The SS 'tower of death' entrance to the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, under which trains of Jewish deportees passed in 1944, when a spur was added to the existing track. The November 2015 photo was taken from outside the camp entrance. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)As Poland prepares a bill that makes calling Nazi-era death camps ‘Polish’ libelous, a look at the term’s Cold War origins, and the controversy’s impressive staying power

Even before the first Nazi boots crossed Poland’s border in 1939, accusations of “Polish collaboration” with the Third Reich were unfurled.

The old controversy heated up in recent weeks, as Poland’s government prepared a bill to punish anyone who refers to Nazi-era concentration and death camps as “Polish.” The law will target offenders — largely in the foreign media — who claim that Poland “took part, organized, or was co-responsible” for Nazi crimes in occupied Poland. These crimes include the murder of six million Polish citizens, half of them Jews, between 1939 and 1945.

Under the proposed law, the state can pursue compensation and impose up to five years in prison for those determined to have committed libel against Poland — particularly by using the term “Polish death camps.” The country’s ruling Law and Justice Party floated the bill in 2013, but it was rejected on the first reading. With the party’s rise to power last year, it was put back on track.

According to Poland’s justice minister, Zbigniew Tadeusz Ziobro, his country has been the victim of a decades-long campaign of defamation, through which responsibility for the Nazi genocide of European Jewry and other crimes has been falsely attributed to the Polish nation.

‘Enough with this lie. There has to be responsibility’

“This will be a project that meets the expectations of Poles, who are blasphemed in the world, in Europe, even in Germany, that they are the Holocaust perpetrators, that in Poland there were Polish concentration camps, Polish gas chambers,” said Ziobro in an interview with Poland’s RMF radio about the proposed law.

“Enough with this lie,” said Ziobro. “There has to be responsibility,” he said.

From Jerusalem to Warsaw, there is almost wall-to-wall agreement that Nazi-era camps built in occupied Poland should not be called “Polish.” In 2005, Poland’s foreign minister, Adam Daniel Rotfeld, called some uses of the term “Polish death camps” malicious, with the goal of “distorting history and concealing the truth,” said the minister.

In 2008, a call was issued by Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance to add “German” before the word “Nazi” on all monuments and tablets commemorating Poland’s war dead, and to more deeply investigate Soviet Union-committed atrocities during the war.

Since these attempts to fix the record, a series of petitions, lawsuits and demands for an apology have been issued by the Polish government and Polish diaspora organizations. One high-profile mishap came in 2012, when President Barack Obama referred to a “Polish death camp” in speaking about — ironically — the term’s first high-profile user, legendary Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski.

Whether or not the law is voted into effect, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum recently launched an app to “correct” journalists and social media users who type the words, “Polish death camp.” The word processing add-on, called “Remember,” deploys 16 languages to identify the term’s use and underline it in red, as well as offer replacement suggestions.

According to press officer Pawel Sawicki, the museum has long sought to correct the record when Auschwitz-Birkenau — where one-million Jews were murdered — has been referred to as “Polish.”

“We inform, we try to contact the journalist and the editorial, we also use social media like Twitter, to give this information, because we think that when you write about the history you should use the accurate language,” said Sawicki in a statement about the app.

Murky origins for ‘Polish’ death camps

The term “Polish death camp” appeared before the war’s end, while Poland was still occupied by the Nazis and operations at the death camps were winding down.

In his 1944 magazine series called “Courier from Poland,” Jan Karski wrote about his discovery of death camps operating in Nazi-occupied Poland, and his attempts to alert Allied governments. Despite having used the term “Polish death camp” in the articles for Collier’s magazine, Karski did not intend to implicate Poles as their creators.

It would be inaccurate to blame Karski for pushing the label “Polish death camps,” but responsibility for doing so can be assigned to former Nazis operating in West Germany during the Cold War, and decades during which secret services undertook to whitewash history.

Until the mid-1960s, West Germany’s government declined to pursue Nazi war criminals. During these years, an intelligence-affiliated “Agency 114” worked to “clean” the records of such men who wanted to obtain intelligence work. A good deal of these job applicants had served at concentration and death camps, hence the need to “re-brand” them and implicate Poles.

It should be noted the US Army worked closely with Agency 114, largely for the purpose of obtaining intelligence on Soviet spies in the American occupation zone. Protected by former chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the agency also sought out leftists and pacifists. Simultaneous to the Soviet KGB becoming a household name in the late 1950s, Agency 114 expanded its mission to hunt down “Bolshevik Trojan horses,” and to prevent a “subversive takeover by Communists.”

Led by former Nazi secret police sergeant Alfred “Fatty” Benzinger, Agency 114’s propaganda strategy was to slip the term “Polish death camps” into discourse about the war. In Germany, the group was so successful that when the US-made miniseries “Holocaust” had its 1979 airing, a TV panel of historians was overwhelmed by the number of Germans who believed Poland was responsible for the genocide.

It took another decade for Poland’s government to begin systemically lodging complaints against use of the term. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, a new era of truth-telling swept across Europe. As Soviet-initiated crimes were “uncovered” in the east, history-focused Poles looked west — to a united Germany — in an attempt to fix what they saw as that country’s defamation of Poles.

Going against the grain

Despite widespread agreement that calling Nazi camps “Polish” can distort history, that shorthand term for “German-built camps in Nazi-occupied Poland” has stuck. Although one is hard-pressed to find an organization demanding that death camps should, in fact, be called Polish, some academics are particularly interested in the role of Poland’s Nazi collaborators.

In Germany, historian Klaus-Peter Friedrich has claimed that Poland sees itself as the “most purely moral” nation among all Nazi-occupied countries. Though Poland’s official government ceased to operate following the invasion, the population was mobilized to participate as local police officers, and Polish youth did national service by helping the Nazis liquidate Jewish ghettos, according to Friedrich.

In his 2005 essay, “Collaboration in a Land without a Quisling,” Friedrich noted a Polish “re-identification” that took place after the invasion, when both ethnic Germans and Poles became “German nationals.” Adding oneself to German lists meant increased pay, better food rations, and the gift of goods stolen from Jews. According to Friedrich, bringing to light this “re-identification” of the population goes against the Polish occupation narrative of a land without Quislings, or collaborators.

Buzz around the old-new “Polish death camp” also law relates to other trends in Poland. Although Polish Jews in leadership have said the new government is not anti-Semitic, onlookers are concerned about recent moves to limit free speech and research, especially as it relates to the Nazis.

Most prominent is the case of Jan Tomasz Gross, whose 2001 book, “Neighbors,” exposed the role of “ordinary” Poles in perpetrating the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom. Earlier this month, Poland’s president requested a re-evaluation of a medal given to Gross in 1996 — the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit. The author’s research and recent statements about Polish complicity in the genocide are seen as “an attempt to destroy Poland’s good name,” according to President Andrzej Duda.

Gross, who is a professor at Princeton University, has said the campaign to strip his medal “appears to be a politically motivated attempt to intimidate and threaten all those who expose the history of anti-Semitism in Poland.”

Though Gross may not be calling the death camps Polish, his quest to uncover Polish involvement in the Holocaust has been roundly condemned in Warsaw, as murmurs about academic freedom quickly recede.