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Analysis: The 'competitive victimhood' behind Poland's Holocaust bill

Candles burn by a memorial plaque at the Birkenau Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, after the official remembrance ceremony.
AP Photo/Alik Keplicz
The bill imposes prison sentences for implying Polish culpability for crimes committed during the Holocaust

A bill passed by Poland's lower parliament on Friday criminalizing any claim of Poland's responsibility and complicity in atrocities which took place on its soil during the Holocaust has shed light on the so-called "competitive victimhood" between Poles and Jews with regards to Warsaw's historic role in the war, reflecting the fact that it is hard to see yourself as a victim and as a perpetrator at the same time.

“Competitive victimhood between Poles and Jews is a topic that has received much attention in recent years,” says Professor Michal Bilewicz, director of the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw, who has studied the topic intensively.

Speaking exclusively to i24NEWS, Prof. Bilewicz, a Polish academic of Jewish origin, explains why Poles are so sensitive to their image when it comes to the Holocaust.

"There is a sense of lack recognition of Polish history; most people in US widely recognize the Holocaust, while they know nothing about the Polish suffering during World War II. It gives them a sense of injustice to be rectified,” Bilewicz says.

Yad Vashem Archives/AFP/File

Bilewicz’s main research interests concern reconciliation, anti-Semitism, and dehumanization.

Poland, currently under the rule of the populist and over-patriotic PIS government, provides him with a large field of study.

This most recent piece of controversial legislation, known as the "anti-Polish death camps bill”, sanctions the use of this term with prison sentences of up to three years.

It is just one of the many “corrective measures” intended to produce a better, improved image of Poland. Museums, theatrical productions, cinema, and artworks deemed not patriotic enough are also publicly and financially penalized.

The term “Polish death camps” is very different, however, because according to Warsaw it is a false term. There were actually no Polish death camps -- only Nazi death camps on occupied Polish soil.

Though the term “Polish death camps” has been used for years in old Polish textbooks to differentiate them from death camps elsewhere, no citizen of Poland accepts this definition.

Joel Saget (AFP/File)

Poland has exercised its moral right to rectify this historic distortion, something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially agreed to do just one year ago, when Poland and Israel issued a joint statement opposing use of "erroneous terms of memory".

The rest of the bill is something completely different. Had it been about that distorted terminology alone, the uproar would be practically non- existent. However, this terminology is just a widely accepted cover-up for a broader agenda to absolve Poland from all wrongdoings, pogroms, and mass murders of Jews performed by Poles only. According to the proposed legislation, they too should not be uttered or researched

“[The bill] is presented as a law against the use of 'Polish camps' only, something widely accepted. In fact all opposition parties (five members of the parliament excluded) voted for or abstained from it," Bilewicz tells i24NEWS.

"Even the biggest opposition, once ruling PO (Civil Platform), a centrist more liberal party, abstained from voting on the law. They learned a lesson from the 2015 presidency race when their candidate just mentioned Poland as both victim and victimizer -- and lost," he adds.

"Now PO know they have to keep politically quiet. The other dimension of the bill, the witch-hunt against intellectuals, cosmopolitans, and academics daring to recall Poland’s war crimes is hidden under the term in consensus."

Janek Skarsynski (AFP)

Bilewicz describes this as a “taboo trade off”.

"The term 'Polish death camps' is for Poles a taboo, just like Holocaust denial is for Israelis. The phrasing of the law was carefully crafted by PIS to gain massive support,” he explains.

In that context, opponents of the bill in its entirety were outraged by the reaction of Israeli Yesh Atid lawmaker Yair Lapid's reaction to the bill, which used his family story to imply what Poles understood as existence of Polish death camps. Poles claim he failed to understand the political climate of their country, and fueled animosity towards Israel. It is especially harmful, they claim, in times when those in Poland who crave to learn the true history of their country have no representation in the parliament.

“Paradoxically enough, in this case, we are represented by Israel,” Bilewicz says.

Popular response to the bill, yet to be officially passed into law, is mixed.

Janek Skarzynski (AFP/File)

Surprisingly enough, the law itself was not a big story in Polish press, unlike the media frenzy it generated in Israel. What did make Polish headlines was the diplomatic clash with Israel.

Some politicians defined the Israeli reaction as “hysteria”. Poland's Vice Minister of Justice, Patryk Jaki, noted that Israel itself penalizes expressions distorting its image and asked: “if they can, why Poland can not?”

One of the key questions is how this bill will affect Israel and Poland's "special relations”.

Bilewicz’s center has been following that subject consistently.

“Public opinion polls show that people of Poland sympathize more with Palestinians than with Israelis," he tell i24NEWS, adding that most in the pro-Israel government assume this will be “a short, temporary crisis”.

Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."

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