It is about the truth. We weren’t the perpetrators

Jan Gross will not be penalised, although the findings he has presented have raised serious doubts among other academics. After all, historical debate will not be penalised, Poland’s head of diplomacy Jacek Czaputowicz tells DGP.

DZIENNIK GAZETA PRAWNA: To what degree are activities of the Polish diplomatic corps contingent on being able to resolve the dispute with Israel over the IPN legislation?

JACEK CZAPUTOWICZ, Polish Foreign Minister: Polish diplomacy is holding talks on many different levels. I attended a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in Sofia. We discussed the Western Balkans and the EU’s nearest neighbours, also in terms of Poland’s engagement. Today I fly to New York where I will take part in a session of the United Nations Security Council. I will take part in a discussion on the objectives and principles of the UN Charter in the context of maintaining international peace and security. The current discussions with Israel are therefore one of many issues that we are dealing with. In this specific issue, our Israeli partners have certain concerns that we are trying to calmly, patiently explain while presenting our real intentions.

A Polish-Israel group has been tasked with helping resolve the dispute regarding the IPN law. When will it start its work? On the Polish side, the team is already in place. This is not the case on the Israeli side.

The Israelis wanted to hold these talks before the legislation was signed by the president. We are now waiting for the ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal. From Israel’s perspective it is very important whether individuals in Israel will be penalized once the law enters into force, for example for making statements of historical testimonies. In his talk with the Israeli Ambassador, the Minister of Justice explained that this would not be the case. I hope that the ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal will in itself dispel a lot of doubts. Legal issues should be clarified first by the Constitutional Tribunal. However, we would like these groups to start their work and for dialogue to be maintained. I hope that this will happen soon.

Based on what you are saying it seems that it could be a matter of weeks, if not months. Meanwhile, the dispute is taking place here and now, and it is heating up.

I hope that this will happen soon. For the Israeli side, talks between these groups are of secondary importance compared to the concerns they have regarding the parameters of the implemented law. The Polish team cannot commit to introducing certain changes to the law before the independent Constitutional Tribunal makes a decision.

You have said that Israel wants to know whether certain cases will be sent to the prosecutor’s office once the law has been ratified. Are you able to say with hundred per cent certainty that some right-wing organization will not seek to penalise some author for a comment they made, based on the provisions of the IPN law?

I cannot imagine a situation whereby between the time the law enters into force and the Tribunal makes it’s ruling, the Polish state will seek to criminalise Holocaust survivors and witnesses based on the provisions of the IPN law.

So what type of acts will we seek to penalise according to the IPN law?

The legislation clearly states that it is about attributing blame to the Polish state or nation for crimes committed by the Third German Reich. For example through the deliberate use of the term “Polish death camps.”

Returning to the comments made by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Munich, could you tell us what the objective was of using the phrase “perpetrators” in relation to Jews? Was this is a linguistic slip-up or was there more to it?

In Polish, the Prime Minister would have said that is about Nazi collaborators. He didn’t use the term perpetrators (ed: in Polish).

In English he used the term perpetrators, the meaning of which is clear.

I listened to the Prime Minister’s comments several times. He stressed that the intention of the amended legislation is not to penalise researchers who say that Polish citizens were among those who collaborated with Nazis, nor is it the intention to penalise those who claim that Jews or representatives of other nations collaborated with the Germans. This is the real meaning behind what the Prime Minister said in Munich. He obliged the organizer’s request to answer questions in English, which is not his native language. He used words which also have a different connotation, when referring to German Nazi collaborators. It is not good that these comments are being interpreted out of the context within which they were made. One should acknowledge his willingness to provide an extensive answer to a question in the language that it was made, rather than search for non-existing content.

There were other slip-ups and ambiguities in Munich. The Prime Minister placed a wreath at the statue commemorating the soldiers of the Holy Cross Mountains Brigade. You don’t have to be a historian to find incriminating connections here, such as the Toma Organisation, which worked with the Gestapo. This was a not a philo-Semitic organisation.

