Edelstein on Poland crisis: We have a right to say what really happened

“I definitely regret” that the summit is canceled, Yuli Edelstein said, “but having said that, we are not trading in history, definitely not that of the Holocaust.”

Yuli Edelstein on the Poland Crisis, February 18, 2019 (Dennis Zinn)
Poland cannot deny that some Poles collaborated with the Nazis, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
“We don’t have to collectively blame all the Poles or forget those who acted differently, but we have the right to remember the facts of history and remind everyone what really happened,” he stated.
Edelstein spoke minutes after the Visegrad summit of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in Jerusalem was canceled, in light of Polish demands that Israeli ministers backtrack from comments that Poles took part in killing Jews during the Holocaust.
“I definitely regret” that the summit is canceled, Edelstein said, “but having said that, we are not trading in history – definitely not that of the Holocaust.”
Edelstein said the latest incident reminded him of his personal experience visiting Poland in his capacity as Knesset speaker.
“It was more or less the same,” he recounted. “I was trying to be very diplomatic and say something in the vein of ‘We will never forget courageous Poles saving Jewish lives, and we will never forgive Poles collaborating with the Nazis’ – and everyone was taken aback. As far as my hosts were concerned, we only had to talk about Righteous Among the Nations,” meaning those who saved Jews.
“It doesn’t work that way. Reality was harsh,” Edelstein added.
The diplomatic crisis between Poland and Israel began when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned last week that Poles collaborated with Nazis, but it seemed to have died down over the weekend – until Sunday evening, when acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who had been appointed that day, quoted former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir who said “Poles imbibe antisemitism from their mother’s milk.”
Edelstein recalled that in the Knesset’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, when MKs read names of their relatives who perished in the Holocaust, Shamir would say at the end of his list, which included his parents, that they were “all murdered by their Polish neighbors.”
The Knesset speaker was still hopeful that “in every crisis there is an opportunity,” and perhaps this will bring issues of how Poland memorializes the Holocaust to the fore. He added that Poland does not accept claims to restitution from Jewish Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
Edelstein, a former prisoner of conscience in the Soviet Union, expressed umbrage at the statements made by some Polish figures about Jewish communists oppressing Poles.
“This is not unique to the Poles. There are other countries under Soviet occupation that mention these things... to blame communism on the Jews is definitely a well-known form of antisemitism and nothing else,” Edelstein said.
He added that he “can’t be suspected of loving the communist regime in any way, and... I have no problem defining the crimes of the communist regime, the Soviets and [certain crimes] in general, as crimes against humanity. But when we want to deal – and rightly so – with communist crimes, it doesn’t mean we should forget Nazi crimes.”
IN A WIDE ranging discussion with the Post’s editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz at the 45th Israel mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, New Right leader and cabinet minister Naftali Bennett also addressed the recent controversy surrounding Netanyahu’s comments.
Collaboration with the Nazis has become a neuralgic issue for Poland, with the country passing and subsequently amending a law in 2018 to criminalize claims that the Polish nation or state was responsible for the Holocaust.
Bennett was implicitly critical of the cancellation of the Polish prime minister’s visit, saying that although Poland and Israel are good friends, the relationship cannot be built on “erasing the past.”
“Many Poles did participate in antisemitism and murdering Jews,” Bennett said. “We cannot allow anyone to revise history for sake of the future – that’s not the way to build a relationship. We need to face the reality that they were a victim, but that not a small number [of Poles] were involved in antisemitism.”
He added, however, that “there were Poles who were different and went out of their way to save Jews” and that “the Polish nation was a victim of Nazi Germany under severe, harsh occupation.”
Bennett also pointed out the personal history of his own family and how his wife’s grandmother and two siblings were murdered by Poles.
“My wife’s grandfather lived in Poland, and for four years, together with his mother and two siblings, hid in the forest. He would go out to find work and bring back food to them in hiding,” related Bennett. “One day, just a little while before the Russians arrived, some young Poles came up to him laughing and said, ‘We killed your family.’ He ran back to their hiding place to find his mother and two siblings dead. This is a fact. You cannot change this.”
Bennett also discussed Israel-Diaspora relations in the Trump era and the possibilities for the next government coalition after the coming elections in April.
He said on Monday that he would reject all peace plans, including that of US President Donald Trump, if they involve handing over even “one centimeter of the Land of Israel.”
Bennett also spoke out against efforts to obscure the fact that significant numbers of Polish citizens aided the Nazis in their efforts to round up and murder Jews, insisting that Poles did participate in “antisemitism and murdering Jews.”
“Trump is a huge friend of Israel,” Bennett said in reference to the peace plan which the Trump administration is working on and is expected to unveil sometime after the election. But Bennett added firmly that he and the New Right Party could not accept any agreement that trades land for peace.
“I oppose handing over one centimeter of the Land of Israel to the Arabs,” declared Bennett. “The New Right will not be joining any government predicated on creating a Palestinian state west of the Jordan. It would destroy the future of Israel, and the future of my children and of millions of children in Israel.”
The full interview with Edelstein, the big winner of the Likud primary, on a range of political issues will be appear in Friday’s Magazine.