OPINION: The term ‘Polish death camps’ obscures truth about the Shoah

OPINION: The term ‘Polish death camps’ obscures truth about the Shoah

An Auschwitz barrack
An Auschwitz barrack

by Witold Sobków, Polish Ambassador to the United Kingdom

Witold Sobków
Witold Sobków, Polish Ambassador to the United Kingdom

THE POLISH Ministry of Justice recently proposed a new legislation intended to prevent the use of the incorrect term “Polish death camps”. Some reactions among the public were negative, including arguments that the knowledge about Nazi German crimes is already sufficient, and the adjective “Polish” death camps merely refers to their geographical location. Others misinterpreted the initiative as an attempt by Poland to silence any discussion about the Holocaust or restrict historical research. However, it is crucial to understand that the misleading naming obscures the truth about the Shoah by assigning the blame for the actions of Nazi Germany to Poland.

We need to join our efforts to convey the truth about the Holocaust to future generations.

The opposition to terms such as “Polish death camps” or “death camps in Poland” is not connected to geographical semantics. While the adjective, often used by the British press without reflection, would not be misunderstood by the audiences with deeper knowledge of history, it can be unintentionally misinterpreted by the younger generations.

Decades of both intended and unaware misinformation have resulted in a collective memory error, which confuses perpetrators with victims. The problem arises, when the “Polish” adjective leads to a mistaken impression that the camps were run or in any form accepted by the Polish state or its citizens. By simply calling camps “Polish” rather than “Nazi German” or only referring to them as based “in Poland” rather than “in occupied  Poland”, we contribute to diminishing the acumen of these audiences, which may not be fully aware of the horrible fate of Poles and Jews under the Nazi German occupation.

We have witnessed increasing numbers of cases attributing direct Polish involvement in the Holocaust and at the same time ignoring the fact that the Polish state was effectively dismantled by Nazi German invaders in 1939 – a situation very different from that in occupied France or Belgium.

Nazi German authorities ruled annexed Poland in an authoritarian way, and the population had no control over their own lives. The occupiers destined Jews for genocide, while Poles and other Slavic nations were treated as sub-human slave labour, abused and worked to death.

At the same time, the Polish government-in-exile in no way collaborated with, supported or accepted the Shoah. On the contrary, Polish diplomat Jan Karski was the first to bring eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to the Allies. Witold Pilecki, Polish intelligence officer of the underground Home Army, infiltrated Auschwitz and passed its blueprints to London. Żegota, the Council to Aid Jews, coordinated protection and escapes of Polish Jews. Poles constitute the largest national group of the Righteous Among the Nations, with more than 6,500 honoured by Yad Vashem, even though in contrast to other countries of Europe, in occupied Poland, providing refuge to Jews was punishable by death.

An Auschwitz death camp barak

It is crucial to understand how and why the most infamous concentration and extermination camps were built on the territory of occupied Poland. For centuries, Poland had been a safe haven for European Jewry – on the eve of the Second World War, as many as 10 percent of

Polish citizens were Jews, and one-third of Warsaw’s population was Jewish. It is hurtful to imply that the camps were built in occupied Poland because an allegedly anti-Semitic majority of Poles approved of their construction. The horrifying truth is that Nazi Germans chose occupied Poland as the site of their crimes for practical reasons – because it was densely populated by Jews.

It is also crucial to stress the premeditated and methodological execution of the genocide of Jews by the Nazi German state. By using an inaccurate and imprecise naming, the significance of the Holocaust becomes blurred as the blame is shifted to the ambiguous “Nazis” who are less identifiable with the German Third Reich, and diminishes its overarching plan of exterminating  the Jewish nation. If we fail to unify and define the terms describing the Holocaust, we not only offend the memory of its victims, but erode the historical truth that must be passed to future generations.

The Polish government is determined to commemorate the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. The new legislation is not aimed at silencing the dialogue about the Holocaust. Legal steps would only be taken against those who purposefully distort historical facts in cases of intentional and continued assigning of blame for the actions of Nazi Germany to Poland, through the use of false accusations and obscured information.

Its purpose is also to open a legal way for the victims to correct hurtful misleading errors, and make sure the truth about the Holocaust is preserved. We are not denying instances of hostilities or violence against the Jewish population perpetrated by Poles. However, we need to make clear distinctions – there were no “Polish death camps” and there was no Polish acceptance of the Shoah.

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