It took the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem an entire week to wake up. A whole week in which the controversial joint declaration signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, reverberated in Israel and abroad. It was only on Thursday, several days after 92-year-old Professor Yehuda Bauer, the world’s foremost Holocaust researcher, decried the declaration as “treason” that Yad Vashem realized it could no longer remain silent.
The document released Thursday on the institution’s behalf by Yad Vashem’s three senior historians, including Professor Hava Dreifuss, the head of the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland and an authority on Polish Jewry, undermines the historic and moral validity of the joint Polish-Israeli declaration.
When Yad Vashem, the world’s most respected Holocaust research institution, asserts, while providing a number of examples, that the declaration signed by Israel’s prime minister consists of historical distortions, it is clear that the document is null and void.
Netanyahu’s serious mistake stemmed from the idea that history could also be bent for transient political or diplomatic needs, whatever they might be. In this sense, the entire declaration was born in sin. Netanyahu may have boasted that Professor Dina Porat, Yad Vashem’s chief historian, approved it, but the heads of Yad Vashem said Thursday that if she was involved in it, she didn't do it in their name. As of the time of this writing, Porat herself has not commented on the affair, and it will take some time for the entire picture to become clear.
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One way or another, the crisis with Poland could have been settled more elegantly and less clumsily, because the damage caused by “ending the crisis” in its current format is greater than the crisis itself. It's unfortunate that nobody warned Netanyahu that there was no need to get carried away and make controversial historical statements about the “many Poles” who saved Jews, while those who assisted the Nazis did it as “individuals” and regardless of their Polish origin. Professor Bauer was right to wonder in this regard if they had landed from the moon.
An alternative declaration could have recognized that reality, as always, is complex and makes it difficult to determine hard and fast facts, certainly not when the declaration's signatories are two politicians — one of them seasoned and senior, the other a young rookie. It would have been possible, for example, to commend the thousands of Polish people who endangered (and sometimes sacrificed) their lives to save their Jewish neighbors, while mentioning a few specific cases, to make dry history accessible to the broader public. There is no shortage of such examples, and they include Ephraim Apter of Tel Aviv, who owes his life to the Polish Bonczek family, who extracted him from Warsaw Ghetto and provided him shelter.
The second part of the declaration should have roundly condemned other Poles, whose numbers are the subject of debate by researchers, who persecuted, turned in and murdered Jews. In this context, the declaration could have mentioned, for instance, that this week was the 72nd anniversary of the Kielce pogrom, in which after the war, in 1946, Poles murdered several dozen Jewish Holocaust survivors who were waiting to immigrate to Israel. It could also certainly have mentioned the suffering of many Poles during World War II, some of whom were imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis, even if not in the systematic and total fashion in which it was directed at their Jewish neighbors.
If they were to end on a high note, the signatories could have mentioned that, in addition to the many Polish Jews who came to Israel with harsh memories of Poland and refused to ever return there, a new spirit in relations between the two nations has also surfaced. Flights to Krakow and Warsaw from Israel are packed and quite a few Polish Jews, particularly those who remained in Poland after the war and came to Israel later, reminisce nostalgically about Polish culture in the Tel Aviv cafes where they gather, and they are not ashamed to admit that they quite enjoy Polish food. The historical argument should have been left to historians.