Warsaw, Poland – U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen faced a backlash after he appeared to blame Poland for some of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
“They don’t understand the Holocaust”
“They don’t understand history. They don’t understand the Holocaust,” the Democratic lawmaker said during an interview with CNN, reacting to a Republican congresswoman’s claim that “wearing a mask is exactly the same type of abuse suffered during the genocide of millions of European Jews during WWII.”
“You know, it was not just Nazi Germany. It was also Poland, where some of this more severe, rigorous concentration camps were, like Auschwitz and Birkenau,” M. Cohen went on.
His comments faced a strong backlash, both in Poland and the US.
The New York-based Kosciuszko Foundation accused the US lawmaker of “lying” and of slandering Poland for crimes committed by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland.
“Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and wiped it off the map, installing a German ‘General Government’,” the foundation said in a statement, accusing M. Cohen of being either ignorant of purposefully revisionist.
In Poland, the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) described the claim as “an absurd allegation that bears no relation to historical truth.”
“On Polish soil, the German invader – acting against the Polish state and against international laws – built a network of German concentration and death camps,” it wrote. “The victims of the criminal policy conducted by the German occupier were millions of Polish citizens, namely, millions of Polish Jews and millions of Poles.”
In a letter sent to Poland’s ambassador in Washington Piotr Wilczek, congressman Cohen later sought to clarify his comments and defuse the controversy.
Congressman Cohen clarifies statement following controversy
“I have never said the Polish community was involved in persecuting the Jewish community in places like Auschwitz-Birkenau […] Never did I intend to suggest that anyone of Polish descent or the former Polish government was involved in the conceptualization, creation, and the execution of the Holocaust. This was truly a Nazi enterprise.”
“Please excuse my reference to Poland as a geography,” he added.
In 2018, Poland passed a law making it illegal – and subject to a three-year jail sentence – to accuse “the Polish nation or the Polish state” of being complicit of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany during the war.
The government argued the legislation was necessary to “defend the good name of Poland” from attacks wrongly accusing Poland or Polish nationals of collaborating with the Third Reich, but faced a barrage of criticism and sparked concerns of “white-washing” Polish history.
While acknowledging that Poland de-facto ceased to exist following Germany’s invasion and that many Poles fought against and died at the hands of the Nazis, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin nevertheless insisted at the time that “Poland and Poles had a hand in the extermination” of Jews during the Holocaust.
Following the international backlash, particularly in Israel and the United States, Poland watered down the legislation and decriminalised the offense. The topic however regularly resurfaces, causing a brief diplomatic incident between Poland and Israel two years ago.