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Auschwitz Remembrance Is Tinged With Tension Over Poland's Holocaust Speech Law

Eighty-two-year-old Zosia Radzikowska, from Krakow, survived the Holocaust by pretending to be Christian. A retired criminal law professor, Radzikowska is an active member of Krakow's small but flourishing Jewish community.
Esme Nicholson for NPR

At Auschwitz, death is everywhere, but this monstrous place was full of life this week, as thousands marched through the infamous iron gates to commemorate those who perished during the Holocaust.

Many who participated in the 30th March of the Living are elderly survivors or descendants of victims, and they were joined by youth groups from around the world. Most came from places of exile, like South Africa, Canada, the United States and beyond.

But just an hour from the notorious extermination camp, in Krakow, Jewish life is beginning to blossom again, as more and more Poles discover they have Jewish roots.

Attendance is high at a Hebrew for Beginners class at a local community center. One of its most active members is 82-year-old Zosia Radzikowska. She's always known of her heritage.

Radzikowska's father died at Auschwitz. She and her mother managed to stay out of the ghetto, and survived the war by pretending to be Christians.

But, she says, a fellow Pole took advantage of their desperation. "One day a man came to our home," Radzikowska remembers. "He said he knew that we are Jews and he had to take us to Gestapo."

The man blackmailed Radzikowka and her mother until they ran out of money and possessions and were forced to go into hiding.

A new law in Poland could criminalize making such an assertion. Attributing crimes to Poland committed during the Nazi occupation could carry penalties of up to three years in jail.

Survivors and the descendants of victims arrive at Birkenau and leave messages in the train tracks for those who perished in the Holocaust.
/ Esme Nicholson for NPR
Esme Nicholson for NPR
Survivors and the descendants of victims arrive at Birkenau and leave messages in the train tracks for those who perished in the Holocaust.

Historian Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe is writing a book about Polish collaboration with the Nazis. While he's not worried about prosecution, he is troubled by the distorted, historical narrative Poland's governing Law and Justice party is pushing.

"The government, they try to control Polish history and protect national, even nationalistic, denial-orientated version of Polish history during the Holocaust," he says.

Others in Poland welcome the law, like 18-year-old Oskar Grzib, who was taking part in the march in Auschwitz for the first time.

"I think it's a good law," Grzib says, arguing that an entire nation cannot be judged on the actions of individuals.

"There were some Polish people that helped the Germans and killed the Jews," Grzib acknowledges, "but for the most of the people, it's not our fault."

One survivor, 82-year-old Bill Lewkowict, traveled from Canada to take part in the march. He says he wouldn't be here at all if it weren't for a Polish farmer who took him in during the war and hid him from the Germans.

"He was an angel of a man, to whom I owe my life," Lewkowict says. "He took a big risk. There were some Poles that wanted to help, but couldn't help because they were afraid. If they would be found out, they would be shot."

Lewkowict says there were few Poles who acted with the same courage as the man who saved him, and makes it clear nothing will stop him from saying so.

Poland's President Andrzej Duda stressed this week that the legislation was never intended to silence Holocaust survivors.

In a show of solidarity, Duda marched on Thursday at Auschwitz together with Israel's President Reuven Rivlin.

At the march, Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon told NPR he wants to see the law revoked.

"We hope that this legislation will not move forward. You cannot change history," Danon said. "Many Poles supported the Jews, we know that. Many were not involved. But there were many who cooperated with the Nazis. We should acknowledge reality."

While the United States has also asked Poland to rescind the law, Israeli media reported Friday that the White House and State Department have asked the Israeli government to tone down its public criticism of Poland.

With the law currently under review, there could yet be a way out of what has become a very sticky diplomatic situation. Poland's constitutional court is due to make a ruling this month.

Back in Krakow, 82-year-old survivor Radzikoswka, who taught criminal law at the university there, says the current legislation's wording is meaningless.

"It looks like something terrible," Radzikowska says, "but I am a lawyer and I can assure you that we have nothing to be afraid of."

Having defied Nazi decrees as a child by refusing to go into the Krakow ghetto, Radzikowska says she's not about to start heeding what she calls "this latest absurdity."

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Esme Nicholson
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