Children of survivors say new law criminalizing Polish culpability in the Shoah obscures the truth.
Families of local Holocaust survivors reacted with harsh words to a new ruling by the Polish government that makes it a crime to cast Poles or Poland in a culpable light in terms of the Holocaust, concentration camps or Jewish genocide that occurred on Polish soil during WWII.
On Feb. 6, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a law that makes it illegal for people to discuss or accuse Poland of Holocaust atrocities committed by the Nazis and from referring to concentration camps as “Polish death camps.” The United States and Israel harshly criticized the law passed by the far-right government, which threatens even Holocaust survivors with imprisonment for speaking or writing about Polish complicity with the Nazis during WWII.
The ruling was then followed by another ruling banning the kosher slaughter of animals for consumption, on the grounds it was inhumane to animals. And, at press time, the Polish government has decided to “re-examine” a draft bill for reparations to Jews whose property was seized during WWII.
In a statement released by the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, CEO Rabbi Eli Meyerfeld expressed alarm about the legislation and said now, more than ever, there is urgency to the message of tolerance, education and learning lessons from the Holocaust.
“This is a dangerous precedent that distorts history and is an attempt to silence serious conversation. The events of the Holocaust have been documented and cannot be denied. Poland and all nations have a responsibility to preserve the history of the Holocaust and learn from this dark chapter in human history.
“We particularly stand together with the brave people of Poland today, where a significant percentage of its citizens are protesting this distortion of their history.”
The ruling has also drawn ire from second-generation survivors including Charles Silow, president of Children of Holocaust-Survivors Association in Michigan (CHAIM). Silow’s parents were from Lodz, Poland. His mother was forced to live in the ghetto and deported with other family members in 1944 to Auschwitz, where, during the infamous selection, his mother, 24, was sent into forced hard labor and his grandmother, 55, was sent to the gas chamber.
“My mother’s stories parallel that of other survivors,” Silow said. “My mother often discussed there was a great deal of anti-Semitism in Poland before the war. She said most Jews kept to themselves as much as possible. Many survivors talk about being bullied and beaten up in school and later during the war, betrayed to the Nazis by their neighbors for as little as a kilo of sugar. Many Poles took over their Jewish neighbors’ houses when they were deported to the camps, and many were sorry to see that some of them had survived after the war to return for their homes and belongings.”
Before Poland’s Law and Justice party won the 2015 election, Silow said there was a growing feeling of reconciliation between Poland and world Jewry. This was evident in warming relations between Poland and Israel, a small but growing Jewish population of 10,000 Jews in the country’s major cities, and a flourish of Jewish culture, such as the opening of kosher restaurants and schools, Klezmer festivals and the 2013 opening of Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of Polish Jewish History. It is important to note there was much acknowledgement of the thousands of Righteous Gentiles in Poland who risked their lives to protect their Jewish neighbors.
But, the last few years, with the rise of nationalism, has seen a desire to shift attention away from Holocaust victims and put the spotlight on the Poles who also suffered under Nazi rule, Silow said.
“As with the many Polish survivors I’ve been lucky to know, my father wanted to have no connection with the country where he was born.”
— Fred Strasberger
“They seem, however, to be minimizing the role of those Poles who collaborated with the Nazis. During the Holocaust, about 3 million Polish Jews were murdered, 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population. Poland has passed a law that forbids the open discussion of how Poles collaborated with the Nazis. This seems to have a chilling effect on discussion and education about what happened in the Holocaust. It seems to also encourage hidden anti-Semitism to be further expressed.”
In response to the ruling, the organization Generations of the Shoah International, which includes CHAIM, released this statement:
“Without doubt, the deliberate plan and implementation of the Final Solution was perpetrated under the aegis of Nazi Germany. It would be naive, however, to believe that only the Nazis participated in those heinous efforts. Too many citizens of each of the countries the Nazis occupied in Europe — including Poland — assisted the occupiers and contributed to the mass murder and genocide that we now define as the Holocaust … We oppose criminalizing public expression and support education around the complex role of the Polish people during the Nazi era.
“We know all too well that the threat of genocidal speech includes escalating the dangers that genocidal atrocities will be repeated.
“We urge Poland’s leaders to abandon this dangerous revisionist effort, withdraw that legislation, focus instead on education, not criminalization, about inaccurate and harmful speech, and — perhaps most importantly — carry out an honest examination of Poland’s wartime attitude and conduct toward the Jews.”
As time goes on and the number of living Holocaust survivors dwindles, their children, referred to as Second Generation survivors, see it as their obligation to carry on their loved ones’ legacies and continue to bear witness to the atrocities. They feel that only by retelling their stories and listening to or reading their testimonies carefully recorded by institutions such as the Holocaust Memorial Center will the truth will be preserved about the atrocities of the Holocaust for coming generations.
Second Generation survivor Fred Strasberger of Farmington Hills said the ruling is “ridiculous, short-sighted and an attempt to whitewash major Polish involvement in the Holocaust.”
Strasberger’s father, Morey, who died in 2000, told accounts of how he survived the war in a Siberian gulag but was met with “guns, hatred and rage [from] his Polish neighbors” when he tried to return to his home in Lublin, which was repossessed by his Polish neighbors.
“As with the many Polish survivors I’ve been lucky to know, my father wanted to have no connection with the country where he was born,” Strasberger said. “The survivors’ hatred of Poland and its people were consistent, unmistakable and even more pronounced then their disdain of the Germans. The righteous few are to be commended, but the horrors that happened on Polish soil, aided and abetted by the Polish people, can never be forgotten or forgiven.”