Poland's Holocaust law triggers tide of abuse against Auschwitz museum
Poland Poland's Holocaust law triggers tide of abuse against Auschwitz museum
Staff say they have suffered a campaign of disinformation and hate from Polish nationalists
Officials at the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum have described how they were subjected to a wave of âhate, fake news and manipulationsâ as a result of the controversy surrounding a contentious Holocaust speech law passed by Polandâs ruling Law and Justice party earlier this year.
The campaign of disinformation and abuse at the hands of Polish nationalists has raised concerns about pressure being exerted on official guides at the site in southern Poland, after the home of one foreign guide was attacked and supporters of a convicted antisemite filmed themselves repeatedly hectoring their guide during a visit to the camp in March.
Conceived in part as a means to prevent facilities established by Polandâs German occupiers from being described as âPolish death campsâ, the legislation, which criminalises the false attribution to the Polish state or nation of complicity in the crimes committed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, prompted a furious reaction in Israel and elsewhere amid concerns it could be used to restrict open discussion of Polandâs wartime history.
This in turn provoked an angry backlash from nationalist and pro-government media in Poland, many of wh om accused the museum â" which administers the site, conducts historical research, and trains and licenses official guides â" of deliberately downplaying the fate of the approximately 74,000 non-Jewish Polish prisoners who perished in the camp, by focusing exclusively on its Jewish victims.
The brother of the museumâs director published an emotional message on Facebook in March decrying the â50 days of incessant hatredâ directed at his brother, Piotr CywiÅski. âFor 12 long years heâs worked in one of the most terrible places in the world, in an office with a view of gallows and a crematorium,â he wrote. âDozens of articles on dodgy websites, hundreds of Twitter accounts, thousands of similar tweets, profanities, memes, threats, slanders, denunciations. Itâs enough to make you sick.â
PaweÅ Sawicki, who runs the museumâs social media operation, said: âThe collateral damage of the dispute is that Auschwitz became a target. Weâve had people saying they were not allowed to have a Polish flag here, or saying that the memory of Poles is not represented here, that the museum is anti-Polish â" all of this is untrue, and we had to respond.â
The museum has become increasingly assertive in its rebuttals, regularly intervening in discussions on Twitter and publishing a long list of false claims that have been made about the museum, ranging from the issue of Polish flags to the accusation that former Polish prisoners were not invited to a ceremony in January to commemorate the campâs liberation.
In February, an open letter to Polandâs minister of culture was published on a rightwing Polish news website in which the author alleged that the police were called after he challenged a guide who, he claimed, had refused to acknowledge that any of the SS guards at Auschwitz had been German. An internal investigation concluded that the entire incident had been fabricated.
âWe are not getting involved in politics,â said Sawicki, âbut out of respect to all of the victims we have an obligation to defend the memory and the history of this place, and to protect it from attempts to use or exploit it in any way.â
A key claim of the campaign against the museum is that it has been training the siteâs official guides to promote âforeign narrativesâ that are considered by man y nationalists and government supporters to be inherently hostile to the Polish point of view.
In February, the official responsible for schools in the region in which Auschwitz is located argued that only Poles should be allowed to work as guides at the site, and that they should be licensed by Polandâs Institute of National Remembrance, a state body widely seen as a tool used by the government to impose its preferred historical narratives.
âForeign, and not Polish narratives reign at Auschwitz. Time for it to stop,â wrote Barbara Nowak, who until last year served as a local councillor for Law and Justice.
In March, the home of an Italian Auschwitz guide in the nearby city of Krakow was vandalised, with âPoland for the Polesâ and graffiti equating the Star of David with a Nazi swastika scrawled on his door, and âAuswitz for Poland guide!!â (sic) daubed on an adjoining wall.
That was followed by a visit to Auschwitz by Piotr Rybak, a nation alist politician convicted of burning an effigy of an Orthodox Jew in the south-western city of WrocÅaw in 2015. A video uploaded to YouTube shows Rybak and a group of supporters wrapped in Polish flags repeatedly surrounding and badgering their official guide and accusing him of lying about the fate of non-Jewish Poles in the camp.
Critics note that a tacit political alliance between radical rightwing circles and Polandâs nationalist-minded government has complicated matters for the museum, which is answerable to Polandâs ministry of culture.
A museum spokesman said Rybakâs visit was an isolated incident and that it was unaware of any other guides facing harassment from members of the public in recent months. However, that version of events was questioned by one guide, who expressed concerns that museum authorities were downplaying the pressure experienced by guides out of fear of generating further political controversy.
âThe leadership are too scared of the government and the guides are too scared of losing their jobs to speak out against the provocations that have been going on here,â said the guide, who requested anonymity.
A number of museum directors in Poland have lost their jobs or been subjected to pressure from rightwing websites and ruling party politicians in recent years. Last year the director of a new second world war museum in the Baltic city of GdaÅsk was removed from his position after a lengthy and bitter legal battle, and Polandâs minister of culture recently publicly questioned the position of the director of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, whose tenure is up for renewal next year.
But WÅadysÅaw T Bartoszewski, a historian and expert in Polish-Jewish relations whose father was a prisoner in Auschwitz and later served as chairman of the International Auschwitz Council, said it was extremely unlikely that the government would countenance an attempt to remove CywiÅski.
âI donât doubt that there are some members of the government who would like to see CywiÅski removed, and some who might even be reckless enough to try,â he said. âBut he has too much support from all sides â" he is close to being untouchable.â
â¢ This article was amended on 7 May 2018 to correct references to events taking place in April that actually took place in March. Also amended was sentence that or iginally spoke of Polish nationalists accusing Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial museum of deliberately downplaying the fate of âthe approximately 74,000 Polish prisoners who perished in the camp, by focusing exclusively on its Jewish victimsâ.Topics
- Second world war
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