Under its right-wing nationalist government, Poland has engaged in competitive victimization, emphasising the experience of Polish victims over that of Jewish victims. The government spends considerable effort on rewriting history rather than acknowledging and learning from it.
Holocaust remembrance is under clear threat in Poland.
The task of remembering the Holocaust was postponed throughout the communist era, in no small part because much wartime suffering was also Soviet-inflicted, and against Poles. After communism’s fall, a liberal administration made significant progress in initiating the process of remembrance. Poles began to have conversations about their past and engaged in public discourse and debate about Polish complicity in the Holocaust.
In 2015, the nationalist, populist Law and Justice party secured a majority in parliament as well as the presidency. The party is opposed to the forms of Holocaust remembrance introduced after communism. In the last three years, the government has limited Holocaust education. Public expressions of anti-Semitism are on the rise, despite the country having a tiny Jewish community, as the government moves to restrict debate and insist that Poles suffered as much as Jews during WWII.
This movement culminated in the passing of an amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance in January 2018. The act prohibited the false attribution of blame for Nazi crimes to the Polish state or nation, provoked in part by outrage over use of the term “Polish death camps” to refer to Nazi-administered concentration camps. Critics saw it as an egregious denial of the role which many individuals in Poland played in the capture and killing of Jews. The international community reacted swiftly. The parliament modified the amendment in June 2018, replacing the original criminal penalty with a civil one. Although this appeased some in the international community, Polish Jews and leaders in the Holocaust remembrance community remain frightened of the current government’s intentions and capabilities.
The memory of the Holocaust in Poland is defined by competing narratives of suffering. Anna Wencel, Education Manager at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, explained that in every group of Poles, “you will always find one person who says that Polish people also died in the concentration camps.”
Poland’s historic understanding of itself as the ‘Jesus of the Nations,’ a deeply religious country which has suffered for too long under the might of its powerful neighbours, renders its status as a country of victims, rather than oppressors, core to its self-understanding. Thus, attempts to nuance the role of Poles in the war by suggesting that they may have been at once victims and perpetrators threatens many Poles’ understanding of their national identity.
In the first few years after the war, anti-Semitism was spontaneous and ground-level. The Soviet Union supported the establishment of Israel, hoping that Israel would act as a Soviet satellite in the Middle East. When it became clear that Israel would not cooperate, the Soviet Union partnered with other Arab countries and turned anti-Zionist. This stance ushered in a new era of anti-Semitism. From 1956-1968, most of the country’s few remaining Jews fled from Poland to Israel.
The main act of Holocaust remembrance during communist rule was an annual commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In 1970, West German chancellor Willy Brandt visited Warsaw and kneeled in front of Warsaw ghetto memorial. The act was understood as an apology for the Holocaust, exonerating Poland of guilt.
The Holocaust in Poland
Germany attacked Poland in September of 1939, crushing the Polish army and setting off World War II. The same month, the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland, leaving the west to Germany. The Germans incorporated part of their territory into the Reich, and incorporated another part as the ‘General Government,’ to be administered by the Nazi lawyer Hans Frank. The Polish government did not comply at any time with German rule and attempted underground resistance efforts while exiled in Britain.
Before the war, Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish population. About 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland, constituting about 10% of the Polish population. This fact, along with the country’s proximity to Germany, made Poland the ideal location for German execution of its “final solution.” The Nazis established six death camps in Poland: Chełmno, Sobibór, Bełżec, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Jews from all over Europe were deported to Poland and murdered in these camps and almost three million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
The process of genocide in Poland began with German occupation in 1939. Just months after occupation began, the Germans required Jews to wear the yellow star on their clothing. Soon after, Nazis began relocating Jews to ghettos. Jews then lived under strict regulations. The Nazis enforced curfews, food rations, and work requirements. The Warsaw Ghetto, along with other similar ghettos across Poland, was sealed off in 1940. Jews lived in harsh conditions within the ghettos and many died of starvation and disease.
The “final solution” began in Poland in 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. During this initial “Holocaust by bullets” the German police massacred some 700,000 Jews living in the newly acquired eastern territory.
