In 1956, a group of former Nazis working as West German intelligence agents coined terminology that arguably became the most viral — and longest lasting — propaganda born out of the former Hitler regime: “Polish death camps”.
Agency 114, filled with German former members of the Gestapo, SS and SD, was headed by former Nazis Secret Field Police (GFP) sergeant Alfred Benzinger, who is was credited with the phrase.
Benzinger’s goal? To change public discourse and shift the blame for the Holocaust from Germans and Germany to Poland, where most of the Nazi regime’s mass extermination camps were located. And by the time of Benzinger’s propaganda attack, Poland was in the throes of such domestic turmoil that the wordage was hardly a priority.
Poland, invaded by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in 1939, was annexed by the Nazis in 1941. After its “liberation” by the Soviets in 1945, a series of puppet governments had left it unstable and poor.
Today circumstances have clearly changed. This week Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo’s Cabinet approved a bill which would criminalize the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” in reference to Nazi-run extermination camps in occupied Poland. Use of the banned expression could lead to a three-year jail term if considered intentional, or a hefty fine.
“It wasn’t our mothers, nor our fathers, who are responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust, which were committed by German and Nazi criminals on occupied Polish territory,” said Justice Minister Zbignew Ziobro on Tuesday. “Our responsibility is to defend the truth and dignity of the Polish state and the Polish nation, as well as our fathers, our mothers and our grandparents.”
The legislation was originally proposed by Szydlo’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) in 2013, when it was rejected. Upon rising to power in 2015, however, PiS vowed to “recalibrate many of the ways in which Poles think, talk and learn about their own history,” according to German news agency Deutsche Welle, and to instill national pride.
The nationalistic new government’s zero tolerance to the use of “Polish death camps” was lauded this week by young Polish Jewish community leader Klaudia Klimek, head of the Warsaw branch of Poland’s largest Jewish cultural organization TSKZ.
Representing Poland’s 10,000-strong active Jewish community, Klimek said TSKZ’s president Artur Hoffman has also spoken in support of the bill — at the Israeli Knesset and as a consulting member of the Polish government’s commission of minorities.
In conversation with The Times of Israel, Klimek stressed the need for historical accuracy when speaking of the Holocaust, which was, she said, an atrocity committed by the German Nazi regime on occupied land. Unlike the case in other European countries, the Polish nation never collaborated with the Nazi regime, said Klimek. There were bad Poles, as well as good Poles during World War II.
“We cannot say as a generalization that the Poles, or Polish society were involved in the Holocaust,” said Klimek. However, “because the majority of the Holocaust happened in Poland, the Polish society is reacting, and taking care of the history.”
Although the law is currently being debated in the media, when the parliament resumes in September, Klimek assumed it will pass.
But after a summer of PiS politicians playing fast and loose with history, one could wonder whether this new “Polish death camps” law is a manifestation of nationalistic Poles’ historical whitewashing.
The legislation comes a month after high-profile historical “mistakes” were made by PiS politicians surrounding well-documented massacres perpetrated by Poles. In a mid-July interview on Polish public broadcaster TVN, Education Minister Anna Zalewska insinuated that the Jedwabne massacre of 1941, when Poles burned alive more than 300 Jews in a barn, was a matter of “opinion.”
Zalewska is hardly alone. As reported by Polish Newsweek, a Polish public opinion survey following Zalewska’s statements found that 33% of the population agreed with the minister that the Polish massacre of Jews at Jedwabne is an opinion, 29% were undecided and only 38% agreed that the statement that “Poles burned Jews in a barn in Jedwabne.” The highest percentage of disbelief was found among youth.
Additionally, newly elected president of the Polish state’s Institute of National Remembrance Jaroslaw Szarek, according to a JTA report, recently told a parliamentary committee that “the perpetrators of this crime were the Germans, who used in their own machine of terror a group of Poles.”
Concurrently, to the condemnation of Klimek and other Jewish officials, the Polish government issued yet another in a series of rejections to Jewish community petitions to open the door to restitution claims from Holocaust survivors.