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The World Is Oblivious to Polish Victims

A number of different social circles consider it a blunder to commemorate Polish suffering; they relate this to ignorance or exposure to Polish propaganda.

In conversation with Professor Wanda Jarząbek from the Institute of Political Science, Polish Academy of Sciences, an expert on Polish-German relations in the 20th century.

Poland has paid the ultimate price during World War II. Why has the sacrifice been forgotten so quickly?

Immediately after the war, and even in the 1960s, the world remembered Polish victims, and Poland was knows as a country heavily afflicted by World War II. This started to change gradually in the 1960s. The process continued in the 1970s and intensified in the 1980s. At the same time, the historical policy of Israel changed significantly. Holocaust victims were no longer represented as people who accepted their fate and refused to struggle for survival. The individual stories of their suffering were brought to the fore, and Jewish resistance fighters, e.g. insurgents in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, were recognised. A large number of documentaries and feature films were made on the subject, and the Holocaust became an obligatory topic to be covered by textbooks. The German perspective on the past also underwent a major change. When the generation born after World War II entered the political scene, the media, schools and universities, increasingly more focus was given to the suffering of Germany. The German victims of the Nazi regime were brought to the fore, as well as the German victims of the Allied Forces. In the 1950s, a process was launched in West Germany to collect testimonies from people who were forced to leave former eastern territories of Germany; they were evacuated, fled against the advancing Red Army or resettled, either illegally or based on the decisions from the victorious powers. A new term and a heavily charged emotionally one at that, i.e. “expulsion”, was coined.  Little to no effort was made to point out that the decision to “transfer” (this term was often used  that time)  these people came from the Great Four, the three of which became the allies of West Germany after the war. Over time, more focus was given to civilians who died in air raids and carpet bombing.

In Communist Poland, the accounts of World War II were heavily laden with ideology. Cold War realities and Communist rule in Poland made it impossible for Polish research to enter the global arena.  Only few Polish film productions and literary works managed to win international recognition. In the 1990s, Polish researchers focused on the issues that were previously prohibited, i.e. the fates of Poles Polish people in the East (i.e. in the Soviet Union).  We failed to realise that Polish people were no longer represented as victims of Nazi Germany but as passive witnesses or those who were complicit in the Holocaust or benefited materially from the genocide and mass resettlements. As we remained mute, people in the West were exposed to entire new narrative in schools, films and the media.

What is the current perception of Poland and its role during World War II?

There is a widespread belief in the West that Polish people want to be treated like victims, whereas according to popular knowledge they are described as – or sometimes even primarily as – perpetrators. A number of different social circles consider it a blunder to commemorate Polish suffering; they relate this to ignorance or exposure to Polish propaganda. For many, Poland is not the first victim of World War II but the country that was complicit in the criminal policies of Germany. We are now represented as a nation that put little to no resistance to Germany and shared Nazi ideology, including anti-Semitism and hostility to parliamentary democracy. A number of textbooks describe Józef Piłsudski solely as one of the authoritarian leaders or even a dictator and put him nearby Hitler and Mussolini. A lot of focus is given to Polish fascism, which is  the Communists’ doing, who used the term to derogate their political opponents.  In Western perceptions, Polish people as a nation complicit in the German-instituted genocide repressed those actually collaborated on a massive and organised scale with Germany, e.g. Latvians and Ukrainians.

Why does this image of Poland have so little with the facts?

Curricula in the West pay little attention to Poland, and the image of World War II is often based on mass culture instead of hard facts and academic research. Mass culture perpetuates a lot of myths about our country. The same goes for documentaries, including well known Shoah, which represents Polish people as the beneficiaries of the Holocaust because after the war they started to live in Jewish homes for example.

Additionally, what we call competition for suffering entered a completely new dimension. Little is said about hard facts while more focus is given to a variety of narratives, including accounts from civilians. Since we share the same response to human suffering, the accounts of the victims are given the same value regardless of whether they come from the nation of the perpetrators or the nation of the victims. This is why it is increasingly difficult to break through with our Polish narrative about World War II in the West.

Naturally, it is possible to change this distorted and usually negative image of Poland, but this requires hard and systematic efforts. However, we actually do very little to change it. Even in the academia, a lot of distortions or falsifications are not rectified. Many of the books and articles published in the West circulate a simplified image of Polish attitudes during World War II. I cannot recall any Polish author who would review these publications. Moreover, it is difficult not to notice that historical curricula in Poland began to adopt information and priorities from textbooks published in the West.

We Give Voice to the Victims

Our key project is called “Chronicles of Terror” and is aimed at creating Europe’s largest database of the accounts and testimonies from witnesses to history. We would like to provide an opportunity for the victims and their families to speak out and share their testimonies.

In conversation with Anna Gutkowska, Acting Director of the Witold Pilecki Centre for Totalitarian Studies

What is the purpose of the Witold Pilecki Centre for Totalitarian Studies?

The Centre was created to stimulate interdisciplinary reflection on the Polish experience with the two largest totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Our goal is to circulate knowledge about the tragic history of Poland and commit the Polish experience to global memory. We would like to build bridges between research and culture, and initiate and support projects that address the history and experience of the 20th century through culture and arts. Our research activity is primarily focused on recording totalitarian crimes, translating archive records into English (a contemporary lingua franca) and providing access to source materials to promote the Polish experience to the general public and opinion-formers both in Poland and abroad.

