Poland's new gag order on genocide

Editing the History of the Holocaust

The first thing visitors notice when they arrive at the Majdanek extermination camp is this enormous memorial to Holocaust victims by Polish sculptor Victor Tolkin (Wiktor Tołkin) from 1969. Photo by Mark Baker.
Barbed wire never looks so sinister than when it's wrapped around a former concentration camp. Here is a shot from Majdanek, near Lublin. Photo by Mark Baker.
The scale of the Majdanek camp is immense and it takes hours just to walk the perimeter. Here in the distance another Victor Tolkin (Wiktor Tołkin) memorial -- this one is of an urn holding the ashes of the victims. Photo by Mark Baker.
A front-view picture of the memorial sculpture by Victor Tolkin at the Majdanek camp. The point of the size and horrifying shape was to evoke the feelings the prisoners would have had on their arrival at the camp. Photo by Mark Baker.

Let’s get what needs to be said out of the way first.

Millions of Poles suffered and died during World War II. In addition to Polish soldiers fighting Nazi Germany, nearly two million non-Jewish Polish civilians perished in the conflict (this compares to three million of the country’s Jewish citizens). In retaliation for the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the Germans torched the Polish capital, Warsaw, and destroyed something like 85 percent of the city. It had to be rebuilt nearly totally from scratch.

To add insult to injury, the Nazis placed some of their most notorious extermination camps on occupied Polish soil. Not only did the Germans invade Poland to kick off the start of the war in 1939, they exported many of their most horrific crimes and murders – the bones and ashes and moral stench – to their eastern neighbor. It’s no exaggeration to say that some parts of Poland are only now economically (and spiritually) healing.

When people (often innocently and without any rancor toward Poland) make reference to “death camps in Poland” or even “Polish death camps,” they’re almost always referring to the geography of the Holocaust and not implying that Poland had anything directly to do with it. Still, it’s not at all hard to see how this would rankle many Poles. (One of the more controversial provisions of the bill would impose a jail term for anyone using the phrase “Polish death camps.”)

These indisputable facts stand behind the recent moves by Poland’s nationalist ruling party to stifle discussion of direct Polish involvement in the mass killings. And seen from this perspective, those actions don’t appear all that unreasonable.

But there are some other things that need to be said as well.

The outskirts of the city of Lublin in the distance, as seen from within the Majdanek camp. Inmates here would have been haunted by the specter of normal life going on so close to the camp. On the other side, Lublin residents would obviously have known what was happening here. Photo by Mark Baker.
The Majdanek extermination camp is one of the few Nazi-run camps where visitors can still see surviving remnants of the crematoria. Photo by Mark Baker.
It's hard to prepare mentally for a visit to the Nazi-run Bełżec extermination camp, in southeastern Poland, which by all accounts was the least-forgiving of all the Holocaust camps. The average life span of prisoners here was measured in hours, not weeks or months. Photo by Mark Baker.
Rusty supports jutting through concrete make for highly effective materials for conveying the brutal, heartless, and ugly nature of the camps. This shot was taken at Bełżec. Photo by Mark Baker.

It’s true that thousands of Poles have been singled out as heroes in the Holocaust, going out of their way -- putting their own lives and the lives of their families at serious risk -- to protect Jewish Poles from persecution. The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, has identified more than 6,700 Polish citizens as among the “righteous among nations.” This is the most of any nationality.

But it’s also true that some Poles, perhaps many thousands, went out of their way to expose Jews or otherwise assist Germans in carrying out the Nazi genocide. Whether Poles did this to spare their own or their family’s lives (or out of hatred or financial or other gain), it doesn’t alter the fact the Germans occasionally found willing local accomplices to their crimes -- and this is part of Holocaust history too. (It must be said here the overwhelming majority of Poles were probably somewhere in the middle – neither risking their lives to save Jews nor going out of their way to harm them.)

Princeton University historian Jan T. Gross's book "Neighbors" provoked a firestorm in Poland on publication in 2001. In the book, Gross tells the story of the July 1941 pogrom of Jedwabne, a small village northeast of Warsaw, in which the village's Polish residents murdered, in Gross's account, more than 1,600 Jews. Gross writes that they carried out the killings under the watchful eye of the village's Nazi occupiers. To get a flavor of the reaction at the time, here is a review of the book appearing in "The Guardian."

A contemporaneous review of the massacre carried out by the "Polish Institute of National Remembrance" (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej) concluded that fewer than 1,600 people were killed (around 400), but confirmed the basic findings that the perpetrators were Poles (though also assigning some blame to the Germans).

In 1946, in the south-central city of Kielce, some 42 Jewish residents were killed by their Polish countrymen in a pogrom that shocked outside observers, following so closely on the end of the war and revelations then emerging of the horrifying extent of the Nazi Holocaust.

