On June 13, the European Commission filed a lawsuit against Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, accusing them of violating European Union law by refusing to admit refugees. The next day, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło gave a speech at the site of the Auschwitz death camp to mark the 77th anniversary of the first deportation of Polish prisoners there. “In today’s turbulent times,” she said, Auschwitz is a reminder of “how important it is for a country to do everything possible to protect the safety and the lives of its citizens.”
One wonders what Szydło was talking about, and from whom she wants to protect Poles. Her remarks seemed to compare today’s Poles to the Holocaust’s Jewish victims, and today’s refugees to the Nazis. In response, European Council President Donald Tusk, who previously held Szydło’s current post, lamented that, “A Polish prime minister should never utter such words in such a place.”
Still, no one was really surprised to hear Szydło shamelessly exploit the tragedy of the Holocaust to justify her immoral refugee policy; or to see an excerpt of her speech suddenly disappear from her party’s Twitter feed, with no further clarification provided.
This was in keeping with the usual practice of Poland’s current government under the Law and Justice (PiS) party. The PiS is not in the business of explaining itself or apologizing to anyone. According to Jarosław Kaczyński, the PiS’s chairman and Poland’s unelected de facto ruler, apologies for historical sins are a part of a “pedagogy of shame.”
Of course, a clarification would not have changed the fact that Szydło’s words were doubly false. It is nonsense to use the Holocaust as a justification for the government’s policy of “defending its citizens” against the threat of refugees. But, more to the point, the Shoah should serve as a glaring reminder of our collective duty to help those fleeing from war.
In the United States, the decision to turn away ships bearing Jewish refugees just before the start of World War II has become a source of national shame. Just when Jews were being murdered in Europe, the US experienced an unprecedented wave of anti-Semitism. Over the course of the war, the US admitted just 21,000 Jewish refugees — a mere 10% of the maximum number allowed by law. Worse still, many Americans favored a complete ban on all refugees; and, according to opinion polls from 1938-1945, 35-40% of Americans would have supported legislation directed against Jews in particular.
In the US today, almost no one disputes this history, or tries to sweep it under the rug of wartime heroism. America’s refusal to help European Jewry is a dark episode that has been retold in many books, and is routinely taught in US schools. No serious American politician would dare to denounce these commemorative efforts as a “pedagogy of shame.”
The refusal to help Jewish refugees is a crucial part of Holocaust history, and one that the Polish government would do well to remember in light of all those now escaping war in Syria. Almost a half-million people have died in that conflict, and millions more have been driven from their homes.
Sadly, these human tragedies have failed to move Szydło and her party, which would rather use the Holocaust to denigrate refugees. The PiS government apparently knows no limits, other than the borders of Poland.
In fact, Poland’s government has set the country up for even more international embarrassment. On the same day that Szydło made her immoral remarks, the government decided to inaugurate the Auschwitz Museum of the Righteous in Oświęcim, even though a similar institution already operates as part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in the same town. The government did not bother to consult the original museum before creating the new entity.
This latest move is similar to the Polish government’s controversial takeover of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk. On that occasion, the government hastily conjured up the so-called Westerplatte Museum, which it then merged with the Museum of the Second World War, in order to render the latter’s staff redundant and make the exhibits there more “representative of the Polish point of view.”
Likewise, in her recent remarks, Szydło said that another museum in Oświęcim will serve as a reminder that, “Poles are the most numerous among… those who helped Jews.” And she extolled the Poles in the countryside around Auschwitz who helped escaping Jews, irrespective of “their political views or their religious backgrounds.”
What Szydło did not see fit to mention was that the Polish attitude toward escaping Jews during World War II was not always so noble. Some Poles were heroes; others were informants or profiteers capitalizing on escapees’ plight. Fortunately, there are already many books, films, and articles about this history in Poland, which Kaczyński, Szydło, and their ilk will not be able to paper over.
By calling on Poles to “remember who was the perpetrator, and who the victim” in WWII, Szydło has made it clear that Poland’s government is composed of people who can only cast themselves as heroes, and are incapable of admitting any fault. It is curious that this government would take so much pride in Poles who helped Jews unconditionally, when it lacks the courage even to help a few orphaned children from Aleppo.
This post was originally published in Project Syndicate.