The irony of Poland’s recent legislation criminalizing particular Holocaust-related speech is that the enactment has paradoxically engendered greater interest in the study of the Shoah.
That’s according to Anna Bikont, a journalist and author whose Feb. 27 event at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum will feature a reading of “The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne,” a historical work for which she won the 2011 European Book Prize.
“When I was invited I didn’t know that it would be such a hot topic,” said Bikont, a Warsaw-based writer who in 1989 co-founded Gazeta Wyborcza, a Polish newspaper whose circulation tops 150,000.
Several weeks ago, both houses of the Polish parliament adopted a law prohibiting speech that raises “claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich … or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes.”
The punishment for violating the new statute is up to three years’ imprisonment.
This legislation on the one side provoked a wave of anti-Semitism but on the other hand provoked many people to investigate what this is about and what happened during the war.
While the law, which was signed last week by Polish President Andrzej Duda, may be intended to criminalize the use of terms such as “Polish concentration camp,” it ignited further stir at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17, when Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime pinister, was asked by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman whether recounting the story of Bergman’s mother’s escape from Holocaust-era Polish collaborators would now be considered criminal.
“It’s extremely important to first understand that, of course, it’s not going to be punishable, not going to be seen as criminal to say that there were Polish perpetrators,” replied Morawiecki, “as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as there were Ukrainian … not only German perpetrators.”
Jewish leaders condemned the response.
“The Polish prime minister’s remarks here in Munich are outrageous. There is a problem here of an inability to understand history and a lack of sensitivity to the tragedy of our people. I intend to speak with him forthwith,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The Polish prime minister has displayed appalling ignorance with his unconscionable claim that so-called ‘Jewish perpetrators’ were partly responsible for the Nazi German attempt to wipe out European Jewry,” echoed Ronald Lauder, president of World Jewish Congress.
“While Poles are understandably sensitive about Nazi German extermination and concentration camps in occupied Poland being called Polish, this government is going to extreme and unfathomable lengths to exonerate some of their countrymen’s own complicity in the murders of their neighbors,” he continued.
For Bikont, the bevy of regulation and rhetoric has granted unexpected exposure, which at points has been “crazy.”
“It’s like PR for the book. Normally when you write a book, you’re not invited to the main television stations, but now I’m invited to radio and television. … It’s almost paradoxical. I was shopping, and some woman told me she saw me on television and has to buy my book.”
“The Crime and the Silence” examines the events of July 10, 1941, in which the citizens of Jedwabne rounded up its Jewish population and burned them alive in a barn. Bikont’s work relies upon oral histories of survivors and witnesses to explore not only the massacre itself, but the setting and sentiment that enabled such atrocity.
Although the legislation will not retroactively affect Bikont’s work, it may prevent future researchers from pursuing similar academic or historical endeavors, she said. “All scholars who start now in their career, each scholar has to think twice or three times before thinking of some subject where you can go to two to three years of prison.”
Those who choose to pursue interests such as Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust “have to be very courageous to do it,” she added.
But while the possibility of peril may discourage new scholars from exploring the topic, outside interest is growing.
“It’s ironic. I was at the Polish Museum of History in Warsaw for a seminar, a lecture about Jews killed by Poles after the war, and normally because they have two young scholars talking about it, there would be 20 or 30 people at events like this, but there were 200 or 300 people,” said Bikont.
“This legislation on the one side provoked a wave of anti-Semitism but on the other hand provoked many people to investigate what this is about and what happened during the war and why the government is making this legislation to prevent people from talking about it.”
Bikont’s Pittsburgh visit, which is being supported by Classrooms Without Borders, will include stops at the Mt. Lebanon Library, Seton Hill University and Winchester Thurston School.
Those interested in hearing Bikont are invited to attend Tuesday’s 8 p.m. City of Asylum talk. Free registration is available at tinyurl.com/y8ddwhpb.
Said the journalist, “I hope to tell more during my lectures.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.