Polish Pres. to ‘Post’: Israel started the crisis and it needs to end it

Last month, the Prime Minister’s Office clarified that Netanyahu never said “The Poles” but just “Poles,” meaning that he was referring to some, but not all.

Yaakov Katz, of The Jerusalem Post, sits down to interview Polish President Andrzej Duda (photo credit: CHANCELLERY OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF POLAND)
Yaakov Katz, of The Jerusalem Post, sits down to interview Polish President Andrzej Duda
WARSAW – A month after a crisis erupted between Israel and Poland over Polish history of the Holocaust, Polish President Andrzej Duda outlined a path on Thursday for how it can be resolved, saying that the first move must be made by Israel.
“The side that started the crisis should also finish it,” Duda told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview at the Presidential Palace. Asked if that would be Israel, he said: “Yes. I expect friendship and respect. On both sides.”
The diplomatic breakdown began during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Warsaw last month to participate in a Middle East summit hosted by the United States. After a briefing with reporters, Netanyahu was quoted as saying – including by this paper – that “The Poles cooperated with the Nazis” to kill Jews during the Holocaust. 
Warsaw interpreted this to mean Netanyahu was referring to Poland as a nation.
“I hope that we will be able to solve this through diplomatic channels and goodwill between the two sides,” said Duda on Thursday. “Of course, the election campaign is there [in Israel] and the temperature of the campaign is not conducive to solving the crisis now, but we have to remember that there are some things that are more important.”
Last month, the Prime Minister’s Office clarified that Netanyahu never said “The Poles” but just “Poles,” meaning that he was referring to some, but not all.
Nevertheless, Duda and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki were not satisfied at the time, and announced that Morawiecki would not fly to Israel to attend a gathering of the Visegrad, a group of four eastern European countries – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – that took place the following week.
The situation escalated when two days later, newly appointed Foreign Minister Israel Katz went on TV and paraphrased former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, saying: “The Poles suckle antisemitism from their mothers’ milk... No one will tell us how to remember the fallen.”
“I am the president of Poland, and I will never accept Poles being insulted or humiliated or facts being distorted that hurt our dignity,” he said. “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. In my own family, there were people murdered by the Germans, and first and foremost [to say the contrary] waters down what really happened.”
“Not Poles as a nation or Poles as a society, as a state or as an institution,” he said. “‘Some people’ is true. There were some people on this occupied territory. Some Poles. Some people who were vile.”
When asked about the need for the controversial law that passed last year making accusations of Polish complicity in Nazi war crimes a criminal offense and why not just let historians debate the issue freely, Duda said that the entire purpose of the law was to ensure historical accuracy.
“It was our will to fight for only the truth to be in the public space. So actually, the whole point was this term that I hate – ‘Polish death camps’ and ‘Polish concentration camps’ – to eliminate it from the public space,” he said. “Unfortunately, if we don’t correct it and people come to Poland to see Auschwitz, it becomes natural to them that it was a Polish camp. If we want them to know that it was not, they need to see the historical truth.”
While Duda said that the crisis between Israel and Poland remains, ties with the Jewish community remain strong.
“If we look holistically, I can say that it actually took a toll on Israeli-Polish relations but not on Polish-Jewish relations,” he said. “This is for a simple reason. The words that were said in Israel – first and foremost the words of Minister Katz – were condemned by Jewish organizations like the World Jewish Congress and a lot of others as well as by Polish Jewish organizations and the chief rabbi. We can say that there is no problem between Poland and Jewish people.”
Poland, he said, is safer for Jews today than in other parts of Europe. He also dismissed a recent news story in a Polish paper titled “How to spot a Jew” as sick and intolerable.
“Situations such as this publication are absolutely marginal in Poland,” he said. “Nonetheless each and every one of them deserves condemnation, including the one in question.”
“Poles and Jews,” he continued, “have been living on this land together for almost 1,000 years. Who can tell how much Jewish blood is in their veins? Nobody knows, so to talk about how to recognize if someone is Jewish is ridiculous. These are sick people. Just sick. What it depends on is someone’s upbringing and the traditions and that is how you decide if you are Jewish or not.”
The ongoing crisis, he said, ultimately bothers him since “I believe that the relations between Israel and Poland are generally good and we consider ourselves to be friends of Israel and we try to make sure Israel feels this relationship on many different international levels starting in the EU and how we vote in the European Parliament and to our position on the United Nations Security Council where we are still a non-permanent member.”
And while Poland will not change the controversial Holocaust law, he said that the government would always work to ensure that the Nazi concentration and death camps located in Poland remain intact as a warning for future generations.
“We want to preserve it as testament of the Holocaust and the tragedy for future generations,” he said. “To a certain extent we are depositories of the pain and damage and it is our duty to preserve it for future generations and to conserve it.”