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Exploiting Auschwitz — How Poland's Ruling Party Reached A New Low

Poland's ruling party has used the Nazi concentration camp, which was located in a Polish town, in one of its political campaigns to sully its opponents. It's the latest step that the ruling government is taking to attack an opposition march planned for this Sunday against a law that some say threatens democracy.

Image of the entrance gate with 'Arbeit Macht Frei' inscription in the former Nazi German Auschwitz I concentration camp at Auschwitz Memorial Site, in Oswiecim, Poland.

The entrance gate with the inscription 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work Will Set You Free) in the former Nazi German Auschwitz I concentration camp at Auschwitz Memorial Site, in Oswiecim, Poland.

Beata Zawrzel/ZUMA
Bartosz T Wielinski


WARSAW — The short video ad hit social media on Wednesday. It begins with a clip of the railroad of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Jews from all of Nazi-occupied Europe were transported. It is the place where those deemed unfit to work — including the elderly and mothers with children — were taken to gas chambers and murdered with zyklon B. In another shot, the release shows a clip of Auschwitz’s gates with their mocking inscription — “Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work will set you free.)

It is against this backdrop that Poland's right-wing ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) chose to show a recent tweet made by Polish journalist Tomasz Lis, who criticized the ruling party’s controversial anti-Russian investigative committee, stating “there will be a chamber for Duda and Kaczor”.

In his tweet, Lis was referring to criticisms from the Polish opposition that the new committee, also being referred to as the “Tusk Law”, will be used to target political rivals, rather than Russian colluders. Lis has since apologized for his statement, and the tweet has been removed from his social media.

“Is this the slogan you want to march under?” — asks the speaker in the advertisement, as the screen shows the date of June 4th. This is how PiS is reacting to the mass mobilization of Poles, who have agreed to come together and demonstrate against its anti-democratic policies in Warsaw.

A reactionary move 

The date, proposed by former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, commemorates the anniversary of the first free elections that took place in Poland in 1989. Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s PR team has no idea how to respond to the opposition’s message that he and his fellow representatives have been killing democracy, have had several government scandals, and have not taken the appropriate steps to address ongoing inflation. Instead, they decided to go to extremes.

In doing so, PiS compared the demonstrators to German war criminals from 80 years ago.

There is no question that Tomasz Lis’s tweet was simply stupid. It came about amid a wave of opposition to President Andrzej Duda’s decision to sign into law a Bolshevik-esque tribunal in Poland, which aims to remove Polish politicians from public life ahead of the upcoming elections. Duda ignored the warnings of experts, who argued that the law is unconstitutional and that the solutions proposed are reminiscent of policies promoted by Putin, but all this does not absolve Lis's of his unwise statement.

It was indeed good that the news anchor decided to apologize for his post in the end.

A screenshot of the advertisement

Politicizing tragedy

Tomasz Lis is neither a politician nor an organizer of the upcoming march. Linking a popular movement with one mindless statement, and doing so in the context of the German extermination of Jews and Poles at the hands of German Nazis, is an open call for additional outcry.

Lis’s foolish use of the word “chamber” does not entitle party members, including PiS spokesman Rafal Bohenek, to make this false comparison.

The Law and Justice party has been saying for years that they will defend the truth about Nazi crimes and the suffering of their victims. This is the same party that intended to imprison those who spread lies about these acts for three years.

What is the real effect of this politicization? A constant, disgusting dance on the graves of victims, who lost their lives during World War Two. PiS’s use of images of Auschwitz is unfortunately one of several exaggerations, and the most egregious ones at that. But it is not the first time that these deaths have been used by the Polish right to support their political aims.

In 2017, then-Prime Minister Beata Szydlo used ceremonies commemorating the tragedy of the first transports to the camp to defend her party’s policies, which at that time were opposing accepting migrants from war-torn Syria. Two years later, deputy Minister of Justice Patryk Jaki, from the Catholic-nationalist United Poland party, compared striking teachers to Wehrmacht soldiers.

Last year, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski used the anniversary of the start of World War II to ask for billions of dollars of reparations from Germany. Minister of Culture Piotr Glinski politicized this year’s memorial of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in the same way. PiS is expecting the victims of war to hand them additional votes ahead of the elections.

Image of a woman seen draped with the Israeli flag over her shoulders during the International March of The Living in Oswiecim, Poland.

April 28, 202: A woman seen draped with the Israeli flag over her shoulders during the International March of The Living in Oswiecim, Poland.

Wojciech Grabowski/ZUMA

Auschwitz didn’t come from nowhere

The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp holds a specific place in our collective memory. It was there that Hitler’s final solution was carried out. The grounds of the camp were turned into a museum, in order to show future generations the evils that humans are capable of, and to warn them that, if they forget, history is doomed to repeat itself.

What has PiS done with this symbolic space? It only took them a few seconds to trample on its legacy, and to bring these victims into a political campaign.

Auschwitz didn’t come from nowhere.

“Auschwitz didn’t come from nowhere,” Marian Turski, who had himself been imprisoned in the camp, said a few years ago. PiS’s has clearly not heeded his warnings.

Watching the clip from PiS, I believe that Turski’s words are more relevant than they ever were. Auschwitz did not come from nowhere, and it was boundless contempt that paved the way for it.

But the concentration camp is not only a symbol for Poland but also for the entire Western world. And it is the world who will react to the words that PiS has invoked.

As for whether PiS will apologize, that remains doubtful. But this insulting video, in due time, should be met with even more protests on the streets of Warsaw.

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