My own personal memories are of all that happened when the Nazis occupied Poland during the war. I remember my Jewish friends and neighbours, some of whom perished, while others survived. I have come to Yad Vashem to pay homage to the millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of human dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust. More than half a century has passed, but the memories remain…We wish to remember. But we wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism. – Pope John Paul II, during his March 2000 visit to Yad Vashem.
The Wall Street Journal recently revised its style guide, the set of writing standards followed by its journalists, to eliminate the use of the phrases “Polish Concentration Camps” and “Polish Death Camps.” The impetus for this style change was a petition circulated by the Kosciuszko Foundation which considers “Nazi Concentration Camp,” or more specifically “German Concentration Camp in Nazi-occupied Poland” more significantly accurate descriptions for the locations in which roughly 3 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.
Thus far, the petition has 173,838 signatures and counting, including Holocaust survivors and Jewish and Polish world leaders. Brooklyn’s Community Board 1 voted unanimously to support the petition at their last meeting. The ultimate goal is to have every media outlet use these descriptions when discussing the Holocaust.
The Kosciuszko Foundation is an 85 year-old organization whose mission is to promote and strengthen understanding and friendship between the peoples of Poland and the United States through educational, scientific, and cultural exchanges.
Greenpoint attorney, Romuald Magda, stands behind the effort so that “younger generations who don’t have memories of the war…find out who was behind the concentration camps.” He believes the misidentification of the camps as Polish “is offensive to victims of the Holocaust, especially Jewish victims of the Holocaust.” Although Magda, along with other protesters acknowledge the existence of Polish anti-Semitism, they feel that it is imperative that the blame for the camps falls where it belongs – Nazi Germany.
“Here in our Polish community in Greenpoint and in wider Polish-Jewish relations in the world we have to try to mend what was wrong. Some Polish people think that this term is being used on purpose by some members of the media who are trying to put blame for the Holocaust on us, which was absolutely not correct. It is very important both for Jewish victims and for the truth of history.”
Magda’s support for this cause come from a personal place, “My family on my father’s side was killed by Germans during the war… [calling them] Polish Concentration Camps is offensive to me.”
Greenpoint police officer and NYPD Pulaski Association member Stefan Komar has been fighting for the change for several years. “I’ve seen first-hand how people are hurt by that phrase…It insinuates – maybe not intentionally – that the camps could be Polish, created by the Poles…[As a result] students are beginning to believe the camps were Polish. It’s an inaccurate term. It’s misleading and hurtful and that should be enough for people to not use it repeatedly.”
Komar points out that this is not a controversial campaign. The goal is to strictly direct the blame for the camps to Nazi Germany, where it belongs. Like Magda, he also acknowledges the existence of Polish anti-Semitism even though “The Polish Jews were Polish citizens… [and] part of the fabric of Polish society. Their loss was a big loss to Polish society.” That said, “There is confusion over who was the perpetrator of these camps.”
In addition, there is hope that addressing this semantic issue will lead to an improved relationship between Poles and Jews. It is a strange and unusual relationship. Although only 10 % of Poland’s 3 million Jews survived, fewer than in any other country, Poland accounts for the majority of rescuers recognized at Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem with the title of ‘Righteous Gentiles,’ non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the war.
For their part, Jewish agencies have supported the Kosciuszko Foundation’s effort. In 2005, American Jewish Committee Executive Director David A. Harris spoke at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event in Poland. His remarks included:
“We would also like to remind those who are either unaware of the facts or careless in their choice of words, as has been the case with some media outlets, that Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other death camps, including Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka, were conceived, built and operated by Nazi Germany and its allies.
The camps were located in German-occupied Poland, the European country with by far the largest Jewish population, but they were most emphatically not “Polish camps”.
This is not a mere semantic matter. Historical integrity and accuracy hang in the balance. Poland was the first nation attacked by the Third Reich, which ignited the Second World War on September 1, 1939. Polish forces fought valiantly, but were overwhelmed by the larger and better equipped Nazi army that invaded from the west, and then by the Soviet army, an ally of Hitler at the time, which attacked from the east. Nonetheless, Polish forces in exile continued the struggle against Hitler, together, of course, with other Allied troops, until the war’s end. And it should also never be forgotten that, in addition to Polish Jews, who were targeted for total annihilation by the Nazi Final Solution, other Poles, including political prisoners such as Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who spoke so movingly at Auschwitz on January 27, and who was a key figure in the Polish underground, were also seized by the Nazis and incarcerated in concentration camps.
Any misrepresentation of Poland’s role in the Second World War, whether intentional or accidental, would be most regrettable and therefore should not be left unchallenged.”
The Anti-Defamation League has “expressed full support for the efforts of the government of Poland to ensure that the official names of the death camps in Poland emphasize that he camps were built and operated by Nazi Germany. For example, in 2006 the League wrote to the Director-General of UNESCO to ensure that the official name of the Auschwitz death camp, as recorded on UNESCO’s world heritage site registry, emphasizes that the camp was German and run by the Nazis.
As an agency which prioritizes remembrance of the Holocaust, we share Poland’s concerns over the frequent description of the camps as “Polish.” Such a description implies that the camps were built in the name of the Polish people. This is manifestly not the truth.”
In 2007, UNESCO officially changed the name of the Auschwitz to “The Auschwitz-Birkenau German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp.”
On Thursday, January 27th, the world will mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was on that day in 1945 that Soviet forces liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, discovering the largest Nazi killing center in Europe. “Never forget” is a rallying cry for many to be vigilant against those who would repeat the crimes of Nazi Germany. The Kosciuszko Foundation is saying “Never forget…but remember accurately.”