The Polish Amendment is a change in tactics, not policy

Dr. Inna Rogatchi: To the PiS legislators and new-born fierce Polish uber-nationalists of all denominations, many of whom virtually yesterday were active pro-Soviet activists, we have a simple message to convey: We-do-know-who--killed-Jews-in-Poland.

Dr. Inna Rogatchi, | updated: 04:39

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Inna Rogatchi

Rochel Sylvetsky interviews historian Dr. Inna Rogatchi

Co-founder and president of The Rogatchi Foundation, writer, scholar and public figure Dr Inna Rogatchi is known as a vocal proponent of international resistance to Poland’s revisionist attitude to the history of the WWII and the Holocaust, the country’s official anti-Semitism and its current leadership’s cultural policy aiming to distort and re-write the historical record. She was consistently active in the international efforts to fight the acceptance of the notorious so-called Holocaust Law by Poland earlier this year.   

Q: What are your impressions on the amending of the notorious Holocaust Law by Poland?

The amendment was expected, after the widespread strong international outcry that the law caused. What was interesting here it is a numerological detail which seems to have not received general attention: the amendment nixing the criminalisation of free speech regarding the Holocaust in Poland was made by the Polish Sejm on June 27th, five months to the day from when it was accepted as a law back in January this year.

This date is not only the day of International Holocaust Remembrance Day introduced by the UN back in 2008, but most importantly, is the date for the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. The symbolism of the date might be not to the liking of the majority of the Polish MPs who were forced to do it; but it certainly is quite important for the people who worked hard to make it happen, such as special behind-the-scene envoys appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Brigadier General (ret) Yaacov Nagel and Dr Yossi Ciechanover, the brother of the Nobel laureate in chemistry Aaron Ciechanover, both of whose families are from Poland, and for whom the word Oswiecim means a great deal.  And not only for them, of course.

Q: What do you think were the key factors in what The Guardian called a ‘partial U-Turn’ by the Polish authorities?

It was a hilarious head-line, on a par ‘being partially pregnant”. But in present Poland, even that could be a reality. The Guardian justly emphasised that the amendment to the Holocaust law leaves much unfixed. There are a lot of details in the behind-the scene process that led to what Kaczynski described as ‘we had to swallow a bitter pill’. There were several senior players who pulled the strings making the current  Polish leadership do it: the US Administration, the Israeli government, the array of the international Jewish organisations.

In the overall analyses, the US Administration’s role was decisive, while the role of the Israeli government turned out to be instrumental. As far as the US Administration is concerned, Poland had been ‘in the dog-house’, according to senior diplomatic sources, and with good reason. Anyone who is aware of the details of the mechanisms of international politics realises that once a state gets into that list, it is a long and painful process to get back to normal relations. It is not done momentarily or automatically after the hasty voting back at the Polish Sejm. As a matter of fact, there were only two options for the Polish leadership: either they would realise that they have ‘to swallow that bitter pill’ voluntarily, or they would be forced to do so by a wide range of political, military co-operation and trade leverages. There is no Plan C for them in this scenario.

I remember vividly how Polish friends, very senior people there, were in despair at the time of the passing of the law and the vile anti-Semitic campaign in the country just after it. We were getting repeated requests saying: ”Please, please do something, remember about us, do not be silent, because this government and this governing elite in Poland will succumb only to international, outside pressure; they really do not care about the reaction inside the country; they have about 40% of the population’s support, and do as they please”. Those were not Jewish people from Poland, but the Polish Poles who were ashamed of their government and sick of its policies.     

Q: What do you think about the public  comment by Prof. Yehuda Bauer regarding the Polish-Israeli joint declaration after amending the law?

I agree with the message if not with all the wording. Professor Yehuda Bauer is the world-authority on the Holocaust and he has not earned his reputation for nothing. He knows the subject as few others do. In particular, I agree with Prof. Bauer on the extremely odd phrase in that document worded "at that time, some people - regardless of origin, religion or worldview - revealed their darkest face".  In his comment, Prof. Bauer said the following: "It's a complete lie. What does it mean 'regardless of origin'? They were born on the moon? They were Poles, and not just one or two”.  That phrase truly should not be in that document.  And actually, the people in Poland did not buy this declaration either. They know their government and its people, and they wear no rose tinted glasses.

Q: Were yours and the others’ efforts to fight the scandalous law worth it?

Absolutely, in spite of many personal attacks; well-organised mass hysteria in the media, special measures undertaken by certain  Polish agencies, all those orchestrated hysterical campaigns and harrasment. They lost big, and they know it. The other question is what conclusions they will arrive at and what tactics they will use from now on. We can see the first results of their changed and slightly refined tactics already, immediately after the Sejm voted to amend the law.  

