In September the Polish cabinet approved a law that will punish (including imprisonment) anyone claiming that Poles killed Jews during the Second World War or referring to concentration camps like Auschwitz as “Polish.” The legislation was met with widespread criticism; the Polish ambassador to Israel defended the law in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. All of it, however, missed an important point. What’s so egregiously offensive about this law is its assault on storytelling.
The government supporting the law, led by the far-right, nationalist, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, and eurosceptic Law and Justice Party, has spent the year since its election sparking international condemnation for refusing to accept refugees, purging the ranks of the police and intelligence services, passing laws that inhibit the power of the judiciary, and dismissing inconvenient public broadcasting directors.
In February President Andrzej Duda announced his intention to revoke national honors bestowed on a Jan Tomasz Gross, a Polish historian who researched Polish complicity in the Holocaust. In July, Law and Justice’s education minister, Anna Zalewska, denied outright the well-documented participation of Polish citizens in Poland’s two most infamous pogroms against Jews.
Based on all of that anti-democratic flag-waving as well as the previous attempts at repackaging Holocaust history, it’s fair to assume that the new law is designed to whitewash the story of wartime Poland and as a sword of Damocles hanging over free speech, to “block attempts to reveal the truth about the murder of Jews by Poles during the Holocaust,” as Daniel Blatman wrote in Haaretz.
The Polish government is not alone; all communities and nations tell stories about themselves in order to create meaning. Indeed, all of history is a form of storytelling, “not a monument erected once and admired ever after, but an infrastructure tended,” as Rokhl Kafrissen wrote in Haaretz, “…inevitably shaped by those who take it up.” Even renowned Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, after writing his magnum opus, The Destruction of the European Jews, admitted that storytelling and poetry were tools to convey horrors that evaded normal language. I can express exactly why the Polish law is so offensive by telling my own story.