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President Rivlin Told Poles What Netanyahu Wouldn’t

Israel's president refused to mince his words and said that 'too few' Poles helped their Jewish neighbors, aligning himself with Yad Vashem's historians rather than Netanyahu's version

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Israeli President Reuven Rivlin speaks in Poland with Polish President Andrzej Duda, January 27, 2020.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin speaks in Poland with Polish President Andrzej Duda, January 27, 2020.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The speech given Monday by President Reuven Rivlin in Poland demands that we stop and ask for explanations. But it isn’t clear whom, if anyone, there is to ask. Rivlin, as is his wont, chose not to twist history and wasn’t deterred from making some harsh statements that seemed rather impolite to make against the country providing the platform.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 58Credit: Haaretz

“We also remember, in great horror, that it [Nazi Germany] received significant aid in its murderous actions throughout all of Europe, and this too requires accepting responsibility,” he said. And then after mentioning “the courage of the righteous among the nations, among them thousands of Poles who risked their lives to save Jews … noble people who risked their lives and the lives of their families,” he made sure to add that they “were few, too few.” And after saying that “the Polish people fought with courage against Nazi Germany,” he added, “Quite a few of the Polish people stood aside and even aided in the murder of Jews.”

It’s worth examining every word of that last sentence. When Rivlin states that “Quite a few” Poles were indifferent at best, and active participants in Nazi crimes at worst, he is contradicting what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in the joint statement signed with his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, in 2018. That controversial document describes Poles who collaborated with the Nazis as “some people” who “revealed their darkest side at that time,” and did so “regardless of their origin, religion or worldview.” There’s a far cry between that description and “quite a few of the Polish people.”

Rivlin is closer to the version of Yad Vashem’s historians, who also denounced the joint statement and issued a statement of their own in 2018, which said, “Attacks against and even the murder of Jews were widespread phenomena” in occupied Poland, and that “The latest research has shown that at least tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Polish Jews perished during the war due to actions of their Polish neighbors. Accordingly, Poles’ involvement in persecuting Jews was in no way marginal.”

Later they noted, “Broad swaths of Polish society were complicit in the murder of the Jews throughout the war and even wider segments improved their situation and even enriched themselves from the ‘disappearance’ of the Jews.”

Given the gap between the Israeli president’s version, which is backed by three senior Yad Vashem historians, and the Israeli prime minister’s version, the spirit of which got support at the time from Yad Vashem’s chief historian, Prof. Dina Porat, it isn’t clear whom the typical Pole in Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk or Poznan is supposed to believe. Nor is it clear how to accept Rivlin’s more conciliatory comments about “reaching out to the Polish people, to return to a path that we’ll march on together, a path on which we will shape the future of the next generations out of respect for history.”

Given Rivlin’s desire to stick to the historical truth and not to beautify it, one wonders why he agreed to distort history with his sponsorship of last week’s event at Yad Vashem, which was decidedly “pro-Russian” in that it only praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Soviet Union, without mentioning the other side of the coin, as Rivlin knew how to do when it comes to his Polish counterparts. The Russians, who are despised by the Poles for massacring them and occupying their country, were presented at Yad Vashem as heroes and the liberators of Europe.

Is it because it’s easier to openly criticize Poland and risk a dispute with it than to anger the czar from Moscow?

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