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Poland's Rising Far-Right Party Is Trying To Rewrite Holocaust History

In a deep-rooted divide that has plagued Poland for years, the role of non-Jewish citizens in the Holocaust remains a much debated issue. But now the increasingly popular far-right party Konfederacja is toeing the line of blatant Holocaust denial.

Image of participants attending the 35th anniversary of 'International March of the Living' at the former Nazi-German Auschwitz Birkenau concentration and extermination camp.

April 18, 2023, Brzezinka, Poland: Participants attend the 35th anniversary of 'International March of the Living' at the former Nazi-German Auschwitz Birkenau concentration and extermination camp.

Beata Zawrzel/ZUMA
Katarzyna Skiba

For years, Poland has been divided on the place its non-Jewish citizens in the Holocaust: both as victims themselves, and would-be perpetrators.

Politicians, mainly from the ruling Catholic-Right party, have put forward the theory that Poles were the main target of the genocide, rather than Jews specifically. An estimated six million Poles perished during the war, just over half of whom were Jewish.

Meanwhile, decades of scholars, including those from Poland, have pointed to evidence of Polish complicity in the Nazi's so-called Final Solution aimed at the Jews. Statements referring to Poland's role in the Holocaust tends to spark harsh criticism, state pressure and, in some cases, attempts to silence the researchers entirely.

But now, much of the reactionary criticism is coming from a new, more virulent source: the burgeoning far-right Konfederacja party. The latest episode features the party's parliamentary candidate Ryszard Zajączkowski, who is also a professor at the Catholic University of Lublin, who said that Poles were the victims of multiple "genocides."

On July 10, at a conference in Opole, he stated that Poles were victims of several genocides during and shortly after World War II, including the German, Russian and Ukrainian genocides. “And there is also the Jewish genocide,” he added.

The professor later clarified that the statement referred to the actions of Jews who joined the Soviet authorities, especially after World War II, but also during the War. According to Zajączkowski, Jews were active in the Soviet NKVD and the Security Service, reports Gazeta Wyborcza.

In an earlier speech decrying a "globalist Communism," he declared: "We faced the greatest threat of totalitarianism in history, compared to which the Auschwitz camp could be called a rest camp."

On Thursday, Zajączkowski was officially presented as a candidate for the Sejm, the Polish lower house of Parliament. He currently appears third in the list the Konfederacja party's candidates.

So far, the Catholic University of Lublin has refrained from disciplining Zajączkowski. Following the publication of Wyborcza's article on July 14th, however, the director of the university asked the institution's disciplinary officer to investigate the matter.

Last December, Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek presented him, and the rest of his university's faculty, with a state medal for "long-term service" to Poland.

Support from Polish nationalists 

But Zajączkowski is hardly alone among his fellow Konfederacja party members.

In May, Gregorz Braun, a sitting member of Parliament from the party, interrupted a speech by esteemed Polish-Canadian Holocaust scholar Jan Grabowski, accusing him of spreading an “anti-Polish” message. Braun knocked over speakers and pulled the microphone out of the professor's hand.

Please leave Poland.

Meanwhile, outside the venue, dozens of protesters claimed that ethnic Poles were the true victims of the Holocaust. Among those demonstrating was prominent nationalist and far-right leader Robert Bąkiewicz, known for founding and leading the Catholic-nationalist group “National Guard” (Straż Narodowa), which claims on its website to “fight against the offensive of far-left activists.”

Police were called, but as a member of the Polish parliament, Braun benefits from immunity and could not be removed from the lecture hall.

"Please leave Poland,” Braun told members of the audience who asked him to leave the lecture and called him a proponent of “ahistorical propaganda.” A video of the incident was posted on the forum of the Konfederacja party, where commenters rushed to Braun’s defense.

On social media, multiple comments praise the politician for ending the Holocaust scholar's lecture: "Bravo to Mr. Braun! Germans will not spit in our faces, least of all in our own country!” wrote one commenter, making reference to lyrics from “Rota,” a Polish patriotic song written to protest the forced Germanization of Poles living under the German Empire.

Return of the 1930s?

