Polish law censoring Holocaust speech poor decision in turbulent political climate

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By Jacqueline Hyman
Editor-in-chief
@jacqbh58

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

For hundreds of years, Jews have been the target of hate, violence and discrimination stemming from many root causes.

From Christian anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages, to Russian pogroms in the 19th century, to the Holocaust, we’ve hardly gotten a break. Since the Holocaust, it seems like most have made progress in this area; we have religious freedom and surely less discrimination than existed even 100 years ago. However, Poland seems to be moving backwards.

On Feb. 6, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a law that makes it illegal to accuse Poland of being complicit in the crimes of the Holocaust. It also makes using the phrase “Polish death camps” illegal. The punishment? It could be anywhere from a fine to up to three years in jail.

While it’s true that the Polish suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis, passing a law that essentially amounts to censorship is not a good solution to misconceptions of Polish involvement in the tragic event. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, around 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians were killed during World War II due to Nazi supremacy ideals. They were forced to assimilate into German culture and deported to Germany for labor. In addition, the Nazis killed at least 3 million Polish Jews in the Holocaust.

There’s no doubt that Poland and its people were victims of the Nazi regime, but a law prohibiting free speech about the Polish involvement is a stretch. This is a criticism both the U.S. and Israel have expressed about the new law, and Israel’s Foreign Ministry hopes the law will be reviewed and corrected, according to The Washington Post. And three years in jail? That seems over-the-top just for using a particular phrase.

Polish President Andrzej Duda. Photo: wSensie.tv/Wikimedia commons.

In my mind, the phrase “Polish death camps” doesn’t mean death camps run by the Polish; it means death camps in Poland. I don’t think that most people who use it are attempting to pin millions of deaths on Poland. However, I understand how it can sound misleading, which the U.S. State Department acknowledged. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was “disappointed” in the decision, said, “We believe that open debate, scholarship, and education are the best means of countering misleading speech.”

Education would be the best, and arguably, the most effective method of teaching future generations about the truths concerning the Holocaust. Instead, a restrictive law could change the way people perceive Poland – its attempt to squash talk of Poland’s involvement in the Holocaust is a sign of insecurity and resistance rather than of resilience against misconceptions.

There has been in increase in anti-Semitic acts and speech in Poland over the last couple of years, and it seems in the world in general. It’s unacceptable and should be remedied in any way possible. The new Polish law doesn’t help.

At its core, I don’t believe this law is rooted in anti-Semitism. The fact is that there were Poles who helped Jews – and Poles who hunted down and killed Jews. That dark side of history can’t be ignored, and Duda acknowledged that in his speech. He also said “there was no systemic way in which Poles took part in” the crimes of the Holocaust, which is true. Understandably, Duda is trying to protect his country’s reputation. But in the face of rising anti-Semitism in Poland, he’s gone about it the wrong way.

Jacqueline is a senior journalism and English major. She can be contacted at jbhyman@terpmail.umd.edu.

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