Poland’s “Holocaust Law”

The Current produced a segment about a new Polish law that criminalizes attribution of Nazi crimes to Poland. The complainant, Bogdan Gawroński, said an interview with the Polish Ambassador to Canada, along with two critics of the legislation, revictimized Poles and sought to make it look like they bore moral responsibility for the Holocaust. While there was criticism of the legislation, the Ambassador laid out the Polish view. The discussion was nuanced and did not apportion blame.

COMPLAINT

You objected to a segment of The Current concerning the new Bill passed by the Polish parliament that makes it illegal to attribute responsibility for or complicity for Nazi crimes during the Holocaust to the Polish nation or state. The segment had two parts - the first was an interview with the Polish Ambassador to Canada and the second with an historian and journalist who had concerns about the law. You thought the broadcast defamed the Polish people. You said “it is unacceptable to see that CBC participates in the actions suggesting that Poland and Citizens of Poland carry the collective moral responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi Germany.” You accused the programme host, Anna Maria Tremonti, of “manipulating” the Polish Ambassador into answering questions off the main topic at hand - the legislation outlawing statements blaming the Polish state for Nazi atrocities committed in Poland during World War II. You also thought it was wrong that the Ambassador had no chance to refute the statements of the two guests who followed him.

You objected to the phrasing of one of Ms. Tremonti’s questions - “Okay many historians obviously agree with you that Polish death camps is inaccurate.” You said it is a “perfect example of the perfidy in the lies, which intend to build a doubt about what is true.” You added that more than 21 percent of the Polish population was killed during the war. The Polish underground and government in exile warned the Western powers of the Nazi genocide and imposed the death sentence on its own people for murdering Jews. Any Poles involved in the killing of Jews were “scoundrels and weaklings.” It is totally wrong to impugn the killing of Jews or anti-Semitism to the Polish people.

You believe that this segment was a deliberate “anti-Polish action,” and revictimized the victims (Poles). You stated that "Poland should get a complete support from Canada in protecting its history and name."

There is a clear agenda to associate Poland with the crimes of Nazi Germany, and insinuation that Poland and Citizens of Poland carry the collective moral responsibility for the crimes of Nazi Germany. It is ridiculous and insulting to bring the anti-Semitic events from pre-war Poland when talking about the extermination of Polish People by Nazi Germany. This manipulation is a victimization of victims. For Germans, all People in the East were subhumans subject to annihilation, Additionally, Ms.Tremonti attacks Poland by suggesting that there is a problem of anti-Semitism today.

You pointed out Canada has Holocaust deniers and a history of anti-Semitism and xenophobia as well. You said there is a need for truth in discussing these issues.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The then acting Executive Producer of The Current, Lara O’Brien, responded to your concerns. She pointed out the first interview was with Ambassador Kurnicki so that he could explain why the Polish government had introduced this legislation. Since it had been met with some criticism, she provided him an opportunity to answer it, providing the views of his government. Some of that criticism came from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so she asked him for this response. She sought his thinking about the outlawing of the term “Polish death camps” and discussed his reasons for concern about that “inaccurate” phrase, as she called it. She added that the Ambassador was given time and opportunity to put forward his views on a range of issues pertaining to the legislation, and to clearly state the position of his government:

They also discussed the central element of the government’s new legislation: The distinction between Poland or the Polish Nation collaborating with the Nazi’s in the Holocaust and the actions of individuals or groups of Poles killing their Jewish countrymen. Ambassador Kurnicki emphasized that Poland was never an ally nor was it a collaborative regime of Nazi Germany, but that the Polish Underground State, the largest resistance movement in occupied Europe, worked against the Nazis. At the same time he agreed that there were some “people, individuals, but not representative of the community, not the government” who acted against Jews and others. And that many of them were executed for it.

She explained that Ms. Tremonti was fulfilling her role as interviewer by asking probing questions while allowing the guest to respond fully, and that the other two interviews presented alternate points of view critical of the law. They had a different perspective on the value of criminalizing the term “Polish death camps,” pointing out it had been used by a hero of the resistance, Jan Karski, who saved Jews. They discussed the search for historical truth and were of the opinion that this law might not be the most effective way to find it.

