The controversy over Poland’s role in the murder of Jews during the Second World War refuses to die down.
A week after the Polish decision, at the end of June, to repeal the clauses in its controversial Holocaust law that criminalized any statement that Poland or Poles shared responsibility for Holocaust crimes, Yad Vashem accused Israeli and Polish leaders of downplaying Polish persecution of Jews.
Israel’s national Holocaust remembrance center said a joint declaration issued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki, which came immediately after the bill was amended, contained highly problematic wording from an historical standpoint.
The joint declaration was also condemned by politicians, including from within the coalition. Education Minister Naftali Bennett called the joint declaration a “lie-ridden disgrace,” demanding that Netanyahu either retract it or put it to a vote in the cabinet.
“As education minister, who is charged with passing down the legacy of the Holocaust, I utterly reject it. It has no factual or historical validity and it will not be taught in the education system.”
Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid, condemned the joint declaration as a “scandalous debasement of the memory of those who perished.”
On June 27, following a wave of international condemnation led by Israel and the United States, Poland changed the controversial law aimed at preventing people saying the country conspired in the Holocaust.The law remains
, but now no longer carries the threat of up to three years in jail.
Immediately afterwards, the joint statement issued by the Israeli and Polish prime ministers praised the Polish wartime government-in-exile, saying it tried to "raise awareness among Western allies of the systematic murder" of Polish Jews.
They also said structures of the Polish underground state "created a mechanism of systematic help and support to Jewish people."
The two leaders condemned “every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during World War II” but noted “heroic acts of numerous Poles, especially the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jewish people.”
However, Yad Vashem rejected the declaration, issuing a statement saying that a thorough review by its historians shows that the “historical assertions, presented as unchallenged facts, in the joint statement contain grave errors and deceptions.”
The Polish government-in-exile and its representatives in occupied Poland “did not act resolutely on behalf of Poland’s Jewish citizens at any point during the war,” Yad Vashem said. “Much of the Polish resistance in its various movements not only failed to help the Jews, but was also not infrequently actively involved in persecuting them.”
Polish assistance to Jews during the Holocaust was "relatively rare," Yad Vashem said, and "attacks against and even the murder of Jews were widespread."
Yad Vashem added that even though the clauses in the Polish law dealing with criminal sanctions for anyone claiming the Poles collaborated with the Nazis will be rescinded, “the statute will still have a chilling effect on research since civil action can be initiated against those impugning the “good name of the Polish State and the Polish Nation.”
Yad Vashem “vehemently” rejected 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,” it said.
Renowned Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, Yad Vashem’s academic adviser, said the joint declaration “borders on betrayal” and that Israel gave its “seal of approval” to a Polish narrative of events, “which is an entirely mendacious story.” He accused the Israeli government of sacrificing truth and justice “for its current economic, security and political interests.”
Such sentiments were echoed by politicians who linked the prime minister’s actions to his close ties with the right-wing government in Warsaw and Israeli efforts to persuade Poland, along with other members of the central Europe Visegrad, or V4 group, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, to relocate their embassies to Jerusalem.
Arnon Maoz, from the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, also issued a statement critical of the joint statement.
"Signing this agreement is a public betrayal of the memory of the Holocaust, akin to dancing on the graves of the deceased. The state of Israel has no authority to change the course of history for political needs devoid of values and content.”
Sources close to Prime Minister Netanyahu rejected Bennett’s demand that he cancel the joint statement or have it brought to the cabinet.
They said that the subject was closed and that it would not be discussed in the cabinet or in any other forum. The sources slammed Bennett, saying, “It is unfortunate to be mixing political considerations into a process that culminated successfully and whose key achievement was the revocation of the problematic clauses in the Polish law.”
Sources close to Bennett replied that the prime minister could not perpetuate such a terrible lie for generations and that the education minister would continue to take steps to have this “shameful document” canceled.
The Israeli team that negotiated with Poland after the original law was passed, led by Joseph Ciechanover and Jacob Nagel, issued a statement saying, “Yad Vashem’s chief historian, Professor Dina Porat, was part of the process from the outset, and historical statements that appear in the statement were approved by her.”
Officials from Yad Vashem said that they had been unaware of Porat’s involvement and that she had not acted on its behalf.
Porat distanced herself from some of the sections. She rejected the statement that certain people revealed, during the Holocaust, their ugly face unrelated to their origin and the statement that was liable to be understood as equating ‘anti-Polonism’ with antisemitism.
Polish officials indicated that the matter was closed, despite the controversy in Israel.
“For us, the position expressed by the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu is binding,” tweeted Polish deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki. The debate around the statement confirms the need to "strengthen further cooperation of Polish, Israeli, and Jewish historians, teachers, and museum guides to protect the truth about World War II and the Holocaust, including between teams created by both prime ministers," he said.
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