What projects are you carrying out at the moment?

Our key project is called “Chronicles of Terror” and is aimed at creating Europe’s largest database of the accounts and testimonies from witnesses to history. We would like to provide an opportunity for the victims and their families to speak out and share their testimonies. We are undertaking a difficult task to reach out with our accounts to the main academic research centres in Poland and abroad, as well as major libraries and the media. This is an important task as it designed to promote our source materials globally. For moral and methodological reasons, these source materials will provoke anything but indifference. We are planning to create a collection for reliable authors who carry our visits to seek library source materials and create publications designed both for academia and the general public. Our website zapisyterroru.pl provides access to more than 800 testimonies, half of which have already been translated into English. A new English interface of the website featuring a variety of functionalities will be available at the beginning of 2017.

We also host domestic and international conferences. To our November 2016 congress we invited a number of renowned lawyers to examine the legal classification of crimes against humanity committed in German-occupied Poland. The Wola Massacre in 1944 was discussed, one of the largest and most terrifying massacres of civilians during World War II.

I have already mentioned that we are also committed to culture and education. We used Smarzowski’s “Volhynia” as a starting point for the series “Images of History” to showcase film productions of key moments in our history. The series comprises screenings and Q&A sessions with a myriad of artists and historians. The audience are also invited to join the debate, and the auditorium was almost packed to the rafters with nearly 500 people. I am very happy that our cause resonates with people, both young and old.

What role is the Centre going to play in commemorating German atrocities during World War II? Can former German concentration camp sites be part of the equation?

Former concentration camp sites carry a symbolic import, as they are also covered with mass graves and stand out as memorials to hundreds of thousands of victims of Nazi Germany. However, they also serve as material evidence of genocide and crimes against humanity, as well as crimes against the legacy of European culture. Most of the sites have been converted into museums and memorials to human suffering and the moral degradation of the perpetrators. These places serve as a warning and word of caution to future generations.

The Centre for Totalitarian Studies has undertaken an important and responsible task to foster the memory of genocide. We investigate complex and tragic accounts of the 20th century, including the stories of the victims, their friends and families. At the same time, we do hope that our testimonies will also resonate outside of Poland and will be committed to global memory. This may sound, but once they are fully available in English, these testimonies will be visible and audible, so to speak, to the international public. Our website chroniclesofterror.pl will help us to achieve this.

Who initiated the Centre?

The Centre was created on the initiative of Professor Magdalena Gawin, Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The Centre’s patron, Witold Pilecki, is a hero of the Polish underground, a man of numerous virtues and incredible courage; he epitomises solidarity with the victims and a tragic individual struggle against two totalitarian regimes: Nazi Germany and Communism. The commencement ceremony of the project “Chronicles of Terror” was attended by Witold Pilecki’s family – his daughter Zofia Pilecka-Optułowicz, his son Andrzej Pilecki and his nephew Professor Edward Radwański with his wife.

The Pilecki Centre has undertaken a difficult mission to promote and raise the awareness of hard facts on the 20th century, or the age of totalitarian regimes, among the global public. We raise awareness of the indelible mark the 20th century left on German-occupied and Communist Poland; our primary focus being on the civilian victims of the German and Soviet regimes. It is high time we made our voices heard.

What Was the Truth? German Camps, Polish Heroes. Conference at the Sejm of the Republic of Poland

How should we eliminate the term “Polish concentration camps” from the media? How can we put a stop to the falsification of history and build a positive image of Poland internationally? These and many other vital questions were addressed during a conference organised by the Łukasiewicz Institute at the Sejm of the Republic of Poland. The event attracted a number of eminent guests, including Vice President of the European Parliament Ryszard Czarnecki, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Dziedziczak and President of the Polish–German Parliamentary Group Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk, MP.

The discussion panel was organised as part of the project “What Was the Truth? German Camps, Polish Heroes” carried out by the Łukasiewicz Institute. The goal of the initiative is to promote the accounts of Polish heroism during World War II to foreign journalists. The project is carried out under the auspices of the President of the Republic of Poland Andrzej Duda.

I would like to extend a word of thanks to the Łukasiewicz Institute Foundation for their courage in addressing this vital and relevant issue, wrote Marek Kuchciński, Marshal of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland, in a letter to conference participants. The letter emphasised that there is a need for a “firm stand against mendacious and offensive phrases that are targeted against Poland”.

It has been an honour to participate in such an important conference on one of the key challenges for Poland, said Ryszard Czarnecki, Vice President of the European Parliament. I am glad to see so many experts on the issue who do care about the good reputation of Poland and the Polish nation and are keen to fight stereotypes and propaganda. Just as these stereotypes stem from ignorance, they often constitute the conscious falsification of history, he explained.

Ryszard Czarnecki also said that there is a common tendency to attribute the atrocities of World War II to the Nazis. We have to start to challenge such thinking. There was no such thing as the Nazi nation. By perpetuating such phrases, we help the Germans to wash their hands of the matter while they have every reason to repent for a long time yet.

