Auschwitz Tour Guide On Poland's Holocaust Complicity Ban
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
As any historian will tell you, history is a living thing. And there's always a debate over how events can be interpreted and understood. Poland recently has gone a step further, legislating how to talk about one of the darkest periods in its history.
ANNA SOMMER SCHNEIDER: We are in a moment when we decide about how we're going to teach about and remember the Holocaust in the future.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Anna Sommer Schneider is a professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown. This past week, the country's president signed a law that would punish anyone who suggests Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. Critics, including Israel and the U.S. State Department, say the law will stifle discussion about those atrocities and cover up the role of Poles who killed or denounced Jews during World War II. For Schneider, this debate is personal. In 1977, she was born in the same town as Poland's most infamous concentration camp.
SCHNEIDER: Despite the fact that I was born and raised literally in the shadows of the gas chambers, there was very little information available for me at that time - what Auschwitz really was.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Auschwitz was a taboo topic in her family. And the word Holocaust was not widely used in communist Poland. But as Schneider grew older, she wanted to learn more about what had happened during the war. She got her Ph.D. in Jewish studies, eventually converted to Judaism. And for the last two decades, she's given tours of Auschwitz. She tells me even today, people see Jews in Poland as others, highlighting a long history of anti-Semitism in the country.
SCHNEIDER: When we teach about Holocaust in Polish classrooms today, we often talk about Jews as strangers who lived in our country.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Even though they were Europe's largest Jewish community.
SCHNEIDER: Even though the Jews lived with the Poles for 1,000 years. And today, the history of the Jews and the Jewish experience is not really considered Polish experience.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to talk about the new Polish law which prohibits using the phrase Polish death camps. What does that mean for you as a guide and as a historian?
SCHNEIDER: I think this is not really the biggest concern that we have regarding this law. There are many organizations. There are many institutions. There are many wonderful people who've been trying to fight against using this expression Polish death camps. The point is, however, that this - and this is what we are really concerned about - that this new law will possibly suppress genuine research and also open discussion about the truth and whether we are allowed to talk about our dark past openly.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the truth? What is the truth that you study and that you have talked about?
SCHNEIDER: The truth is that there were many extremely brave people who decided to risk not only their own lives but also the lives of their families to rescue Jewish people. But the truth is also that there were many Poles who decided to betray their Jewish friends and their Jewish neighbors who were often living in hiding. And in addition to that, there were also those who didn't remain passive. But they were actively participating in a killing process. We cannot run away from this. We need to talk about this openly.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What I'm hearing you saying is that you're worried that the lessons of the Holocaust - that it wasn't just something that was done to people, but it was something that people also participated in either actively or passively - will be lost.
SCHNEIDER: Yes. Well, in that sense, we are going back to this time in Polish history - and I'm talking specifically about the communist era - when the memory of the Holocaust was constantly distorted, twisted, politicized or just abused. And I'm just very concerned that we are now - we'll be following this path.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you concerned that if you say what you just told me in Poland, you could be prosecuted now?
SCHNEIDER: Technically, researchers can still work on these issues. But we are not allowed to publicly talk about these questions.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So - but you're worried?
SCHNEIDER: I'm concerned about not saying anything that can put me in jeopardy.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How is this going to affect you personally? Are you going to continue going back to give tours in Auschwitz?
SCHNEIDER: I consider quitting my work this year, which is a very difficult decision. But if I won't be able to talk to visitors openly about history, about all the wonderful things that Polish people did during the war and the darker page of our history, then I cannot imagine continuing this work.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Anna Sommer Schneider is a professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University and a longtime tour guide at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.