Jonathan Tobin, editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate, spoke to an April 16 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the Republic of Poland's controversial revisionist history law and the Israeli/Jewish response to it.
In 2018 the Republic of Poland passed a law that made it a crime to accuse Poland or the Polish people of complicity in the Holocaust. As a result, "anybody who speaks of antisemitism or anti-Jewish violence among Poles can be liable to be prosecuted."
Most recently, two Polish historians of the Holocaust, Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking, were found guilty of defamation for publishing an account of a Polish mayor who allegedly betrayed a group of Jews to the Nazis, resulting in their deaths. A March 2021 New Yorker article discussing their case has reignited debate about historical revisionism in Poland.
At the time Germany invaded, antisemitism in Poland "was deeply embedded in the political culture, and also unfortunately in the religious culture as the Catholic church at that time was stuck in ... an ancient mindset of hatred towards the Jews." The late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, whose family was killed by Polish collaborators, famously remarked that "the Poles suckled antisemitism with their mother's milk."
However, while there were plenty of instances where individual Poles mistreated or killed Jews during the war, Tobin emphasized that Poland was not responsible for the systematic murder of millions of Jews at German-staffed Nazi concentration camps on its soil. Poland was one of the few European countries in which there was no official collaboration with Nazi Germany. "There was no puppet government in Poland ... Unlike in, say France, Polish police weren't rounding up the Jews for the Germans."
Poland was not responsible for the Nazis' systematic murder of millions of Jews on its soil.
Significantly, many individual Polish non-Jews helped Jews during the Holocaust. "There were more righteous Gentiles, certainly among those honored at Yad Vashem in Israel, in Poland than in any other country," said Tobin. "Of course, they had more opportunity. There were more Jews there. There was more slaughter there." Tobin cited "one of the greatest heroes of the Holocaust," Jan Karski, a Polish non-Jew and resistance officer, who "took the news of the Holocaust at great risk to himself ... [to] British and American leaders, including Franklin [Delano] Roosevelt himself."
Moreover, the Polish resistance "fought diligently and courageously" against the Nazi invaders. "Poles have good reason to proud of that resistance," said Tobin, and because of that resistance "Polish casualties were enormous." One out of 10 non-Jewish Poles died during the war. While that's much lower than the death rate for Jewish Poles – more than 9 out of 10 – it's higher than in any other European country except the Soviet Union.
Given the immense suffering endured by the Polish people and their legacy of extraordinary heroism against the Nazis, it's understandable that Polish nationalists "fiercely hold onto their victim status" and bristle at suggestions of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. References by outsiders to "Polish death camps" – most notably by President Obama in 2012 – are inaccurate and unfair. The current right-wing nationalist Polish government has a "hypersensitivity about the Holocaust issue" and enacted its controversial law for "understandable reasons."
At the same time, "you can't accept lies ... the fiction that all Poles helped Jews," said Tobin. "[F]or the Polish government to pretend that there was no collaboration by individual Poles ... [and] no instances of anti-Jewish violence by ordinary Polish citizens, both during the German occupation and after it, is equally absurd."
The issue has created diplomatic complications for Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has balanced support for Poland's government, which is "eager to have good relations with Israel," and criticism of its revisionist history law. While this balancing act has angered many in both the Jewish community and Poland, Tobin thinks it a wise one.
Poles must "own up about their history." Jews must "recognize Polish suffering."
Just as Poles must "own up about their history," it's important for Jews to "recognize Polish suffering" and, more importantly, recognize that Shamir's sentiment about Poles "being inveterately, irredeemably antisemitic" is not valid today. Notwithstanding its past, Poland "has not been sucked into the vortex of 21st century antisemitism, which is based in anti-Zionism, a weird alliance of Islamists and Western liberal elites." Tobin continued,
The Jewish people today, the state of Israel today, ha[ve] real enemies, real people who are trying to complete the work of Hitler. The regime in Iran ... Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic terrorist organizations, they have as their goal the elimination of the state of Israel. Even the moderates of Fatah among the Palestinians still have yet to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state.
Poland "has not been sucked into the vortex of 21st century antisemitism."
In light of these present-day threats, it makes little sense for Israelis and Jews more generally "to focus instead on the battles of a war that's long over, of a political and social and religious conflict that is long over," said Tobin, calling it "a terrible mistake and a misallocation of priorities and energy and emotion."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.