Amid Holocaust Bill Spat With Israel, Polish State Media Suggests: Why Not 'Jewish Death Camps'?

The director of the state-run television station TVP 2 asked on air: 'Who managed the crematoria there?'

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The entrance of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland, December 2009.
The entrance of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland, December 2009.Credit: Reuters

A diplomatic dispute between Poland and Israel over pending Polish legislation that would outlaw blaming Poland for the crimes of the Holocaust, has led to an outburst of anti-Semitic comments in Poland, including some in the government-controlled media.

Poland's lower house of parliament gave its approval Friday to the “Death Camps Law,” which calls for penalties of up to three years in prison for anyone who "publicly and against the facts" accuses the Polish people of crimes committed by Nazi Germany during World War II. The bill was still on the agenda for the Polish Senate on Wednesady, but it was unclear if a vote would take place.

>> Israeli survivors respond to Polish legislation: 'No law can wipe out the memory of the Holocaust for us'

The harsh criticism of the proposed law in Israel has offended many in Poland, including those who oppose the law and any expressions of anti-Semitism. The Israeli media, politicians and Foreign Ministry have all come out strongly against the bill, which seems to have surprised the Polish government – and led to the latest outbreak of anti-Semitic expression, including on social networks and in the Polish media.

As a result, the Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that it was “following with concern the expressions of an anti-Semitic nature in the Polish media, and was considering an inquiry on the matter through the [Israeli] Embassy in Warsaw.” 

Poland's ruling Law and Justice party says the law is meant to fight expressions like "Polish death camps" to refer to the wartime camps that Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland. Poles were among those imprisoned, tortured and killed in the camps, and many today feel Poles are being unfairly depicted as perpetrators of the Holocaust.

As part of the same effort, the government launched a website on Tuesday in Polish, German and English with documentary evidence that death camps like Auschwitz were built and operated by Nazi Germany, which is the historically accurate account.

Germany occupied Poland in 1939, annexing part of it to Germany and directly governing the rest. Unlike other countries occupied by Germany at the time, there was no collaborationist government in Poland. The pre-war Polish government and military fled into exile, except for an underground resistance army that fought the Nazis inside the country.

The Israeli government in the past has supported the campaign against the phrase "Polish death camps," but it has strongly criticized the new legislation, which still must be approved by the Senate and President Andrzej Duda, who both support it.

In one of his recent speeches, Duda said Poland has the right to fight the distortion of its history during the period of the Holocaust, just as Jews have the right to fight against anti-Semitism.

Israel, along with several international Holocaust organizations and many critics in Poland, argues that the law could have a chilling effect on debating history, harming freedom of expression and leading to a whitewashing of Poland's wartime history, which also includes episodes of Poles killing Jews or denouncing them to the Germans.

Polish Holocaust and World War II scholars, as well as international organizations including the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, are among groups who have criticized the law. Critics have said they fear the law could lead to self-censorship in academia and that the legislation — which also mentions "other crimes against peace and humanity" — is so broad that it could be used to fight any form of criticism against Poland by authorities – who already being accused of eroding democratic standards.

In a sign of the sensitivities on both sides, Knesset member Yair Lapid, head of Israel's centrist Yesh Atid party and the son of a Holocaust survivor, insisted in a heated Twitter exchange with the Polish Embassy that "there were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that." An Israeli journalist, Lahav Harkov, also wrote a tweet that consisted only of the phrase "Polish death camps" repeated 14 times.

Far-right groups have called a demonstration Wednesday in front of the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw to protest the "anti-Polish" sentiment they say is being propagated by Israel and some media.

And there has been an eruption of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish comments online and in the media, including in state media, which is tightly controlled by the right-wing ruling Law and Justice party.

The director of the state-run television station TVP 2, Marcin Wolski, even went so far as to say Monday on air that the Nazi death camps should actually be called Jewish. "Who managed the crematoria there?" he asked — a reference to the fact that death camp prisoners, usually Jews, were forced as slave laborers to help dispose of gas chamber victims.

Wolski was joined on his show by a right-wing commentator, Rafal Ziemkiewicz, who only a day earlier had used an extremely derogatory term to refer to Jews on Twitter. His comment was later removed.

And on another talk show Saturday, the day after the lower house of parliament approved the law, on Polish state TV, anti-Semitic messages posted by viewers on Twitter were shown at the bottom of the screen as one participant said that a Jewish guest was "not really Polish." The state television director later apologized for the messages, blaming a technical glitch that caused them to go onto the screen unedited.

In another case, a Polish state radio commentator, Piotr Nisztor, suggested that Poles who support the Israeli position should consider relinquishing their citizenship.

"If somebody acts as a spokesman for Israeli interests, maybe they should think about giving up their Polish citizenship and accepting Israeli citizenship," Nisztor said in a comment carried on the radio's official Twitter account.

Some commentators in Poland, however, expressed dismay, saying it reminded them of an official state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaign carried out by Communist authorities in 1968.

"There has been a lot of hate speech against refugees and Muslims over the past two years in state media, but anti-Semitism was so far rare," said Rafal Pankowski, who monitors anti-Semitism and other forms of extremism as head of the Never Again association. "But in the last couple of days it seems the floodgates have opened."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki agreed after speaking by phone Sunday night to try to resolve differences over the legislation by convening a group of history experts, though it was unclear how effective that will be given the strong support for the bill by the ruling Law and Justice party.

Morawiecki tweeted a story this week intended to exemplify the injustice done to Poland by those who say the country took part in carrying out the Holocaust. “A gang of professional thugs enters a two-family house. They kill the first family almost entirely. They kill the parents of the second, torturing the kids. They loot and raze the house. Could one, in good conscience, say that the second family is guilty for the murder of the first?” tweeted Morawiecki.

Before the outbreak of World War II, Jews had lived in Poland for centuries, thriving in some eras and even becoming the world's largest Jewish population at one point. But anti-Semitism in the decades before the war had grown virulent, driving many Polish Jews to emigrate.

Relations between Jews and Poles had seen efforts of reconciliation since the fall of communism, but some fear the current controversy has set that back.

Agnieszka Markiewicz, director for AJC's Warsaw Central Europe, a Jewish global advocacy group, called the language on state media "shocking."

"It is hard to imagine that there is actually space in the Polish public sphere for such anti-Semitic language and discourse," she said. "It's unacceptable, I believe, not only for Polish Jews, but also for millions of Poles who know World War II history."

The Polish Jewish community numbers only a few thousand people, and most of them live in Warsaw. The Polish government and president officially oppose any signs of anti-Semitism and have spoken out harshly against any expression of anti-Semitism. But occasionally anti-Semitic incidents have been documented in Poland, even though they are sporadic and usually carried out by individuals and not in an organized manner. Such acts are condemned by authorities and dealt with legally. For example, in 2015 a Pole set a doll depicting a Jew on fire during a demonstration in the city of Wroclaw and was sentenced to prison.

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