Opinion

Poland vs Israel: Who's Really Winning the War Over Holocaust History?

In Warsaw, nationalists say Poland’s sold out to the Jews. In Jerusalem, that Poles breastfeed their babies anti-Semitism. Is there a way out of the bitter disputes about WWII now dominated by deniers, manipulators and extremists?

The Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, is pictured on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019
Michael Sohn/AP

When, in June last year, the Polish and Israeli governments declared that their dispute over Poland’s "Holocaust law" had been resolved, it was clear to many observers that, in fact, the issue had merely been swept under the carpet by a temporary diplomatic solution that failed to resolve the concerns of critics on both sides.

Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to put his name to a joint declaration on WWII history with his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki. This was immediately criticized not just by the Israeli opposition, but even by Netanyahu’s own justice and education ministers, as well as Yad Vashem, which described it as "highly problematic" and "contradicting existing and accepted historical knowledge."

In return, the Polish government withdrew the most controversial parts of its law, those that made falsely blaming the Polish state or nation for German atrocities a criminal, imprisonable offense. To amend Polish legislation under Israeli (and U.S.) pressure was an embarrassing climbdown for a government that presents itself as a defender of national sovereignty against foreign interference.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poses for pictures with Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during the Middle East summit in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019.
Agencja Gazeta/ Reuters

This prompted criticism from nationalists that the ruling party had "sold off Poland" to Jews, "enacting laws under the diktat of Israel."

While both governments were keen to move past such criticism fairly quickly, a more substantive problem was that the June agreement made no effort to tackle the deeper issues that underlay the dispute, in particular conflicting collective memories of WWII. The June agreement put out the fire but left a forest full of tinder, ready to be ignited by the next flame. 

And this is precisely what has now happened.

Last year’s conflagration was primarily the fault of Poland, which passed its ill-conceived memory law on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and then compounded this with insensitive remarks from senior figures, including Morawiecki’s comments about "Jewish perpetrators" of the Holocaust.

But this time around it is the Israeli side that has set the blaze. The claim by Foreign Minister Israel Katz that Poles "imbibe anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk" was false, essentializing and offensive – not least to the many Poles who risked, and often lost, their lives helping Jews during the war, as well as the many today who devote themselves to protecting and promoting Poland’s Jewish heritage. 

This is not to deny that anti-Semitism was, and still is, a problem in Poland, nor that some Poles were responsible for Jewish deaths during the war. But such generalisations are not the way to acknowledge or address this, and Katz’s comments were widely condemned by Jewish groups in Poland and the U.S.

The fallout from this could have been contained. Yet instead it was compounded by the Israeli government making no attempt to denounce or distance itself from Katz’s remarks, nor even to rein him in. The very next day he repeated the remarks in another radio interview. The situation was further exacerbated by a slew of commentary in Israeli media that was often uninformed on WWII history and presented further negative generalizations about Poles as a whole.

A woman with a scarf with the words “Polish Holocaust” – a nationalistic reframing of Auschwitz - at the former Nazi German extermination camp on International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day. Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019
\ KACPER PEMPEL/ REUTERS

This reached its apotheosis on Sunday, with an article (Yes, Poles Imbibed anti-Semitism With Their Mothers’ Milk) in Haaretz by Israel Harel that was as ignorant as it was hateful. Harel claimed that the Polish "government collaborated with the Nazis" (an utterly false claim), that "a vast majority [of Poles]…are haters of the Jewish people" (also false), and that this "inborn hatred" of Jews made Poles responsible not only for the Holocaust but also, bizarrely, the Spanish Inquisition.

This is not to say the Polish side has been innocent. The current dispute has, like last year, brought hateful views out of the shadows, with old stereotypes about Jewish greed, power and "Zydokomuna" (Judeo-Communism) finding voice. 

A senior MP from the ruling party accused Jews of "arrogance" and wanting to "extract money from Poland." State TV, which has become a propaganda mouthpiece for the government, aired news segments offering a distorted version of Holocaust history in which Jews collaborated with the Nazis in their own destruction while Poles attempted to save them from their fate.

And this is precisely the problem. These disputes over WWII history bring out the worst elements and attitudes on both sides. They trigger a vicious circle of mutually reinforcing animosity fuelled by competing, one-sided historical memories. The discourse comes to be dominated by the most extreme voices, who have a political or ideological motivation to stir things up.

Prejudices that normally lie dormant are brought into the mainstream as the crisis gives a sense of license to express such sentiments.

Meanwhile, more moderate and knowledgeable figures, including those who have devoted decades to building bridges between the two sides, are sidelined, looking on with frustration and helplessness as all that good work is undone.

Erzsebet Brodt, 89, holds a picture of her family, killed in the concentration camp of Auschwitz during WW11. Erzsebet was sent there with them as a 17 year-old and survived. Budapest January 12, 2015
\ REUTERS

More worrying is the thought that the last year has shown that such efforts never did more than superficially paper over intractable and incompatible attitudes on both sides. If so, it does not bode well for any sustainable improvement in relations between two countries where, far more than in most places, history plays a powerful role in identity, politics and international relations, but for whom their two visions of history are often at odds.

If there is to be any real hope of overcoming these differences, and of reconciling these competing historical memories (or, at the least, agreeing civilly to disagree), the media in both countries must take far greater responsibility.

This means thinking more carefully about to whom they give a platform and, while allowing different interpretations of history to be aired, refusing to permit outright misrepresentations of it.

Daniel Tilles is assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow, author of "British Fascist Antisemitism and Jewish Responses, 1932-40" (Bloomsbury) and co-editor of Notes from Poland, a portal providing news, analysis and opinion in English on current affairs in Poland. Twitter: @danieltilles1