New Holocaust Law in Poland criminalizes open discussion


“The Polish Kapo were the most vicious – they raped everyone: children, men, and women. In one instance all the women died and they were raping the children near their mothers’ bodies.”

– Yitzhak Yacobi, survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp

“.. It was freezing cold (on the death march), I was wearing a pyjama and wooden shoes. We went through a Polish village, all the Polish residents were outside watching and laughing, spitting and cursing.”

– Yitzhak Yacobi, survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp

“I was living in Warsaw’s Jewish district which became the ghetto. One day I managed to escape in order to look for food. Polish men saw me and started yelling at me ‘Jew, she’s a filthy Jew’ and called the Nazi soldiers.”

– Eliza Vitis-Shomron, survivor of the Holocaust

“When we came back after the war, the Polish mocked and ridiculed us: “What, there are so many left of you, why didn’t they kill you too?”

– Ester Liber, survivor of the Holocaust

“I survived Treblinka, at least 15.000 people from my town did not. I returned to there to find that my house was vandalized and taken over by Poles. They threatened me and refused to give me my belongings, and I left…”

– Yaakov Zilbershtein, survivor of the Holocaust


These are testimonies from Jewish Holocaust survivors, who suffered not just under Nazi-Germans, but also under Polish civilians. Many hundreds of these testimonies exist – and many more don’t exist, because these victims’ voices were silenced long before anyone understood what was happening in Europe.

Yes, we, the Germans – and I am writing as a German – designed and executed this terrible nightmare, and yes, we are guilty. Not just of torturing and killing millions of Jews, but also of occupying land that was not ours, forcing our neighbors to collaborate, and killing them as well.

However – Antisemitism was not limited to Germans, it was a disease that had spread all over Europe, nurtured by inflammatory writings like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, which was read and believed all over the continent, although already in 1921 proved as fake by The Times.

Antisemitism had also spread into Poland, widely and deeply, and this is a fact that can and must not be silenced.

Poland’s new Holocaust law

When the new Polish law, which was passed on Friday, is signed and comes into action, I would make myself liable for prosecution by publishing the testimonies above. The law makes it a criminal offense to mention Polish complicity in crimes committed during the Holocaust – with a sentence of up to 3 years in prison. The law was passed on the evening before the International Holocaust Memorial Day.

There is one aspect of the law that is justifiable: Using the term “Polish death camp” will be forbidden. This is legitimate, since the camps were German, and not Polish, erected on occupied Polish land. But then again, critical is the criminalization of the term’s use and the disproportionate punishment.

To prosecute any mentioning of Polish complicity during the Holocaust however is highly concerning, not to say outrageous.

Publishing Research on Polish Holocaust crimes will be liable for prosecution

Dr. David Silberklang, Senior Historian at the International Institute for Holocaust Research and Editor-in-Chief of Yad Vashem Studies, summarizes it as follows:

Dr. David Silberklang
Dr. David Silberklang

“The law is essentially rewriting history and changing the history of the Holocaust into a Polish narrative, some kind of myth, that everyone in Poland during that time was innocent and tried to rescue them. […] The main point of the law is to limit and prevent discussion about the participation of Polish people during the Holocaust in the persecution or murder of Jews.”

Of course, not all Polish people were engaged in the persecution of Jews, and there were many that tried to rescue Jews. Nearly 7.000 Polish citizens were declared as Righteous among the Nations – as people, who risked their lives in the attempt of saving Jews. Many succeeded, and some paid with their lives. This is very true and very important to stress.

But the picture is not black and white; and the discussion on Polish – and other nations’ – participation in Holocaust crimes must never be silenced. “It was found”, so Silberklang, that “many Polish people all over the land, including the Polish underground, tried to harm or kill Jews. Not always were Germans involved in the murders. The attempt of the law is to block the discussion on this aspect of history.

[…] Although the law explicitly exempts research and scholarly work, it does not exempt the work of scholars in other contexts”, like publishing the results of the research in a non-academic context. Also, “educators and education are not exempt from this law”, which means “they can’t teach the truth“.

Therefore, so Silberklang, it is an “undemocratic law, a dangerous law and it flies in the face of reality, distorts the Holocaust.[…] It does not deny that the Holocaust happened, but denies important aspects of it.”

Law passed overwhelmingly and applies world-wide if signed

The law was passed overwhelmingly with 279 votes in favor, 130 abstentions and only 5 in opposition. That means, more than 2/3 voted in favor and only 5 who had problems with the law had the courage to oppose. Since the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, supports the spirit of it, the final passage is very likely.

The controversial law would apply world-wide. No matter where someone says any of these things, he would be liable under this law in the eyes of the Polish legal system, and his arrest would be legal, once he enters Poland.

Research on Polish involvement in the Holocaust

“It is undisputed that Poland as a state and nation was victim of Nazi Germany and was absolutely exploited in human and natural resources. About 2 million Polish Christians were murdered by the Nazi regime. No one would ever doubt that in public discussion or research. Nevertheless, there is also no doubt, that the Polish government in exile had a mixed reaction over time to the persecution of the Jewish – sometimes vigorous, sometimes hardly at all. The Polish underground tended not to assist Jews in any way, shape or form, or oppose who tried to murder Jews”, so Silberklang.

“Research from recent years shows, that all across Poland – in different parts and districts, rural or urban neighborhoods – widespread activity by local Polish people in hunting down Jews, turning them in, or killing them on their own, existed. Lots of Polish people were participating in the persecution and killing of Jews.

Of course, many were too afraid to try to help the Jewish people, which could result in death, but there were people – far more – who not only turned Jews in, but also hunted them down, extorted them for all they had, and often killed them themselves. There are numerous cases of raping: Like one example of a young woman who tried to flee, was captured, repeatedly raped, was taken away all she had and then killed – by Polish people without German influence or force.  And there are many stories like that.”

The findings of all of this research could not be presented publicly in a non-academic context, once the law is signed. It could not be printed in schoolbooks, taught in schools, written in the newspaper, presented in discussions, or shown on TV. The law would shut all of this discussion down. 

Israeli reaction to the law

The Israeli Prime Minister, as well as many cabinet ministers and Knesset members – including Arab members – condemned the law publicly. Concrete measures of how to react are being planned.

Also Yad Vashem opposes and objects the law strongly, direct measures will be discussed soon.


Damaris (BA in Media Communications and MA in Israel Studies) lives in Jerusalem and writes as an independent journalist.