The meaning of active dissent should never be underestimated. If only people in different countries back in 1935, immediately after the Nuremberg Laws and before the Kristallnacht, had been willing and able to fight against Hitlerism actively and in an articulate way, and if the world’s governments would have played it straight, the cancer of Nazism certainly would not have spread that easily and not gotten the sweeping free reign that led to the Shoah. One can argue that back in 1935, the world had no Holocaust precedent, which is true, but today, we cannot ignore the realities of Holocaust, in Poland or anywhere else.

We have massive historical factual material on the Shoah today. And these facts, pure facts, document the annihilation of at least 3 million Jews in Poland, 90% of the Polish Jewish pre-WWII population, 10% of the population of Poland, and the half of the all victims of the Holocaust world-wide; not in Czechoslovakia, not in Yugoslavia, not in any other country, but in Poland. We do know that the vast majority of those crimes were committed by the Nazis. But we know the role and size of the Polish population’s participation in those crimes as well. We know about it thanks to the heroic efforts of the people who worked tirelessly in what it is known today as the Jewish Historical Institute documenting the crimes of WWII and Holocaust in Poland in three distinctive periods: 1945-1947, 1947-1949 , and 1949-1951. This is the biggest and most respected universal archive of the sort in Central Europe.

So, for the PiS legislators and new-born fierce Polish uber-nationalists of all denominations, many of whom virtually yesterday were active pro-Soviet activists, we have a simple message to convey: We-do-know-who--killed-Jews-in-Poland. We know how, when and why it was done. We know about the crimes  committed before and after the Nazis were on Polish soil. For the latest account, it is very sobering and highly recommended to refer to the recently published in English Night Without End, the 2-volume and 1 600-page research conducted by a15-strong team of researchers from the highly reputed Warsaw-based Centre for Research on the Holocaust of Jews. According to this research, which the world media unanimously called ‘devastating’ at the time of its publishing in May 2018, in 9 of 13 regions of Poland where the research had been conducted, “two-thirds of the local Jews who hid in the country from the Nazis lost their lives due to the actions of their non-Jewish neighbors”.

If somebody would like to verify this detailed record of Polish participation in the annihilation of Polish Jewry, there is also famed research by the renowned historian, Professor Jan Grabowski, The Hunt for Jews ( 2014), the English version of Professor Barbara Engelking’s chilling book Such a Beautiful Sunny Day ( 2017), and new documented research on the topic by US historians to be released this coming August.

The facts are so compelling that any law cannot silence it. To think this way one has to be hopelessly provincial, as the current Polish leadership is, unfortunately.  

Q: What would you say on the tactic of appeasement which had been advocated by some parties to be applied as well?

Returning to the time of the international shock and outcry caused by the law back in the winter of this year, I remember vividly that not everyone was for open and articulated resistance to the outrageous act of the Polish legislators and government. There were the people who were trying to find all kinds of excuses and proposing all kinds of compromises.  There were those who were pretending that everything is fine, and that the new law ‘does not mean anything serious’; there were those who were trying to call black white and play into the hand of the fierce Polish nationalists who are ruling the country today. Those people were found mostly among the ones trying to promote their own programs existing in Poland, people with their own agenda of different sorts, some of them with known personal business ties and involvement in Poland, and also some self-proclaimed political fixers. They were in a clear minority. Importantly, there was not a single reputed historian among those who tried ‘to calm down’ the international outcry.

Here we come to the ever standing dilemma on the right tactics for achieving an objective in complex international situations: to fight or to appease?

In my opinion, there are some situations when one certainly can use a candy instead of a whip: some, not all, refugee situations; economic conflicts; even some, not all, hostage crises.  But: there are the matters on which one does not compromise, nor appease. On the Holocaust, a compromise or appeasement is absolutely unacceptable. Period. I do understand the bitterness of Prof. Bauer who was telling in his recent interview when he said cynically ‘the small topic of the Holocaust’ in comparison with “the other interests of the state.”

Those who overdid their efforts to appease the current Polish leadership, demonstrated their own weakness and sometimes even vanity.

The story with Poland and its policy of attempting to revise history is far from over, this is the main thing to understand. Why be so eager to appease the Polish leaders today, why do it so hastily? Poland’s president Duda was invited to visit Israel practically immediately after the law was amended, not annulled, - while Poland's policy of re-writing history and presenting it in outrageous distortion remains unchanged.  

Menachem Begin preferred to resign from the position of prime-minister of Israel at facing the prospect of shaking hands with the chancellor of Germany visiting Israel on his first official visit. And this gesture of Menachem Begin put him into the historical record for integrity and strength of character.       

Q:  What is the effect of this episode on Polish society?

Society-wise, there are two sides to the process: On one side, PiS does have large and wide support in Poland largely because they are implementing the populist social policy funded by the EU. At the same time, in such a big country as Poland, half the population was and is against that uber-nationalism which expresses itself  abrasively in many respects. One can read in the Polish social media on how people are ashamed, tired and outraged by their current government, daily. Since the current government came to rule  in 2015, one can see the live illustration of the Pendulum theory in politics in Poland: when the course of the events goes in one direction until it reaches the tipping point from where the movement back is inevitable.

