A joint statement Tuesday by the Israeli and Polish governments made no mention of Polish persecution of Jews during the Holocaust despite the several paragraphs devoted to Holocaust remembrance.
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Critics charge that Poland’s right-wing government has been trying to obliterate that and other unpleasant facts from the historical record.
A senior Israeli official said that at no point during the talks did Israel seek to insert anything about Poles who collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
According to the official, the main issue that troubled the Israelis was legislation being pushed by Warsaw that could restrict academic research into the Holocaust. He said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised this issue with Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo during a joint cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
“I agree that truth is truth, but it’s necessary to investigate openly and freely,” the official quoted Netanyahu as telling his Polish colleagues. “There were Nazi collaborators from every country, including Poles.”
According to the official, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo responded that her government did not seek to undermine or restrict Holocaust research, and that this point was stressed in the legislation.
The Israelis who helped craft the joint statement included people from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry, the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw and Yad Vashem, the official said.
The joint statement has drawn mixed reviews from historians. Poland did not explicitly promise to stop persecuting researchers who study Polish crimes during the Holocaust, agreeing only to a general statement supporting academic freedom.
In any case, Israel accepted Poland’s demand for an explicit condemnation of the term “Polish death camps.” The Polish government fears this term could mislead people into believing that the Poles established and ran the Nazi death camps in occupied Poland.
Dr. Boaz Cohen, head of the Holocaust Studies Program at Western Galilee College, harshly criticized the statement, calling it “a betrayal of everyone who studies the fate of the Jews in Poland,” and especially of “Polish researchers who endanger their social status and more when they expose their people’s crimes.”
Poland’s government is advancing legislation that would impose jail sentences on anyone who claims that the Poles collaborated in Nazi crimes, casts doubt on the Poles’ status as victims of the Nazis or uses the term “Polish death camps.”
“It seems as if the Poles wrote the statement and gave it to the Israeli government to sign,” Cohen added. “I don’t believe any Israeli historian saw this statement before it was published.”
But Prof. Yehuda Bauer, a leading Holocaust historian and former chief historian at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, said the statement also had positive aspects.
According to the statement’s key sentence, “Both Governments firmly oppose any form of discrimination on racial grounds and anti-Semitism, as well as any attempts at distorting the history of the Jewish or Polish peoples by denying or diminishing the victimhood of the Jews during the Holocaust, or using the erroneous terms of memory such as ‘Polish death camps.’”
But Cohen charged that the statement denies or diminishes the Jews’ victimhood because it does not mention the Polish collaborators, the Polish cabinet ministers today who deny the existence of such collaborators or the Polish government’s persecution of historians who study the issue.
For example, in a television interview last summer, Polish Education Minister Anna Zalewska cast doubt on research showing that Poles murdered hundreds of their Jewish neighbors in Jedwabne in 1941. And Polish prosecutors are even considering indicting Jan Gross, the historian whose book “Neighbors” publicized the massacre, for damaging the country’s reputation.
Zalewska also cast doubt on the Polish massacre of 40 Jewish Holocaust survivors in Kielce in 1946, saying that “the story is complicated.” Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz has even claimed that Jews participated in committing the Kielce pogrom.
Yet despite the omissions cited by Cohen, the two sides said in the statement: “The Governments recognize the continued need for comprehensive and unrestricted research of Holocaust-era events and processes, and support institutions and individuals that conduct and facilitate such research.”
Bauer said this might indicate that the Polish government is seeking cover to end its witch hunt against scholars like Gross, and if so, “it should be welcomed.”
Another section of the statement discusses the Righteous Among the Nations, or non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Poland is proud of having more Righteous Among the Nations than any other country, about 6,600. Yet they constituted only a tiny minority of the Polish population, and many other Poles helped the Nazis persecute Jews.
Consequently, some historians were troubled that the statement welcomed “the recent opening of the Museum of Poles Saving Jews during World War II,” but made no mention of the controversy over this museum in the Polish town of Markowa.
One historian who has studied the issue, who asked to remain anonymous, told Haaretz that the museum distorts history by emphasizing the minority of Poles who saved Jews while obscuring the larger number who helped persecute Jews. “They’re depicting the exception without talking about the rule,” she said.
Lili Haber, a Polish-born child of Holocaust survivors who heads the Association of Polish Jews in Israel, said she welcomed “any activity in Poland to educate about and commemorate” the Holocaust. Still, she added, the joint statement ignored many important issues, especially the restoration of Jewish property confiscated by the Nazis in Poland.
“Most European countries have reached some kind of agreement on this, but the Polish government avoids even discussing the issue, and certainly avoids finding any solution to Jewish property left on Polish soil, which is worth billions of dollars,” Haber said. “The time has come for the Polish authorities to stop sweeping this issue under the rug.”
Joint List MK Dov Khenin, who heads the Knesset caucus for Holocaust survivors, criticized Netanyahu over the agreement.
"The Polish government is working to erase this dark chapter from its history, rather than acknowledge it and study it. The Israeli government yesterday signed an agreement that legitimizes this.
"We appreciate the fact that there were many Righteous Gentiles in Poland. That's also part of Polish history. But there were also people there who participated in crimes," he said.