IHRA Honorary Chairman Statement on Polish Legislation

Honorary Chairman to the IHRA, Professor Yehuda Bauer speaks about IHRA’s mission in relation to the latest amendment to Polish law surrounding the Holocaust in Poland.

“I would like to comment on the current issue of the IHRA’s attitude to the amendment to Polish legislation, passed by the Polish parliament, relating to the so-called protection of Polish national honor dealing with the Holocaust.

The IHRA’s mission, as defined in the Stockholm Declaration, is to deal with the memory of the Holocaust, and further education and research on the issues connected with that genocide. Poland is committed to the Declaration, and that is the basis of its membership in the IHRA. The legislation under discussion deals, beyond the verbiage, with at least three distinct issues.

One is the opposition to calling the concentration and death camps in Poland in World War II “Polish” camps, which is a justified and obvious demand: these were German camps on occupied Polish soil. There were no Polish guards in those camps, only Polish prisoners and victims. But this is a non-issue: no serious academic or politician or government will object to this Polish demand. The IHRA fully supported the Polish stand on this matter. The Polish government’s insistent repetition of a demand that is accepted by practically all Holocaust Research and Memorial Centers – certainly by all the major centres in Jerusalem, Washington, Amsterdam, Paris (and elsewhere) affiliated with the IHRA – seems to hide the real purpose of the legislation, which is to attack free research on the Holocaust in Poland. I am deeply suspicious of concepts like ‘national honor’, certainly when it applies to whole nations or ethnicities.

The second issue is that the legislation criminalizes anyone who claims that the Polish nation or State was responsible for the crimes perpetrated on Polish soil during the war. This is an odd argument. There could be no act of the Polish nation or State on Polish soil during the war, because Poland was occupied and terrorized by a foreign power. There was an underground anti-German political and military presence which of course could not act as an open government. The Polish government-in-exile had only limited control over the underground. It is true that contrary to other countries, there was no Polish political collaboration with Nazi Germany. This is hardly surprising, because Nazi Germany had no wish to establish or negotiate with any Polish political group – they wanted to eliminate the Polish nationality as such and turn the Polish people into slaves. The ‘national’ pride here is again a non-issue.

The third, and central, point is the question of Polish-Jewish relations on occupied Polish soil during the war. Establishment historians in Poland argue that the Polish people tried to rescue the Jews. There were, they say, huge numbers of Polish rescuers, and the prototypical case is the Ulma family in the small township of Markowa. The Ulmas tried to rescue two Jewish families, were betrayed and were murdered, together with the Jews they had tried to hide. The museum established there presents the Polish nation as a nation of rescuers, which is a blatant lie. It hides the fact that in the villages and small townships around Markowa, peasants went out with pitchforks and clubs to hunt down and kill the Jews who tried to escape, or handed them over to the Polish police who fully collaborated with the Germans, or handed them over to the Germans directly. This was repeated all over the Polish countryside. Polish participation in the murder of Jews was widespread. The rescuers – not 60.000, as some Polish quasi-historians argue, but maybe up to a third of that number or less, out of some 21 or so million ethnic Poles – were real heroes. They had to protect Jews not only from the Germans, but also, in many cases, mainly from their Polish neighbors. Positive attitudes to Jews by an important minority, however, went beyond the rescuers, many helped, and some of the underground movements were friendly to Jews. Most were not. But no Jew in Poland could survive without some help from Poles.

It is this complicated reality that is the subject under discussion. The legislation is designed to make research of this difficult and complicated subject impossible: it supposedly protects scientific and artistic works from criminalization. But who determines what such works are? What about an investigative journalist? An aspiring but not (yet?) recognized artist? Or a tourist guide explaining how the local population gleefully robbed the property of the Jews as they were being herded to be murdered? Or a simple B.A. student writing a seminar paper and asking for material at an archive – when they submit their paper, will they then serve 3 years in jail because they found that a group of villagers murdered their Jewish neighbors? I guess they will prefer not to write the paper. In such an atmosphere there can be no free research or publication. It is an authoritarian, illiberal, climate. It is opposed, openly and courageously, by wonderful Polish historians, mainly but not solely around the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, with such prominent professors as Barbara Engelking, Dariusz Libionka and many others. They published a declaration of their own on January 28 of this year (actually a re-publication of a very strong opposition to the legislation in 2016).  The governmental policy is also opposed by the director of POLIN, the museum of Polish Jewry in Warsaw.

The IHRA should demand, with all possible force, that this kind of legislation be annulled. It cannot be recognized by any civilized society. Poland is an essential part of the IHRA, and the relations within the IHRA with Polish colleagues have been, at all times, absolutely excellent. But the Polish government must make up its mind: for freedom of inquiry, research, publication, the right to err as well as the right to be right, or against it, and that means against the Stockholm Declaration and against the IHRA.”

Professor Yehuda Bauer, Honorary Chairman to the IHRA