Within the last couple of weeks, three notable events happened in Poland: in a small village, the people on their own made and dedicated a memorial to the 10 Jews who were murdered there during the Holocaust; in the diary of the one of the village’s residents who was friendly with those victims, all their names and the date of their murder had been written down at the time. Now, the people of that village made the memorial to their neighbours on their own.

In another Polish place, Kroscienko, an honest 30-year old internationally known Polish sportsman Dariusz Popiela made it his personal mission to collect the funds, to conduct the research, to clean the place, to create and to erect a memorial to the 246 Jews who were murdered at that place during the Holocaust. Importantly, he did find and attract many young people to work with him on the noble project. This is the manifestation of the active stand of the good Polish people on uplifting the memory and dignifying both the victims and those who remember them today with such devotion.

Around the same time, a very special ceremony took a place in Warsaw where at the POLIN museum, the presidents of four major cities - Warsaw, Poznan, Gdansk and Byalostok - signed the appeal to all the other presidents and mayors of Poland to pursue a policy of "zero tolerance for prejudices, xenophobia and anti-Semitism"  and its public expression. In present day Poland, this shows that the patience of the healthy part of the society there gets to the edge. Those inflamed nationalists from PiS might well have underestimated the reserves of conscience among their own people.

As the one of the opposition MPs in the Sejm exclaimed emotionally during the hot session on June 27th debating the amendment to the Holocaust law: “why on earth was it necessary to introduce this idiotic law in the first place? Why did you break down everything by introducing it?..”

Q: Do you think that there are still some pitfalls?

For the law criminalising free speech on the Holocaust in Poland in January 2018 and on amending the same law just five months later: in January 2018, 342 Polish MPs voted for the law, with 116 absent; in June, 388 same MPs voted for the amendment, with 25 absent and 5 against. Thus, 80% of the legislators who did vote for the law in the first place, voted to amend it five months later. And it is known that most of them were unaware of the text of the amendment until the very day of the voting when the text was published in the media; that a large part of the MPs were basically commanded to vote in a certain way by the PiS party leadership who were pressurised by the US Administration.  

There should be no illusions and self-delusion on the matter: the law was amended not because the Polish ruling PiS  party has recognised its ‘mistake’ or changed its policy. It was done solely under the pressure of the mighty international players while nothing has been changed in PiS party’ policy on the matter. The amendment had been forced upon them. It can be also seen from the massive reaction in the Polish media and social media - according to the shrewd note of a very good Israeli analyst Lily Galilly, in the days after the amendment, ‘the two most used words in the Polish media and social media were ‘Jews’ and ‘knees’ “.

It is a relief that now elderly Holocaust survivors or members of their families, or even academics and journalists will not be arrested and face imprisonment in Poland 77 years after the beginning of the worst crime in the history of humanity for telling the truth about it; but has the amendment changed the current Polish policy on culture and history regarding the history of the WWII, their plans and programs about it? Definitely not. These existing and unfolding programs, plans and policy promoted by the Polish ministry of culture, the INP Institute and the other similar bodies, are consistently terrorising leading Polish historians who dare to stay honest and the institutions which dare to preserve their good name.

They are terrorising the Auschwitz Museum and it leadership, they are underfunding POLIN and Jewish Historical Institute; they are forcing the honest researchers off their jobs from the Institute of National Memory; they are changing the narrative of entire museums, such as was done and is ongoing at the Museum of WWII in Gdansk, and what they are trying to do at the Auschwitz museum, as well.

At the same time, they are planning to open up to 40 new museums, many of them on the theme of WWII, and all of them with the same agenda: to re-write history. The new museum on the Warsaw Ghetto will provide a low and mean version of the truth, according to the information among Polish historians; q new museum is planned for Auschwitz lobbied for by openly anti-Semitic politicians with an agenda which is nothing but perverted truth; the new museum on the Polish rescuers of Jews has been shamelessly named after Saint Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla, who all his life despised and fought against the people with views like those behind this new museum. Where does the money come from for all those 40 planned new museums the PiS government is planning to build and maintain? Poland is a poor country, but willing to spend the money on this.

Q: So, what we have to expect from the Polish government now?

We are not expecting; we are seeing it already. At the very same day of the voting for the amendment, some Polish state institutions abroad started to run prepared stories. They did it in a tested way - sponsored content stories which they sent to several international media agencies and made sure that those agencies would swallow the bait, on the wave of the enthusiasm with regard to the amended law. The plan did work, and some agencies did distributed a story which is sheer propaganda.

This is just one sample of the new re-fined tactics of the Polish authorities after the major international public defeat over the Holocaust law. Their views did not change. Their intentions did not change. Their policy did not change either. Only tactics have been re-defined; appearance only, not the essence.  While the current government of Poland rules the country, they will try to instill their phantasmagorical version of history both inside and outside their country and they will be persistent. This is the main lesson from the rather pathetic story of their effort to try to silence the world on the Holocaust in Poland.