These are two separate issues. The Holy Cross Mountains Brigade was an important Polish unit. I wouldn’t connect the response of the question posed by the New York Times journalist with laying flowers under the statue commemorating the Brigade. The journalist spoke about his personal family history.

The question is to what extent does Polish diplomacy have the necessary tools to explain such complicated issues. And why are we using a narrative that honours the Holy Cross Mountains Brigade and not, for example, the Berne Group, a group of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists in Switzerland and the USA who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

Speaking about complex Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War we should refer to every element of this history. It is multi-layered. And complicated. The Ulma Museum in Markowa depicts the complexity of these relations. There we have Jews rescued by Markowa locals. We see the martyrdom of the Ulma family. There are reports of 110 cases where Poles were shot for helping Jews. And that is only in that region alone. There were Poles who were traitors and there were Poles who were heroes. There were also cases where Jews caught by Nazis denounced the Poles who had hid them. The situation is extremely complicated. One should talk about all of it. Polish society constituted Poles and Polish Jews.

This doesn’t exactly fit with the narrative that Polish society was hostile towards Jews.

There are many accounts, however there aren’t that many accounts recollecting how the Germans dealt with Jews. Encounters with Poles often resulted in bad experiences, documented in historical testimonies. Encounters with German meant certain death, therefore there aren’t any testimonies as these people were killed and there isn’t anyone to write them. Some Jews who survived the ghetto also remember how their brothers in faith treated them. This is documented in the Ringelblum Archives. It is impossible to bunch all these problems under one simple message. After all, each incident took place in a wider context. Let us not try to over-simplify complex ethical dilemmas, such as those that existed at a time when there were no state structures, at a time of terror during the German occupation.

There is the account of Dawid Sierakowiak, who was imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto. He writes that the biggest problem was his father, who ate his food and that of his sister. Sierakowiak died of hunger. Germans are rarely referred to in his account. Sierakowiak’s biggest problem was his father.

I am in no position to judge moral dilemmas in the Holocaust era.

What was the role of the MFA in creating the IPN legislation?

This is the mandate of the Ministry of Justice. We provided input from our side at several stages, in line with government administration protocol. They are available on the website of the Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland.

Are we to understand that we have tripped up as a result of ministerial politics?

I don’t see any tripping up, as you put it. When drafting legislation there is always a ministry that takes the lead, while other government administration agencies and ministries provide their input. A proposal was put forward to tackle the anti-Polish narrative. It is about penalising slanderous claims against Poland. In the name of preserving the truth.

It is the Foreign Ministry’s role to highlight concerns that the legalisation not only touches on areas relating to the law, but certain sensitivities as well.

But does this mean that we are to accept accusations made against Poland regarding crimes committed in the Holocaust, just because there are sensitivities?

As a result Poland, as a state, has received bad press.

This isn’t about the press, it is about the truth. There were no Polish death camps. We were not perpetrators of the Holocaust, as the Polish state and nation are being presented. No one is claiming that this is a straightforward issue. The foundations of anti-Polonism are substantial and this debate could have a revitalizing effect.

The Ministry of Justice has presented an instrument that, first of all, could turn out to be ineffective and, secondly, damages Poland externally. This brings to question the effectiveness and the instruments used.

Israel uses a similar set of tools. We have the same right to defend our good name. We have been accused of wanting to falsify history. But what we want to do is protect historical truth. This includes the ability to speak about historical truth no matter how painful it might be for some people.

This may be obvious to the MFA, but it less obvious on the international stage.

We do not deny that individual Poles denounced Jews to the Gestapo. Let us remember that Grot-Rowecki was also denounced by fellow Poles. However, this was a not a system authorized by the state functioning in the Underground and in exile. It was the Germans who administered the territories of occupied Poland. The occupier created conditions that enabled negative and criminal actions, and these undoubtedly took place.

Would you, as Foreign Minister, agree with the following statement: “Among Poles there were scoundrels who denounced Jews to the Gestapo. Many did so with a gun to their heads. But there were also scoundrels who did so out of their own free will.”

