We have commented before on Poland’s effort to reframe Holocaust history, and to whitewash the involvement of Polish citizens in Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust. The effort attracted attention a couple of years ago, with the passage of Poland’s “anti-defamation law,” which made it unlawful to claim that Polish citizens were responsible — individually or collectively — for Nazi war crimes, including the death of some 3 million Polish Jews. The law made the violation a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison, and declared that it could be enforced anywhere in the world, regardless of local laws. The ensuing international outcry eventually caused the law to be modified, to make such “defamation” a civil offense.
Poland’s anti-defamation effort won a victory last week, when a Warsaw court ruled that two authors must apologize for tarnishing the memory of a Polish villager in their book. While the claim in the lawsuit focused on allegations about the actions of a single person, the ruling is all about “national honor,” and the Polish government’s campaign to absolve every Pole of complicity in the Holocaust and recast them as innocent victims of Nazi occupiers.
Quite simply, Poland seeks to establish national honor through historical amnesia. Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt calls the Polish approach “soft-core Holocaust denial.”
The Warsaw case concerned “Night Without End,” a 1,700-page book by historians Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking about Polish collaboration during World War II, in which the authors wrote that Edward Malinowski, the mayor of a Polish village, allowed a Jewish woman to survive by helping her pass as a non-Jew. But the woman is also quoted as saying the mayor may have been complicit in a massacre of local Jews by German soldiers.
For that, the historians were sued for “violating the honor” of the mayor — who was acquitted of complicity in the murders in 1950 — by “providing inaccurate information.” And the two researchers have been accused of “defiling the good name” of a Polish hero, which supposedly harms all Poles.
The decision, which is being appealed, is seen as a test of the controversial defamation law. But the pursuit of the case shows that Poland is heading further into xenophobia and self-blindness, where mention of an individual’s guilt is seen as an attack on the nation’s honor. That dangerous attitude supported the recently reported questioning of Katarzyna Markusz, a journalist, on suspicion of “slandering the Polish nation” for writing that “Polish participation in the Holocaust is a historical fact.”
Grabowski, the historian, put it this way: “The Holocaust is not here to help the Polish ego and morale. It’s a drama involving the death of 6 million people — which seems to be forgotten by the nationalists.”
We have a sacred responsibility to remember, which is part of our “Never Again” commitment. And if that means exposing the bad actors in Poland or anywhere else, it must be done.