Poland Still Must Face Its History

3.5 million.

No, that’s not the jackpot in this week’s lottery. That’s the number of Jews who lived in Poland in 1939, the year of Germany’s Polish invasion.

25,000.

Welcome to Poland’s current Jewish population.

The Polish lower house of parliament voted last Friday to call for up to three years in jail for anyone who would “publicly and against the facts” connect Poles to World War II crimes committed by Nazi Germany. And of course, Poland’s Law and Justice ruling party claims the law is the antidote for labels such as “Polish death camps.” The Polish government wants these extermination camps to be referred to as “Nazi death camps.”

Israel has criticized the legislation, arguing along with Holocaust organizations that the law could have a chilling effect when it comes to the debate of history. Most importantly, they argue, this legislation glosses over the fact that many Polish citizens were complicit in carrying out the Nazi’s final solution. In the post-World War II era, Polish Jews displaced by the Holocaust were detested and in some cases harmed or even murdered when they returned home.

Let the numbers speak for themselves. Some 350,000 Polish Jews, barely a 10th of one of the world’s greatest Jewish communities, survived the Holocaust. A small percentage of that post-1945 number chooses to live there now.

And why should they?

Despite the memory of the Holocaust and the systematic decimation of the Polish Jewish community, many Israeli, American and European Jews who have visited Poland come home with stories of an anti-Semitism that remains below the surface, sometimes gurgling like volcanic lava with words such as “Hitler should have finished the job” or “Go back to where you came from.”

Need further proof?

When Israel’s government criticized the recent Polish lower house bill, anti-Semitic statements easily found their way onto Polish TV, radio and social media.

One media personality went so far as to call the death camps “Jewish death camps” because it was used at times by incarcerated Jews who were forced to dispose of the remains of fellow Jews in these camps. Indeed, the very voices who want to disassociate from Nazism are forceful and free to tell Polish citizens critical of the lower house bill to consider relinquishing their citizenship.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki have pledged together to form a group of history experts to find an amicable agreement point on Poland’s Holocaust participation.

Certainly we don’t suggest that Poland, whose government was in exile during the Holocaust, devised or developed Hitler’s death camps. Many innocent Polish non-Jewish citizens were victims of the Nazis as well.

But Poland still has a mirror to face. Its citizenry has to come to grips with a past that witnessed Jews annihilated in their very midst. It can create a law that would change the language of “Polish death camp” to “Nazi death camp.” But it also needs to find a way to make sure that its history is explained with truth and contrition.

Over three million Jews disappeared from Poland. The Nazis were the invading, occupying force behind the Jewish community’s destruction.

But let it not be forgotten that they had help. And plenty of it.