Two upcoming trips to Poland organized by local Jewish organizations will go on as planned despite a new and controversial Polish law that makes it a crime to accuse the Polish state of responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi atrocities. It also criminalizes the use of phrases like “Polish death camps” when referring to camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. Jewish groups, the Israeli government and the U.S. State Department have all condemned the new law, with some comparing it to Holocaust denial.
Neither Classrooms Without Borders’ July 1-9 trip to Poland for public and private educators, nor a mission to Poland on June 24 sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh will be canceled.
The Federation mission, chaired by Randy Whitlatch, coincides with the Ride for the Living, a 55-mile bicycle ride from Auschwitz to the Jewish Community Center in Krakow.
“My personal view is, now is a more important time than ever to go over and participate on that ride and show support for Polish Jewry, and to show them they are not alone,” said Whitlatch, who stressed that he was speaking on his own behalf and not on behalf of the Federation. “The Polish government needs to understand that we are going to support Jews in Poland.”
Likewise, CWB will “absolutely not” cancel its summer trip, said Zipora Gur, executive director and founder of the organization. Taking visitors to Poland, she said, is “one of the best ways to show what happened” during the Holocaust.
I think we have to go there because this is how we say we’re not afraid.
Nonetheless, Melissa Haviv, assistant director of CWB, stressed that the organization “does not support this law in any way.”
“It is a bad law in that it limits freedom of speech and may influence scholarly research,” Haviv said. “However, the law does not adversely affect our efforts in Poland in any way. If anything, it makes our work even more important and timely.”
The law, Haviv explained, is actually an amendment to an existing Polish law that has been in effect since 1998. The amendment contains a notable exception, excluding from prosecution speech which implicates Poland in the atrocities of the Holocaust that is “committed in the course of one’s artistic or academic activity.”
“Unfortunately, in the media, they gloss over that most pertinent part,” Haviv said. Although the law is “bad” because it limits freedom of speech, it “doesn’t pose a security challenge or dilemma for people going to Poland to learn about the Holocaust.”
While Haviv acknowledged that there were “horrific crimes against Jews” perpetrated by some Polish individuals — and even entire villages — “never have we blamed the entire Polish nation of crimes against Jews.”
“If people stop going to Poland to teach [the Holocaust], whose purpose are we achieving?” she said. “We need to take a step back and breathe deep and make educated decisions.”
Those who helped should be honored. But there were also those who were guilty, and you should not hide those facts.
Other groups outside of Pittsburgh are also keeping their trips to Poland on the roster. For example, the International March of the Living expects 12,000 participants at this year’s march, in line with the attendance of previous years.
But last month, Poland canceled a planned visit to the country by Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett after he announced that on that trip he would be telling Polish citizens “the truth” about their homeland’s role in the Holocaust.
“The government of Poland canceled my visit, because I mentioned the crimes of its people. I am honored,” Bennett said in a statement.
Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, said she has “serious concerns” about the Polish law.
“It’s already stifling historical inquiry,” she noted, pointing to news of graduate students within Poland changing their topics for research “for fear of prosecution.”
She is concerned, she said, that the law could become a “slippery slope” in the suppression of communication about the Holocaust.
“The survivors are so upset,” Bairnsfather said. “I saw almost a physical response from them. They experienced what the Poles did during the Holocaust. Some of [the Poles] turned them in to the Nazis.”
Still, Bairnsfather supports continued travel to Poland for Holocaust education.
“I think we have to go there because this is how we say we’re not afraid,” she said. “And the government doesn’t speak for all the people.”
As a country, Poland suffered during the war. It was invaded by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in 1939 and was annexed by the Nazis in 1941.
Almost 2 million non-Jews and about 3 million Jews were murdered by the Germans in Poland, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. While many Poles helped Jews hide or escape, others betrayed their Jewish neighbors by extorting money from them or turning them in to the Germans. Others collaborated with the Nazis by helping round up Jews to send to the camps. In 1941, the people of the town of Jedwabne executed a pogrom, setting fire to at least 340 Jews in a barn.
Shulamit Bastacky, a local Holocaust survivor whose life was saved by a Polish nun when she was a child, is disturbed by the law and fears it will stifle “open discussions.”
“I was saved by a Polish person, but at the same time, we can’t ignore that there were some elements that collaborated with the Germans,” she said, adding that criminalizing speech about Polish complicity in the Holocaust is “undemocratic and uncivilized.”
“We need to work on repairing the world, tikkun olam,” said Bastacky, who frequently speaks to students about the Holocaust and the importance of tolerance. “This is the opposite.
“I have Polish friends who were wonderful. Those who helped should be honored. But there were also those who were guilty, and you should not hide those facts.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.