Mr Czarnecki recalled that on the wave of protests from Polish MPs, the word “Nazis” was replaced with “Germans” in a European resolution commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The pressure from the state authorities is very important, but the agreement between various opinion-forming circles in Poland also plays a part. I am really sad that some of the opinion-formers in this country, who themselves perpetrate the pedagogy of shame, are unwilling to see and name the things as they are.

It is our duty as human beings to commemorate German concentration camps in Poland and Polish people who died in the concentration camp network. I am also addressing the issue for personal reasons. My grandmother, Bronisława Czarnecka, cooperated with the Polish Council to Aid Jews, otherwise known as Żegota. I am proud of her heroic conduct during World War II. Thank you for having me here at the conference.

Jan Dziedziczak, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, also expressed his gratitude to the conference organisers. We are investing in the future by dealing with the past, he said. It is vital that we showcase the true accounts of Polish history to our partners, especially these days when the role of public diplomacy has grown to be as important as more traditional diplomatic measures. Our position is a comfortable one because we do not have to spice up history. All we have to do is demand the truth.

Minister Dziedziczak emphasised that the incumbent government is running a coherent historical policy and takes opportunities to build a positive image of Poland internationally. One such window of opportunity opened with World Youth Day and the visit of Pope Francis I to Auschwitz. We have decided that the arrival of around one million young people and their shared curiosity about the world, as well a growing interest in concentration camps from the media, offer a great chance to create a true and favourable narrative about our country. In collaboration with the Institute of National Remembrance we have published a brochure in nine languages to be distributed to each and every participant in World Youth Day and all accredited journalists. The brochure provides a brief account of Polish history and a detailed discussion of the German concentration camps. Our narrative represents Poland as the first European country to have taken a stand against Hitler. It was also in Poland where Europe’s largest underground state emerged during World War II, said Jan Dziedziczak.

According to Jan Dziedziczak, one of the greatest virtues of the Łukasiewicz Institute publication is that it provides witness accounts. Concentration camp survivors see and name things as they are, he said. I am glad that your publication provides an interview with Karol Tendera, he added. An Auschwitz survivor, Karol Tendera has been awarded the badge of honour Bene Merito, the highest decoration from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for taking a stand against the use of “Polish death camps” by the foreign media and defending the good reputation of Poland. It is vital that NGOs such as the Łukasiewicz Institute are committed to bringing back historical truth to life. Thank you for your initiative. I am really happy to be here with you today.

Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk, President of the Polish–German Parliamentary Group, began his speech with congratulations to the Łukasiewicz Institute. The project is a value in itself. The academic and political background only adds to its significance. The project is carried out under the auspices of the President of the Republic of Poland. Witold Waszczykowski, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Ryszard Czarnecki, Vice President of the European Parliament, who is the most important Polish MP in the whole of the European Parliament, have also lent their support. The Łukasiewicz Institute collaborates with a number of prestigious institutions, including the Institute of National Remembrance and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum. All this adds to the importance of the initiative. I had no doubt whatsoever that the Polish–German Parliamentary Group should also become one of its partners.

Mr Szynkowski vel Sęk explained that the group conducts honest talks with German MPs on expectations concerning the narratives describing World War II. Our job is to explain to German politicians that they also should respond to each usage of ‘Polish camps’ in the media. The two sides can easily become speakers for historical truth.

Building the positive image of Poland is one of the key issues in strengthening our security and independence, argued President of the Polish Anti-Defamation League Maciej Świrski. He also added that the Polish narrative should be presented in a more effective way. Making a public display of our wounded pride and being reactive to the lies will not do much. For the last four years, the Polish Anti-Defamation League has shown how to use a politically correct language in communiques to foreign media and Western audiences. This is the only language they can easily understand, he said. He also went on to explain that the media using phrases such as “Polish concentration camps” should be stigmatised as racist, promoting hate speech, discrimination and Holocaust denial. This kind of message can actually break through to journalists to help them understand the problem. People in the West find it particularly degrading to be called racists or someone who promotes hate speech or perpetuates Holocaust denial, explained Maciej Świrski.

He said that when the Polish Anti-Defamation League was established, everybody thought that the main focus of the organisation would be on the falsification of history performed by the foreign media. However, it soon turned out that half of their activities had to be addressed to Polish audiences. ‘Pedagogy of shame’ or the ‘disdain industry’ have played a large part in this,” he explained. Both terms describe a mechanism whereby negative information on Poland first appears in the Polish media, is repeated by Western journalists and returns to Poland as a reportedly Western view of Poland. Jan Tomasz Gross and his legacy are the finest examples of anti-Polish activity.

Just the other day the Israeli daily Haaretz quoted Jan Tomasz Gross, who said that Polish people killed ca. 100–200 thousand Jews, which is obviously not true, the topic was elaborated by Mateusz Szpytma, PhD, Vice President of the Institute of National Remembrance. We should act immediately in such cases, which is why I would like to extend a word of thanks to the Łukasiewicz Institute for their campaign. Mateusz Szpytma also argued that people in the West no longer attribute the responsibility for the Holocaust to the German state. We have all heard about mythical Nazis, who are no longer exclusively German. They can be Polish. There is little awareness of the fact that right from the outset Poland was in the Allied Forces coalition, said Mateusz Szpytma.

