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Insider Interview

Criminalizing the Truth

Poland’s ruling far-right Law and Justice (PiS) party has adopted a controversial new law proscribing references to Polish complicity in the Holocaust. But the law concerns the present – namely, PiS’s need for a legitimating myth – much more than the past.

Sierakowski: Poland has just adopted legislation that PiS claims will end the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” by foreign media and politicians. What did you think when you heard that phrase uttered by former President Barack Obama or former FBI Director James Comey?

Gross: It’s fairly obvious that they were referring to the geographical location of the camps. They of course knew that the Nazis were responsible for running the machinery of death. 

SS: Could the phrase make sense in the way that PiS suggests it does? Could it be misleading for young people who are less engaged with history?

JG: Official hounding of such misstatements began years before PiS came to power. But no normal person uses the phrase “Polish death camps” to imply that Poles built and operated the camps. If the law’s backers wanted to penalize use of the phrase, they would have included it in the legislation. They didn’t, even though they had plenty of time to modify the bill. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed them about how the law would be received, and they received expert legal opinions regarding how the legislation could be made more specific. Yad Vashem spoke out on the bill as well. But [Minister of Justice] Zbigniew Ziobro and [Deputy Minister of Justice] Patryk Jaki have ignored all of that. 

SS: So what’s the point?

JG: This is a repeat of a similar trick that the PiS pulled ten years ago, after my book on the massacre of Jews at Jedwabne was published. 

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