Saturday 19 January 2019

Holocaust museum stands tall as tide of anti-Semitism laps again around its walls

The gates at Auschwitz concentration camp
The gates at Auschwitz concentration camp

Comment: Mary Fitzgerald

The striking glass facade of Warsaw's Polin Museum rises from a tree-lined square in what was once a key district for the city's Jewish community.

Infamously turned into a ghetto by the Nazis, who later snuffed out an uprising there, the location could not be more fitting for a museum dedicated to tracing the history of Poland's Jews who, on the cusp of World War II, comprised the largest Jewish population in Europe.

Inside, the curved walls of Polin's cavernous main hall divide dramatically, symbolising the rupture in the 1,000-year history of Polish Jews that the Holocaust represented.

Visiting the museum last weekend, the bitter controversies over a new law in Poland related to responsibility for Holocaust crimes were never far from the mind.

Children wearing concentration camp uniforms just after the liberation of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) by the Soviet army in January 1945. Photo: AP
Children wearing concentration camp uniforms just after the liberation of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) by the Soviet army in January 1945. Photo: AP

Under the new legislation, passed in January with support from the ruling Law and Justice party, fines or jail sentences can be imposed on anyone who "publicly and against the facts attributes to the Polish nation or Polish state responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes", or "flagrantly reduces in any way the responsibility of the real perpetrators".

The law has chilled historians of the period who are worried that it will impede research.

It also prompted widespread criticism from the Trump administration - which warned it could damage bilateral relations - Israeli officials and Germany's foreign minister in addition to a host of Jewish groups in the US.

As the controversy deepened, Poland's right-wing government pledged the law will not be implemented until it is reviewed by the country's constitutional court.

The episode - with all the heated debate it has sparked inside and out of Poland - is a reminder of how the country still struggles in its reckoning with its World War II history, a process that was delayed during the Cold War era.

During the years of Nazi occupation between 1939 and 1945, more than six million Polish citizens - half of them Jews - were killed.

Many of the Nazis' most notorious concentration camps - including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec and Treblinka - were built on Polish soil.

Polish officials have long bristled over accusations of complicity, for example objecting in 2012 when then US president Barack Obama referred to "Polish death camps" in a speech.

I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau as a university student and remember how people I met in Poland then did not want to discuss new research that indicated how anti-Semitism in Polish society at the time meant relatively few tried to protect their Jewish compatriots.

One of the most prominent academics on this issue, Princeton historian Professor Jan Gross, has been threatened with prosecution by the Polish government.

His book documenting the massacre of 1,600 Jews by their Polish neighbours in the village of Jedwabne in 1941 was published in 2000 and still strikes a nerve in Poland.

In a recent interview, Mr Prof Gross said the new law seemed to be aimed at preventing the unearthing of historical facts at odds with the official narrative of what happened.

Already a lawsuit has been filed against a newspaper in Argentina for an article that refers to the Jedwabne massacre.

The loose wording of the law concerns historians because its potential interpretation is so broad that they fear it could be used to prosecute Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust for talking about their own experiences of anti-Semitism in Poland at the time.

The debacle over the new law has also revealed anti-Semitism is far from a thing of the past in Poland, particularly among supporters of the governing party.

Apart from Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki's claims that Jews were also "perpetrators" in World War II, Polish media outlets have featured personalities whose defence of the legislation tips into anti-Semitism.

In a recent interview on Polish state TV, a priest who edits a Catholic publication claimed Jewish critics of the law have "a completely different system of values, a different concept of truth".

To hear such rhetoric bubble up in the debate over the Holocaust law disturbs many at a time when far-right movements - some of them openly anti-Semitic - are gaining ground in Poland and elsewhere in Europe.

Back at the Polin Museum - the name of which is a Hebrew word which means either 'Poland' or 'rest here' and is related to a legend about the arrival of the first Jews in the country - exhibitions detail the ebb and flow of Jewish life in Poland over centuries.

Well over half the world's 13.5 million Jews are believed to have some ancestral connection with Poland, whose three million-plus Jewish community made up a 10th of the country's pre-war population.

With the Polin Museum and other initiatives, there is an attempt to record Poland's Jewish heritage.

But the row over the Holocaust law shows there are parts of that history some would prefer remain in the shadows.

Irish Independent

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