Ms. O’Brien concluded that she felt this segment provided Canadians with a range of perspectives so that they could make up their own minds about what they had heard.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Policy calls for balance and fairness over time - that is an assurance that a range of views and perspectives are presented on a subject. The purpose of this segment was not to argue nor explore the complex history of Poland in the second World War. I do not agree that Ms. Tremonti nor the two other interviewees asserted or even implied that the Polish people bear the “collective moral responsibility” of Nazi war crimes. Rather, the discussion, especially with journalist Anna Bikont and historian Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, largely centred around whether this legislation was the best way to get and ensure historical truth. The Polish government’s position is that it has been falsely slandered and accused of crimes committed by Nazis, and this is their response. The whole segment began with a statement from the Polish Justice Minister:

We are introducing a set of new better legal instruments which will help us to pursue historical truth to protect Poland's good name, anywhere in the world where it is slandered, shown in a false light or when Polish history is distorted.

The position is reinforced with the first question “Why does the Polish government feel the need for this legislation?” The Ambassador is then able to elaborate on the reasoning. Ms. Tremonti also raised the phrase that is most objectionable to Poles, acknowledging that it is inaccurate to refer to “Polish death camps.” Neither she nor the other guests state or imply that the concentration camps were Polish and indeed were a creation of the Reich on Polish soil. Ms. Tremonti does ask, however, if education rather than legislation might be a better way to teach history. You are correct that nowhere in this piece is there discussion or mention of the double invasion of Poland, first by the Soviet Union, then by Germany and the extraordinary toll that played on Polish society.

It does reference the Polish underground and some of its heroes. In the course of the discussion, Polish journalist Anna Bikont references the murder of a community of Jews by their Polish neighbours. Once again, neither she, Ms. Tremonti or Ms. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett are condemning all Poles. That these events occurred has been historically documented. There are not competing victimhoods here. Discussing these events does not take away from the suffering or heroism of countless Poles. Ms. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett also pointed out that the Polish hero, Jan Karski, referred to Polish concentration camps as a shorthand for “death camps” on Polish soil. Her argument, clearly put, is not that it should be referred to in that way or that Poland should bear some special blame for the Holocaust, but that this piece of legislation is a flawed way to get at the truth:

However what has basically happened is that by criminalizing this phrase (Polish death camps) it's actually reinforced it. And rather than having the effect that is intended which is to educate people to what actually happened during the Holocaust in relationship to Germany, in relationship too- There was no Polish state. There was a Polish government in exile. There was a Polish underground state and it should be noted that the Polish underground state had created a separate department specifically to help Jews known by its code name, Zegota. I would rather see an effort to educate than to legislate.

Ms. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is actually emphasizing what you raised - the assistance offered by Polish citizens and partisans - but that is not the whole picture. Referring to historical research on anti-Semitism in Poland does not condemn the entire nation. It is the legitimate pursuit of a full picture and understanding of a difficult and troubled historical period. It acknowledges reality. You pointed out that Canada has a history of anti-Semitism and xenophobia as well. That is true. Canada’s immigration policy before the war has been researched and condemned. This is not a zero-sum game. It is legitimate to raise this issue in public discourse. It would be irrational and unwieldy to qualify every discussion with long historical discourse or other examples. You are right there might be times this would be necessary to provide proper context, but this does not strike me as one of them.

I appreciate you believe discussion of this sort arises from a condemnation and lack of understanding of Poles and Polish history. However, looking at both the positive and negative realities of any country is far from victimizing it. I appreciate too that a knowledge of Polish history would help citizens understand why this is such a painful and sensitive topic for many Poles, and why they feel they have been unjustly condemned over time. Quoted in a Politifact explanation of the new legislation, one historian explained it this way:

"The most direct reason for (the law) is Poland’s internal politics," said Samuel Kassow, a historian at Trinity College. "The Law and Justice Party in power has a base that is very nationalistic and that is very angry at what it sees as people ignoring Polish suffering during the war, people not paying attention to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 where 200,000 Poles were killed. This resentment also includes anger at the Germans, whom many Poles believe should pay reparations for World War II."

Kassow described the law as an attempt to regain control of a revisionist historical narrative, which has been the norm for most of Poland’s modern history.

There was no condemnation of Poland in this segment. There was both a defence and criticism of the new law and how effective it might be at what it wants to accomplish.

There is merit to your suggestion of further programming that explores the Polish experience and present-day political reality to increase understanding of Poles view of history, themselves and the broader community.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman