Dr. Michal Bilewicz

Dr. Michal Bilewicz, University of Warsaw.

Hornstein Seminar to Poland 2017
Day Eight, Warsaw

Language Matters

By Mollie Feldman

The theme of today might be summarized as "language matters." In the morning, second-year Hornstein students traveling on a week-long Poland trip with the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland met with Dr. Michal Bilewicz, the chair of the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw.

The University, which is housed in a building formally used as SS headquarters, is itself a testament to the complicated past of this region. Throughout the first days of the trip, we have heard numerous Poles - both Jewish and non-Jewish - speak about the distinction between Poland as the site of genocide rather than Poland as the perpetrator of genocide.

Dr. Bilewicz has written about the "victimhood competition between Poles and Jews after the Holocaust," noting that Poles see themselves as victims of Nazi crimes. This narrative is strong: Poles were victims and were not responsible for what happened in German-occupied Poland during the time of the war.

Stemming from this narrative, it seems to me, is a certain defensiveness about being lumped with Germans and Nazis when it comes to accusations of antisemitism or blame for the Holocaust. This sensitivity is demonstrated by a newly proposed law, currently being reviewed by the Polish Parliament, that would make it illegal to use the phrase "Polish death/concentration camps." 

These feelings, and the proposed law representing these sentiments, are challenging for me. While I recognize the distinction between Poland as a place of genocide and as the perpetrator of genocide, my own narrative makes it difficult to fully separate the two.

Elie Wiesel said that "the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference." In what ways were the murder of Jews during the Holocaust met with indifference, not only in Poland, but across the world? Moreover, in what ways did the antisemitic sentiment, rising in Poland and across Europe well before the Nazi invasion, enable genocide?

I think an important contemporary lesson can be drawn from this tension. Responsibility is not limited to those who actively mastermind persecution. Responsibility lies not only with the most explicit perpetrators but also, I believe, with all who exercise indifference and prejudice. For me, this message holds important implications for today. When we see injustice and hate in our own world, it may be essentially important to move beyond detached indifference or silent disgruntlement. 

Dr. Bilewicz spoke about the distinction between belief and behavior. Prejudice beliefs do not always lead to prejudice behaviors. But they often do. And prejudice behaviors can easily escalate. One example given by Dr. Bilewicz relates to prejudiced language and hate speech. The more accepting one is of hate speech, the more normalized one becomes to it, and the less likely one is to accept the targeted groups within their society.

In other words, hateful words can quickly create an environment of hateful behavior. In essence, language matters. To echo a recent ACLU campaign about how to support civil liberties, it is important to "speak out against any incidents of hate and bigotry." One essential message for me emerging from the trip thus far is that prejudice language that is "just joking" or "not serious" or "not something I would ever actually do something about" is still hate speech. And hate speech, no matter the form, creates a social environment that allows for discrimination, prejudice, and worse. 

In February 2017, the Hornstein Class of 2017 traveled to Poland with Professor Leonard Saxe for an eight-day seminar to study contemporary Jewish life in that country. This is a blog post from that seminar written by a student or pair of students.

This year's seminar was supported, in part, by the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry and the Center for German and European Studies, both at Brandeis University.

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