Nationalist Protesters Take Over New York Square as Polish Anti-Semitic Debate Spreads to U.S.

A large group of Polish nationalists took over a major square in downtown Manhattan on Sunday, protesting U.S. legislation that seeks to compensate Holocaust survivors whose property was seized during World War II.

The marchers were draped in Polish flags and carried signs opposing bill SS47—the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) act—which became law in May 2018. The law calls for the return of property “wrongfully seized or transferred” or “the provision of comparable substitute property or the payment of equitable compensation” for Holocaust survivors and the families of victims.

But bystanders and anti-fascist activists reported that the protesters were not only condemning S447, but also carrying anti-Semitic placards and repeating Holocaust-denial conspiracy theories.

Hundreds of nationalists took their place in Foley Square, three blocks from the Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall. Some of the crowds' signs said: “Stop anti-Polish hate,” “Stop slandering Poland in the media,” and “Treat anti-Polonism like anti-Semitism.”

Other attendees held placards proclaiming that the Holocaust was a Nazi Germany project, and that the infamous death camps built in Poland—such as Auschwitz-Birkenau—were German and not Polish. They also lauded the efforts of the anti-Nazi Home Army, which was a driving force behind the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising in which Christian and Jewish Poles rose up against Nazi occupiers in the national capital. The following year, Poles launched the Warsaw uprising that also failed to liberate the city.

But according to video of the event and the accounts of activists in a counterprotest, some of the participants were also perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes and repeating Holocaust denial myths. One man could be seen holding a sign with the words “Holocaust Industry.”

The phrase comes from the title of a 2000 book written by Jewish academic and author Norman Finkelstein. It claims that the American Jewish community uses the memory of the Holocaust as a way to manipulate the media and politicians for its own financial or political gain, or for that of the state of Israel. Critics have attacked the book for using anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes, though Finkelstein stands by his work.

At one point in the footage uploaded by independent journalist Sandi Bachom, a masked counterprotester asks several times what the “Holocaust industry” phrase refers to, but none of the nationalists answer his question.

Author and journalist Molly Crabapple live tweeted her conversations with the protesters along with photos of the crowd and their signs. She said that one demonstrator "waved a dollar bill to taunt Jewish counterprotesters,” while another held a sign “accusing Jews of welcoming Nazi and Soviet invasions.”

Crabapple reported that one nationalist “denied 90% of Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, said Jews made up 90% of secret police after the war,” and another “told me the Jews of Warsaw were mostly killed by other Jews.”

Crabapple described a conversation she witnessed between a nationalist and a counterprotester, in which the counterprotester said her family members survived the Holocaust but were lynched by their neighbors when they returned to Poland. Crabapple said the “angry Polish nationalist hissed at her that 'maybe' this happened.”

A heated debate over Holocaust history and anti-Semitism has developed in Poland, culminating with a new law criminalizing any suggestion of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. Use of the phrase “Polish death camps” to refer to Nazi-run concentration camps such as Auschwitz, for example, is now punishable by up to three years in prison.

Six million Jews were among the victims of the World War II-era genocide, which is thought to have claimed more than 17 million lives. The death rate for Poles of all ethnic groups was particularly high. In Poland, as in all other nations under Nazi occupation, historians have found evidence of anti-Semitic collaboration between Poles and the occupying Nazis. Simultaneously, Polish resistance groups are among some of the most celebrated anti-Nazi partisans of the entire war.