On a cold November day in 1988, I accompanied then-finance minister and acting prime minister Shimon Peres on a small Polish Air Force flight to Auschwitz. Snow drifts covered the barracks and paths of the notorious death camp.
We stood beside the memorial plaque near the crematoria, where Polish soldiers cleared the snow so that we could read the engraved text: “At this spot, four million victims were murdered by genocidal Hitlerites.” Not a word about the Jews. We were wearing warm wool coats and yet I felt a strong shiver run through me. It was a crude and outrageous historical falsehood, an unforgivable distortion of truth.
At the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp complex, the Nazis and their collaborators murdered 1.1 million people, 960,000 of them Jews and 70,000 Poles. In 1967, the Polish Communist government decided to erase the memory of the Jews from the death camp and held an official ceremony to unveil a phony monument.
They held long speeches without mentioning the word Jews, and grossly inflated the number of victims by three million, mostly Poles, so that the Jews would be but a minority.
The nationalist communism of the years 1966-1986 gave the Polish people the perception that they, and only they, were the true victims of Nazism. The six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust were replaced in official propaganda with six million Poles.
The Communists, say contemporary Polish historians, “Confiscated the uniqueness of the Holocaust and diluted it with the horror of the German occupation of Poland as a whole."
The idea of "heroic martyrdom" during the German occupation of Poland was meant, and to a great extent succeeded, in erasing the awareness among ordinary Poles of the murder of the Jewish people. Auschwitz was declared a national memorial to Polish anti-Fascists.
The decline of communism brought about the end of this historical lie. The scandalous memorial plaques were removed from Auschwitz and the location became an international memorial site to the Holocaust of the Jewish people.
In the three decades since the fall of communism, there has not been another country in all of Europe that has done more to memorialize, sincerely research and instill in the collective national consciousness the Holocaust of the Jews that occurred on their soil. The Polish government and intellectuals courageously fought the prejudices and lies that had become obvious truths.
This endeavor came to an end with the rise of the national-conservative Law and Justice Party in Poland. The law against the “defamation of Poland” passed by both houses of parliament last year aroused international condemnation before it was amended.
Historians can once again write about the collaboration between Poles and the Nazis in extraditing and murdering Jews during the war. But the hasty and stupid legislation was only the tip of the iceberg. The language of “historical politics” used by many organizations associated with the Law and Justice Party is often literally taken word for word from the annals of the anti-Semitic campaigns of the 1960s.
One of the most appalling episodes was the effort by the Communist security services to prove the existence of a Jewish-Zionist-West German plot to replace the proud Polish people with the
Jews as the primary victims of the Nazi occupation.
Now, the national-communism has been replaced with national-conservatism. Leading Polish historians are accused of, as in 1967, of minimizing the victimhood of Poles and highlighting that of the Jews.
Directors of museums and research centers are being replaced with people who see eye to eye with the government. Recently a call has been made in the Polish Parliament to “return Auschwitz to Poland,” minimize the Jewish presence and re-emphasize the suffering of the Polish nation.
I wouldn’t be surprised if they reinstate that cursed plaque at the entrance to the camp.