(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 7.)
Truth can be elusive. Consider the recent furore over the Polish government’s introduction of a law that, according to some critics, will greatly restrict public discussion of Poland’s involvement in the Holocaust during World War Two.
The new law prohibits mention of “Polish death camps” – on the face of it, an interference in the right of free speech. Yet it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Poland’s lawmakers.
Auschwitz (or Oswiecim, as it’s properly known in Polish) and other notorious extermination camps – Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek – may have been sited on Polish soil, but they were not put there by Poles.
They were built and administered by Nazi Germany, which preferred to conduct its programme of genocide outside its own borders. Perhaps that was the Nazis’ way of pretending their hands were clean.
I have been to Auschwitz, but even standing on the site of the gas chambers, it’s impossible to grasp the enormity of what happened there.
The Germans alone were culpable, but the commonly used phrase “Polish death camps” carried the implication that Poland was somehow responsible for these abominations. And as the generations who remember World War Two gradually die out, there was a risk that people who don’t know any better might be misled into thinking that Poland as a nation was complicit in the Holocaust.
Seen in this context, who could object if the Polish government wanted to prohibit usage of the term? Yet Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu strenuously denounced the law change and even implied that Poland was guilty of Holocaust denial.
Really? Weren’t the Poles entitled to protect their national reputation?
My 95-year-old Polish mother-in-law, who remembers the war only too well, was seriously indignant at Netanyahu’s objections, as I imagine most New Zealand Poles would have been. She interpreted his statements as suggesting that the Poles collectively bore some responsibility for the Nazi death camps, which would have been a grievous slur on Polish honour.
But this is where it gets complicated. Some Israeli critics argue that the Polish law change threatens to stifle debate about Poles who killed Jews during the war.
As is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere between extremes. Polish people were neither fully complicit in the Holocaust, nor wholly innocent.
There were documented cases of Poles, police included, playing an active role. As in some other eastern European countries, a degree of anti-Semitism was rooted in Polish culture.
Against that, as my mother-in-law would point out, there were many well-documented cases of Poles risking their lives to save Jews from the Nazis. The Polish nurse Irena Sendler was credited with smuggling 2500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and thereby saving them from the gas chambers – a feat of extraordinary courage for which she was honoured in 1965 by the state of Israel.
The Polish underground organisation Zegota, of which Sendler was a member, operated secret cells that supplied aid to an estimated 50,000 Polish Jews in hiding.
These examples run counter to the narrative, promoted by some Jewish critics of the recent law change, that portrayed Poland as complicit in the Holocaust.
An article by Alex Ryvchin, director of public affairs at the Australian Council of Australian Jewry, made the scurrilous claim that “Poles were often only too happy to see the demise of their Jewish neighbours”. There you have it – an entire country casually libelled in a few words.
As a public relations strategy, the tendency of some Jewish activists to stridently allege anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial everywhere they look seems doomed to produce diminishing returns. It has become a kneejerk reaction to allege anti-Semitic motives even where none exist. A possible consequence of this tendency to play the blame game is that people will take the phone off the hook.
Like the Polish politicians who worry that ignorant people might interpret the phrase “Polish death camps” literally, Jewish activists are concerned that generations will grow up knowing nothing of the atrocities committed against Jews during the war.
But in their eagerness to remind us of the terrible things that happened to Jewry, they run the risk that they will be seen as promoting a perception that only Jews are allowed to be seen as victims of Nazism. And in their determination to portray themselves as being at war with an implacably hostile world, they risk alienating people who might otherwise be their friends.
No one can deny that Jews were uniquely targeted for extermination, but others suffered terribly too.
Poles, like Jews, were considered an inferior race by the Nazis. Nearly six million Poles died under German occupation. Many of those who survived, my parents-in-law among them, were forcibly displaced and put to work in slave labour camps.
The truth, as I said at the start of this column, can be elusive. The Polish death camps were Nazi creations – that’s one truth. Some Poles collaborated in the persecution of Jews – that’s another truth. These truths can co-exist without cancelling each other out.
The ultimate, incontrovertible truth is that war is brutally dehumanising; terrible things happen.