Piling on Poland at GC 2018

Mass bishop accuses Poland of Holocaust revisionism

The suffragan bishop of Massachusetts has denounced as evil a law passed earlier this year in Poland that criminalizes false speech about the Holocaust. The Rt Rev Gayle Harris’s comments appear to have misstated the context of theamendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, as it is not the Holocaust that is being denied or the existence of death camps, but the assertion the Polish people, not the Nazis, were responsible for their horrors.

At the 6 July 2018 press conference of the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church meeting in Austin, Texas, the Rt. Rev. Gayle Harris offered her reflections on the joint session on racial reconciliation held by the House of Bishops and House of Deputies. The Rev. Lester Mckenzie, a South African-born priest serving the Diocese of Los Angeles, told the press conference the discussion of race and reconciliation was a “holy moment” where “stories of pain” and words of forgiveness were shared. He noted that as a young man he experienced South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation movement that sought to heal the wounds left by apartheid on his country.

In her opening remarks, Bishop Harris, a 67-year old African-American stated that she “grew up under Jim Crow”. She hoped the discussions held today would lead to the “transformation of the church” and “transformation in the world.”

Bishop Harris noted she was “horrified” by what was “happening across the globe. I remember earlier this year that I heard that Poland passed a law that no longer may you reference Auschwitz or any other Nazi concentration camps as death camps.”

She went on to say: “There is something going on. Not just hear but around the world the Gospel needs to address.”

On 6 Feb 2018 President Andrzej Duda signed into law an amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance that criminalized statements that Poland was responsible for the Holocaust. Outside of scholarly studies, historical debate and artistic activities the law held that claims the Polish nation was collectively responsible for the Holocaust, had engaged in crimes against humanity by participating in the Holocaust or other statements which “grossly reduce the responsibility of the actual perpetrators” were libelous.

The controversy is focused on the phrase “Polish death camps”, which Polish nationalists believe is insulting and inaccurate. While awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to Jan Karski, a hero of the resistance against Nazi Germany, President Barack Obama used the term, “Polish death camp”. This prompted a formal protest from Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, prompting the White House to issue a correction saying the president had misspoken and had meant to say “Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland.”

The law caused a brief souring of relations between Israel and Poland, with some Jews arguing the banning of the phrase was tantamount to Holocaust denial. Writing in the Washington Post in 2015, the director of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, Laurence Weinbaum, stated: “Those who see themselves as defenders of Poland’s good name are often quick to point out that in Poland there was no Quisling regime comparable to that which existed in other countries occupied by Germany — and that the Polish underground fought the Germans tooth and nail.”

However, the “truth is that local authorities were often left intact in occupied Poland, and many officials exploited their power in ways that proved fatal to their Jewish constituents,” he explained.

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