In the next stage of the Holocaust in Poland, the Nazi used “gas vans,” vehicles equipped to kill Jews by piping carbon monoxide directly from the engine to an airtight chamber. This technique was mostly used at Chełmno.
In 1942, the Nazis began using some existing concentration camps as extermination camps for Jews, installing crematoria and gas chambers. The Nazis transported Jews via an extensive railway system as the ghettos were liquidated and about 90% of all Polish Jews were murdered.
German occupation was brutal for non-Jewish Poles as well, but never reached the genocidal extent of Jewish suffering. No “final solution” existed for ethnic Poles, although the Nazi’s Generalplan Ost called for removing vast numbers of ethnic Poles to remote areas in Russia. Poles were regarded as second-class citizens under the Nazis’ ethnic worldview and Poles were given curfews and food rations, but the restrictions placed on them were often less strict than those put on the Jewish population.
The Germans prohibited Poles from assisting Jews. Unlike in other European countries, the penalty for helping Jews in Poland was death without trial for the individual’s entire family. Amid these dangers, the Polish resistance organized into a Home Army to fight German occupation. In 1944, the Home Army led the Warsaw Uprising, which was the largest military resistance effort of WWII. The uprising lasted more than 60 days before being brutally suppressed by the Nazis. In retaliation, the Nazis killed more than 16,000 Polish resistance fighters and destroyed most of Warsaw, additionally killing 150,000 Polish civilians.
While the Polish government had no role in the perpetration of the Holocaust, individual Poles were involved in both the persecution and protection of Jews. Historical research has shown that some non-Jewish Poles murdered their Jewish neighbours, most infamously in the Jedwabne massacre, where the ethnic Poles of the town of Jedwabne killed more than 300 Jews, most of whom they rounded up in a barn which they then set on fire. Many of these acts of murder were executed without German instruction or assistance, although in some cases German officers may have influenced and encouraged the local population. At the same time, perhaps due to being the site where so much of the Holocaust played out, Poland is home to the greatest number of Righteous Among the Nations, the honorific bestowed upon gentiles who saved Jews during the war. Almost 7,000 Poles have been recognized by Yad Vashem for their role in protecting the Jews.
- 1943: Poet Czeslaw Milosz writes “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” already
anticipating the burden of guilt that will haunt Christian Poles.
- 1947: The first parliamentary elections are held since before the war gives power to the Soviet-aligned Polish Workers' Party.
- 1956: A wave of emigration to Israel is sparked by the anti-Semitism provoked by
- 1967-68: The Polish government wages an anti-Semitic campaign following Israel’s
victory over Soviet allies in the Six-Day War and the cessation of diplomatic relations
between Israel and the USSR. Half the country’s remaining Jewish population is
stripped of citizenship and forced to emigrate.
- 1970: West German Chancellor Willy Brandt visits Warsaw and kneels before the
memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
- 1979: John Paul II comes to Poland, the first time a pope visits under Communism, e
and holds mass at Auschwitz.
- 1987: Inspired by Milosz’ 1943 poem, Jan Błoński publishes “The Poor Poles Look at the
Ghetto,” pleading Poles to reckon with what he sees as their collective responsibility in
- 1993: Steven Spielberg releases Schindler’s List, a film about a German industrialist
who hides hundreds of Jews at his factory in Krakow, further stoking conversations
about Jewish wartime experience in Poland.
- 1997: The Law on the Relation of the State to Jewish Communities passes, initiating a
five-year period during which Jewish communities can apply for the restitution of
- 1998: The government establishes the Institute of National Remembrance.
- 2001: Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński found the Law and Justice party.
- 2001: Jan Gross publishes Neighbors, a historical account of the massacre of the Jews
of Jedwabne by their non-Jewish neighbours.
- 2002: The National Institute of Remembrance completes an independent investigation
into the events at Jedwabne in aftermath of debate following Neighbors, affirming Gross’
- 2003: The Neighbors Respond, a collection of articles from the debate following
Neighbors is published.
- 2015: The right-wing populist Law and Justice party wins a plurality in the election and
takes control of government.
