Understanding the Israel-Poland standoff over the Holocaust - opinion

Just as Poland takes pride in its Righteous Among the Nations, it needs to take responsibility for and cease denying the existence of Poles whose wartime behavior was less than commendable.

 A WOMAN from Poland places her hand near the names of family members honored at Yad Vashem in 2018 as Righteous Among the Nations. (photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)
A WOMAN from Poland places her hand near the names of family members honored at Yad Vashem in 2018 as Righteous Among the Nations.
(photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

In 2014, when Poland’s Donald Tusk assumed the presidency of the European Council, Israeli diplomats hoped it might lead to improved Israel-EU relations. At the time, Israel had no better friend in Europe, with Jerusalem and Warsaw sharing a close political dialogue, strong defense ties, growing economic cooperation and people-to-people exchanges second to none. Today, this seems like ancient history with relations between Israel and Poland mired in an ongoing diplomatic standoff.

Last August, following Poland’s adoption of a much-criticized law making it more difficult for Jews to recover property seized during the Nazi Germany conquest, Israel’s Foreign Ministry, in atypical undiplomatic language, urged Poland’s ambassador to remain “on holiday in his country” in order to use the time at home “to explain to the people of Poland the meaning of the Holocaust for the citizens of Israel.” Not only is there no Polish ambassador in Israel, but there has also been no Israeli ambassador in Warsaw since October 2020.

One does not have to be an expert on the millennium of Polish-Jewish history to know that there is much emotional baggage in the relationship. For many Israelis, me included, it is a matter of family. Both my maternal grandparents were born in Bialystok but were lucky to have emigrated prior to the Second World War. Had they stayed behind, most likely they would have been murdered along with the 90% of the 3.3 million Jews living in prewar Poland.

Poland’s current leadership does not deny the genocide but refuses to accept any Polish responsibility for it, and in 2018 even passed legislation making it illegal to blame the Polish nation or state for crimes committed during the Holocaust.

Yet, notwithstanding the indefensible law, Poland’s position is not completely devoid of substance. Poles accurately claim that in September 1939 Poland was invaded and occupied, ceasing to function as a self-governing sovereign state. Today’s Polish leadership stresses that the genocide – though occurring on Polish soil – was perpetrated by the Nazi enemy. They rightly say that Treblinka, Auschwitz and Majdanek were not Polish death camps, but built, operated and commanded by Germans.

 German soldiers are seen marching in Warsaw following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. (credit: FLICKR) German soldiers are seen marching in Warsaw following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. (credit: FLICKR)

Poles also remind us that there was no Vichy-type collaborationist regime that cooperated in the “Final Solution.” On the contrary, they point to the role played by Poland’s government-in-exile through its underground network to get the truth about the Holocaust out to the West.

Moreover, the Poles add, unlike the French, Belgians, Dutch, Danes and others, there was no Waffen SS division made up of Polish volunteers committed to Nazi ideology and the victory of the Third Reich. Historian Antony Beevor writes: “Poland was one of the few countries in the Nazi empire where collaboration with the conqueror was virtually unknown.”

FAR FROM being eager quislings, Poles see themselves as victims of a brutal occupation. Poland was ravaged, its people enslaved, and some six million Polish citizens, about one fifth of the total population, died during the war (a figure that includes some three million Polish Jews).

Furthermore, Poland asks us to remember that Yad Vashem has recognized 7,177 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations, the singularly largest country grouping of Righteous. Not only did these brave individuals risk their own lives to save Jews but in so doing also endangered their entire families. The contemporary Polish leadership takes pride in these Righteous, claiming they represent the true spirit of Poland.

Many Jews remain unconvinced. While sincerely honoring the Polish Righteous, Jews tend to view these heroes as the moral exception to the immoral norm. In 2019, when foreign minister Israel Katz extemporaneously spoke of Poles who “suckle antisemitism with their mothers’ milk,” he was reflecting a widely held Jewish perception.

The generation of my grandparents remembered that independent Poland reestablished after the First World War – supposedly committed to democracy and minority rights – nevertheless placed legal, social and economic restrictions on its Jewish citizens.

Polish national identity and Catholicism seemingly went hand in hand. Thus, at best, for large numbers of Poles, the Jews were tolerated outsiders; at worst, they were the Christ-killers of the medieval Church.

Throughout the period of Nazi rule, all too many Poles either demonstrated an indifference to the plight of their Jewish neighbors or identified with the antisemitic policies of the Germans. There are multifold documented cases of Jews who managed to escape ghettos and camps only to be turned over to the Germans by Polish citizens, who despite knowing what the Nazis were doing, thought that Jews deserved neither their assistance nor protection.

The communist regime installed by the Red Army after the Second World War was also not free of antisemitism. Despite the commonly held prejudice of Jews being Marxists and agents of Soviet subjugation, popular antisemitism was nonetheless exploited by the unpopular Polish communist government in an effort to strengthen its legitimacy. In 1967, Jews were purged from leadership positions, and in 1968-69 the Polish authorities launched a state-wide antisemitic campaign.

Jews correctly point to the ubiquitous presence of antisemitism throughout modern Polish history, a phenomenon that undoubtedly affected the behavior of many Poles during the terrible years from 1939 to 1945. At the same time, Poland declares the Holocaust to be an imported crime, carried out by the German invaders after Polish independence had been crushed and the Polish people enslaved.

If there is to be a diplomatic solution to the Jerusalem-Warsaw face-off, it may be found in a formula that includes both Israeli recognition that Poland was a victim of Nazi aggression and Poland’s acknowledgment that numerous Poles either actively or passively collaborated in the mass murder of the Jews.

Of late, there have been some modest signs of a change in the downward Israel-Poland spiral; the recent return of the chargé d’affaires to Israel’s Warsaw embassy indicating the possibility of movement in a more positive direction.

Last month the Polish leadership expressed outrage at the disgraceful events in the city of Kalisz, where hundreds of ultra-Right demonstrators chanted “Death to Jews.” If official Poland can denounce present-day expressions of anti-Jewish bigotry, it is not illogical to expect the Polish government to likewise condemn past manifestations of Polish antisemitism.

Ultimately, just as Poland justifiably takes pride in its Righteous Among the Nations, it needs to take responsibility for and cease denying the existence of Poles whose wartime behavior was less than commendable.

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.