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Tuesday, 16 November 2004
Page: 44

Senator HUMPHRIES (5:42 PM) —Over the last sitting weeks of the 40th Parliament I presented a number of petitions to the Senate regarding the concerns of the Polish community in Australia about things that have been said of Poland, Polish history and the Polish community. The petitions asked:

... “That slanderous, defamatory and offensive statements, oral or in writing, made about a community or a Nation or its Armed Forces, which are untrue and unsubstantiated are unacceptable, offensive and must not be made.”

The petitions go on to ask that the Senate request and empower the federal Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to exercise its power to stop mass media publications, orally or in writing or in electronic media, which convey those so-called slanderous, defamatory and offensive statements. The petitions arise out of concerns within the Polish community in Australia and elsewhere that some in the general community and the media misrepresent the relationship, particularly between the Poles, the Nazis and the Jews.

The invasion of Poland in 1939, of course, was the incident which triggered the Second World War. Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany from September 1939 until 1944-45. Poles fought against the Germans not only in Poland, where the Polish resistance numbered some 350,000 people, but also in Great Britain, Norway, France, Belgium, Holland, North Africa, Italy and Germany itself. It is also worth noting that 200,000 Polish soldiers were attached to the British Army.

After the occupation of Poland at the beginning of the war, more than 2.4 million Jews fell under Nazi rule. It was in Poland, not Greater Germany, that the harshest restrictions were placed on local Jewish populations. The Jews of Poland were subjected to summary massacre by the regular army and by the SS. Captured Jewish soldiers were executed as a matter of course.

Moreover, the Greater German occupation regime forced Poland's Jews to move into urban ghettos in the major cities of Poland. These ghettos, surrounded by walls and barbed wire, functioned as autonomous captive city-states, governed by a Jewish council that was responsible for housing, sanitation and economic production for the Greater German war efforts. As purely urban areas, these areas depended heavily upon imports of food and coal, but Greater Germany consistently supplied insufficient food and coal to keep the inhabitants of the various ghettos fed and warm. As a result, massive epidemics and endemic malnutrition vastly increased the prewar death rate. By 1942, Poland's Jews were little more than disposable slaves.

The infamous Auschwitz concentration camp was initially established by the Germans in 1940 to eliminate Polish leadership and kill off opposition to the German occupation of Poland. The first Jews were brought to Auschwitz in 1942 and many hundreds of thousands lost their lives there, but some 75,000 to 100,000 Poles were also killed in Auschwitz. There were many Poles among those in the whole of Nazi occupied Europe who were willing, at grave risk to their families and their own lives, to help Jews escape or hide from the Nazis. Up to January 2002, 5,632 Poles had been honoured by the Yad Vashem institute in Jerusalem for saving Jews during World War II. As Dr Nahum Goldmann, an honorary president of the World Jewish Congress, stated:

Poles suffered no less than we did ... We suffered greater losses proportion wise, but the Poles also suffered enormously ...

However, not all commentators focus on this aspect of Polish altruism. Dr Janusz Rygielski, the President of the Federal Council of Polish Associations in Australia, has drawn attention to the publication, in Polish, of a book in 2000 by a Polish author Jan Tomasz Gross entitled Neighbours. The book has received much publicity and has been widely promoted throughout the world. It has already been translated into English and is being translated into other languages. A screenplay has already been written. The book deals with the extermination of Jews in a small township called Jedwabne, in north-eastern Poland, by, as the title suggests, their Polish neighbours.

While the book caused considerable controversy in Poland, it appears that it has been accepted as an indisputable historical document, particularly in the English-speaking West. Many Polish historians dispute the author's methodology and selectivity in the use of source material, most of which has been available for the past 50 years from the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. The views of those historians, however, in contrast to Gross, have not received any mention in the Western media. Such a lack of balance could lead one to believe that Gross's allegations are unchallengeable and therefore true.

This episode draws specifically on the recent experience of the Polish community but highlights the reaction of any other community, national, religious or ethnic group in Australia to what could be described as misrepresentations about them or their history. The language used by journalists contributes to this problem. Just recently, I noticed this very issue in an article in the Bulletin that focused on a woman who had fled from the Nazis as a toddler. The article goes on to say that she discovered that her mother had perished in `a Polish concentration camp'. This is a perfect example of the journalistic misconceptions tormenting people of Polish origin. From the way the journalist has worded this sentence one could be forgiven for thinking that the Poles were running the concentration camps. Bearing these facts in mind, I can see how distressing it must be to Polish people all over the world when such terms as `Nazi Poland', `Polish concentration camps' and `Polish ghettos' are used by newspaper columnists and TV commentators writing or reporting for the press. Sadly, such terminology is repeatedly used by journalists in this country.

The Polish government recently established a National Institute of Remembrance, whose role inter alia is to promote education and understanding about the events of the Second World War and since, which are as much misrepresented and misunderstood in Australia as in other parts of the world. I recently had the pleasure of meeting the director of the institute, Dr Leon Kieres, during his visit to Australia.

I hope the presentation of these petitions will stimulate thoughtful reflection on our collective use of language which may be offensive to some in our modern multicultural community. I do not advocate that Australia import into our political discourse the political or historical controversies which dog some other nations or communities. However, the insensitive use of language does just that, since language can carry judgments or assumptions in even apparently straightforward or innocent terms. I particularly urge the media to consider these issues. They are certainly of great significance to many Australians of overseas birth and, in particular in the context I have explained today, to the Polish community in Australia.