Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded furiously Sunday to a draft Polish law that would make it illegal to suggest that Poles played any part in the Holocaust, accusing Warsaw of trying to rewrite history.
The law, currently before Poland’s parliament, would make it illegal to claim the Polish people or state bore any responsibility for the Nazis’ crimes, and make the use of phrases such as “Polish death camps” punishable by up to three years in jail.
The role of Poles in Nazi atrocities on Polish soil during World War II has long been a sensitive subject for Warsaw. 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, pre-war Europe’s largest, were exterminated during the Holocaust, and some 3 million non-Jewish Poles were killed.
The Auschwitz and Treblinka concentration camps were built on Polish soil, and while most Jews living in Poland were killed by the Nazis, many were also killed with the complicity of the Poles. Israeli politicians say the proposed law will amount to attempt to whitewash history, and stifle further scholarship on the Holocaust.
“We will under no circumstances accept any attempt to rewrite history,” Netanyahu said to his cabinet Sunday, while Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett called the laws a “a shameful disregard of the truth.”
“It is a historic fact that many Poles aided in the murder of Jews, handed them in, abused them, and even killed Jews during and after the Holocaust,” he said. However, he acknowledged that the term “Polish death camps” was misleading, as the camps were designed and operated by Nazi Germany.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, said that the Polish bill was “liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population.” But while some Poles persecuted the Jews, the center also recognizes more than 6,700 Poles – the most from any one nation – for their work in rescuing Jews from the Holocaust, estimating that they saved around 30,000 to 35,000 people, or about one percent of Poland’s Jewish population at the time.
The bill was passed by Poland’s lower house Friday, sparking fierce debate the following day – International Holocaust Remembrance Day – including a fiery Twitter exchange between the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv and Yair Lapid, an Israeli politician who is the son of a Holocaust survivor.
“I utterly condemn the new Polish law which tries to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust,” Lapid wrote. “It was conceived in Germany, but hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier.”
The Polish Embassy responded: “Your unsupportable claims show how badly Holocaust education is needed, even here in Israel.” Many Poles tweeted the hashtag #GermanDeathCamps in support of the law, while Lapid demanded an immediate apology from the embassy.
The exchange prompted Israel to summon Poland’s charge d’affaires to account for the bill, before Netanyahu discussed the issue with his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki on a phone call late Sunday. The pair have agreed to open a dialogue between both countries to try to reach a common understanding over the bill, which must be approved by the Senate and Polish President Andrzej Duda before it becomes law.
Cover: A winter view of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a German Nazi concentration and extermination camp, just a few days ahead of the 73rd anniversary of the camp liberation. On Tuesday, January 23, 2018, in Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp, Oswiecim, Poland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)