Israel ‘strongly opposes’ Polish bill outlawing term ‘Polish death camps’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Polish law "baseless" and instructed Israel's ambassador to Poland to meet with the country's prime minister over the matter.

January 27, 2018 20:07
Holocaust survivors enter Auschwitz 73 years after its liberation on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Janu

Holocaust survivors enter Auschwitz 73 years after its liberation on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 2018. (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL / REUTERS)


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Israel “strongly opposes” a bill that passed the lower house of the Polish legislature on Friday, which would make it illegal to attribute complicity in the Holocaust to the “Polish nation” or to use terms such as “Polish death camps,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday night “History cannot be changed, and the Holocaust must not be denied,” Netanyahu said of the bill aimed at making it illegal to suggest any Polish responsibility for the concentration camps on its territory.

Under the draft law, use of the term “Polish death camps” could lead to fines or up to three years in prison. Among the concentration camps in Poland were Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Sobibor.

Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister, said he instructed the ambassador in Poland, Anna Azari, to meet with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and express his firm stand against the legislation.

President Reuven Rivlin quoted former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski as having said in an address to the Knesset: “One cannot fake history, one cannot rewrite it, one cannot hide the truth. Every crime – every offense – must be condemned, denounced; must be examined and exposed.”

“Only 73 years have passed since the gates of hell were flung open,” Rivlin added. “The Jewish people, the State of Israel and the entire world must ensure that the Holocaust is recognized for its horrors and atrocities. Also among the Polish people, there were those who aided the Nazis in their crimes... There were also others among them who fought and were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, more than ever, and above all considerations, we are faced with our duty to remember our brothers and sisters who were murdered.”

A Foreign Ministry statement said on Saturday night that Israel is asking the Polish government to amend the legislation. The bill still needs to be approved by Poland’s Senate and president before becoming law.
Israelis condemn Polish law that bans using the phrase "Polish death camps"

Israel’s concern is less about the phrase “Polish death camp,” and more a concern the law would have a chilling effect on academic research into Poland’s role in the Holocaust, and that it is historically inaccurate to say that the “Polish nation” had no involvement.

The Foreign Ministry called Poland’s deputy ambassador to the ministry on Sunday for “clarification.” Israel also considered on Saturday night recalling its ambassador to Warsaw for clarification, but decided at this time to suffice with her meeting with Morawiecki.

THE FOREIGN MINISTRY statement also alluded to an angry Twitter exchange over the matter on Saturday between Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv.

Lapid, whose late father – former justice minister Tommy Lapid – was a Holocaust survivor, tweeted his condemnation of the law, saying it attempts to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust.

“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. There were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that.”

This elicited the following responses on Twitter from the Polish Embassy: “Your unsupportable claims show how badly Holocaust education is needed, even here in Israel.” The embassy also wrote: “The intent of the Polish draft legislation is not to ‘whitewash’ the past, but to protect the truth against such slander.”

Lapid retorted: “I am a son of a Holocaust survivor. My grandmother was murdered in Poland by Germans and Poles. I don’t need Holocaust education from you. We live with the consequences every day in our collective memory. Your embassy should offer an immediate apology.”

The Foreign Ministry statement, alluding to this exchange, said: “No law can change the historical truth and there is no place to educate the families of Holocaust survivors, who every day live with the memory of their loved ones who perished in the inferno.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett instructed schools to dedicate time to teaching the role that European nations, including Poland, played in killing Jews in the Holocaust.

“It’s a historical fact that many Poles helped murder Jews, gave them in and murdered Jews themselves during and after the Holocaust,” Bennett said. “It’s also a historical fact that the Germans initiated, planned and built the death camps in Poland. That is the truth, and no bill will rewrite it.”

While Netanyahu and the Foreign Ministry came out sharply against the bill, in November 2016 a joint statement issued by Israel and Poland in Jerusalem following a cabinet-to-cabinet meeting opposed the use of the term “Polish death camps.”

In the section on Holocaust remembrance in that joint statement, it read: “The governments attribute great importance to their dedicated efforts in the field of education, particularly in eradicating false stereotypes in both countries. Both governments firmly oppose any form of discrimination on racial grounds and antisemitism, as well as any attempts at distorting the history of the Jewish or Polish peoples by denying or diminishing the victimhood of the Jews during the Holocaust, or using the erroneous terms of memory such as ‘Polish death camps.’” The Poles maintain that calling the concentration camps on their soil “Polish death camps,” rather than terms such as “Nazi death camps set up in occupied Poland,” whitewashes German responsibility and places it on their shoulders.

Meanwhile, Yad Vashem issued a statement opposing the draft legislation because “it could blur the historical truth about the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust.”

According to Yad Vashem: “There is no doubt that the term ‘Polish extermination camps’ is a historical misrepresentation,” because the camps were “set up in Nazi-occupied Poland in order to murder the Jewish people within the framework of the ‘Final Solution.’” However, the statement continued, “Restrictions on statements made by scholars and others regarding the Polish people’s direct and indirect complicity in the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion. Yad Vashem will continue to support research aimed at exposing the complex truth of the attitude of the Polish population to the Jews during the Holocaust.”

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