Of course, there were Poles who denounced Jews to enrich themselves, or for other reasons. These actions need to be condemned. Some of these people were eliminated by the Home Army. This is also part of our history.

One year ago in Jerusalem, Andrzej Duda said that by doing what they did these people forfeited their right to be part of the Polish nation.

In some sense, yes. They acted against the values held dearly by the nation. In a society with 30 million people you will always find demoralised individuals. The Ulma family was first shot, then their possessions were looted. Their whole home was robbed, although in this case this was done by the Germans and the blue police, who were collaborators.

In her book “The Pepper Forgers”, Monika Sznajderman writes not only about demoralized Poles looting Jewish villas near Otwock. She also writes about representatives of the intelligentsia at the time. Her account is not very positive.

War is governed by various forces. In war we see elements of evil that in normal circumstances would not appear on the same scale or level of brutality. Various authors have written about this. The structures of the Polish state were non-existent and not only did the German occupying forces not work to prevent these actions, they actively encouraged despicable acts.

Do you not think that by voicing such comments you yourself could be targeted by the IPN law?

In what way? The law does not seal the mouths of those who tell the truth, for example by saying that there were Poles who denounced, and sometimes even murdered, Jews.

The Polish Underground issued 4,000 death sentences to people who blackmailed Jews, of which 2,500 were carried out.

And these are proud moments in Polish history, when participation in the killing of Jews was punished with the death sentence, even though Poles did not have sovereignty over their own territory. The blue policeman who denounced the Ulmas was later shot, to set an example.

In your opinion, what are the main roots of anti-Polonism in Israel?

I believe that it is an element of trauma. Those who survived associated bad experiences with Poles. Many of their family members did not survive.

Haaretz recently published a text depicting various stereotypes used to characterise Poles after the war.  A Polish woman is presented there as a lump of lard with shiny, beady eyes. A Polish man is portrayed as a semi-human creature.

One should approach this with empathy and look at it from the perspective of someone who hid in a small closet, who saw their entire family being shot. Often after having been denounced by other Poles. This mechanism is also in play with the children and grandchildren of the victims of the Volyn massacre.

What is the latest status of the Polish-Israeli dispute? If you were able to go back in time, would you support the adoption of the IPN law in its current form? With the knowledge that you now have about the international consequences, would you advice the Prime Minister to approve it?

We are currently in the midst of discussions with the Israelis. There is a dialogue, positions have been presented. Some reactions are a result of an inaccurate interpretation of the provisions of the law. No one in Poland intends to change history of negate the Holocaust. We need to wait before assessing the long-term effects of the current situation. I think they will be good, that the positives will outweigh the negatives.

How does this issue effect Poland’s relations with the United States of America?

The United States want their doubts to be clarified and are concerned about unfavourable interpretations of the law. They are stressing the issue of freedom of speech and claim that penalising academics, such as Jan Gross, would be unacceptable. However, the law does not penalise statements made by academics.

Can you guarantee that if Prof. Grabowski comes to Poland for an author’s meeting and talks about 200,000 Jews who were denounced by Poles to the Germans during the Second World War, the prosecutor would not get involved?

He would not be penalised, although the information he provides have raised serious doubts among other academics. After all, historical debate will not be penalized. In turn, Prof. Spiewak challenges the opinions put forward by Hanna Arendt, with reference to the behaviour of the Jewish administration in the ghetto. We should be able to debate with the opinions of Prof. Grabowski just as much as those of Arendt, on the basis of academic research, not criminal sanctions.

So if Grabowski came to Poland for an author’s meeting he would be safe?

Why wouldn’t he be safe. There are many publications in Poland that discuss co-operation between Poles and the occupiers. After all, Jan Gross published his book in Poland.

Let us return to relations with the United States. The State Department issued two statements. The ambassador also made a statement. Will this law soon lead to worse relations between Poland and the United States?

I don’t think so. In Poland, freedom of speech, academic research and the publishing of research is protected in the constitution. Let us wait for the ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal, who could clear up any doubts with regard to the interpretation of the provisions of the law, in such a way that they dispel any grounds for concern.

Source: Dziennik Gazeta Prawna