A law recently passed by the Polish parliament declares it illegal to use the phrase “Polish death camps” to refer to the factories of mass-murder built by Germany on Polish soil during World War II. More ominously, the law also states that “whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich . . . shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.” While calling the law “foolish,” Jonathan Tobin also urges Jews to be circumspect in their response:
[The law] is an attempt to deny the long history of Polish antisemitism, the fact that some Poles helped the Germans kill Jews, and the hostile and sometimes violent reception Jewish survivors got when they tried to return to their homes after the war. . . .
But as wrongheaded as this bill is, this is a moment for Jews to stop and think about the meaning of history and its implications for our lives today. . . . Jewish attitudes toward Poles are still more the product of historical memories than of the generally good relations that exist today between Israel and Poland. Jew-hatred was widespread in the independent Polish republic that was destroyed by a German invasion in 1939. [Beginning in the 1930s], it was also officially sanctioned by the government and rooted in centuries of religious prejudice whipped up by many in the Catholic Church. . . .
[Yet], as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has noted, talk of “Polish death camps” is inaccurate. The phrase shifts blame from the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust to the invaded nation where the bulk of the murders took place. The Holocaust was the fault of its German perpetrators and their collaborators, not the Poles. The fact that the death camps were located in Poland was a function of logistics, not a belief that that Poles would help the Nazis kill Jews. . . .
Jews and Poles don’t need to be enemies anymore. To the contrary, given Poland’s delicate strategic situation and the ongoing attacks on Israel, they have much in common. So rather than engaging in mutual condemnations, Jewish critics of the new law should speak with the same understanding and compassion for Polish suffering and sensibilities that they demand for their own history.
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