“German Concentration Camp” reads the sign at Majdanek: not the official sign but the one stuck on a trailer, parked just outside the gates. It tells visitors that the Germans murdered Jews, Poles, Belarussians, Ukrainians and Russians in this camp on the outskirts of the Polish city of Lublin.
“It’s not my job to explain that sign,” says our guide, turning her head to avoid seeing it. Everything the sign says is true. But telling the whole truth about the Holocaust is now a criminal offence in Poland.
The sign was put there by activists in support of a law passed by Poland’s right-wing government in January 2018. The law makes it illegal to assert that either “the Polish state or the Polish nation” participated in the Holocaust. Offenders are liable to three years’ imprisonment. Its passage triggered a diplomatic outcry both from Israel and the US, and has left many of Poland’s 20,000-strong Jewish community apprehensive.
Why? Because it is a fact, meticulously documented by new research over the past ten years, that while some Poles courageously defended Jews during the Holocaust, others killed them, denounced them or joined in the Nazi-orchestrated manhunt for them. For the ruling Law and Justice Party, which is trying to construct a nuance-free, nationalist victim-narrative for Poland, all these are facts too far.
In his book Hunt for the Jews, Jan Grabowski found that, out of 286 Jews murdered in a single county while trying to hide, 115 were killed by the Polish “Blue Police”, a further 98 were killed by the Germans after being denounced by locals, and just seven were recorded as being found and killed solely by the German police. A further 59 were killed in circumstances unknown. In a bigger study, published last month, Grabowski’s team concluded that two out of every three Jews who sought refuge with Polish gentiles died.
Konstanty Gebert, a high-profile Jewish journalist and veteran of the Solidarnosc movement, demonstratively broke the new law on the first day of its operation. He has not been prosecuted, despite phoning around numerous public prosecutors to inform them of his crime.
He believes that, extrapolating from Grabowski’s figures, somewhere between 62,000 and 200,000 Jews were either murdered or denounced by Poles during the Second World War. For Gebert, the new law is a political signal by the ruling party to the far-right segment of its voters; its aim, as he puts it bluntly, is to “spite the kikes”. “Law and Justice is dependent on the fascist electorate – about 8 per cent of the vote,” he says. “The fascists have been voting Law and Justice because it has been slowly but surely implementing some elements of what they want to see. But if they backtrack on this law – ‘capitulate to Jewish pressure’ – there goes their support: they can’t get a majority.”
For Poland’s overtly anti-Semitic far-right, the row has been good for business. At a kiosk in Lublin railway station, where thousands of Jewish visitors from abroad arrive each year to visit the Majdanek museum, I found half a yard of anti-Semitic and far-right newspapers and magazines on sale, with Gazeta Warszawa in prime position. “History according to the Jews” reads its headline; alongside a strapline accusing the Polish prime minister of being an Israeli agent. That’s just page one. Inside there is a reprint of a Wikipedia page about the Rothschild family; almost every spread carries a negative story about Jews.
In the magazine Polska Niepodległa, historians who have documented the role of Polish gentiles in the Holocaust are labelled “fantasists”. The new law is justified as a pre-emptive strike against an alleged Jewish plan to grab Polish property.
“For the first 25 years after the fall of communism, anti-Semitism was in steady and slow decline. Over the last ten years we have seen the systematic growth of classical anti-Semitic attitudes,” says Gebert.
According to the Centre for Research on Prejudice, the percentage of Poles who believe Jews kidnap Christian children has risen from 11 to 25 per cent in just ten years. The number who believe Jews “strive to rule the world” stands at 43 per cent. Some 56 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement “the Jews want to get compensation from the Poles for the things that in fact were done to them by the Germans”.
For Holocaust survivors in Poland, it feels like decades of progress is being reversed. I meet Marian Turski in the Polin museum of Jewish life in Warsaw, which he helped found. “In Auschwitz, it was so cold; minus 20 or 25 degrees,” he remembers. “I cut out a cement sack to make underclothes but the SS man spotted me and beat me almost to death.” He jabs a finger at me, reliving a moment from more than 75 years ago and says: “Du hast Deutsches vermögen gestohlen” – you have stolen German property.
