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Israel Is Yielding to Poland's Holocaust Narrative

Israel and Poland are close to ending the crisis sparked by the 'Holocaust Law.' But there's a sensitive issue Israel chose to overlook: The part many Poles played in persecuting and murdering Jews

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Visitors passing through the main gate bearing the inscription at the Auscwitz-Birkenau concentration camp museum in Auscwitz-Birkenau, Poland.
Visitors passing through the main gate bearing the inscription at the Auscwitz-Birkenau concentration camp museum in Auscwitz-Birkenau, Poland.Credit: Bloomberg
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, under pressure from a foreign state, has backed off the law which his parliament and president had approved.

What political price he and his party might pay for this from their rightist and nationalist constituents is not known.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave Poland a real treasure in return – recognition of Poland’s narrative on World War II. The joint declaration, which (for good reason) the two leaders read in English rather than in their voters’ languages, made it clear that Warsaw has scored a real victory in the battle for the historical narrative.

Israel has acknowledged that the Polish nation and state, as a whole, were not involved in the Holocaust and did not collaborate with the Nazis.

>> Adviser to Polish PM: Jews should be more sensitive to Polish feelings when they talk about Holocaust-era Poland>> 'Orgy of murder': The Poles who 'hunted' Jews and turned them over to the Nazis

It also recognized that the Polish government in exile and the Polish underground acted to rescue Jews. In addition, it appreciates and respects the action of “many Poles” who saved Jews, including, of course, about 7,000 Polish Righteous Among the Nations. These points are not historically disputed. Israel’s reservation concerning the phrase “Polish extermination camps” is also clear and acceptable.

The problem begins with the part of the declaration dealing with the most painful, difficult and sensitive issue: the part many Poles played in persecuting, turning in and murdering Jews – before, during and after the Holocaust.

On this issue, which is at the center of a lively historic debate, Israel has clearly “yielded” to Poland, out of undisclosed diplomatic considerations. We must pay attention in particular to one vague word – “cruelty.” Israel and Poland recognize the “cruelty” that Poles displayed toward Jews – it says, without detailing and expanding on the nature of this cruelty.

Not a word about burning Jews alive after locking them up in a barn; no mention of “hunting down Jews” in the fields and selling them to the Germans for a beer bottle. Moreover, this is followed by a reservation, saying that the “cruelty” wasn’t linked to the criminals’ Polish origin – or even to their religion or “world view” – but was simply conduct practiced by “certain people” – so the statement said – in various places. In other words, “there are bad people everywhere.”

It’s true that many nations collaborated with the Nazis, and in contrast to the Polish case, sometimes with their pro-Nazi governments’ encouragement and initiative. But even so, the joint statement lacks an honest reckoning on Poland’s part of the findings arising from numerous historic studies, including those carried out in Poland itself.

Examining these studies shows that the Polish collaboration with the Nazis was so extensive, under any criterion, that in almost every village, township and city there were Poles who agreed to sell their soul to the devil. It isn’t worthy or respectable to use the word “cruelty” to describe this chapter of history.

The Catholic Church also played a significant role in this – whether through anti-Semitic incitement or through silence. So the statement that the criminals among the Polish people acted “regardless of their religion” is not accurate, to say the least.

A certain problem also arises from the peculiar sentence, that alongside the mutual condemnation of “anti-Semitism” both states also denounce “anti-Polish sentiment.” It is not clear from the declaration’s wording what it means. If it means labelling as “anti-Polish” every statement about the Poles’ collaboration with the Nazis – then the similitude to anti-Semitism is extremely discordant. If the intention is something else – it should have been made clear.

Despite all this, the bottom line is that the joint declaration is welcome and desirable. From now on, the full examination of the Poles’ part in World War II will be carried out by historians, journalists, public figures and politicians – without the threat of imprisonment hovering over them if they express views that are unpleasant to a certain ear.

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