When I walked into the Presidential Palace in Warsaw on Thursday afternoon, two thoughts were going through my mind.
The first was that my grandparents – survivors of Auschwitz from the Polish towns of Lodz and Sosnowiec – probably never would have thought 75 years ago that one day a grandchild of theirs would be walking into the Presidential Palace in Warsaw to meet the Polish president. In the same vein, most survivors could not have imagined the Jewish people having their own state, their own military and being able to determine their own fate.
My second thought was that this interview, which I had requested a few weeks ago, was probably approved because Poland wanted to put the crisis with Israel behind it.
How wrong I was.
President Andrzej Duda was gracious during the interview and generous with his time, but he was also fiery and spirited in his defense of Poland and his veiled criticism of Israel, as well as of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and especially acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz.
A reminder: Last month, Netanyahu came to Poland for a summit on the Middle East and Iran. While there, Netanyahu was quoted as saying that “the Poles cooperated with the Nazis” during the Holocaust. Warsaw interpreted this to mean that Netanyahu was referring to Poland as a nation.
The Prime Minister’s Office clarified that Netanyahu never said “the Poles” but just “Poles,” but the Polish weren’t buying the story and as a result decided to send their foreign minister to a diplomatic summit a few days later in Jerusalem instead of the prime minister. In the end, his trip was also canceled when a day before the summit, Katz went on TV and said: “The Poles suckle antisemitism from their mothers’ milk... No one will tell us how to remember the fallen.”
As I learned on Thursday, even though a month has passed and for Israel, which is in the throes of an election campaign, the Polish mishap is a long-forgotten memory, the same cannot be said for the Poles. They haven’t forgotten, and more importantly, they have not forgiven.
Duda has been president since 2015 and before that served as a member of the ruling Law and Justice Party in the Polish parliament. In 2017, he visited Israel and Yad Vashem, during which his wife received documentation on members of her family who were murdered during the Holocaust. Her grandfather was Jewish and his first wife and son were murdered by the Nazis.
During the interview, Duda explained how the ongoing crisis with Israel has nothing to do with Poland’s ties with its Jewish community or Jews around the world. On the contrary, he said, Poland is today one of the safest countries for Jews in all of Europe.
Netanyahu’s and Katz’s comments last month, he said, insulted Poland and distorted history. Poland, he said, did not collaborate with the Germans as a nation, a people, a state or as an institution. While there were some Poles – he repeatedly stressed the word “some” – it was far from being anything on a national scale.
Nevertheless, I pressed him, why was it so important for the government to pass the controversial Holocaust bill in 2017, which you then signed into law? Why not allow a free debate about Poland’s past? The passing of the law – even though it has been decriminalized – makes it seem like you are stifling free debate on an issue that is of extreme importance for Israel and Jews around the world.
Duda proceeded to give me something of a history lesson. First, he said, there was no Poland at the time of WWII and no Polish state to speak of. The government was in exile in London and its territory was occupied by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
In addition, while three million Jewish Poles perished in the Holocaust, another three million non-Jewish Poles were also murdered. In total, six million Poles. Everyone in Poland, he said, has a family member who was killed during the war.
In general, he said, there were three groups of Poles during WWII. The first group, which he called “vile and bad people,” were Poles who betrayed their Jewish neighbors and handed them over to the Nazis “for money or other profit.”
The second group, Duda said, were “people who were afraid and it happened that out of this fear for their family and their lives they betrayed others.” These people, he said, were afraid that if they helped Jews they would be killed by the Germans.
These people, Duda said, were more than the first group but “they didn’t count on a profit. They only wanted to save themselves and their own families.”
The last group, he said, were “the Poles who made helping Jews the reason for their fight against the Germans.”
He listed as an example Polish nuns who hid Jewish children, giving them new identities as Catholics orphans, as well as the underground Polish state, which he said, tried to help Jews during the war.
“If the Jews had issues with the Polish people then why during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, did the Jewish underground hang two flags from the bunker – the Polish flag and the flag of the Jewish people?” Duda asked. “Why? They did it because they felt part of Polish society and that is how we view them as well.”
But again, I asked, why the need for the law? You tell a version of history while other historians tell a different version. Were there thousands of Poles who collaborated with the Nazis or less? Were they responsible for the murder of 100,000 Jews or 200,000 Jews? None of us can really know the answer, I said, but making a law seems to stifle debate as if there is something to cover up.
“As Polish society we cannot live with the term ‘Polish death camps’ or ‘Polish concentration camps,'” he said. “These are terms used by some media and [even] German media, which is the height of rudeness, and that is why there is an association made that Poles were murderers whereas the Polish people and Poland had nothing to do with the machinery of the Holocaust.”
How do we go from here? I asked Duda. Can the crisis be resolved?
“I do hope and I am always open to it,” he said. “However, I am the president of Poland and I will never accept Poles being insulted or humiliated or facts being distorted that hurt our dignity. I am an honest person and that is why I can admit historical facts and I will never try to contradict them but I will never agree with statements that Poles as a nation participated in the Holocaust or Poland participated in the Holocaust. It humiliates us and hurts us.”
Walking out of the palace, my feeling was that Israel and Poland will ultimately find a way to end this crisis. Israel had strong bilateral ties with Poland before last month and views it as an important player in the European Union.
Poland, on the other hand, doesn’t – due to its history – want to be perceived as being against the Jewish state. In addition, it wants to strengthen relations with the United States, which it is in talks with about establishing a massive military base in the country. Resolving outstanding issues with Israel might need to be part of that deal.
Until that happens, what we have here is a classic case of politics mixing into diplomacy. Israel is in the middle of elections and Israeli politicians cannot apologize while they are running for reelection. That would make them appear weak.
Poland is also getting into election season. In May, it has elections for the European Parliament and then at the end of the year for the Polish parliament.
Elections are not a good time for politicians to apologize. Reconciliation, it seems for now, will have to wait.
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