Recipient of Polish award returns honor over death camp legislation
Israel Gal, a historian of Jewish-Israeli heritage, who was recognized for contribution to commemorating Polish Righteous Among the Nations, returns Order of Merit in protests against bill downplaying Polish role in Nazi atrocities; ‘This is a distortion of history.’
The legislation, that has been approved by Poland’s lower house of Parliament, prescribes prison time for defaming the Polish nation by using phrases such as "Polish death camps" to refer to the killing sites Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II.
“This is hypocrisy and a distortion of history, and it’s something I can’t agree with,” Israel Gal said in an interview with Ynet.
Gal, also a scholar of literature, acquired the rights to the book “People and Animals” which tells the story of Jan Żabiński, and his wife Antonina, who saved about three hundred Jews brought out of the Warsaw ghetto in a zoo in the city, and in 2011, he published his Hebrew version of the book.
“I received this award of honor from the then Polish president Bronisław Komorowski through the Polish Embassy,” Gal said. “This brave and humane family saved dozens, perhaps even hundreds of Jews and underground Polish fighters.”
Asked why he had decided to return the award, Gal pointed to the less liberal stance that had gripped the current Polish government.
“I did it because the new government in Poland is acting in an almost completely opposite fashion to the government in 2012, that was a lot more liberal,” Gal responded.
“We must not be tempted by the current government’s agenda—to elevate the Polish Righteous Among the Nations, and rightly so, but to hide the many murderous acts against Jews and the looting of property by Poles,” he added.
“I met with the deputy Polish ambassador and I told him what I think about this hypocrisy and about the distortion of history,” Gal said, who added that the deputy ambassador had urged him to reconsider his decision.
“He said what he had to say, asked me to reconsider and I told him I’m waiting to see the results of this hostile and demonic legislation,” he continued.
“I added that I expect to see actions and investigations by Polish and international researchers, who will expose the bitter truth about the murder of Jews by the Poles, without and connection to, or dependence on, the actions of the criminal Nazis.”
On Monday, President Andrzej Duda doubled down on the matter, saying that there was no institutionalized participation by Poland or its people in the Holocaust, but he acknowledged that individual Poles took “wicked” actions against Jewish neighbors.
But despite Duda’s attempt to soften the blow to Israelis and Holocaust survivors outraged over the legislation, Gal’s act of protest joined a chorus of bitter criticism that had emanated from the Israeli political and academic establishment.
Before Duda’s announcement, President Reuven Rivlin said during remarks in Athens the legislation is "a reminder that it is still beholden upon us to fight for the memory of the Holocaust, as it happened,” and added that Israel would never forget the atrocities carried out by some Poles of their own accord and on orders from Germany.
Assaf Kamar, Attila Somfalvi and Alexandra Lukash contributed to this report.