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Use the Phrase “Polish Death Camps” in Poland and You May Go to Jail

Soon, saying that Nazi death camps were Polish could earn you three years in prison

Photo taken at Auschwitz in 2013. (Garrett Ziegler/Flickr)
smithsonian.com

It's been almost 77 years since Nazi Germany invaded Poland, which sparked the official beginning of World War II. Nearly 18 percent of Poland’s population were murdered during the Nazi occupation—at least 4.9 million people, three million of whom were Jews. Decades after the war ended, the sites of concentration camps including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka stand as monuments to the terror of the Holocaust. And the Polish government cares so deeply about how people refer to the true origins of the camps that they just passed a law that threatens those who refer to the camps as “Polish” with up to three years in prison. But is the attempt to outlaw terms like "Polish death camps" a bid for historical accuracy—or an attempt to whitewash history?

The AP reports that a new bill will dole out prison terms for people who refer to Nazi death camps as “Polish.” Phrases like “Polish death camps” and “Polish concentration camps” will be punished by the law, which is expected to pass in the Polish parliament soon, and be implemented later this year. The punishment—which includes fines or up to three years jail time and applies to everyone, even those who use the term unintentionally—is actually less harsh than the five-year sentences originally recommended by advocates.

The topic is a sensitive one to the Polish government, as President Obama learned in 2012 when he used the term “Polish death camp” during a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony for Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski. Throughout the German occupation of Poland, Karski smuggled information about Nazi activities to the Polish government in exile and tried to sound the alarm on the Holocaust after witnessing the treatment of Polish Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and what seems to have been a transit camp funneling Jews to the Bełżec extermination camp.

The diplomatic drama that resulted from Obama’s mistake culminated in letters from the Polish president asking for him to officially correct his statement. Obama wrote back: "I regret the error and agree that this moment is an opportunity to ensure that this and future generations know the truth."

The Polish Embassy itself maintains an ongoing list of “interventions” against the term and even has a how-to guide for readers who want to help eliminate the term. The embassy’s public campaign resulted in updates to several journalistic style guides, from the AP, which instructs journalists not to “confuse the location and the perpetrators,” to the New York Times, whose style guide advises journalists to “take extra care” due to the sensitivity of the topic.

But what may initially seem like an attempt to report on history more accurately is complicated by the context around it. The new law comes in the wake of new government controls on the Polish media and the election of a right-wing, nativist party. As Marc Herman writes for The Columbia Journalism Review, the recent “media grab” has prompted high-profile journalists to resign, puts the Polish government in charge of hiring and firing, and has led to a more nationalist media climate in the country.

It’s been coming to this for a while: In 2012, Tablet Magazine’s Michael Moynihan noted an ongoing Polish media trend that favors heroic Polish narratives while overlooking the Nazi collaboration and anti-Semitism that occurred within Poland during the Nazi occupation. Polish nationalists, writes Moynihan, prefer a “black-and-white morality tale starring heroic Poles who acted righteously under Nazi domination” instead of a more nuanced portrayal of a horrific part of Poland’s past.

The legacy of Poland during the Holocaust is complex. Though the Nazis undeniably were behind the concentration camps that dotted occupied Poland, everyday Poles did participate in the horrors of World War II, participating in pogroms, denouncing and blackmailing Jews, and participating in some death camps. At the same time, Poland organized one of Europe’s biggest resistance movements, and many Poles who were not a part of the organized resistance helped and even saved their Jewish neighbors.

Is Poland trying to set the record straight or detract attention from its own uncomfortable legacy? Is it historically accurate or just whitewashing to favor narratives of Polish resistance to the Nazis over the rampant anti-Semitism that played out within occupied Poland during the war?

You be the judge. Just don’t say the words “Polish death camps” while you do it—you could be headed to jail.

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