Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki acknowledges that among the Poles there were “individual criminals, as in any nation,” but will not accept any generalizations about Poland’s involvement as a nation and Poles’ involvement as a people in the Nazis’ crimes.
Speaking with Haaretz this week, after the eruption of the current diplomatic crisis between Israel and Poland, Morawiecki says he was profoundly hurt by the comments of interim Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who quoted former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir when he said, “The Poles imbibed anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.”
This sentence, says Morawiecki, is the reason he canceled his participation in the Visegrad Summit, which was scheduled to be held this week in Israel.
“I have no problem with someone mentioning the fact that during the cruel, evil, dehumanizing war there were individual criminals in my nation – obviously there were, just as in every other nation,” says Morawiecki. “But when you use these stereotypes that ‘every Pole suckled anti-Semitism out of their mother’s breast’ it’s nothing short of racism.”
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Morawiecki described further his reaction to Katz’s insult. “When I first heard of this it seemed totally unbelievable. Such words could be used by a radical extremist, but not by a foreign minister,” he said, later adding, “I understand that in the course of an electoral campaign some politicians want to make headlines.”
“We also have to cope with some anti-Semitism in Poland, but fortunately it is marginal,” Morawiecki said, citing the recent report of the European Fundamental Rights Agency. “Poland is one of the few countries in the EU where the number of anti-Semitic incidents is decreasing, while in many others we are witnessing worrying developments,” he said, noting that anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise in countries like France, Germany, Sweden and Britain.
“Let me stress it again: This plague is marginal in Poland. It saddens me that anti-Polonism seems to be the position of one of the top Israeli officials,” said the Polish prime minister.
Morawiecki also cited that the joint statement he signed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last June included a section denouncing anti-Semitism and anti-Polonism. This part of the declaration elicited criticism from some historians who argued that a parallel should not be drawn between the two, and that putting them together in this way diminished the gravity of centuries of anti-Semitism in Poland.
However, the Polish prime minister says he stands firmly by the statement. "Our nations deserve better. Only the enemies of good Polish-Israeli relations are interested in sowing seeds of hatred between our people.”
Katz’s comments were preceded by a comment from Netanyahu that ignited the present crisis. Last Thursday, responding to a question from Haaretz about the new Polish law against accusing Poles of involvement in Nazi crimes, Netanyahu said, “Poles collaborated with the Nazis and I don’t know anyone who was ever sued for such a statement.”
Netanyahu was initially quoted on the Jerusalem Post website as having said that “the Polish nation” colluded with the Nazis. Following a request for clarification from the Polish government, his office issued a statement that “He was speaking about Poles and not about the Polish people or the country of Poland.”
Morawiecki says he spoke with Netanyahu after he made those comments, and that Netanyahu told him that “his words were misinterpreted by journalists. He also confirmed that he stands by our June declaration that said: ‘We reject actions that aim to blame Poland or the Polish nation as a whole for the crimes committed by the Nazis and their collaborators from other nations.’”
Despite being pleased by Netanyahu’s explanation, Morawiecki says the delay in Israeli response “was not well-received in Poland.” He also implied some unhappiness with the speed and nature of the clarification, which was issued solely as a brief statement in English: “I can only say that if someone ever misquoted my own words, I would take all effort to clarify it.”
Morawiecki again presents the Polish narrative that his nationalist right-wing government has purveyed since coming to power in 2015, a narrative that stresses how Poland itself was a victim of the Nazis and highlights the efforts of Poles to aid their Jewish neighbors.
“Collaboration with Germany was never an official position of the Polish State. The wartime Underground Polish State persecuted all those who were denouncing Jews, sentenced them to death and executed them, even during the war,” he says.
“Occupied Poland was one of the very few states without a puppet Nazi government. And the only one in which a person helping Jews faced death penalty at the hands of the Germans. And not only this person – their entire families as well,” Morawiecki says.
“It was a brave act to do so. Still, tens of thousands of Poles, perhaps even more, were helping their Jewish brethren.” 6,800 Poles have been recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations” but the number of Poles who saved Jews is thought to be higher, because many were afraid to tell of their acts of bravery. “We share common history. Our nations were both victims of Nazi Germany. We should not allow some radicals to rewrite history and destroy the memory of that,” says Morawiecki.
“I believe that we still need to educate people across the world, especially younger generations. Of all aspects of history. Of heroes and criminals alike. And about who was responsible for orchestrating these crimes,” the Polish prime minister adds.
Historians are divided about this narrative, which was at the heart of the criticism issued by a number of top Holocaust scholars from Yad Vashem last summer in wake of the joint declaration. These scholars, Professor Havi Dreifuss among them, believe the Polish government is deliberately downplaying the Polish role in Nazi crimes and disproportionately emphasizing the actions by some Poles to help Jews during the Holocaust.
Morawiecki refuses to accept such charges. “Poland is no longer afraid. We experienced terrible war and decades of occupation, and we were not able to defend ourselves from accusations. But now Poland will no longer give in to a pressure to accept lies, misleading phrases, let alone racist insults,” he says. “We are open to truth, even the most difficult truth about individual collaborators – but we will never agree to stretch their personal responsibility to the whole nation.”
He also cites the words of Marie Skłodowska Curie, the Polish Nobel-winning scientist and first woman to be awarded the prize, who said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Asked to comment on the current crisis between the two countries, Morawiecki said: “I don’t think there is a deep crisis between Poland and Israel. I understand that in the course of an electoral campaign some politicians want to make headlines. But in general, my government is one of the most pro-Israeli in the EU and in the United Nations. We openly criticized the BDS initiatives (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) aimed against Israel. The V4 summit in Jerusalem was supposed to become yet another step in building friendship between us and Israel – it was to be actually the first V4 summit ever to be held outside of our region.”
Morawiecki says he hopes that in the future Israeli politicians “will know how to react, and I hope that we can soon return to uninterrupted, fruitful cooperation.”