Mr Turski, 91, who survived the Lódz ghetto, Auschwitz and the death marches to Buchenwald and Theresienstadt, says he understands why the Polish government wants to clarify German responsibility for the extermination camps, but laments the atmosphere the law has created. “I would question whether the new law was designed to evoke anti-Semitism. It did it. Not because the law is dangerous, but what happened around it – this is how it contributed to awakening the demon, the monster: this is what’s upsetting.” He believes the law will deter academics from studying the details of what happened in Poland during the Holocaust, for fear that it will blight their careers.
When I ask Turski what message he would give to young Polish people, he recalls the anti-Jewish laws passed by the Nazis after 1933: laws saying Jews couldn’t sit on some park benches, or swim in certain lakes. “You might think it’s unpleasant. OK, you cannot swim here but so what? In Berlin there are hundreds of places to swim. You cannot sit on this bench but there are others where you can sit. This is how the victims, the perpetrators and the bystanders were getting used to it. And it led to the ghettoes, the concentration camps, the extermination camps… Auschwitz did not fall from the sky. People got used to it. And this also made them indifferent. So maybe the message is: don’t cry ‘never again’. Start thinking what caused it. How it happened. And prevent it when it starts.”
What struck me during my visit to Majdanek is that, for an industrial-scale killing operation, it was by modern standards un-industrial. There were just two gas chambers, both preserved: the one where they used Zyklon B is about the length and width of a railway carriage, its walls still stained blue from the chemical; the one where they used carbon monoxide is the size of a family living room. Hundreds of Jews at a time were forced into these low rooms to be gassed. But when the Nazis wanted to murder thousands they simply marched them into a ditch and opened fire: 18,000 were shot in Majdanek on 3 November 1943, in the aftermath of an uprising at the nearby Sobibór camp.
Majdanek was a venue for one-on-one cruelty, its perpetrators prepared by a decade of hate speech, media racism and petty legal restrictions. Jews were kicked to death for sport here; used as human punchbags; beaten senseless for minor misdemeanours. The neat rows of huts, the huge collection of shoes and the spotless ovens in the crematorium become much better memorials once you can imagine the atmosphere of hate that pervaded the space between them.
To understand where that atmosphere came from, you have only to experience the petty hatreds, stereotypes and “otherisation” narratives swirling around right-wing Polish media and social media today. “A month ago I was terrified,” says Marysia Swietlik, a left-wing trade union activist and democracy campaigner. “I was for the first time pretty happy that there is security in the school my kids are in. [The new law] was a very clear signal for the far right: that this is one more issue you can openly speak about. They were already speaking openly against immigrants, and now they added the discourse against Zionism.”
Due to the diplomatic pushback by the US, says Swietlik, Law and Justice has tried to let the issue fade. However, she says, “I am pretty scared about the election because, for sure, they will use this xenophobic campaign again. It’s the only thing that really works for them.”
In the face of this, the Polish left is weak. It can mount big demonstrations over the issues of abortion or constitutional reform, but the entire spectrum of left parties clustered into the United Left for the 2015 election failed to get a single MP into the Sejm. The formerly communist SLD is currently on around 7 per cent.
Law and Justice, by contrast, is Europe’s most successful right-wing nationalist party. Its 40 per cent-plus poll ratings are not only boosted by economic growth: it has raised the incomes of working-class families, via a generous child benefit system. Yet it keeps picking fights – with women over abortion, with Angela Merkel over the distribution of Syrian refugees, with the EU over the independence of the judiciary, and now with its Jewish population over the part Poles played in the Holocaust.
Everybody I spoke to in the Jewish community in Warsaw was keen to point out that those in greatest danger from official racism and nationalism are Muslims, migrants and Roma. “We hear every week of physical attacks on them,” says Swietlik, adding, “all the Islamophobic narratives are built on old anti-Semitic ones – exactly the same expressions, same stereotypes that are rooted in Polish and European culture; it’s like a facelift for anti-Semitism.”
This article appears in the 13 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?