I’m not here to judge the acts of complicit Poles. I have no idea how I would act – in fact, I think no one has any idea how he or she would act – under such difficult circumstances. I’m only expressing my view that any law that serves to inhibit research or prohibit people from stating what they believe, like the law recently passed in Poland, is inherently unjust and ultimately serves only to perpetuate lies.

It's clear that at least part of the reason behind the law (some would say most of the reason) is simply a way for the ruling PiS party to throw some red meat to its hard-core nationalist supporters to come out and vote, and it may well succeed. But the law could also easily backfire and provoke some unintended consequences. These include spurring even more investigation into Polish war guilt and dredging up yet again the whole idea that maybe Poles really do have something to hide here. It will certainly discourage people from studying the Holocaust or teaching the events in Polish schools.

I try to be something of an optimist in matters like this. And if you play Sigmund Freud for a moment, take a step back, and try to psychoanalyze the underlying impetus for this law, you find a deep shame associated with antisemitism in any form. I’d call that a positive development.

In contrast to the some of the other Nazi-run extermination sites in Poland, at Bełżec the Germans had plenty of time to destroy the camp and bury their crimes. The main 'sight' here is simply a field of rubble and ash. Photo by Mark Baker.
The now-familiar image of a guard tower at Birkenau, part of the former German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oświęcim. Photo by Mark Baker.
The mundane Holocaust architecture of Birkenau, part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, features dozens of former prisoner huts, standing in a green field and surrounded by barbed wire. Photo by Mark Baker.
The former German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau often strikes visitors as surprisingly neat and well-organized -- the tidy face of modern genocide. Photo by Mark Baker.

They say sunshine is the best disinfectant. For the purposes of this blog, I’d rephrase that slightly from “sunshine” to “travel.” The best way to learn about the Holocaust is to visit where it took place.

In Poland’s defense, I believe the country has taken significant strides in recent years in presenting the Holocaust to visitors. Under Communism, the Holocaust was both underplayed -- with significant sites badly underfunded -- and unnecessarily politicized. In keeping with the officially sanctioned, overarching political narrative of the working class vs reactionary capitalism, Jewish victims of the Holocaust were often swept under a generic umbrella as “victims of Fascist oppression” or merely “casualties of war” – and not viewed more accurately as targets of a specific ethnically or religiously motivated genocide.

The past couple of decades have seen a welcome shift in this perspective and the arrival of some good museums and Holocaust-oriented places of interest. The jewel in the crown is Warsaw's Museum of the History of Polish Jews (POLIN), which devotes part of its core exhibition to the Holocaust, as well as significant attractions in Kraków, Łódź, and other cities. Łódź was the site of Poland’s second-biggest Nazi-run Jewish ghetto during World War II, and I wrote about efforts there to tell the ghetto’s story in an earlier post. Critics might contend these places toe a too-traditional line when it comes to exposing potential Polish complicity in the events, but they remain indispensable historical resources. Let's hope this positive trend line continues.

Every Polish city of any size was touched in some way by the Holocaust, and often the most moving sights are not tied to any specific museum or themed attraction, but rather woven into the surviving urban fabric. Cities like Radom, Częstochowa, Lublin, Białystok, Kazimierz Dolny, Tarnów, Chełm, Płock, and many others had sizable Jewish populations before World War II and were ripped apart by the Holocaust – but they mostly lack top-drawer Holocaust museums or exhibitions.

In these places, instead, it’s up to visitors themselves to find or download old maps, identify the former Jewish neighborhoods, and then locate where the synagogues and cemeteries once stood. From here, it’s usually enough to take a walk through the areas and soak up the vibe.

Insider tip: In most Polish cities, the former Jewish neighborhoods are still invariably the most depressed and least developed parts of these places (so if you can't find a map, simply look for the slum). I often wonder if these neighborhoods are suffering from decades of bad karma or if their lingering state of disrepair is merely a consequence of the Polish government’s program after the war to repopulate former Jewish areas with Roma and homeless people. It’s probably a bit of both.

The Sobibór death camp is miles and miles away from anywhere, in the middle of Polish forest near the country's border with Ukraine. This modern-looking flying saucer actually covers a giant mound of ashes of the victims. Photo by Mark Baker.
Visitors often have the Sobibór camp entirely to themselves -- given the town's relative isolation. Somehow it makes the experience of following the paths the victims took to their deaths -- here called the 'Road to Heaven' -- even scarier. Photo by Mark Baker.
The central Polish city of Łódź was home to the second-biggest Nazi-run Jewish ghetto during the war. These cattle cars were used for selective transports to extermination camps when the ghetto got too full. Photo by Mark Baker.
One of the most moving sights of a visit to the city of Łódź is the enormous Jewish cemetery, with its rows and rows of untended graves. After the war, for many families, there was simply no one left to care for the dead. Photo by Mark Baker.

