Israeli Guides Leading Holocaust Tours Fear Prosecution Over Poland's New Holocaust Bill

Chairman of guides organization asks for clarification regarding the legislation, which criminalizes holding Poles responsible for Nazi crimes

Jews from Israel and around the world participate in the March of the Living in the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz Birkenau, Oswiecim, Poland, April 8, 2013.
אי־פי

An organization of Israeli guides who conduct tours in Poland, which includes educators who lead Israeli groups around the country, expressed concern that their members could be prosecuted after the passage of a new law that forbids blaming the Polish people for the crimes of the Holocaust.

Gil Paran, the chairman of the group, asked the Education Ministry on Sunday to clarify the implications of the new law for his colleagues, and whether they run a risk of legal action against them. “I would like to find out whether, if I mention the part played by the Polish people in the crimes of the Holocaust as I guide, this breaks the law, and whether an Israeli guide is exposed to criminal proceedings,” Paran wrote the ministry’s legal adviser.

The ministry has not yet responded.

According to Paran, tour guides lead tens of thousands of teenagers and adults on Holocaust study trips every year. Among other things, their lectures discuss what Paran describes as “a variety of behaviors of Poles during the Holocaust,” starting with the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their own lives to save Jews, to people who stood idly to those who were “accomplices to murder.” In this context, Paran said that guides speak to groups about “the organizing of communities, groups and individuals among the Poles to harm Jews, both directly and by giving them up to the Nazi occupying authorities.”

On Friday, the lower house of the Polish Parliament passed the new law, which calls for up to three years’ imprisonment for those convicted of speaking publicly about complicity of Poland or the Polish people in Nazi crimes in the Holocaust.

Paran told Haaretz that there are many questions regarding the new law: “Is guiding considered a public expression banned by the law? Might attributing an accusation to an individual Pole be considered accusing a part of the Polish people?”

“The Poles are right that there was no government directive, by the government in exile, to act against the Jews, so it’s correct that there was no Polish state in the war,” he said. However, “The term ‘people’ is more problematic. There were many local, personal and organized actions by the community, which harmed the Jews.”

Paran stressed that guides in his organization did not use the term “Polish death camps,” which the new law also prohibits.

The tour guides are privately employed by a company that won a bidding process initiated by the Education Ministry, but they act in accordance to directives issued by the ministry’s director general. Paran has asked the ministry to immediately approach the Polish government with a query as to whether guides can be exempted from this law, the way academics and artists are. If such an exemption is not made part of the law, Paran wrote, his colleagues would like to be informed of the “precise restrictions defined in the law.” They also “recommend that the Foreign Ministry and the Education Ministry immediately prepare tools to assist the guides in the field.”

Debate over the role of the Polish people in Nazi crimes has been going on for several years among historians, and has not yet been put to rest. Some stress the part Poles played in persecution by turning Jews in to the authorities and murdering Jews before, during and after the Holocaust, and argue that anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in Poland even before the Nazi occupation. They note that Poland served as fertile ground for crimes that Poles committed against Jews. In contrast, others note the part played by the Poles who saved Jews by hiding them from the Nazis. The Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem has recognized 6,700 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations, although in Poland that figure is believed to be much higher.