Starting today in Poland, it’s a crime to say Poles were complicit in any Nazi war crimes. The controversial law went into effect as Polish and Israeli officials met in a bid to defuse tensions over the legislation.
Poland has faced strong criticism from Israel over the law, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describing it last month as an attempt to rewrite history. His Polish counterpart, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, responded by promising to open a dialogue in the hope of reaching a common understanding, but went on to pass the law before consultation could take place.
Israel initially rebuffed a meeting with Polish representatives to discuss the issue, on the grounds that it should have been held before the law was passed. But when Morawiecki said 10 days ago that Jews had also been among the perpetrators of the Holocaust, further inflaming tensions, the two leaders agreed that their representatives should meet in an effort to relieve the escalating crisis.
As the meeting finally took place in Jerusalem Thursday, between a Polish team led Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki and an Israeli team of historians and diplomats led by Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem, politicians in Warsaw condemned it as a pointless exercise.
“The trip to Israel makes no sense,” Grzegorz Schetyna, head of Poland’s largest opposition party, Civic Platform.
The role of Poles in Nazi atrocities on Polish soil during World War II has long been a touchy subject for Warsaw, which for years has objected to phrases such as “Polish death camps” to describe Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps on occupied Polish territory.
Poland was the first country invaded by Nazi Germany, and its population – ethnic Poles and Jews alike — suffered immensely. About 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population of 3.2 million were killed during the genocide, and millions of non-Jewish Poles were also killed.
Poland’s conservative government has described the law as a measure to defend national honor, and push back against what it sees as a false narrative of Polish complicity in the Holocaust.
But many in Israel and the United States have reacted with alarm, seeing the law as an attempt to whitewash the historical truth that some ethnic Poles were indeed complicit in Nazi crimes against Polish Jews.
While most Jews living in Poland were killed by the Nazis, historians say many were also killed with the complicity of the Poles, who denounced Jews or directly participated in violence against them.
More than 6,700 Poles who risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors from the Third Reich are formally honored with the title “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem. More Poles have been honored than any other nationality. Yad Vashem estimates that their efforts saved up to 35,000 people, about one percent of Poland’s Jewish population at the time.
Cover image: Far-right groups hold a demonstration in front of the presidential palace to call on President Andrzej Duda to sign a bill that would limit some forms of Holocaust speech in Warsaw, Poland, Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. The bill has caused a diplomatic crisis with Israeli and also drawn condemnation from the United States.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)