Polish Delegation Heads to Israel in Bid to Resolve Crisis on Holocaust Law

A delegation of diplomats, journalists and World War II experts is set to arrive Wednesday after Poland's ambassador expressed readiness to discuss the controversial bill

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki reads a letter signed by fifty Poles recognized by Yad Vashem for saving Jews during the Holocaust on February 26, 2018.
JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP

A Polish delegation will arrive in Israel on Wednesday with the goal of resolving the crisis surrounding the controversial Holocaust law adopted in Poland earlier this month.

Members of the delegation will meet Thursday with an Israeli team headed by Foreign Ministry Director General Yuval Rotem, in an attempt to “preserve the historical truth,” as the Foreign Ministry put it, and quell the tensions between the two countries.

The delegation will include Undersecretary of State Bartosz Chihocki, who is equivalent in rank to Rotem, the Jewish-Polish journalist Bronislaw Wildstein, the director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, Professor Grzegorz Berendt, and Mateusz Szpytma, the deputy president of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, which is the body tasked with enforcing the new law.

The Israeli team, the Foreign Ministry said, is made up of people from Yad Vashem, historians, jurists and diplomats.

On Tuesday, during a hearing of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Rotem described the developments that led to the delegation's forthcoming arrival.

“On February 6 the Polish president signed the bill into law, and from there it goes to the Polish Constitutional Court. We asked for a public clarification of the issue,” Rotem was quoted as saying.

“Last Friday the Polish justice minister gave an interview and said from what our perspective is a significant milestone: ‘There will be no punishment of witnesses to history, researchers, or journalists who quote painful facts about our history.’ That was a comment we hadn’t heard before.There is somewhat of a response here to our demand.”

Committee chairman MK Avi Dichter said, “The Polish law is a crime and we will not allow it to happen. We will do everything to eliminate this crime. It’s our obligation.”

Prof. Dina Porat, the chief historian of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, told the hearing, “My theory is that the Poles want to equate Jewish suffering with Polish suffering. They’re saying ‘we all suffered under the Germans, what do you want from us?’”

The law, which was passed by the Polish parliament earlier this month, forbids attributing Nazi crimes to the Polish people, nation or state. It was aimed at battling such erroneous references to “Polish death camps.” But in Israel there was sharp criticism of the bill, with many arguing that it attempts to distort history and undermines freedom of expression. The law calls for punishments ranging from fines to three years imprisonment for violators.

After the law’s passage, the bilateral crisis intensified due to a number of controversial statements made in Poland. For example, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that the Holocaust had Jewish perpetrators as well as Polish and Russian ones, and that every nation has its criminals.

Before that, an aide to Polish President Andrzej Doda said that Israel “Is struggling to preserve its monopoly on the Holocaust” and that its criticism of the law stems from “Feelings of guilt over Jewish passivity during the Holocaust.” He then tried to explain by saying, “Many Jews were involved in turning over people and collaborating [with the Nazis] during the war.”

On Monday, Polish Ambassador Jacek Chodorowicztold told Israeli lawmakers at the Knesset that Poland is prepared to talk with Israel about its controversial Holocaust law.

Meeting with members of the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee, Chodorowicz said both sides feel that too much has already been said about the law, and that it is time to sit down and talk quietly. Both Israel and Poland already stated that committees would meet to discuss the history and the law, the ambassador said, adding that it would happen very fast.

Grzegorz Berendt, one of the members of the arriving delegation, wrote an article in Haaretz last year in which he set out his position on the issue. The Nazi occupation, he said, "I cannot agree with the claim that sees a few tens of millions of occupied Poland's frightened, plundered and starved inhabitants acting as tacit collaborators with the Germans," but "no one disputes that thousands of Polish citizens heightened the jewish tragedy."

In January, Haaretz reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had spoken by phone with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and the two agreed to open "immediate dialogue" over the legislative proposal.

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem referred to this conversation in its statement Tuesday confirming the Polish delegation’s arrival, adding, “The purpose of this dialogue is to preserve the historical truth and prevent harm to the freedom of research and expression.”