots targeting Jews) occurred at the hands of Polish civilians. The most infamous of these was the Jedwabne pogrom of 1941, when members of the small town decided to apprehend nearly a thousand local Jews. That night, every Jewish man, woman, and child was forced into a small barn before it was set on fire, killing everyone inside. It was not until decades later that the truth about the murders became public, because it was assumed the Nazi’s had been responsible, and not the townspeople themselves. Polish civilians were known to have participated in the various struggles facing prisoners within the Nazi death camps. Kapos, who were largely made up of incarcerated Polish citizens, lived in these camps as block leaders, with many developing notorious reputations. The stories of several Holocaust survivors have depicted some of the more brutal Kapos as having inflicted more suffering upon prisoners than the actual SS guards.

Public agencies in Poland, such as the Polish police force, also played a role in the Holocaust’s execution by colluding with the Nazis in tasks such as confining Jewish civilians into ghettos to be liquidated by SS officials at a later date. Although, yes, Poland was a victim of Nazi aggression, some among the Polish populous actively participated in the widespread theft of Jewish property and were willfully employed in the building and maintaining of ghettos and death camps during the Second World War, amongst other acts. To deny history is to damn future generations to commit past mistakes. Ironically, in an attempt to help rid Poland of any blame of collusion with an authoritarian regime, Poland’s Lower Parliament has made itself more authoritarian in essence by denying its own citizens the ability to speak accurately on the matter of their own nation’s history.

In reaction to the near universal backlash that this new law caused on the global stage, legislators did remove its criminality aspect in June. However, Polish citizens may still be sued by Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance in exercising their right to free speech on this issue. The fact that Poles may still be targeted by government-affiliated institutions for stating historical facts is reprehensible and cannot be tolerated. The horrors of the Second World War did occur, and to prevent a future Holocaust it is imperative that the international community remembers what happened, as it happened, no matter how difficult that may be to accept.

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