Scrubbing the Nazi Stain

Someone who stands before a faucet many times a day scrubbing up for fear of germs and general contamination suffers from mysophobia. The condition, which can lead to extreme anxiety, disrupts normal contact with others and is described as “hard to live with.”

The government of Poland has officially put a law on the books, duly signed by President Andrzej Duda, which smacks of political mysophobia. It attempts to scrub the Nazi stain off the country by fining or imprisoning for up to three years anyone who accuses Poland of involvement with or responsibility for the atrocities that took place there during the Nazi occupation of World War II.

The crux of the legislators’ angst revolves around references to “Polish death camps,” which is a technical misnomer. It is, of course, well known that the Germans (not the Poles) built six concentration and death camps throughout Poland. The worst were the extermination camps they built solely to kill Jewish people and so-called undesirables after they liquidated the ghettos. Two of the most notorious were Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 1.1 million people were killed, and Treblinka, where people went directly to the gas chambers at the rate of approximately 2,000 every few hours.

Reaction to the new Polish law came swiftly. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared it baseless. “One cannot change history and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” he said.  Then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed dismay. “Enactment of this law adversely affects freedom of speech and academic inquiry.”

Netanyahu was correct: History cannot be changed. Its inviolability is undeniable. To attempt to corrupt it for political advantage is the real crime here, and it’s a dangerous one. There were German “death camps” in Poland; and to impose a prison sentence on anyone, in Poland or abroad, who uses the term is a preposterous overreach. Even more consequential is the threat to incarcerate anyone accusing the Polish state or people of involvement with the Holocaust.

This law exempts people who have long been identified as Nazi collaborators from being exposed or brought to justice. No one knows the number of Polish people who took advantage of the Nazi offer of a bag of sugar or bottle of vodka for turning in a Jew. No one knows how many Polish people turned in their fellow Poles for harboring Jewish people.

But we do know about the courage and compassion of thousands of Polish citizens who risked their lives to provide safe havens for Jewish families whom the Nazis were hunting down for execution. The number honored by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, as “Righteous Among The Nations” exceeds 6,700—more than that of any other country. Another certainty is these 6,700 Poles are merely a token of those unnamed Polish heroes who quietly risked everything to save Jewish people.

If we are tempted to think that what happens in Poland is of little consequence to those of us sheltered a few thousand miles away, we must think again. The party in power in Poland, the Law and Justice party (PiS), is a right-wing populist movement representative of a growing anti-democratic wave in Europe. Since taking power, PiS “has come under fire for truncating democratic norms and institutions through policies set up to neuter judicial independence, weaken civil liberties, politicize the civil service, and exert control over media,” reports Foreign Affairs magazine.

Germany is experiencing the same political tremors from a resurgence of right-wing nationalist movements. Along with this turn to the right in parts of Europe has come a surge of anti-Semitism. In December, thousands of protesters in Berlin burned Israeli flags to protest U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement that he plans to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. A long-time Jewish resident exclaimed, “I thought that it could never happen in the middle of Berlin.”

Are we witnessing an ominous turning back of the clock to the 1930s when truth, justice, and precious freedoms were being snatched away? Of greater consequence is the haunting question, Do we care? We had better care, or we may end up confronting our own version of mysophobia, and our freedoms in America may be the next to disappear.

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