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Opinion | The New Wave of Holocaust Revisionism

Poland’s Jewish population numbered well over three million before the war. At the end of the war, some 380,000 Polish Jews had survived, most of whom had fled in 1939 into the former Soviet Union. By 1950, only about 45,000 Jews were left living in Poland.

The current effort to erect dozens of monuments to Polish heroes in places of Jewish terror appears to be changing the teaching and understanding of history in Poland. Even Auschwitz, perhaps the most visible symbol of the genocide, has not been spared. According to a national poll published in 2020, nearly half of Poles today think that Auschwitz is most of all a place of Polish suffering. Thus Auschwitz — which is also a museum funded by the Polish government devoted to the memory of nearly one million Jews who lost their lives in the gas chambers of Birkenau — has emerged, to a certain extent, as a place of Polish suffering as much as a Jewish one.

As a historian, I myself have encountered this new and dangerous trend. In 2021 I was accused of slandering the memory of a long-deceased Polish village mayor. The claim was based on a footnote in “Night Without End,” a book that I co-edited. In the text, a Holocaust survivor is quoted recalling an incident in which the mayor of his village alerted the Nazis to the whereabouts of a group of Jews, resulting in their death. The mayor’s niece, assisted by an NGO that receives government funding, took us into Warsaw’s District Court to defend the name of her uncle. We were dismayed by the ruling, in which the judge, Ewa Jonczyk, asked us to apologize.

“We can assume that ascribing to Poles the crimes of the Holocaust committed by the Third Reich can be construed as harmful and detrimental to the sense of identity and of national pride,” the judge said last February. “Attributing to the Polish nation the responsibility for the Holocaust, for the killing of Jews during World War II and for the confiscation of their property touches upon the sphere of the national heritage and, consequently, as completely untrue and harmful, can significantly impact one’s feeling of own national dignity, destroying the justified — based on facts — belief that Poland was the victim of war operations initiated and conducted by the Germans.”

Fortunately the ruling was overturned, but the chill was felt among scholars inside and outside Poland.

It seemed to me that the real objective of the lawsuit was not to rescue a man’s name or alter his reputation, but to frighten scholars of the Holocaust, to instill Poland’s pervasive atmosphere of fear into an entire discipline and to make students and educators think twice before choosing topics that would challenge the government-sponsored version of history. The idea of a right to national pride, advanced in court, is an ambiguous and legally undefined sentiment that effectively means any member of the Polish nation has the right to sue historians whose findings offend them.

Meanwhile, Holocaust survivors are dying every day. There are few left to protest the new revisionism.

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