The Nazi-led Holocaust in Poland was a relatively organized affair – at least compared to the mass killings that took place in countries to the east. The Germans built a series of large-scale extermination camps, where most of Poland's Jews perished.

The best known of these, of course, is the former German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oświęcim, west of Krakow, where more than a million Jews were killed. Auschwitz gets no end of criticism for being "overly touristy" or "commercialized," but I’ve never experienced that side of it in the many times I’ve visited over the years. Indeed, I always advise visitors planning a trip to Poland to go. I find the camp moving to the point of life-changing.

Another well-known extermination camp is Treblinka, east of Warsaw (which I've never personally visited). Around 800,000 Jews were gassed here, making it the second deadliest extermination center, after Auschwitz.

But the Holocaust wasn’t simply Auschwitz or Treblinka, and to properly understand the enormity of the tragedy – and the extent, too, to which it was insinuated into the Polish landscape – it’s helpful to see other similar, but less-well-known camps.

A few years ago, I was working on an update to the Lonely Planet guide to Poland and traveling in the southeastern corner of the country. I noticed we didn’t have much coverage on two of the bigger German-run extermination camps in the region: Sobibór and Bełżec. To be fair, these camps are hard to get to and don’t have much in the way of tourism infrastructure, but as a writer, I have a certain amount of discretion over what we cover. I suggested we add the camps, and my editor agreed.

What emerged was a feature called “Forgotten Holocaust: Sobibór and Bełżec” that read partly like this:

"When it comes to the Holocaust, much of the world’s attention has gone to the atrocities of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Here, in the far east of Poland, are two death camps – Sobibór and Bełżec – that are less well known, but which merit a visit to better understand the breadth of the Nazis’ extermination policy.

At these camps, there was no “selection” process, very little chance for the prisoners to work, and crucially no chance for them to survive. In most instances, the victims were simply transported to the camps, off-loaded from the trains, undressed, and gassed.

Both camps were formed under the Germans’ “Operation Reinhard,” their secret plan to murder the Jewish population of occupied Poland, and both operated from early-1942 to 1943. It was here the Germans perfected their mass-killing techniques, like using gas, that they would later apply at other extermination centers, including Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Though the exact numbers of casualties are impossible to verify, the consensus is that at least 170,000 people were murdered at Sobibór and 400,000 to 600,000 at Bełżec. There are only a handful of known survivors from Bełżec.

Though these camps attract a tiny fraction of the number of visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau, both Sobibór and Bełżec have small, thoughtful memorials, where you can learn more about these lesser-known killing camps. Sobibór lies about 50 miles (80 km) east of the city of Lublin, while Bełżec is about 60 miles (100 km) south of Lublin."

One last camp worth mentioning also happens to be near Lublin, in fact, practically within the city limits. The Majdanek concentration camp operated from 1941 to its liberation in July 1944 and saw from 200,000-300,000 prisoners (mainly Jews, but also large number of Poles, Slovaks, and Russian POWs) pass through its gates.

Several things about Majdanek stand out. The first is that this is one of the few camps in Poland where the actual crematoria survived the war (the Russians liberated the camp quickly and left the Germans little time to destroy the evidence). Another thing would be the camp’s two oversized – and very moving -- stone memorials by sculptor Victor Tolkin (Wiktor Tołkin) from 1969. One statue stands near the entrance to the camp and the other -- in the shape of an enormous urn -- at the back. In fact, it’s a mausoleum filled with the ashes of thousands of victims.

Probably the most noticeable thing about Majdanek, however, is simply its location, just three miles (five kms) from the center of Lublin, the largest city in eastern Poland, and clearly visible to the many surrounding houses (check out the map plot, below, to see just how close). The Germans obviously felt no need to hide this death camp, and its existence was certainly no secret to the many hundreds, if not thousands, of people living nearby. The way things are going, let's hope it's never a crime to point out this fact as well.

I’d like to thank my friend and World War II researcher, Letitia Rydjeski, for reading through this post prior to publication, though any errors or omissions here are the sole responsibility of the author. MB