- 2018: The amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance makes it a
criminal offense to claim complicity of the Polish state or nation in Nazi crimes against
humanity. Several months later the law is amended to excise the criminal punishment
after widespread condemnation by the international media and several of Poland’s
- 2018: President Andzrej Duda formally apologizes for the expulsions of 1968, though
makes clear that the communists are to blame and that today’s Poles bear no
responsibility to the Jews for past events.
Changes in the country’s approach to Holocaust remembrance were exacerbated by the rise of the populist right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), which won almost 38% of the vote in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Under its leadership, the government has pursued a controversial approach to Holocaust remembrance. According to PiS, Poland has been maligned as one of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, rather than one of its victims. As evidence, it points to Western media usage of the phrase “Polish death camps.”
A desire to assert the country’s lack of complicity in Nazi crimes drove the now famous amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance. The amendment, signed into law in February 2018, made it a criminal offense (punishable by a fine and up to three years in prison) to ascribe ’against the facts‘ crimes committed by the Nazis to the Polish State or the Polish Nation. In defence of the bill, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of PiS, said that it was not intended to target ’someone who says that somewhere, in some village, some place, a Jewish family or one Jewish person was murdered.’ Rather, it aims to stop people blaming the Polish nation.
This defence leaves unanswered questions such as what is the Polish nation? As prominent Polish journalist and activist Konstanty Gebert points out, the word “nation,” takes a distinctively ethnic connotation in Polish. It appears is in the preamble of the country’s constitution, referring to all legal citizens of Poland. If this is the definition the government has in mind, then it remains unclear how the law can be applied; nobody would ever claim that every single citizen of Poland is responsible for Nazi crimes. This fundamental impracticality regarding the law’s structure points to the essentially symbolic importance of the amendment. Even if nobody can actually be prosecuted for breaking the law, its existence is meant as a further statement of Poland’s status as a victim, rather than a perpetrator, of suffering during the war. Because ethnic Poles were sent to concentration camps, suffered the evils of military occupation, and were considered inferior under the Nazi’s pseudo-scientific worldview, Poles feel that their plight during the war has been overshadowed and underappreciated.
Auschwitz represents in some ways a perfect symbol of these sparring perspectives, according to British journalist Christian Davies, correspondent for the Guardian in Warsaw. Internationally, Auschwitz has become synonymous with the Holocaust, and especially the suffering of Europe’s Jews. And yet, Auschwitz was many things, among them, a destination for political prisoners, many of whom were ethnic Poles. About 70,000 ethnic Poles were killed at Auschwitz, or 5.8% of the total victims (Jews constituted 91% of the victims). Visitors to Auschwitz pass through a long hallway with hundreds of headshots of these Polish victims. As Davies put it, “For many here Auschwitz is a symbol of the Nazi occupation of Poland, and for rest of the world it’s a symbol of the Holocaust.”
For two key Polish allies, the United States and Israel, the amendment to the remembrance law created alarm because of the possibility that it would encourage Holocaust revisionism and minimization. In response, the amendment was itself amended in June, 2018. Instead of a criminal offense, use of the term ‘Polish death camp’ became a civil offense.
Many Poles interviewed expressed deep concern about the manner in which the June amendment was passed, with the entire legislative process beginning and ending in one day. The expediency of the process was seen as symptomatic of the Law and Justice party’s crusade to destroy the legal system and liberal democratic values such as open debate.
The Law and Justice government has greatly reduced Holocaust education.
Before the party took power, Holocaust education had been mandatory in Poland since 1999. In 2017, under its watch, thousands of teachers were fired and as a result of curricular restructuring, the number of times that students would learn about the Holocaust was reduced from three (once each in elementary, middle, and high school) to two (once in eighth grade and again in 12th grade).
The new curriculum altered the way the Holocaust is addressed. Before 2017, it focused on the suffering of the Jews during WWII. Today, it requires teachers to instead discuss the role of Poles in saving Jews during the Holocaust. Jewish history is only taught in reference to the Holocaust.
The new administration has introduced a specific list of organizations that are banned from entering or presenting at Polish schools. Included on this list is POLIN, Poland’s largest and most prominent museum of Jewish history. Another worrisome curricula change is the removal of anti-discrimination education. Taught since 1999, the government contends that Polish students do not need anti-discrimination education because Poland is already a highly tolerant and equal society.
The result is that it has become dangerous for teachers to teach the Holocaust. Government inspectors pay random visits to schools and classrooms to ensure that students are learning Holocaust history in the prescribed manner. Headmasters of schools that violate the national curriculum or the inspector’s wishes face the threat of job loss and as a result, many headmasters have taken preventative measures to limit Holocaust education within their schools.
The Catholic church represents another powerful influence on education. As Anna Wencel put it, ’The school has two headmasters. The official headmaster and the local priest.’
Holocaust archives in Poland are open to the public. Yad Vashem and POLIN have worked to digitize some of the archives and to secure video testaments of survivors.
The POLIN museum in Warsaw holds a five-day teacher training program called “Teaching with Testimony in 21st Century” through which teachers learn to access these digital archives.
The National Archives are kept in the Central Archives of Historical Records (AGAD) in Warsaw, and anyone can gain access by approaching the institute with a reason for inquiry. There have been no known recent cases of denial to any documents. Even the controversial amendment on the Law on the Act of National Remembrance explicitly excluded academic research from its scope, suggesting that unimpeded access to historical materials is not under threat.
The government has returned some property to the country’s Jewish communities, including synagogues and cemeteries. It is far more common for cemeteries to be returned than developable land, according to Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis, National Head of Education and Outreach for the Jewish Communities of Poland.
Restitution for individual Jews is murky. No restitution law exists, leaving Jews who seek to regain their property at the mercy of judges. According to the World Jewish Restitution Organization, Poland is the only major European country that has not created a legal framework for helping Jews to recover the property they lost both during the Nazi era and Communist times.
When the amendment to the Law on the Institute of National Remembrance was proposed, the main opposition (and Pro-European) party Civic Platform opposed it. Since the divisive term “Polish death camps” was seen as the catalyst for the bill, Civic Platform suggested making the bill refer exclusively to the misattribution of Nazi camps to the Polish state. Civic Platform has continued to fight Law and Justice’s attempt to rewrite history, highlighting the country’s deteriorating international reputation.
The most prominent social organization in Poland is the Roman Catholic church. In 1979, John Paul II visited Poland and relayed the message that Christians are responsible for remembering and commemorating the suffering of the Jews. In 1987, Jan Błoński’s article ‘The Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto’ was published in Tygodnik Powszechny, a Catholic Polish newspaper. The article, which called for Poland to reckon with the crimes committed against its Jews, inspired mass debate over the responsibility of Poles in the Holocaust.
In recent years, however, the church has not supported Holocaust remembrance. Many local priests are actively involved in schools and discourage Holocaust education.
Although recent developments have changed the culture around the politics of memory in Poland, the country has an inspired history of searching for truth around the history of the Holocaust. Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum writes:
Poland was ground zero for the post-Soviet reclamation of the truth about the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes, much of which happened on Polish soil under the brutal German occupation. Since the fall of communism, successive Polish governments of various political parties extended – and often expanded — the nation’s commitment to the preservation of the six German killing centers in Poland. The Germans and several other countries provided some funding, but Poland assumed the major financial, historical and moral responsibility.
Poland is filled with official Holocaust memorials, and commemorations remain regular occurrences. In addition to observing January 27th, the International Holocaust Remembrance Day marking the liberation of Auschwitz, the government observes April 19th, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In 2014, Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich remarked, ‘The country is becoming a model of how to deal with lost memory, and to get it right.’
Under the Law and Justice government, he Ministry of Culture, has shifted its focus away from memorializing Jews and toward commemorating the plight of ethnic Poles. For instance, the Ministry of Education has historically kept a list of sponsored museums that it recommends to students and teachers but since the new administration took control, POLIN, Warsaw’s museum of the history of Polish Jews, has been conspicuously removed.
Deputy Minister of Culture and National Heritage Jaroslaw Sellin even endorsed the idea of building a museum to the ‘Polocaust,’ a term coined by academic Marek Kochan to refer to the suffering of Polish victims of Nazism. Sellin later retracted his support, citing the negative effects such a museum would have on the government’s relationship with the Jewish community.
Another episode indicative of the government’s attitude to Holocaust remembrance is controversy surrounding the World War II museum in Gdansk. The Law and Justice government criticized the project, initiated by the former government, as neglecting the ‘Polish experience.’ In 2017, the government fired museum director Paweł Machcewicz. From a former willingness to interrogate its past mistakes and unseemly episodes, the Polish government’s narrative around the country’s wartime history has shifted to near exclusive emphasis on Polish suffering and Polish heroism.
Some of the most significant commemoration efforts still originate in the country’s museums. Although many are supported financially by the government, they represent independent and diverse perspectives. Museums host various events to commemorate and teach about the Holocaust. For instance, the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow has a mobile exhibition in a bus that it takes to rural communities that might not otherwise have good access to museums. Educators customize the exhibition to teach about the local history of each region the bus visits.
While institutions like the Galicia Museum, POLIN in Warsaw, and the World War II museum in Gdansk have all made important strides in teaching about the Holocaust, other new government-supported institutions focus on other narratives of Polish history. The Markowa Ulma-Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews in World War II almost exclusively details – as the name implies – the efforts of ethnic Poles to save Jews. Some have criticized the museum, claiming it suggests an exaggerated narrative of Polish heroism and neglects to mention the examples of Poles who killed Jews or otherwise abetted their demise.
Since the 2015 elections, the Law and Justice Party has embarked on a campaign to limit freedom of the press. “PiS’s attempts to tame the media form part of a broader push by the party to weaken the checks and balances that guarantee Poland’s democracy,” reports Freedom House. The party has replaced key staffers at public media companies and pushed the media environment away from that of a liberal democracy and toward that of a more authoritarian regime.
Even so, Polish media runs the gamut when it comes to Holocaust remembrance. Established dailies such as the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza have been critical of the present government’s approach to Holocaust remembrance. When Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki referred earlier this year to the ‘Jewish perpetrators’ who participated in the Holocaust, the paper headlined its critical coverage as ‘Political Bungling’). Right wing paper Nasz Dziennik was very supportive of the remarks, saying “The collaboration between Jewish institutions and individual Jews with the Germans… is a fact known to Holocaust historians and researchers for many years.”
Nasz Dziennik is not the only outlet embracing revisionist history. The Catholic outfit Radio Maryja, for instance, has been widely panned as anti-Semitic both for remarks made on its programs and its endorsement of convicted Holocaust deniers such as Ryszard Bender. The station is not on the fringes of society; it has hosted former PM Jarosław Kaczyński and other mainstream conservative politicians.
Many Poles are distrustful of Western media outlets, which they see as biased against Poland. They are not wrong; in the aftermath of the controversial Holocaust bill, many articles in American outlets failed to mention key parts of the amendment, such as the fact that it made exceptions for all academic and artistic publications, and that it was only false statements, those ‘against the facts,’ which would become illegal – not all claims about Polish complicity in Nazi crimes.
According to the World Jewish Congress, fewer than 10,000 Jews live in Poland. The number is an estimation because any sort of registration by religion or race raises red flags within the Jewish community and throughout Europe.
During communism, no reparations were made. Anti-Semitism persisted during communism and afterwards. Today there is anti-Semitism without Jews, which many believe is possible because Poles have variously equated Jews to Communists and Zionists, despite the historical antagonism between the two groups.
Jewish life in Poland improved after 2003. The liberal government returned cemeteries and other property to the communities. The number of Jewish community activities increased. The Holocaust Bill unsettled the Jewish community. While many, including Rabbi Ellis, believe that the bill was not motivated by anti-Semitism, the law was announced on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which many Polish Jews felt to be particularly insensitive. Some felt that the Israeli Embassy should have been more proactive in responding to the amendment. The community feels powerless to impact the national discussion. Polish Jews feel insignificant, Rabbi Ellis said. ‘We almost don’t exist.’
-Authors: Jeremy Epstein and Lindsay Daugherty