Polish TV: Call them ‘Jewish death camps’ because ‘Jews ran crematoria’

Anti-Semitism rears its ugly head in Poland, where controversy over a new law barring use of the term “Polish death camp” sparked backlash.

By: Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News and AP

A diplomatic dispute between Poland and Israel over pending legislation that would outlaw blaming Poland for the crimes of the Holocaust has led to an outburst of anti-Semitic comments in Poland, including some in the government-controlled media.

In one instance, the head of a state-run channel suggested referring to Auschwitz as a “Jewish death camp,” in response to an outcry over use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the Nazi killing site in German-occupied Poland. To make his point the TV announcer asked his panel of guests, “Who managed the crematoria there?”

Dr. Ephraim Zuroff from the Wiesenthal Center was infuriated by the comment on Polish television. Zuroff told World Israel News (WIN), “The comment is of course completely absurd and it was inspired more by anti-Semitism than anything else. The Polish government viewpoint on the camps is justified on a certain level because they are not ‘Polish death camps.’ But fully documented history, including the work of the top Polish historians proves that there was Nazi complicity by many thousands of Poles during the holocaust.”

Polish anti-Semitism: an inconvenient reality?

Bobby Brown, the former Diapsora Affairs Advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu told WIN, “We in Israel are aware that Germany built the death camps in Poland. We in Israel must include that fact in Holocaust education. It’s also true that much of the Polish population was anti-Semitic and many still are today. They need no provocation to hate the Jews. We cannot agree to this idea of legislating away the fact that many Poles murdered Jews in the holocaust. I also think it wrong to legislate what people are allowed to say.”

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“The TV commentator’s remark is nonsense. There were of course Jews who were forced to work in the crematoria under threat of death. In the case of ‘Judenrat,’ Jews working for the Nazi government, some of them used their position to save Jews from deportation and murder and they were heroes while others were collaborating to save themselves. That does not change the fact that many Poles murdered Jews during the war,” Brown said.

Michael Freund, the founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit that has been working for nearly 15 years with the hidden Jews of Poland, warned that “regardless of this attempt to obfuscate history, Poland cannot hide from its anti-Semitic past.”

Freund added, “Poland’s attempt to rewrite the history of the Holocaust is morally obscene and historically obtuse. There is a reason why the Germans chose to build many of the death camps on Polish soil: they knew that their fiendish actions would meet little in the way of resistance from much of the country’s populace.”

Poland’s lower house of parliament gave its approval Friday to the bill, which calls for penalties of up to three years in prison for anyone who “publicly and against the facts” accuses the Polish people of crimes committed by Nazi Germany during World War II.

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“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… or other crimes against peace and humanity, or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the actual perpetrators thereof, shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years,” a translation of a key paragraph of the bill reads.

Poles: victims or perpetrators of atrocities?

Poles were among those imprisoned, tortured and killed in the camps, and many today feel Poles are being unfairly depicted as perpetrators of the Holocaust.

As part of the same effort, the government launched a website on Tuesday in Polish, German and English with documentary evidence that death camps like Auschwitz were built and operated by Nazi Germany, a historically accurate account.

Germany occupied Poland in 1939, annexing part of it to Germany and directly governing the rest. Unlike other countries occupied by Germany at the time, there was no collaborationist government in Poland. The prewar Polish government and military fled into exile, except for an underground resistance army that fought the Nazis inside the country. However, there were many cases of Poles killing Jews or denouncing them to the Germans, with deadly anti-Semitic pogroms.

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Zuroff told WIN, “The Polish government in exile is not without blame. The nationalist Polish underground ‘Krajowa’ was the military arm of Polish government in exile in London. They were anti-Semitic and did not accept Jews although the other Polish underground group ‘Ludowa’ did accept Jews.”

The Israeli government in the past has supported the campaign against the phrase “Polish death camps,” but it has strongly criticized the new legislation, which still must be approved by the Senate and President Andrzej Duda, who both support it.

Israel, along with several international Holocaust organizations and many critics in Poland, argues that the law could have a chilling effect on debating history, harming freedom of expression and leading to a whitewashing of Poland’s wartime history.

Polish Holocaust and World War II scholars, as well as international organizations including Yad Vashem, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Wiesenthal Center, are among groups who have criticized the law. Critics have said they fear the law could lead to self-censorship in academia and that the legislation — which also mentions “other crimes against peace and humanity” — is so broad that it could be used to fight any form of criticism against Poland by authorities already accused of eroding democratic standards.

Far-right groups have called for a demonstration Wednesday in front of the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw to protest the “anti-Polish” sentiment they say is being propagated by Israel and some media.