The process of reclaiming historical truth is going to be a long-term process, just as it took many years for some people to falsify history, pointed out Senator and historian, prof. Jan Żaryn. In the absence of the Polish sovereign state, many different national elites have worked for a long time to shift the blame for concentration camps to Poland. We had no agency as a state, and we had no tools to counteract their doings. According to Senator Żaryn, the process of reclaiming historical truth requires that Polish elites undergo major transformation, as they are now dominated by people who care very little about Polish values. I know this may sound a little harsh, but that is the truth. As a matter of fact, Polish foreign policies should focus on bringing together a group of people who feel very strongly about our image abroad, are not ashamed of our history and can also serve as witnesses. This is one of the main goals of the incumbent government, he explained. Senator Żaryn pointed out that Germany is a powerful and significant player on the global political scene. Our task it to enter into a dialogue with Germany. They should become our partners in building the account of Poland and Polish people during World War II.

At the Museum, we work on a daily basis with journalists to explain their inaccuracies. We run educational campaigns, develop publications and explain why it is necessary that we call the perpetrators German instead of Nazis, said Piotr M.A. Cywiński, Head of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum. The sheer skill with which the Germans have shirked the blame for the Third Reich and the atrocities of war is just intriguing, admitted Jerzy Haszczyński, Foreign Section Manager at the Rzeczpospolita daily. He elaborated on the last ten years of the newspaper’s activity and the stand they took against “Polish camps”. One of the more tangible effects of their struggle is that the use of the phrase is prohibited by journalistic manuals at many American dailies and Associated Press, the world’s largest press agency.

I saw a note yesterday on the website of the World Jewish Congress saying that over 140 Jewish visitors got food poisoning in the ‘Polish camp at Auschwitz’. If you are a naïve reader you may just as well say it was Polish neo-Nazis who poisoned these people, said Krzysztof Wyszkowski, Member of the Board of Trustees at the Institute of National Remembrance. We need to design a suitable language to fight these pernicious phrases, said Maciej Korkuć, PhD, Head of the Bureau for the Remembrance of National Struggle and Martyrdom at the Kraków Branch of the Institute of National Remembrance. I would suggest that we try to drop phrases such as the ‘struggle against the falsification of history and Polish concentration camps’ in our discussions. Instead, we can bring back the ‘truth about German camps’. We have to make sure that these pernicious phrases do not return in the media.

However, the speakers pointed out that this approach involves certain risks: by refraining to address the stigmatiferous term openly, we allow foreign media to thoughtlessly perpetuate the phrase. One of the speakers said that the falsification of history and phrases such as “Polish camps” can be put under the heading of “defective codes of memory”. The phrase was first coined by prof. Artur Nowak-Far, Undersecretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during Radosław Sikorski’s office.

In 2013, when the term first appeared in the media, it looked like another fancy and meaningless idea. Sadly, the phrase is still in use. In my view, the term ‘defective codes of memory’ only confuses the issue. The mendacious phrase ‘Polish death camps’ should be defined as ‘Holocaust denial’, which is punishable by law. The term is far from ideal, but it is recognised internationally, argued Maciej Świrski.

We Must Demand the Truth about German Concentration Camps

Commemorating Polish heroes is almost as effective in promoting the truth about Polish history as the first-hand accounts of its witnesses. We should bring these figures back to life as often as possible.

In conversation with Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Dziedziczak

Several months ago you presented the badge of honour Bene Merito to Karol Tendera, an Auschwitz survivor and one of the key figures in the project “What Was the Truth? German Camps, Polish Heroes”. Karol Tendera is fighting against historical distortions and untruthful phrases such as “Polish concentration camps”. Do you think the appeals of Auschwitz survivors for more honesty and accuracy in historical accounts can make a lasting impression on the general public in the West?

Karol Tendera is one of the few surviving witnesses to history who can pass on the true story of the atrocities perpetrated in German concentration camps. One cannot overestimate this initiative taken by former concentration camp prisoners and witnesses to history. They continue to tell the true story of German-occupied Poland and contribute to building the public image of Poland globally. It is our duty to promote the accounts of first-hand witnesses to these dramatic events. The real value of their stories is that they are truly genuine. They are also heavily charged emotionally and speak louder than diluted historical studies. Our position is secure, because we do not have to spice up history. All we have to do is demand the truth. That is why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggests that the phrase “defective codes of memory” should be used by the press and on the Internet. The aim of the initiative is to put a stop to the falsification of history. Our campaign is to educate the general public and to promote the term “German concentration camps”.

The phrase “Polish concentration camps” has been used repeatedly by foreign journalists and politicians alike. Do you think that the global public are unaware of or tend to forget who perpetrated the atrocities and who were their victims?

I do hope that most of these people do it from ignorance instead of ill will. Our intention is not only to respond, but also to raise awareness, so that these and similar cases happen as rarely as possible and gradually disappear. The most frequent rationale for using this type of language is that many German concentration camps were located in German-occupied Poland. We find this argument unacceptable. German concentration camps were located all over Europe, but somehow the falsification of history affects only Poland. Polish authorities, historical institutions and citizens are faced with the daunting challenge of finding an effective way to convey accurate and reliable information on Poland’s recent history to the global general public.

