Israeli Holocaust survivors from Poland expressed outrage on Sunday over the passage of Polish legislation that seeks to outlaw any mention of the country’s complicity in atrocities perpetrated by Nazi Germany against the Jews.
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The controversial bill, which would also criminalize use of the term “Polish death camps,” was passed by the lower house of the Polish parliament on Friday, but still requires approval by the upper house and also the president’s assent.
Zvi Gil, who survived the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps and the Lodz ghetto, views the legislation with “great severity,” saying it was proof that the Poles had committed crimes against the Jews. “If they hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been a need for a law like this,” charged Gil, one of the founders of Israeli television.
Although the Poles were also persecuted by the Nazis, he said, “There were many who took advantage of the Nazi occupation – not only to express hatred toward the Jews, but also to commit acts of vandalism against them.”
Gil recalled that, as a teenager in the Lodz ghetto, he would often observe Poles crossing the bridge that connected its two parts. “Some of them would look the other way,” he recounted, “but others would smile when they saw our suffering.”
He said the Israeli government should respond to the legislation by banning all school trips to Auschwitz and other death camps. (Over the past 30 years, such trips have become a rite of passage for high school students in Israel.)
Rena Quint, a survivor from Piotrkow whose mother and two brothers were murdered in Treblinka, said she believed the attempt to whitewash Poland’s past through legislation was destined to fail. “It is true the death camps were set up by the Germans,” she said, “but Poland did nothing to try to get them out of there.”
Quint, who recently published a book about her experiences during the Holocaust, called “A Daughter of Many Mothers: Her Horrific Childhood and Wonderful Life,” spent several years in a forced labor camp before ending up in Bergen-Belsen. She said her failed postwar attempts to reclaim property owned by her family in Poland have strengthened her conviction that most Poles were happy to be rid of their Jewish neighbors.
Shimon Redlich, a retired history professor from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, has both lived through the Holocaust and studied the Holocaust as an academic. Born in the Eastern Galician town of Brzezany, he was able to survive the war by hiding in the home of a Ukrainian woman.
“I strongly condemn the current Polish government for initiating this legislation,” he said. “It is particularly of concern for people like me who study and write about Polish history and could soon find themselves under threat of legal action.”
At the same time, Redlich urged Israelis to refrain from overreacting. “It’s important to remember that governments come and go, and that in the past there have been far more liberal governments in Poland. There is no reason, therefore, to boycott all the Polish people because of something like this.”
The Israeli government, he charged, was guilty of similar attempts to “manipulate” the Holocaust. “In Poland, you have a nationalistic, right-wing government in power that is trying to pander to certain groups,” Redlich observed. “We have something pretty similar going on here in Israel. Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] often uses the Holocaust when he preaches to his detractors.”
Shmuel Atzmon, a well-known Yiddish theater actor, said the proposed legislation was actually a far greater threat to the Polish people than to the Jewish people. “There is no law that can wipe out the memory of the Holocaust for us. But by trying to erase from the record what bad Poles did back then, the government is committing an injustice to good Poles today,” he warned. “It is not educational and they are simply hurting themselves.”
Atzmon has played an active role over the years in promoting cultural ties between Israel and Poland. “Ten of the best years of my life were spent in Poland before the war broke out,” he said, “and it is important to me that good relations between our two countries prevail.”
Born in 1939, six months before Germany attacked Poland, Jehoshua Pomeranz was the youngest Jewish survivor from the city of Radom. After his father was murdered in Auschwitz, his mother paid a Polish family to hide her and her baby boy.
“From what I heard, my mother had to promise them she would not tell anyone that they saved Jews, because they were afraid of repercussions from the neighbors,” he recalled. “This was proof to me that such acts of kindness – and in this case they were even doing it for money – were not the norm.”
After the war, Pomeranz continued, his mother set up a business in Radom, but was warned she would face death if she didn’t leave town. “I think you can understand why I don’t have fond memories of the Poles,” he said.
He believes the controversial legislation being advanced in Poland “is an attempt to cover up their complicity in the murder of the Jews.”
“Poland was always a very anti-Semitic place,” he said. “It had a lot of Jews – they were tolerated but not loved. The Poles took the opportunity of the German invasion to assist in finally getting rid of the Jews,” he added.
But Eli Kindler, who was saved by a Polish woman in the town of Sokal (now part of Ukraine), offers a more sympathetic response. “People tend to forget that, unlike in other countries, in Poland there was no national government that collaborated with the Nazis,” he said. “Rather, the Germans set up their own government there. So it’s not really fair to say the Poles were guilty for what happened to the Jews.”
When the Germans occupied towns in Poland, Kindler noted, one of the first things they did was round up the intellectuals and kill them. “And that’s exactly what they did with the Jews,” he said, “so in a way we were all in the same boat.”