In 1956, a group of former Nazis working as West German intelligence agents coined terminology that arguably became the most viral — and longest lasting — propaganda born out of the former Hitler regime: “Polish death camps.”

Agency 114, filled with German former members of the Gestapo, SS and SD, was headed by former Nazis Secret Field Police (GFP) sergeant Alfred Benzinger, who is credited with the phrase.

Benzinger’s goal? To change public discourse and shift the blame for the Holocaust from Germans and Germany to Poland, where most of the Nazi regime’s mass extermination camps were located. And by the time of Benzinger’s propaganda attack, Poland was in the throes of such domestic turmoil that the wordage was hardly a priority.

Poland, invaded by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in 1939, was annexed by the Nazis in 1941. After its “liberation” by the Soviets in 1945, a series of puppet governments had left it unstable and poor.

Today, circumstances have clearly changed. This week Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo’s Cabinet approved a bill which would criminalize the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” in reference to Nazi-run extermination camps in occupied Poland. Use of the banned expression could lead to a three-year jail term if considered intentional, or a hefty fine.

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, vice-chairman of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party on November 9, 2015 in Warsaw. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP)

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, vice-chairman of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party on November 9, 2015 in Warsaw. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP)

“It wasn’t our mothers, nor our fathers, who are responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust, which were committed by German and Nazi criminals on occupied Polish territory,” said Justice Minister Zbignew Ziobro on Tuesday. “Our responsibility is to defend the truth and dignity of the Polish state and the Polish nation, as well as our fathers, our mothers and our grandparents.”

The legislation was originally proposed by Szydlo’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) in 2013, when it was rejected. Upon rising to power in 2015, however, PiS vowed to “recalibrate many of the ways in which Poles think, talk and learn about their own history,” according to German news agency Deutsche Welle, and to instill national pride.

The nationalistic new government’s zero tolerance for the use of “Polish death camps” was lauded this week by young Polish Jewish community leader Klaudia Klimek, head of the Krakow branch of Poland’s largest Jewish cultural organization TSKZ.

Representing Poland’s 10,000-strong active Jewish community, Klimek said TSKZ’s president Artur Hoffman has also spoken in support of the bill — at the Israeli Knesset and as a consulting member of the Polish government’s commission of minorities.

In conversation with The Times of Israel, Klimek stressed the need for historical accuracy when speaking of the Holocaust, which was, she said, an atrocity committed by the German Nazi regime on occupied land. Unlike the case in other European countries, the Polish nation never collaborated with the Nazi regime, said Klimek. There were bad Poles, as well as good Poles, during World War II.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The Polish Government in Exile based in London sponsored resistance to the German occupation, including some to help Jews.” However, within Nazi-occupied Poland, “As German forces implemented the killing, they drew upon some Polish agencies, such as Polish police forces and railroad personnel, in the guarding of ghettos and the deportation of Jews to the killing centers. Individual Poles often helped in the identification, denunciation, and hunting down of Jews in hiding, often profiting from the associated blackmail, and actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property.”

Klaudia Klimek heads up the Warsaw wing of Poland's largest Jewish cultural organization, the TSKZ. (courtesy)

Klaudia Klimek heads up the Warsaw wing of Poland’s largest Jewish cultural organization, the TSKZ. (courtesy)

“We cannot say as a generalization that the Poles, or Polish society were involved in the Holocaust,” said Klimek. However, “because the majority of the Holocaust happened in Poland, the Polish society is reacting, and taking care of the history.”

‘Because the majority of the Holocaust happened in Poland, the Polish society is reacting, and taking care of the history’

Although the law is currently being debated in the media, when the parliament resumes in September, Klimek assumed it will pass.

But after a summer of PiS politicians playing fast and loose with history, one could wonder whether this new “Polish death camps” law is a manifestation of nationalistic Poles’ historical whitewashing.

The legislation comes a month after high-profile historical “mistakes” were made by PiS politicians surrounding well-documented massacres perpetrated by Poles.

Most prominent among them, in a mid-July interview on Polish public broadcaster TVN, Education Minister Anna Zalewska insinuated that the Jedwabne massacre of 1941, when Poles burned alive more than 300 Jews in a barn, was a matter of “opinion.”

Polish film 'Aftermath' explores the massacre at Jedwabne. (photo credit: courtesy)

Polish film ‘Aftermath’ explores the massacre at Jedwabne. (courtesy)

Zalewska is hardly alone. As reported by Polish Newsweek, a Polish public opinion survey following Zalewska’s statements found that 33% of the population agreed with the minister that the Polish massacre of Jews at Jedwabne is an opinion, 29% were undecided and only 38% agreed with the statement that “Poles burned Jews in a barn in Jedwabne.” The highest percentage of disbelief was found among youth.

Additionally, newly elected president of the Polish state’s Institute of National Remembrance Jaroslaw Szarek, according to a JTA report, recently told a parliamentary committee that “the perpetrators of this crime were the Germans, who used in their own machine of terror a group of Poles.”

Concurrently, to the condemnation of Klimek and other Jewish officials, the Polish government issued yet another in a series of rejections to Jewish community petitions to open the door to restitution claims from Holocaust survivors.

