The controversial law outlawing public discussion of Poles’ collaboration with the Nazis will not be enforced in the near future, Polish Ambassador to Israel Jacek Chodorowicz told the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee on Monday.
“The Polish Justice Ministry committed to not enforcing the new law before there is an in-depth examination of all of its components, including a discussion with Israeli representatives,” Chodorowicz said.
The ambassador acknowledged that for the past month, Poland and Israel have been “in the eye of the storm,” but said the two countries have agreed to discuss the matter.
Israel urges Poland to change bill regarding its role in Nazi Holocaust, January 28, 2018 (Reuters)
“We will talk about the subject more quietly and peacefully. Too much has been said that was criticized by Israelis,” he stated.
Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee chairman Avraham Neguise (Likud) called for the law to be canceled immediately, and said the Foreign Ministry needs to take steps to fight Holocaust denial.
Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovski said, “You can legislate whatever you want, but no one can change history. We appreciate those who helped and saved Jewish lives, but there were also people who participated in the Jewish genocide, and no one has a right to say anything else. It pains me... that there are many who can no longer tell the story of what happened to them.”
Chodorowicz spoke at a discussion on preserving World War II sites, an issue of concern to Soviet-born MKs who called the meeting.
At least one Red Army veteran was in attendance, wearing his war medals affixed to his suit jacket.
The lawmakers and veterans took issue with a Polish law that allows the government to take down Soviet-era monuments.
“It’s revenge for the sake of revenge,” Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova lamented. “These are monuments for the Red Army that liberated Poland; it shouldn’t matter who built them. I’m proud of every person who contributed to the victory over the Nazis,” she said.
Svetlova also said that while the government is not touching Red Army graves, it turns a blind eye to those who desecrate them.
Neguise said the discussion is taking place on the background of increased antisemitism and Holocaust denial in Europe.
“It’s important to prevent any violation of the memory of the Holocaust and those murdered in it, and we must preserve its memory in Israel and the world,” Neguise said. “It’s important to learn about the contribution of the Red Army to the victory over the Nazi beast and the allies’ contribution to that goal.”
Yesh Atid MK Yoel Razbozov accused Poland of trying to “change historic facts and allow the gravestones of Red Army soldiers to be desecrated.”
Chodorowicz promised that since Poland declared its independence, no Red Army graves have been moved.
“What changed in the new law gives an opportunity for the authorities to dismantle symbolic sites that are identified with the communist regime that ruled Poland after the war and were built in the 1950s and 60s. It’s very different,” he stated.
In a related event, Svetlova and United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev launched a Knesset Caucus for Preserving Jewish Sites and Cemeteries Abroad. The meeting was held to discuss the desecration and misuse of Jewish burial sites in Europe.
“There are no disputes on this issue. We all see eye-to-eye and want to help,” Maklev said. “As the years pass, the worse the problem gets... In many places, there are no longer Jewish people there to protect Jewish sites.”
Paul Packer, chairman of the US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, said the US is in dialogue with many countries on this issue and is working on a database to track Jewish and non-Jewish cemeteries across the world.
“I didn’t know what to expect in the Knesset and I’m shocked. Good for you,” Packer said. “What I love about Israel is they talk about the future and pride themselves on helping the world. A strong America means a strong Israel, and a strong Israel means a strong Jewish people. America is here for you.”
The discussion was held in conjunction with the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative (ESJF) and was backed by the US and German governments as well as private donors. It was founded by Rabbi Isaac Schapira, son of a former UTJ leader who was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth in 2014. Former justice minister Yossi Beilin has also taken an active part in the organization’s work, helping it connect with foreign governments.
The ESJF’s central goal is to build fences around as many Jewish cemeteries as possible in Eastern and Central Europe. The group has built 102 fences since its founding in 2015 and has found a total of 1200 relevant locations.
Some sites, however, have been plowed over and turned into agricultural land or school grounds.
“In Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, we reach these places and there’s no cemetery anymore,” ESJF CEO Philip Carmel said. “We want to finish our work before all these places disappear. We think we can do it in 10 years.”
Beilin recounted visiting the town of Frampol, in Poland: “We talked to children there and they had no idea there were ever any Jews. They had never met any Jews... We built access roads and fences around the cemetery and the locals took an interest. Now the school nearby is protecting the cemetery. The children researched and wrote reports on the Jews of Frampol. They sang to us [in Hebrew],” he said.
“This project is more than just a cemetery. The unexpected results are bigger than the project itself. Without it, the contribution of Jews to the development of Eastern Europe will simply disappear,” Beilin added.
Chodorowicz, who also attended the caucus launch, said the Polish Ministry of Culture decided last year to create a database of all cemeteries in the country and create “unified and dignified” ways to mark them.