What can we do to explain to foreign journalists that calling German concentration camps Polish is the falsification of history? Can the projects focused on education and promoting the truth about World War II, including the Łukasiewicz Institute, promote historical awareness?

It is necessary that we encourage journalists both in Poland and abroad to use accurate terminology concerning German death and concentration camps. Since there is no shared or objective outlook on history, the general public, including journalists all over the world, are prone to ignorance or incorrect interpretations. Take many key events in Poland’s recent history, which include, for example, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, the German and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, the occupation of Poland, Polish-Jewish relations during World War II, and the impact of the Holocaust and concentration camp network on the lives of the prisoners and society as a whole. Our role is to reach out globally to the widest audience possible to promote the true history of this aspect of World War II. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs cooperates with a large number of Polish public bodies to continue educational campaigns on the subject. We are collaborating with the Institute of National Remembrance, the Polish Anti-Defamation League and many other institutions. One fine example in this respect are study visits in Poland by foreign opinion formers or intellectuals, including journalists and researchers in the history of Poland, the region and World War II. The onus is on us to pass on historical knowledge to future generations and foster the memory of World War II and related atrocities.

Do you think it is our duty to promote Polish heroism during World War II? Is it possible to promote the true accounts of Polish history by marking the lives of the Ulma family, Saint Maksymilian Kolbe or Witold Pilecki?

Commemorating Polish heroes is almost as effective in promoting the truth about Polish history as the first-hand accounts of its witnesses. We should bring these figures back to life as often as possible. Both the recent and remote history of Poland abounds with such people. The stories of ordinary people and their heroic conduct are a very potent tool in building a positive image of the Polish nation. Our ultimate goal is to foster the memory of the Ulma family, Saint Maksymilian Kolbe and many other Polish heroic martyrs to establish Poland as a country where honour and values are more important than life; where people are ready to risk their lives if there is only a glimmer of hope to save other human beings. Our history is packed with heroic figures that epitomise universal values that serve as role models for young people and that may be used as a foundation for building the truth about Polish history.

Do you think there is a need for Polish leaders of opinion to address both foreign and Polish audiences to drive the point home that our authorities will remain adamant on using phrases such as “Polish concentration camps”? What benefits will this bring?

It goes without saying that falsifications of history should not be perpetuated by Polish people. Fostering “defective codes of memory” may be detrimental to Poland if they are repeatedly used in interviews or publications that are aimed at fighting inaccurate terminology. The key benefit is that we promote historical truth and the credibility of Poland in the eyes of the global public. So long as we fall prey to inaccurate language we may find it very difficult to fight it abroad as well.

Do you think the general public in Poland agree on the need to fight the falsification of history? Some circles believe that we are overreacting, which is due to our hypersensitivity and inferiority complex.

The positive image of Poland and the struggle for historical truth should be a common goal for all. Being adamant on lies and distortions has little to do with inferiority complex. It is our shared responsibility to struggle for the truth, namely, that German concentration camps were located in German-occupied Poland. We should bear in mind that history has an impact on the current perceptions of Poland. In so doing, we are building both the here and now of Poland and its future.

What is the role of the Polish diaspora in fighting the falsifications and distortions of Polish history?

The role that the Polish diaspora have to play is perhaps larger than our role here at home. The problem was first reported by Polish organisations in North America. They began to educate Polish people about the threat behind the falsification of history and untruthful phrases such as “Polish concentration camps”. Back in the 1980s, the Polish diaspora in Canada heavily protested in front of the Toronto Star office to stop the newspaper from using this inaccurate terminology. Because Polish people abroad have direct access to foreign media and foreign public opinion, they can immediately respond to the falsifications of history, for example, by reporting relevant cases to the Polish authorities abroad. Obviously, since the Polish diaspora are also responsible for building the public image of Poland overseas, it is extremely important that Polish people abroad promote Polish heroism, address the Polish-Jewish relations and take a corrective stance against “Polish concentration camps”.

“Polish Camps” Is Hate Speech

Our struggle for the good reputation of Poland is one way in which we can increase Poland’s safety and reinforce our national independence.

In conversation with Maciej Świrski, President of the Polish League Against Defamation, an NGO defending the good reputation of Poland internationally.

What are the main goals of the Polish League Against Defamation?

Our primary goal is to change the negative perceptions of Poland in Western media and society. We want Poland to be treated with respect. We are following good examples and practices, for example the Anti-Defamation League, which promotes the positive image of Jewish people globally.

Another goal of ours is to fight the false representations of Poland. This not only about history. Poland is now under a massive assault from foreign propaganda. That is why we keep tabs on the authors of slanderous remarks and those who use phrases such as “Polish concentration camps”. However, we also provide verified news on the current political situation in Poland. We have foreign language information packs on various subjects, such as the origins of the Polish Constitutional Court crisis or the reforms to be driven by the current government. We send these packs to European MPs and foreign media.

We are also trying to reinforce Polish national identity and challenge what we call pedagogy of shame, which is now part and parcel of anti-Polish propaganda that defames Poland in the international arena and makes it impossible for us to defend. That is why we are trying to strengthen Polish national pride by organising exhibitions, concerts, location-based games and a variety of publications.

