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Reality of anti-semitism in Poland cannot be scrubbed from history by political edict

TURKISH legislation banning mention of the Ottoman empire 1915-17 Armenian genocide has not weakened the historical evidence that such an atrocity took place.

The current Polish government’s replication of Ankara’s insistence on historical censorship is another self-serving attempt to whitewash past generations of crimes that certainly took place.

Those who refer to anti-semitic crimes by some Poles against their Jewish fellow citizens during the nazi occupation don’t accuse all Poles of collaboration with the German occupiers in the Holocaust.

But the enthusiastic involvement of large numbers of Polish anti-semites in the industrialised extermination of Jews cannot be scrubbed from history by political edict.

In the specific instance of the 1941 pogrom in the town of Jedwabne, in which about 340 Polish Jews were slaughtered by their neighbours, the pro-Warsaw government body Polish League Against Defamation (PLAD) makes much of an image used  by Argentinian paper Pagina 12.

PLAD may be justified in saying that using a photograph of 1950s anti-communist guerilla forces in Poland to illustrate its piece shows “great historical ignorance,” but it does not follow that this was motivated by malice towards Poles or their soldiers.

Pagina’s error could have arisen because events it was covering took place 77 years ago, which makes the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s publication of a 1946 US State Department report all the more relevant.

The report found “evidence that Poles persecuted the Jews as vigorously as did the Germans” during the nazi occupation of Poland.

It looked at manifestations of anti-semitism, after nazi Germany’s defeat, when, for example, dozens of Jews liberated from concentration camps were murdered by local residents when they returned to the village of Kielce.

The 1946 document, which was declassified in August 1983, probed pre-war Polish government policies, “current anti-semitic manifestations and the possibilities for Jewish survival in Poland” in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, finding that “native Poles” had abetted German activities during the war.

The State Department noted that “continuance of the conflict between the government and the opposition in Poland is conducive to a resurgence of anti-semitism, which is easily employed as a weapon in this conflict.”

It recognised that “the government has made anti-semitism a crime,” but “the outrages continue, although on a somewhat reduced scale.”

For reference, the government referred to is the post-war administration installed after Poland’s liberation from nazi occupation by the Soviet Union’s Red Army. Anti-semitism was deployed by the opposition because Jews were seen as government backers.

The US document made clear that, even before Germany occupied Poland, anti-semitism “was one of the distinguishing factors of the country’s political, social and economic life.”

According to the State Department, “Polish anti-semitism was preached by political parties and church heads and practised by officials high and low,” recognising that the post World War I independent Polish government limited Jewish university student numbers and introduced discriminatory taxation.

Most Jews in Poland in 1939 lived as “second-class citizens” despite having token representation in parliament.

Anti-semitism did not, however, begin with Polish independence in 1918. It was longstanding state doctrine throughout the Russian empire, of which Poland was part, wielded by the tsarist autocracy along with Orthodox and Catholic churches.

Laws have been passed to outlaw this scourge, but it has still not been extirpated.

Honest and open examination of what took place, when and why is a necessary part of the process of rooting it out totally and this will not be assisted by legal censorship of historical examination.

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