National Polish Memorial Institute 'Surprised' by Yad Vashem's Criticism of Israel-Poland Holocaust Declaration

The institute's vice president says the declaration 'is consistent with historical knowledge' and that historians from both countries should work together to straighten out the controversy

A group of Israeli soldiers visits the Hall of Names in the Holocaust History Museum at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, April 10, 2018
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance has rejected Yad Vashem historians’ comments that last month’s Israeli-Polish declaration contained historical errors and paved the way for legal action against Holocaust researchers – even if these now would be civil proceedings, not criminal.

On June 27, after months of talks with Israeli officials, Poland said it was amending the section imposing criminal sanctions in the so-called Holocaust Law, which was passed in January. In signing the joint statement, Israel accepted the Polish narrative concerning the Holocaust, which emphasizes the Poles’ efforts in saving Jews and minimizes their role in the killing of Jews.

Over the weekend, the institute called for research cooperation with Yad Vashem in order to discuss the issue.

The institute’s vice president, historian Mateusz Szpytma, said that “any topic, even the most controversial one, should and can be brought to a discussion by Israeli and Polish historians,” adding that his institute was willing to cooperate with Yad Vashem in science and education.

In an interview with the Polish news agency, Szpytma said he was “surprised” by Yad Vashem’s criticism of the joint declaration, adding that “it contained no controversial elements.” He added that the declaration “was congruent with historical knowledge about World War II.”

As he put it, “obviously such declarations are not binding guidelines for historians in Poland and Israel. Historians conduct their research and everyone is entitled to their own interpretation.”

Szpytma said he did not accept Yad Vashem’s argument that the assistance given by Poles to Jews during the war was limited, including the claim that the Polish underground generally did not help Jews during the Holocaust.

He said that considering conditions during wartime, “aid was substantial.” He added that “if anyone thinks differently they obviously have a right to do so, even if it does not seem convincing.”

He said the declaration by the Israeli and Polish prime ministers “did not determine whether this assistance could have been broader or not. We’ll leave that to historians.”

Szpytma also referred to criticism in Israel regarding the comparison of anti-Semitism to hostility toward Poles. He said that “obviously we know that anti-Semitism is more prevalent than anti-Polish sentiments around the world and has a longer history. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t fight both phenomena.”

Meanwhile the Holocaust Museum in Washington has joined ranks with Yad Vashem's view, and urges that the historical issues should be left to the academics.

The Israeli Historical Society has also expressed support for Yad Vashem. "We all agree that the prime ministers' declaration contains a serious distortion of historical facts."