We are now working hard to expand the Polish League Against Defamation Documentation and Analysis Department. Our researchers and analysts use a semi-automatic system that helps them discover whenever defamatory remarks about Poland appear on the Internet. We are developing the department to find out what slander against Poland is perpetuated and who stands behind it. We have to bear in mind that “Polish camps” and other phrases of this kind are misinformation pure and simple. Misrepresentations are one of the most powerful weapons in contemporary information warfare.

Our struggle for the good reputation of Poland is one way in which we can increase Poland’s safety and reinforce our national independence.

What are the major achievements of the Polish League Against Defamation to date?

One such achievement is a large number of disclaimers in newspapers and magazines that defamed Poland. The other is a lawsuit against the creators of the racist and anti-Polish TV series Generation War. Our lawyers, including Monika Brzozowska and Lech Obara, have developed a legal doctrine approved by Polish tribunals, which stipulates that whenever your national interest has been violated you can take the offender to court.

We have also agreed with British Airways that they will not show the film Ida on flights. With the mobilisation of public opinion, we have also had an explanation added to Ida‘s opening credits. The feature describes the true role of Polish people during World War II.

How can we address the issue of the falsification of Polish history? Do you think terms such as “defective codes of memory” do justice to the problem?

The term “defective codes of memory”, which was coined by the previous government, only confuses the issue and blurs the lines of responsibility. We have to make it clear that these lies and slanderous remarks are not “defective codes of memory”. We have to be politically correct as we convey our message to the Western world. We have to communicate clearly that “Polish concentration camps” should be stigmatised as racist hate speech targeted against Poland; that this is based on Holocaust denial and designed discriminate against Polish people in the international arena. Sadly, the language of political correctness is the only language that the Western media seem to understand. Bringing forth Polish values and Polish dignity is to no avail. We are touching upon a broader issue that both the US and Western Europe are dealing with at the moment. They have no true points of reference, which is best reflected in the fact that the term “Polish camps” is used in the media.

“German Camps, Polish Heroes”: A Conference Featuring Representatives of the Polish Sejm, Senate, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Parliament

Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Dziedziczak and Vice-President of the European Parliament Ryszard Czarnecki are expected to attend the conference “What Was the Truth? German Camps, Polish Heroes”, which is organised by the Łukasiewicz Institute under the auspices of the President of the Republic of Poland. President of the Polish-German Parliamentary Group and MP Szymon Szynkowski aka Sęk, Senator Professor Jan Żaryn, President of the Polish Anti-Defamation League Maciej Świrski and Deputy President of the Institute of National Remembrance and co-founder of the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jewish People During World War II Mateusz Szpytma have all confirmed their participation in the event. A discussion panel featuring these eminent guests will be organised as part of the project subsidised by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The session will be held on 15th November at 11 am in the Bronisław Geremek Room No. 14 (Building G, Sejm of the Republic of Poland). The highlight of the conference is a discussion panel featuring the eminent representatives of public institutions, museum curators, historians and members of organisations and NGOs committed to shaping Poland’s historical policy, The conference will begin with a presentation of the Łukasiewicz Institute project and its website www.jakbylonaprawde.pl. The website brings stories and accounts of former prisoners of German death and concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Gross-Rosen and Ravensbrück. All the stories are also available in English and German. Following the conference a digital package presenting the Polish perspective on the history of World War II will to be circulated among 300 different editorial teams in the US, Germany and the UK. The Łukasiewicz Institute is also preparing a publication in three different languages to be distributed in memorials and museums that are devoted to the history of World War II.

The project is aimed against mendacious language such as “Polish camps” that is perpetuated by the foreign media. In 2008–2014 alone, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to take measures against more than 600 uses of such terms. They cropped up in the media in 35 different countries. The project “What Was the Truth? German Camps, Polish Heroes” has been created in collaboration with the Institute of National Remembrance and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum. The partners of the project include the following institutions: Museum of Polish History, Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, Polish Historical Society, Karta Centre, Polish-German Parliamentary Group as well as Polish Post Poczta Polska and Polish Security Printing Works.

We Have to Create a System to Fight Historical Distortions

Profesor Andrzej Nowak
Photo by Krzysztof Sitowski

We have to break through into the market of historical narratives with a true account of what happened during World War II. We have to commemorate the heroism of Poland and an extremely courageous decision on the part of the Polish government to stand up to two totalitarian regimes: Germany and the Soviet Union.

In conversation with Professor Andrzej Nowak, Head of the Department of Eastern European History, Jagiellonian University, Kraków

Why do foreign media perpetuate the phrase “Polish extermination camps”?

There are three major reasons for this. The first is ignorance, which is rampant in Western societies, as they show little or no interest in the history of our region. Taking offence will not solve the problem. We have to fill in this void with educational campaigns. The best way to do this is through mass culture.

The second reason is arrogance. This sense of superiority is shared by some of the political elites in the West who believe that people from the East are worse or downright barbarian. They all seem to believe that if the Germans has set up their camps in the UK or in the US, the English or Americans would have risked their lives to defend their Jewish neighbours. In contrast, the Eastern European yahoos would have denounced the Jews. Such beliefs have racist underpinnings and must be tackled head-on.