Accuracy vs. suppression of historical record

Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum Yad Vashem told The Times of Israel on Wednesday that, as it has since 2006, it endorses the suggested replacement terminology — “the former German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp.” The Israeli institution has recognized over 6,000 Poles as “Righteous Among the Nations” for rescuing Jews; some 3 million Polish Jews died in the Holocaust.

“Yad Vashem is dedicated to providing accurate historical information. In 2006, Yad Vashem supported the request of the Polish Government to clarify the reference of the official name of Auschwitz-Birkenau for the UNESCO registry,” a spokesman for Yad Vashem said. He said the organization continues to support this decision. Still, he added, “Yad Vashem is not involved in internal Polish affairs but questions the effectiveness of this current campaign to educate the public.”

In the aftermath of the Polish Cabinet approval of the new bill, Tel Aviv University History Professor Havi Dreifuss wondered at the motivation behind the legislation.

Tel Aviv History Professor Havi Dreifuss (courtesy)

Tel Aviv History Professor Havi Dreifuss (courtesy)

“Although there is no argument that those camps were established by the Germans, as a historian it is always worrying and disturbing to see the use of law to impose something on common knowledge,” said Dreifuss, the head of the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at Yad Vashem.

At the same time, said Dreifuss, historians, including Polish scholars, have unearthed concrete proof of two major massacres against Jews, 1941’s Jedwabne, and the 1946 Kielce massacre, in which 42 people died. She added that contemporary research shows there were other such massacres of Jews like Jedwabne at the hands of Poles in the region of Lomza. More study is necessary to completely uncover the facts behind these atrocities.

“I honor the research that has been done. It is now quite clear that Nazi Germany established the camps, but other research exposes some questionable aspects of Polish society and the Polish population. One cannot force one part of the history while neglecting another,” said Dreifuss.

“The history, especially that of Jedwabne, is well documented — actually documented by Polish scholars. It is not a fact which is debated by researchers. We know very well who committed the murders of the Jews in Jedwabne and Kielce,” said Dreifuss. PiS statements to the contrary are “political and very disturbing,” she said.

The “Polish death camps” law, added Dreifuss, is a reflection of “what is happening today in Poland,” alongside the “very troubling things said by high-ranking politicians.”

Ruins of a gas chamber-crematorium facility at Auschwitz-Birkenau, known as Krematorium II, photographed in November 2015. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Ruins of a gas chamber-crematorium facility at Auschwitz-Birkenau, known as Krematorium II, photographed in November 2015. (Matt Lebovic/Times of Israel)

In an article on Open Democracy, a not-for-profit website used for open debate of intellectual ideas, historian Tom Junes, the author of “Student Politics in Communist Poland: Generations of Consent and Dissent,” writes about Poland’s current use of the “politics of history.”

“The government has embarked upon a radical overhaul of the country’s politics of history. This not only relates to changing existing or planned projects such as the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, but in fact aims to educate the country’s youth in a ‘correct and patriotic’ fashion which includes emphasizing the victimization of the Polish nation and the glorification of new ‘heroes’ — such as the so-called ‘damned soldiers’ who fought the communist regime in a guerrilla war immediately after the Second World War but whose actions also include anti-Semitic excesses and murderous crimes against other ethnic groups,” wrote Junes.

When neighbor killed neighbor

Historian Jan Tomasz Gross’s 2001 book “Neighbors” caused shockwaves in Poland and beyond with its descriptions of the “ordinary” Poles who perpetrated the 1941 Jedwabne massacre. Gross, who was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit in 1996, has been an object of vilification under the PiS government. In February 2016, Polish President Andrzej Duda went so far as to request a re-evaluation of Gross’s worthiness for the medal due to the scholar’s attempts to “destroy Poland’s good name,” said Duda.

Poland-born Jewish American historian Jan Tomasz Gross speaks to Polish media on August 28, 2015. (screen capture: YouTube)

Poland-born Jewish American historian Jan Tomasz Gross speaks to Polish media on August 28, 2015. (screen capture: YouTube)

In response, the Princeton University professor said Duda’s request “appears to be a politically motivated attempt to intimidate and threaten all those who expose the history of anti-Semitism in Poland.”

But it’s a history that cannot be forgotten by those who have lived and breathed it, such as Polish-born Rabbi Mati Kos.

“I remember being part of the minyan [prayer quoram] saying tehilim [psalms] in Jedwabne during the excavation of remains from the barn. It was part of the official investigation. Being there on that very spot among those remains was just about one of the scariest moments in my life,” Kos said.

Kos, who now resides in Manchester, also questions the motives behind the new criminalized ban on “Polish death camps.”

“I think Poland is going after Jedwabne, Kielce and all the other war/post-war bestiality that is just starting to come to light… They really want to change the narrative,” he told The Times of Israel.

“I’m not a linguist, but I thought saying ‘Polish camps’ might also mean camps located in Poland. Although I can appreciate common folk sensitivity, I feel somehow that making it a law is being vengeful and overreacting. And it might be just me, but I feel it’s like getting back for discovering the terrible truths about Poles murdering Jews,” said Kos.