By Sierra Kaplan
The stories we hear as kids remain in our memory throughout our lifetimes. What we learn from classic tales like The Boy Who Cried Wolf or Goldilocks and the Three Bears frames our current moral compass, shaping our behaviors and beliefs. As we get older, history classes and the media act similarly, forging our biases and core values. The impact of storytelling is powerful yet equally dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands or motivations. Under Poland’s Law & Justice Party (PiS), retelling stories has become party procedure via its “historical policy,” set on promoting and preserving the Polish nation’s reputation. Through this, PiS rebuilds Poland’s past into a new story to uphold Poland’s “exclusive nationhood” following legacies of statelessness and victimhood, whitewashing the past to avoid confronting Poland’s difficult chapters. These aims directly retell the narrative of Polish-Jewish relations, creating a revisionist tale distorting the realities of Polish collaboration and the Jewish voice.
PiS often controls Polish culture to reframe Poland’s historical memory. “Unconquered,” the PiS-backed film, glorifies Polish innocence and heroism in World War Two. The movie, formerly presented at the Second World War Museum, frames Poland as a victim that rises from a two-state occupation through a military-driven, Polish savior lens; it focuses on Poles only as key heroes acting with unconditional moral clarity, like saving Jews under Nazi pressure, breaking the German enigma code, and being the first to alert the world about the Holocaust. Although partially true, this version of history remains an incomplete, biased story told to educate and reaffirm a Polish identity of nationalism, honor, and noble victimhood. Intentionally, it avoids ideas of Polish responsibility and collaboration. It never mentions the Poles who burned their Jewish neighbors alive in Jedwabne, who were involved in Judenjagd (the hunt for Jews in hiding), or who looted ghettos after the Nazis liquidated them. PiS prioritizes narratives of specific historical events, like double occupation and statelessness, to frame itself as the defender of the Polish nation. This PiS-created “siege mentality” reintroduces nationwide fears of defending itself against enemies threatening the reputation of Poland, often at the expense of confronting dark yet legitimate truths (Schatz 2023).
However, for people who do contend with Poland’s complicated past, speaking of Polish collaboration and responsibility may result in financial penalties or imprisonment. In 2018, the Polish Parliament passed a bill criminalizing references to Polish cooperation in the Holocaust as defamation. So much so that in a cynical move, the Polish Premier marked the introduction of the new law by meeting with families of Holocaust survivors in Munich, where he deflected discussions away from Polish collaboration and pointed to “Jewish perpetrators” during the Holocaust (Korycki 2023, 2). Under this law, avoiding Polish responsibility in World War Two is legally tolerated and encouraged, and any statement that may connect Nazi atrocities with the words “Poles, Poland, or Polish,” may face severe consequences. The law targets authors and researchers, suppressing their work in attempts to limit historical dialogue that may confront and question Poland’s past. For instance, two world-class Polish Holocaust historians, Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking, and their life’s work have become scrutinized under historical policy and placed on trial for their writings. The initial trial found the historians guilty, justifying the ruling by stating, “to blame Poles for the Holocaust, for the killing of the Jews and for seizing their property…is completely untrue and hurtful…destroying the justified, facts-based conviction that Poland was the victim of war operations” (Dekel 2021). Another court eventually exonerated Grabowski and Engelking, but PiS’s persistent interference with free speech still remains, inhibiting authorship and eroding historical memory.
But, the consequences of historical policy are not only seen in museums or academia: it also inundates the streets of Poland. On my second day in Wrocław, I witnessed a man flaunting the sonnenrad, a neo-nazi symbol, on his shirt, walking straight past me. Instantly, I clutched my neck for my Star of David, but I then realized that in fear for my safety, my parents kept my necklace at home. I never understood their anxieties about Poland eighty years after the Holocaust until I realized the consequences of the hyper-nationalistic Polish identities that PiS encourages. Because the PiS policy breeds an environment for tolerating and promoting historical revisionism, people can comfortably publicize their antisemitic sentiments with little fear of retaliation. The PiS grasp on Polish history has transformed storytelling into something woefully dangerous for both its authors and its audiences. And time will only tell if the damages that PiS has provoked on Polish memory and Polish-Jewish relations will become irrevocable amid the upcoming transitions in parliamentary power.
- Korycki, K. (2023). Introduction . In Weaponizing the Past: Collective Memory and Jews, Poles, and Communists in Twenty-First-Century Poland (pp. 1–5). essay, Berghahn.
- Schatz, D. (2023, March 21). How Poland distorts its Holocaust history. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/03/21/poland-distorts-holocaust-history-gross-jedwabne/
- Dekel, M. (2021, June 1). Poland’s current memory politics are rewriting history. Boston Review. https://www.bostonreview.net/articles/polands-current-memory-politics-are-rewriting-history/
- IPN. (2017). The Unconquered. Poland. Retrieved December 10, 2023, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q88AkN1hNYM.