There is also a third reason. The one that makes it very difficult to fight phrases such as “Polish camps”. It is concerned not so much with stereotypes or ignorance but with real interests that can be described at several different levels.

What levels?

The first level is concerned with money. As part of the settlement with Holocaust victims, the German government paid out massive damages and made sure that no further claims would come up in the future. However, some people have an insatiable desire for profit and they purport to be the victims in order to pursue the claims against other nations and other societies. Unfortunately, their primary target is Poland, even though, in contrast to Lithuania or Ukraine, there was no organised form of collaboration with the German perpetrators of genocide in Poland.

The second level is concerned with German interest, which is more of a moral than financial nature. The aim of all this is to take the burden of the responsibility off the German memory and share it with other nations. This is one of the key goals of a historical policy that is deliberately pursued by Germany. The policy has also a specific political goal: the renaissance of German domination in Europe and leaving the long shadow of World War II behind. The narrative goes as follows: the Germans may have started the process, but they would have never been successful without the Poles.

There is also a third party in all this, namely Russia (previously the Soviet Union) and its imperial policies. Immediately after World War II, the Kremlin was keen to persuade the world that Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe are not worth sympathising with because what they deserve is Soviet rule. This policy is now being continued. We can see this in the discussion on the Jedwabne pogrom. The story is undoubtedly sad and worth examining in detail, but it has been overly publicised to serve the Russian propaganda. It is no wonder, then, that most of the news about the pogrom come from the Russian press. This is actually easy to interpret: so you see, Polish people are anti-Semites and the perpetrators of genocide, and yet they have the nerve to vindicate the Katyn massacre or other moral transgressions on the Russian part.

How can we fight this more effectively?

We have to break through into the market of historical narratives with a true account of what happened during World War II. We have to commemorate the heroism of Poland and an extremely courageous decision on the part of the Polish government to stand up to two totalitarian regimes: Germany and the Soviet Union. We have to do this through the media and mass culture while gaining as many international partners as possible for the cause; they can join us either for profit or because they share our ideas. After all, we have a lot of friends globally. We have to harness their talent to create an organised system that fights the distorted representations of 20th-century history, with particular emphasis on World War II. Our historical policy has been weak and reactive over the last 27 years. We are able to respond only when the problem has already occurred. There is no denying that we have to dispel the lies, but we have to become more proactive in the long run.

The incumbent government says that historical policy is one of its key objectives. Is there room for improvement in fighting historical lies that affect Poland’s reputation?

To be honest, we need more time to assess the government’s activity. There is no way we can do this after ten months. However, some of the declarations are becoming more tangible. The Ministry of Culture and National Heritage has allocated more money in the budget for historical films. I would be really happy with an epic and Hollywood-like picture about Witold Pilecki, whose achievements command a lot of respect both in Poland and internationally.

Poland Paid the Ultimate Price in World War II

On 1 September 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany. This began World War II, the largest military conflict in the history of mankind. Poland suffered the most: it is estimated that during the war, 6 million people – about 22 per cent of the Polish population, died or were forced to relocate, or were deported. The brutal occupation of Poland by Germany caused irreversible damage, which is still felt and seen today.

Taken by surprise, and without the military support of her allies, Poland stood no chance against the overwhelming power of the invaders, notwithstanding the heroic struggle put up by the Polish army and civilians. On 17 September 1939, Poland was attacked from the east by the Soviet Union, which fulfilled the provisions of the clandestine Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The two totalitarian regimes, Germany and the Soviet Union, obliterated the sovereign Polish state.

The Invasion of Poland 1939. Civilian victims of an air raid

After the invasion, the Polish government refused to sign the act of capitulation to the Germans, which resulted in extremely brutal repressions, including mass executions of the civilian population. Throughout World War II, Poland remained an active member of the Allied Forces and was Europe’s only government that refused any form of collaboration with the Germans.

The German invaders instituted a reign of terror in Poland and instituted policies that were designed to deprive the Poles of their national identity. The German administrative measures served two major goals: to complete the Germanisation process and benefit the Third Reich. Hans Frank, the Governor General of German-occupied part of Poland, said: I received a command to ruthlessly pillage the invaded Eastern territories; my goal is to ruin them economically, socially, culturally and politically.

The German plan was to eradicate Polish identity in any shape or form by pillaging and destroying the cultural heritage and putting a stop to the political and social life of the Polish nation. Any form of resistance against the German authorities would end in bloodshed. The presence of the German administration was felt almost everywhere. Street and city names were changed to German, and the largest squares were renamed to celebrate Adolf Hitler. The Gothic font, which was the Nazis’ favourite, was used to emphasise their rule.

The action that targeted the Polish elite was one of the main measures to force Germanisation in the territories incorporated into the Third Reich. The Intelligenzaktion was designed to exterminate the opinion-formers in Polish society. About 100,000 citizens, who were particularly vital to Poland’s infrastructure (including teachers, scientists, clergy, doctors, lawyers and former soldiers) were murdered in mass executions, or deported to German concentration camps, where only a few managed to survive. Children were exposed to the Germanisation process. It is estimated that throughout World War II, about150,000 young Polish citizens were displaced from Poland to Germany.

Each and every Pole feared for his or her life and the lives of their nearest and dearest. Poland’s German invaders thought nothing of the international humanitarian law. They administered the most severe repressions for the slightest offence often for no reason other than to induce fear in people and force them into total submission.

