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INTERVIEW The Polish-American scholar at the centre of Poland's Holocaust law By Sara Lemel and Eliyahu Kamisher, dpa

Europe
01.03.2018
By our dpa-correspondent and Europe Online    auf Facebook posten  Auf Twitter posten  
Polish legislation that criminalizes utterances of Polish complicity in Nazi crimes takes effect on Thursday. Jan Gross, a Holocaust historian whose academic work has caused outrage and soul-searching in Poland, speaks to dpa about its implications.

Tel Aviv (dpa) - In 1996, the Polish government awarded Holocaust scholar Jan Gross a state honour for his academic work. That relationship has soured since Gross wrote about massacres of Jews carried out by Poles and made statements labelled by the Polish government as libel.

In his 2001 book "Neighbors," Gross describes the massacre of hundreds of Jews at the hands of Poles - work that, in many ways, places him at centre of controversy surrounding a new Polish law that will come into force on March 1, with its application pending a final review by the Constitutional Court.

The so-called Holocaust law, pushed by right-wing politicians, criminalizes any allegations of the Polish state or people‘s complicity in Nazi crimes.

Gross, who now lives in Florida, spoke to the dpa about the law and the state of Holocaust research in Poland.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

dpa: Why is the conservative Polish government pushing for this new Holocaust law?

Gross: They did not expect such a response, this is quite clear. They have said they thought it will pass under the radar. The aim was to gag the historical debate and to promote a vision of the past in which Polish history is a history of only victimization and in which Poles were only heroes. That is a very infantilized version of history. Now they are trying to backtrack. It must be said that this is a profoundly nationalist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic regime.

Anti-Semitism is a deeply-rooted element of radical Polish nationalism, since before the war. The regime thinks of itself as the defendant of this vision. They will deny it, but you see what is happening.

dpa: Based on your experience with your [2001] book about the massacre in Jedwabne, perpetrated by Polish people against their Jewish neighbours, how do you think the law will be implemented? And what do you think about the assurances of the government that there will be no consequences for arts and science, that Holocaust survivors can freely speak about their experiences?

Gross: This is a lawless government and a lawless regime and they have violated the constitution. They have destroyed the legal system. So one of the elements of the lawlessness is to say ‘we are passing the law but we will not implement it.‘ All they are interested in is breaking down the restraint of democratic institutions and creating a framework in which they can exercise a personalized rule in a totalitarian fashion.

It is [far-right Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw] Kaczynski who is pulling all the strings. I don‘t think they will implement it now, [once it has] passed they can use it any time. It is typical for dictatorial systems to pass loosely worded laws that they can implement whenever it is convenient. But for the moment they have received so much blowback, they might change it or even scrap it.

dpa: There was an attempt to pass a Holocaust law in Poland already in 2006. At the time it was called "Lex Gross [Gross Law]" - why are you considered the trigger for this controversial law?

Gross: At that time, it was a period of intense debate after the publication of the book "Neighbors" that took place in 2001, and I was about to publish a next book that was called "Fear" ... The thinking was, if this law passes, maybe Gross will not publish. But it is not just about me. It is an attempt to quiet people who are critical.

The paradox of the situation now is that Polish historians are the most advanced and successful in writing Holocaust history of their country, with essentially describing all the incidents of complicity of the Polish people in the persecution of Jews. So Polish historiography is better than in any other European country.

There is big and very detailed knowledge available for those who read in Polish. They want to dissuade people from exploring the truth about this period. It will not affect grown-up historians. We will continue to do our work. But it will have a huge impact on what teachers teach in schools. They will be afraid. And journalists might think twice before they venture into this subject. It will have a gagging effect.

dpa: For you, is there anything positive about the law? For example, that it might heighten awareness and people will stop referring to German death camps built on Polish soil as "Polish death camps?"

Gross: Do you think [US President Barack] Obama really thought the Poles were responsible for the death camps? It is a designation of geographical location, no evil intent of falsifying history or putting on Poles the responsibility that belongs to the Germans.

But let‘s assume that this is a legitimate concern. If they wanted to eliminate the use of this phrase in order to remove ambiguities, they should put it in the phrasing of the law. But you will not find it in the provision.

The real intent was different, not the use of this expression. The real intent was to close the debate on Polish complicity in the persecution of Jews. And they were caught with their pants down.

 

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