“The late 30s have returned,” Professor Grabowski told Polish news site Polityka after the incident, referencing the rising antisemitic nationalism in Poland before the beginning of World War II.

Anti-Jewish sentiments also seem to be on the rise.

Grabowski said that he had planned to end his lecture with the words “the butcher is at the door” — a reference to an interview given by Polish anthropologist Joanna Tokaska-Bakir for Gazeta Wyborcza, where she warned against the rise of fascism in Poland.

Konfederacja appears to be taking some of the latent antisemitism in the ruling conservative PiS party out in a new aggressive form. Taken together, surveys confirm that anti-Jewish sentiments appear to be on the rise in overall Polish public opinion. According to a study released by the Anti-Defamation League, about 35% of Poles currently harbor antisemitic attitudes, the second-highest in Europe after Hungary.

image of \u200bSlawomir Mentzen speaking in Warsaw in front of a crowd

Slawomir Mentzen speaking in Warsaw

Slawomir Mentzen/twitter

History of controversy 

The Polish right-wing has a long history of challenging the consensus of Holocaust historians. In 2016, then-Education Minister Anna Zalewska referred to two Jewish massacres that took place in Poland as “a matter of opinion” — including one where Poles murdered about 300 Polish Jews.

In 2018, the ruling government passed a controversial law that outlawed blaming Poland in any way for the crimes that occurred during the Nazi occupation of the country during the World War II, with violation punishable by up to three years in prison or a fine. Israel and the U.S. criticized the law, which was later revised to make violations a civil, rather than a criminal, offense. The bill's passage had already prompted a rise of antisemitic posts on Polish social media.

Though the 2018 law exempted scientific researchers and artists, current examples show scholars like Grabowski are still coming under increased scrutiny.

Challenging existing scholarship

Grabowski is not the only academic who has faced criticism from the Polish government for discussing the country’s role in the Holocaust. Researcher Barbara Engelking also came under fire in late April, when in an interview to network TVN24 she said that Poles could have done more to help Jews during the genocide.

“Jews were unbelievably disappointed with Poles during the war,” Enkelking told TVN journalist Monika Olejnik. "They knew what to expect from the Germans, (who were) the enemy … but the relationship with Poles was much more complex”.

Following her statements, the government launched an investigation into both Engelking and the TV channel, which is Poland’s largest private network. The Polish state-funded television, TVP, also accused her of “using the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to launch an attack on Poles."

The government backlash prompted over 1,000 scholars, Polish and international, to sign a letter coming to her defense. In response, Poland’s education minister, Przemysław Czarnek, announced that the department would investigate all of those who signed the letter as well. Czarnek had previously said that he would deny state funding to academics guilty of “insulting Poles,” which would include any critical scholarship about Poland's role in the Holocaust.

image of R\u00f3wno\u015bci parade in Warsaw 2006: Anti-gay demonstrators, separated by police forces. Writings on posters say: "Polonism top" (probably "Antipolonism stop"), "Does Poland have to be a second Palestine?", "Stop the eurosodom!" and "I'm Polish, so I have Polish duties".

A file photo of a 2006 right-wing protests with posters: "Polonism top" ("Antipolonism stop"), "Does Poland have to be a second Palestine?"

Paul David Doherty/Wikimedia

Antisemitism in the upcoming elections 

Konfederacja, which is currently polling at 15.7% ahead of Polish national elections scheduled for this fall, is expected to have a king-making role and may decide the country’s parliamentary majority this fall.

Running on a nationalist, far-right, free-market platform, both the party and its leaders have repeatedly come under fire for openly-espousing antisemitic views. In a 2019 statement now known as the “Konfederacja Five,” current party leader Sławomir Mentzen asserted that he and his party “do not want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes, or the European Union.” Mentzen has since walked back the statement, claiming that his words were “taken out of context,” but videos of the event where he spoke show him summarizing his party’s ideology in this way.

After Braun’s interruption of the Holocaust speech in May, more than 20 Jewish institutions and organizations signed a statement calling for the revocation of his parliamentary immunity, which would allow him to be removed from such events in the future.

“We hope that the appropriate organs of the state will punish him from this unparalleled act of barbaric aggression,” the organization wrote in a statement.

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