For the Polish Government, Memory of the Holocaust Must Not Interfere with a Narrative of Polish Victimhood

July 21, 2020 | Ben Cohen
About the author: Ben Cohen, a New York-based writer, has contributed essays on anti-Semitism and related issues to Mosaic and other publications.

Earlier this month, Andrzej Duda narrowly won another term as president of Poland. Among the symbolic issues bandied about in the campaign was the legislation to provide restitution for Jewish property stolen by Polish Gentiles during and after the Holocaust (Duda is opposed), and an admiring remark from Duda’s opponent about Benedict Spinoza (denounced by the government-owned television channel as an “anti-Catholic” statement in favor of a “Jewish philosopher.”) Ben Cohen comments:

According to the Polish president, the responsibility for restitution lies solely with Germany. There are a number of legal objections to Duda’s view. . . . But such technicalities cut little ice in Warsaw these days, chiefly because Duda’s government has “nationalized” the memory of the Holocaust. By that, I mean that the official depiction of the Holocaust by the state-run Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) would have us believe that Poles and Jews were equal partners in victimhood, and that the Holocaust was as much a Polish tragedy as a Jewish one.

Within the confines of this distorted narrative, there is no room to discuss the thorny issue of collaboration—the very word elicits fury in the corridors of the IPN—of ordinary Poles with the occupying German authorities. Any notion that Poles contributed directly to the slaughter of their country’s historic Jewish community is regarded not as historical fact, but as defamation.

For Poland’s current crop of leaders, it isn’t enough that the most serious Holocaust historians, along with Jewish and Israeli leaders, have recognized that the Poles suffered profoundly as a nation under the Nazis, and that many of the mechanisms for collaboration that existed elsewhere in Eastern Europe—like, for example, joining local units of the SS—were absent in Poland. It seems that nothing less than a title deed to the word “Holocaust” will suffice.

As wrenching as it is to say this. . . the legacy of two forms of totalitarianism—Nazism and Communism—continue to impact Poland, alongside its long, grim tradition of domestic anti-Semitism.

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