Going into this trip, I figured that Poland was going to be the most unique stop on our trip. Poland is the eastern-most stop on our trip, the least tourist-y, and the most conservative. In January 2018, the Polish government passed a “Holocaust Bill” that criminalizes any mention of Poles “being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.” Specifically, referring to Nazi concentration camps as “Polish death camps.” I wondered how our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau would be effected by this new law and if my comrades would need to be wary of prying ears while giving their reports on Polish history.
Our visit to Auschwitz was profoundly austere and chilling. It was my first time at any of the Nazi death camps that I have read so many horrible things about. The tour was conducted by a Polish speaking tour-guide and an English translator. Our guide made a point of calling the camp a Nazi-death camp and explained repeatedly that the Polish town of Oświęcim (“Auschvenken”) was Germanized to Auschwitz. The Nazi’s eventually evicted the town’s inhabitants evicted in 1940 when the Nazi’s decided to make it a prison for political prisoners, and later into a major site of the Nazis’ Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Throughout the camp there were statistics and data regarding the persons who had been sent to and murdered in the Auschwitz-Birkenau compound. Something that stood out to me was that the numbers of Poles and the number of Jews killed here were kept separate, and our tour guide continued to mention Poles and Jews, but never once said Polish Jews. Yet surely, of the 1,100,000 European Jews that were murdered here, a large portion of them were Polish citizens. Many of my comrades mentioned that they noticed this phenomenon as well during our class discussion.
Our tour guides never once said anything in their guides that put their government nor their countrymen to shame. Was this a result of fierce national loyalty, common knowledge, or reflective of the new holocaust law? As a first-time visitor to Poland, it is impossible to say. And yet, one thing that remains clear is the obvious effort by the Polish people to absolve themselves of blame regarding the years of occupation. During our studies here there was no mention of the multitude of anti-Jewish progroms conducted by Polish peasants, an utter split between “Poles” and “Jews” during the war, and an obvious desire to drive home the point that the death camps in Poland were Nazi death camps, a distinction that I always thought was common knowledge.