The popular artists' retreat and weekend resort of Kazimierz Dolny was once also an important Jewish settlement. The town's Jewish cemetery, in a forest on a hill, is worth the trek out of the center.
The walls of Kazimierz Dolny's former Jewish cemetery are built from the remains of recovered Jewish tombstones. Photo by Mark Baker.
The Jewish Center in Kielce, located just near to the site of an infamous pogrom in 1946, sponsors thought-provoking exhibitions on the long history of Jews in the city. Photo by Mark Baker.
The Kielce pogrom of 1946 was shocking for many reasons. Not only did 42 people die in what's described as a brutal killing, but it came just months after the war, when the world was only just starting to grasp the horrific extent of the Holocaust. Photo by Mark Baker.
Częstochowa, home to the Jasna Gora Monastery, is often viewed as Poland's holiest city and a Catholic pilgrimage site. Just a few miles from the monastery, in the poorest part of the city, stands this marker of the former deportation spot from where the city's Jews were taken to their deaths. Photo by Mark Baker.
Every Polish city and town of any size was touched by the Holocaust. All visitors usually need to do is to find an old city map and walk around. This memorial in the city of Radom marks the site of a former synagogue. Photo by Mark Baker.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Mark, for your voice in this important discussion. Thank you for your objective, thoughtful and respectful comment, triggered by the new law imposed by the Polish government. It is not an easy topic and it can understandably evoke some intense emotions. I have my personal reaction to the use of the term “death camps in Poland” or “Polish death camps”. People using these terms anger me and anger most Poles, no matter how “innocent” they are in their intentions. We should remember that many (particularly young) people know almost nothing about those times and may easily conclude that that these camps were created by Polish people. The damage can be irreparable. We should take responsibility for our words and should be very careful with them (which is not to say that those who don’t do that deserve “jail term”).
    Don’t get me wrong: the fact that the Holocaust law was recently passed in Poland sends chills down my spine as it reminds me of living in the communist Poland years ago. I don’t necessarily follow the politics in my home country and cannot comment on the reasons why this law was implemented (your interpretation of it sounds reasonable to me). I believe that it is ridiculous to introduce the bill that makes it illegal to accuse Polish nation of complicity in crimes committed by Nazi Germany, including the Holocaust. I am not in denial about the role that many people played during the Holocaust, including Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and others. Nothing is black and white and every country has a dark side. We can only learn from what we acknowledge. While Poland has every right to correct, to protest and to demand accuracy, it is quite sad that it decided to resort to censorship as a weapon…

    Thank you, Mark, for the review and photos of some places in Poland I never knew about! Big fan! 🙂

    • Hi Bozena, thanks so much for reading the post and leaving such a thoughtful comment. My point here wasn’t so much to criticize the Polish government for the new law (lots of other people have done that very convincingly), but rather to provide some context and to point out that we as travelers can always visit and learn for ourselves. I happy to hear you’re a big fan! 🙂

      • I’m impressed with your level of insight and knowledge about our history and current issues. And I agree that travelling and visiting those places can allow us to form our own opinions rather than being influenced by others. I’m definitely planing to see some of those places you talked about next time I am in Poland.

  2. I enjoyed reading your comment on the recent changes in Poland regarding the Holocaust law. Like many others, I look at this with concern and horror.

    There is no doubt that in the pre-war years, there was a rising tide of anti-semitism. Many local papers carried, and encouraged, such sentiments. But there was also a voice from the educated classes highlighting and condemning the horrors, both the actions and non-actions that were taking place, Many eminent scholars were not afraid to put their names to letters and publications that criticised the barbarism taking place. The overall ineffectiveness of these defending champions, which included the all-too-silent Church were, and are, depressing and embarrassing. There were voices that shouted that Poland stood for equality for all and welcomed multi-nationality; they also highlighted the huge losses that would be the result of emigration and economic destruction of the Jewish community.
    Bench ghettos erased the dignity of the students; those who failed to comply risked being excluded from the university.
    I hope there will not be a return to such dark ignorance in Poland, or anywhere else in Europe.

    • Thank you, Barbara, for reading the post and leaving such a thoughtful comment. The biggest potential drawback of this new law will be that it will discourage people from studying the historical events and publishing their findings. I am pretty optimistic though that this law will fail in the end or be repealed. Mark

  3. Coming to terms with difficult history, guilt, shame and sorrow (yes, sorrow too!) is a long process. Stopped for decades during the soviet times, as a nation (if there even is such a thing) we have come to the point of negation. It is just a moment in time and it will pass. I don’t believe the new law will change anything really as it will be almost impossible to execute and I am hopeful that for many people (me included) it is simply a moment of a very simple decision: which side do I want to take and what do I want to teach my children?
    Thank you, Mark, for caring and being so delicate in describing both current and war-time situation in Poland.

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist and travel writer who’s lived in Central Europe for more than two decades. I love the history, literature, culture, and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

That's my aim with this travel website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

You’ll find a mix of stories here. Some will be familiar “what to see and do” travel articles on particular destinations. Others will be tales of “adventure” (usually with a comic twist) from life on the road. I'll also share tips about living in my adopted hometown of Prague and stories from a more-distant (but seemingly ever-present) past, when Central Europe was the “Eastern bloc” and I was a full-time journalist trying my best to cover it. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker