Israeli President to Polish Counterpart: We Cannot Deny That Poland and Poles Participated in Holocaust

This year's march at Auschwitz comes weeks after Poland passed controversial legislation criminalizing allegations of Polish complicity in the Holocaust

Poland's President Andrzej Duda (R) and Israel's President Reuven Rivlin (L) arrive to attend the "March of the Living", a yearly Holocaust remembrance march between the former death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, in Oswiecim on April 12, 2018.
JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP

Polish collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust cannot be ignored, President Reuven Rivlin told his Polish counterpart, Andzrej Duda, Thursday in a meeting ahead of the annual March of the Living, in which thousands march at the former death and concentration camp of Auschwitz.

This year's march comes several weeks after Poland passed controversial legislation criminalizing allegations of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. The bill still awaits final approval from Poland's Constitutional Court. 

"Not for nothing we describe the death camps as the camps of Nazis and their helpers," Rivlin said. "There is no doubt that many Poles fought against the Nazi regime, but we cannot deny the fact that Poland and Poles lent a hand to the annihilation" of Jews during the Holocaust, Rivlin said.

Rivlin called for a "comprehensive and unrestricted study about the events and processes during the Holocaust." Israel's president further said that "statesmen must shape the future, and the historians have the duty to describe the past. One must not stray into the other's field."

Duda, for his part, said regarding the legislation: "There is controversy over the law, but I want to repeat that the Polish parliament has no intention of preventing survivors from giving their testimony. I, as president of Poland, wish to defend history – including its difficult parts."

Holocaust survivor Zoltan Matyah shows the number tattooed on his arm in front of the front of the "Arbeit macht frei" (Work sets you free) gate in the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz before the start of the annual "March of the Living" to commemorate the Holocaust in Oswiecim, Poland, April 12, 2018.
\ KACPER PEMPEL/ REUTERS

He noted that there was "unacceptable behavior" on the part of some Poles during the Holocaust and said he was "not afraid to talk about it." However, he said, "there was no systematic hatred of the Jews, because they were themselves citizens of Poland."

Duda, whose wife has a Jewish father, further stressed that the disputed legislation was never meant to "block testimony" about the Holocaust. 
"Just the opposite," the Polish president said. "We want to defend historical truth. I as Polish president want to defend this truth with all my power, including those elements that are difficult for Poles." 

The Polish president also noted in a joint press conference prior to the march that his and Rivlin's presence here "shows the world: never again anti-Semitism, never again genocide, never again Holocaust.

Also taking part in the march this year are senior Israeli security officials, including Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, police chief Roni Alsheich, and the chiefs of the Shin Bet and Mossad security services.

The route from Auschwitz to the remains of crematoria at the nearby Birkenau camp is followed every year by young Jews, Poles and elderly survivors to remember the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, including 1.5 million murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau's gas chambers.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, in southern Poland, was the biggest death camp set up by Nazi German invaders during World War II on Hitler's order to exterminate Europe's Jewry.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.