U.S. Holocaust Museum Slams Israeli-Polish Statement on Poland’s Role in Shoah

Washington-based memorial warns that researchers could still be persecuted by Poland for highlighting the country’s role in the Holocaust

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
AP/Charles Dharapak, File

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has joined leading Israeli Holocaust scholars and Yad Vashem in criticizing the recent joint declaration by the Israeli and Polish governments on Poland’s role in the Shoah.

The Washington museum warned over the weekend that despite the joint statement, Holocaust researchers in Poland could still be persecuted by the Polish authorities for highlighting Poland’s role in the mass murder of the country’s Jewish population during World War II.

The Polish parliament passed a law in January that would make it a criminal offense to accuse the Polish people or nation or state of complicity in Nazi-era crimes. Israel protested the law’s advancement and the two countries entered a lengthy secret negotiation, which ultimately led to the publication of a joint statement two weeks ago.

In the statement, Poland promised to amend and soften the legislation, while Israel adopted some of the main talking points of the Polish government regarding Poland’s role in the Holocaust.

The statement was attacked by leading Holocaust researchers in Israel, who said it minimized Poland’s role in the Holocaust and includes historical distortions. Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust remembrance and research institute, said the Israeli-Polish declaration contained a number of historical errors and that it paved the way for legal battles against historians and other Holocaust researchers to continue – even if these will now be only civil and not criminal proceedings.

Another vocal critic of the joint declaration was Israel Prize-winning Holocaust historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer, who called the Israeli-Polish statement a “betrayal” that “hurt the Jewish people and the memory of the Holocaust.”

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, considered the leading American authority on the subject, joined Yad Vashem and Bauer in warning that the joint declaration does not solve the problematic nature of the Polish legislation.

“The Museum supports the recent statements of the renowned Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer and the historians of Yad Vashem,” an official statement said. According to the museum, the changes Poland has made to its Holocaust bill are far from sufficient: “This revision does not secure a future for Holocaust education, scholarship and remembrance,” it stated.

The museum added that “although the Government of Poland has removed the possibility of criminal prosecution, it is still possible for the state to engage in civil proceedings against persons who accuse ‘the Polish nation or the Polish state of being complicit in Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.’ The arbitration of historical facts does not belong with courts or legislative bodies. It belongs with rigorous scholars and educators committed to documenting historical truth and advancing accurate, thoughtful, open discourse,” it said.

The museum added that “the recent amendment does not address our primary concern, which is the potential for intimidation, self-censorship and politicization, rather than a shared belief in the need for an ongoing, honest engagement with the past.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the harsh criticism about the joint statement on Sunday, saying he had “listened intently to the comments of the historians, including about several things that were not included in the declaration. I respect this and I will give expression to it.”

The Knesset will discuss the joint statement on Wednesday. Meretz Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg introduced a motion to formally renounce the statement, which she called “part of a disgraceful phenomenon in which Netanyahu and Likud have joined forces with anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi parties around the world.

“It is unbelievable that the prime minister of Israel is simply willing to sell the history of our people for this nonsense and to harm the millions murdered on Polish soil in this way,” Zandberg added.