Historians from Israel’s official Holocaust memorial rebuked a joint statement from the governments of Israel and Poland on a controversial Holocaust reference bill, saying the claims from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki contain “grave errors and deceptions.”
Poland’s senate passed a bill in February to levy criminal penalties on anyone who refers to the extermination camps operating throughout the country during World War II as being of Polish origin, drawing protests from Israel and the United States. That draft of the bill stated that “whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich … shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years,” with an exclusion for “such an act as part of artistic or scientific activities.”
More than 3.1 million people — mostly Jews — were murdered at the Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno, and Majdanek camps during the Nazi occupation. Tens of thousands of Jews also died in nearly 700 ghettos established throughout the country.
An amended version of the law approved last week removes the stipulation of criminal penalties.
“We reject the actions aimed at blaming Poland or the Polish nation as a whole for the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators of different nations,” Netanyahu and Morawiecki said in a joint statement. “Unfortunately, the sad fact is that some people – regardless of their origin, religion or worldview – revealed their darkest side at that time.”
“Both governments vehemently condemn all forms of anti-Semitism and express their commitment to oppose any of its manifestations,” the prime ministers added. “Both governments also express their rejection of anti-Polonism and other negative national stereotypes.”
Yad Vashem said in a statement today “the essence of the statute remains unchanged even after the repeal of the aforementioned sections, including the possibility of real harm to researchers, unimpeded research, and the historical memory of the Holocaust.”
“The statement contains highly problematic wording that contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field. The joint statement’s wording effectively supports a narrative that research has long since disproved, namely, that the Polish Government-in-Exile and its underground arms strove indefatigably—in occupied Poland and elsewhere—to thwart the extermination of Polish Jewry. As such, they created a ‘mechanism of systematic help and support to Jewish people’ and even took vigorous action against Poles who betrayed Jews. Although the joint statement acknowledges that there were cases in which Poles committed cruelties against Jews, it is also says that ‘numerous Poles’ risked their lives to rescue Jews,” said the Holocaust museum.
“The existing documentation and decades of historical research yield a totally different picture: the Polish Government-in-Exile, based in London, as well as the Delegatura (the representative organ of this Government in occupied Poland) did not act resolutely on behalf of Poland’s Jewish citizens at any point during the war. Much of the Polish resistance in its various movements not only failed to help Jews, but was also not infrequently actively involved in persecuting them.”
They added that “Poles’ assistance to Jews during the Holocaust was relatively rare, and attacks against and even the murder of Jews were widespread phenomena.”
“The attempt to amplify the relief that was extended to the Jews and portray it as a widespread phenomenon, and to minimize the role of Poles in persecuting the Jews, constitutes an offense not only to the historical truth, but also to the memory of the heroism of the Righteous Among the Nations,” said Yad Vashem.
Yad Vashem also blasted the Netanyahu-Morawiecki statement’s “outrageous insinuation” that Jews also “revealed their darkest side” during the Holocaust, specifying that collaborators with the Germans were Polish and Catholic.
“Similarly, we vehemently reject the attempts to juxtapose the phenomenon of antisemitism with so-called ‘anti-Polonism.’ While we should put an end to the use of the misleading and ill-conceived concept of ‘Polish death camps,’ calling the use of such terms ‘anti-Polonism’ is fundamentally anachronistic and has nothing whatsoever to do with antisemitism.”
Yad Vashem said the Polish law is still troublesome because “other sections that remain unchanged make it actionable under civil law to impugn the good name of the Polish State and the Polish Nation.”
“The joint statement says that no legal action will be taken in the field of research or education on the Holocaust. However, this is not clearly stated in the amendment,” the statement added. “Our stance in principle is that any attempt to limit academic and public discourse on historical issues to a single unchangeable national narrative by means of legislation and punishment is inappropriate and constitutes a material infringement of research.”