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Auschwitz, the Director's Cut: Poland Is Rewriting the Holocaust Narrative

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The visitors’ books at museums rarely stir up any special curiosity. “Interesting,” “Thank you” or “Recommended” are some of the terms that frequently recur in them, in one form or another. At memorial sites, certainly in former death camps, visitors are also prone to leave comments such as, “We will never forget” or “We will not forgive.”

But earlier this month an unusual inscription appeared in the visitors’ book at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Poland: “In recognition of all the victims of the German terror and occupation during World War II. In gratitude to everyone who cares about the truth and the memory of the second apocalypse. Whoever is passive against evil – it is as though he took part in it. Whoever is passive in the face of the lies of history and recognition of the truth – it is as though he took part in writing it. We will see to truth and kindness, for all of us today and for the sake of the coming generations and the victims of those crimes.” It was signed: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

At first glance, it’s not clear how this short, rather philosophical text – dealing with truth, lies, memory and forgetfulness – is related to a site commemorating victims of the war. A random reader might wonder what truth Morawiecki has in mind, and what lies he is warning against. A rereading raises additional questions. Was there no place here for a single word about the people that constituted 90 percent of the camp’s victims? Where did the million Jews who were murdered there – out of a total of 1.1 million victims – disappear to?

People knowledgeable about domestic politics in Poland were probably not surprised by the comments of Morawiecki, as he accompanied German Chancellor Angela Merkel on December 6 during her first, historic visit to the site since she took office 14 years ago (only two previous chancellors had visited Auschwitz). He chose his words carefully, consistent with the ideology espoused by the right-wing, national government he heads, which was recently elected to a second consecutive term.

The “policy of memory” concerning World War II that the Polish government is promoting with considerable success these days emphasizes the war’s Polish victims and the heroism of the Righteous among the Nations who risked their lives to rescue Jews in the country. Similarly, other Poles who tried to fight the Nazis and paid with their lives are also being acknowledged.

Poland is thus working to right what many Poles view, justly, as a prolonged historic wrong. Germany, which fomented the war and perpetrated the Holocaust, is perceived internationally today as an enlightened country, and its capital, Berlin, is a highly popular tourist destination. By contrast, Poland, on whose soil the Germans carried out the “Final Solution,” is deplored as “the largest Jewish cemetery in the world,” and its citizens are widely accused of having collaborated with the Nazis.

“The Jews forgave Germany because they received money from the Germans, and redirected their anger at the Poles, who themselves suffered from the Germans’ brutality” – that is the essence of the claim being voiced by many Poles. However, by its very nature, the reshaping of the world’s collective memory to make it more forgiving toward the Poles, entails forgetting and silencing other chapters in the tragic history of Polish-Jewish relations. In part these are dark episodes that do not fit the narrative of victimhood and heroism – notably the part played by Poles in persecuting Jews before, during and after the Holocaust. These phenomena, which are well documented in innovative studies, conducted primarily by Polish researchers, are shunted aside and castigated by the Polish leadership as acts of marginal elements of the sort that exist among every people, the Jews included. Thus, as though to add insult to injury, a supposed analogy is drawn between, for example, a member of the Jewish Police who dragged Jews to the place of transports – under threats of murder by the Germans and in a desperate, unavailing effort to save himself and his loved ones – and a Pole who informed on or even murdered his Jewish neighbor in return for payment or in some cases for no recompense. The scale of these phenomena within Jewish and Polish societies at the time, their contexts and their significance, are not up for discussion.

Trenchant debate

Next month will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Many eyes around the world will be trained on the memorial site there on January 27, where a ceremony will be held in the presence of leaders from many countries. More than likely it will also be possible to discern hints of the great drama that has been unfolding in recent years in regard to the memory of the Holocaust and the way it is being commemorated.

If anyone in Israel or the Diaspora thinks that the memorial site at Auschwitz should be devoted primarily to the memory of the Jews, the current Polish dialogue might give him pause for thought. The principal victims of Auschwitz have lost their “title” to the site and are now mentioned only as part of a list, usually headed by the Poles, of additional victims of the camp, despite the significant differences in the circumstances of their murder.

It should be pointed out that while Nazi Germany acted to physically annihilate all the Jews – men, women and children, as part of a........

© Haaretz