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The Polish Underground State: Unprecedented Resistance against Germany

The resistance movement against Germany operated in a number of European countries throughout World War II. However, the Polish Underground State was undoubtedly the largest resistance movement in the whole of Europe.

In contrast to France or Belgium, no legitimate Polish authorities would collaborate with their German invaders. The Poles created the overseas-governed underground state in the areas invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union. The government structure was divided into ten or so departments that were very much like pre-war ministries. Several hundred thousand Poles risked their lives in the service of their underground state.

Home Army

The military structures were the first to emerge. In September 1939, an underground military organisation was set up. Reporting directly to the Polish government-in-exile, it gave rise to what is now known as the Home Army. This was the largest military organisation in German-occupied Poland, and at its height, counted about 380,000 members. It also boasted extended field structuresoutside Warsaw. The Home Army carried out numerous sabotage and intelligence actions, and they also provided aid to the Jewish resistance fighters during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The organisation’s main goal was to create a regular army that would be able to seize the country’s independence.

Military and civilian jurisprudence was also present during German occupation. The underground Polish courts held clandestine sessions in which they dealt death sentences to those who performed activities detrimental to the Polish nation, and those who for their own benefit denounced and turned in the Jews to the Germans. There was zero tolerance for collaborating with the Germans. The Poles who did collaborate were treated as traitors.

The underground judicial system passed hundreds of death sentences on German officials and their collaborators. Justice was served, even on Franz Kutschera, the SS and Police Leader in the Warsaw District of the General Government. The German criminal was sentenced to death by the Polish judicial system for launching a reign of terror against the civilian population that included mass executions and numerous round-ups in the streets of Warsaw. The sentence was carried out by a Home Army unit.

General Stefan Rowecki, pseudonym Grot (“Arrowhead”)Draconian punishments were meted out for any form of resistance against the German authorities. Service to the Underground Polish State was punishable by death or deportation to a concentration camp. One of the persons affected was General Stefan Rowecki, pseudonym Grot (“Arrowhead”), the most prominent figure of the Polish Underground State and the Home Army’s founder.  Soon after his capture by the Gestapo in July 1943 he was transferred to Sachsenhausen. He was tortured and repeatedly encouraged to form an alliance between the Home Army and Germany against the Soviet Union, and later, to stop the Warsaw Uprising. The General remained adamant and was eventually executed.

Many civilians arrested for underground activity also died in the German camps. The underground education system provided tuition to over one million Polish people throughout the war. Nine thousand teachers and over 600 academic lecturers paid the ultimate price for their activities. The Roman Catholic Church in Poland also suffered repressions. Father Maksymilian Kolbe was only one of thousands of Polish priests who lost their lives in the German concentration camps.

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Change Has Come

Photo by Institute of National Remembrance

For many years we did not know how to tell our unique and beautiful history, including stories about the Polish Underground State, the heroic Home Army soldiers, the daily resistance against the invaders and the fact that no Polish government would ever collaborate with the Germans. 

In conversation with Jarosław Szarek, PhD, President of the Institute of National Remembrance

Fighting historical lies is one of the most important tasks of the Institute. What, in your opinion, should you do to accomplish that?

The Institute of National Remembrance employs over 2,200 people, including eminent academic researchers. This enormous potential can be harnessed to carry out long-term educational campaigns that promote Poland’s recent history. We want to break through with the true account of Polish history to international audiences. We need to bear in mind, however, that our success overseas is possible only if we are able to make our story attractive and engaging.

And how do the Institute want to do this?

First of all, we want to do away with shame pedagogy, which has been fostered for many years now. National identity must be built on positive foundations. This is emphasised in the Preamble to our Constitution, which says that we should pass on our values and heritage to future generations.

The period of political transformation, which started in the 1990s, was marked by the escape from history or the focus on its darkest pages. The slogans about the future were so engaging at the time that they could easily win you the presidential election. The dominant narrative was that Polish national identity is a burden and we have to become more European. One of the implications of these attitudes was that mendacious terms such as “Polish concentration camps” began to appear in the global media. Had we taken emphatic and immediate action against this, nobody would be saying now that German camps and German death factories were Polish.

For many years we did not know how to tell our unique and beautiful history, including stories about the Polish Underground State, the heroic Home Army soldiers, the daily resistance against the invaders and the fact that no Polish government would ever collaborate with the Germans. It is a pity that the Polish film industry has never created a film about cavalry captain Witold Pilecki, who is considered by Western historians to have been one of the six most courageous men in World War II.

When are we going to make up ground?

We are doing this already. Much of the credit goes to young people, who began to speak up for Polish history. These young people are proud to wear our white and red national colours and patriotic clothing. They have turned patriotism into a fashion.

Changes in awareness and attitudes towards history are also visible in other areas. Take our embassies and consulates for example. Not so long ago, the Polish diaspora could count on little support from the Polish diplomatic service when they began their protest against the term “Polish camps”. We have seen a marked improvement recently. Another fine example is the Museum of World War II in Gdańsk. Initially, the Museum’s focus was on the universal account of World War II. However, we can now see the necessity in presenting the Polish perspective more fully.