Israeli politicians, survivors blast Polish Holocaust law
Foreign Ministry says 'no law can change the facts' after Poland moves to curtail free speech on Polish role in Nazi Holocaust; survivor who insist Poles helped the Nazis says 'I have a ticket to Poland but I'm afraid they’ll arrest me'; ministers say law constitutes Holocaust denial.
Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Galant (Kulanu) expressed outrage over the bill shortly after it was passed, slamming it on Twitter as being tantamount to “Holocaust denial.”
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) accused Polish legislators of passing a law that constituted "a denial of Poland's part in the Holocaust of the Jews." He also called on Netanyahu to immediately recall Israel's ambassador to Poland for consultation.
"In the balance between diplomatic considerations and moral considerations, there must be a clear decision: perpetuating the memory of the victims of the Holocaust above any other consideration."
The Israeli Foreign Ministry also issued a belated statement responding to the Polish decision.
“The State of Israel categorically opposes the Polish Senate’s decision. Israel views with utmost gravity any attempt to harm historical truth. No law will change the facts.”
Meanwhile, Poland's foreign ministry said on Thursday that Warsaw hoped relations with the United States would remain unchanged despite the newly adopted legislation.
"We believe that the legislative work ... despite differences in the assessment of the introduced changes, will not affect the strategic partnership between Poland and the United States," the ministry said in a statement.
Israeli politicians were united in their criticism Poland, whose 3.2 million-strong pre-war Jewish population was systematically hunted and almost completely liquidated by the Nazis after their invasion of 1939.
The law is anchored in the country’s grievances that it is stigmatized and held responsible for collaboration in the Nazis’ extermination program of millions of Jews, a belief that the President Andrzej Duda refutes.
Duda said that he would never allow Poland and Poles in general to be “vilified” though “false accusations.”
On Monday, Duda said that there was no institutionalized participation by Poland or its people in the Holocaust, but acknowledged that individual Poles took “wicked” actions against Jewish neighbors.
Justifying the law, which is awaiting Duda’s signature for final ratification, Poland’s Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki said during his remarks in the Senate that "we have to send a clear signal to the world that we won't allow for Poland to continue being insulted."
Nevertheless, many Holocaust survivors have provided testimony, both before and after the law was conceived, attesting to the brutality with which Jews were treated in Poland by both their neigbors and willing Nazi collaborators.
Halina Birenbaum, a Holocaust survivor and acclaimed Israeli author, called the new law "madness," telling Israel's Army Radio it was "ludicrous and disproportionate to what actually happened to Jews there."
Speaking in an interview with Ynet, Birenbaum said that she feared that would be one of the first people to fall afoul of the new draconian law, which carries with it a three year prison sentence for a mention of "Polish death camps."
“I have a ticket to Poland and everything but I don’t know what they’ll do, Birenbaum said. “I’m scared they will arrest me for saying that they informed (the Nazis) and that there was a danger posed by them themselves, and by the Germans."
Birenbaum said that the Poles often informed the Nazis of the Jews' whereabouts and were able to identify them according to how they looked.
"The Germans sometimes didn’t recognize who was Jewish but they did. They knew, they were our neighbors. They also knew how Jews looked and dressed. This is danger and injustice to the victims who can no longer speak," she lamented.
“I feel terrible about it. It is inconceivable. I was born in Warsaw, I passed through the Warsaw Ghetto, from age 10 until 15 I was everywhere. I was in the bombing of Warsaw, our homes were burned there and after the ghetto the deportations to Treblinka started.”
The law represents a complete lack of understanding for the Jewish tragedy, she continued, “of their destruction to the end. It hurts and it is insulting. There’s no trace of the people. There are hundreds of thousands of people whose names didn’t even remain, who no one knows ever existed."
Noting that “there were also good neighbors who hid Jews,” Birenbaum recalled the lengths to which Jews were compelled to go to avoid being reported by Polish neighbors to the Germans.
“The told on us. We were scared of our neighbors .. We were scared a lot of the time to even pour the water in the house in case the neighbors heard and thought there must be Jews there … everything was terrifying."
Asked whether Poles were part of the Nazi apparatus itself, she responded: “They weren’t part of the Nazi mechanisms. Jews also did bad things, like the Jewish police in the ghetto and gave permission to deportation to Treblinka. But the Poles absolutely did ‘help’, they murdered by themselves in the cruelest ways. Books have been published that the Poles wrote and now it’s forbidden to say it or write a book. It’s a lie, and lies can’t for years. There are facts and people who recorded them.”
The Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem also released a statement Thursday decrying the legislation.
"It is most unfortunate that, despite all the problems with the formulation of this law and the harsh protest it has engendered, Poland has decided to pass this problematic piece of legislation," the statement began.
"This law is liable to blur historical truths due to limitations it places on expressions regarding the complicity of segments of the Polish population in crimes against Jews committed by its own people, either directly or indirectly, on Polish soil during the Holocaust."
Yad Vashem, the statement continued, “reiterates and emphasizes that the term ‘Polish death camps’ is erroneous” and maintained that the concentration and extermination camps were built and operated by the Germans in Nazi-occupied Poland with the express purpose of murdering and annihilating the Jews of Europe within the framework of the "Final Solution."
However, the statement advocated increased education rather than the curtailment of free speech.
“The correct way to combat these historical misrepresentations is not by criminalizing these statements but by reinforcing educational activities,” the statement read.
“However, the law passed last night in the Polish Senate jeopardizes the free and open discussion of the part of the Polish people in the persecution of the Jews at the time. Yad Vashem will continue to support research aimed at exposing the complex truth of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust and promoting educational and commemorative activities in this spirit.”
Other Holocaust survivors who acknowledged that some Poles did risk their lives to save Jews, said that the population’s complicity was an inescapable fact.
“During the war Poland was an occupied country, and there was a government in exile in London, and it obviously didn’t encourage the murder of Jews or collaborate with the Nazis,” said Holocaust survivor Lilly Haber, who today serves as the chairwoman of the Forum of Polish Immigrants and Members of The Presidium of the International Auschwitz Committee (IAC).
“But there is culpability for the Poles themselves as individuals and I’m not talking about one or two, but a large percentage of the population. This is something the Poles should have faced long after the war, and not just gloried, honored, and praised the 6,500 Righteous Among the Nations,” she added.
“What about the tens of millions who stood on the side or actively assisted in the killings? They acted to achieve the result for the Germans which they wanted—the destruction of the Jews. They assisted in the Final Solution and that can’t be denied,” Haber concluded.
Moreover, Haber noted that the Poles were not mere accomplices to the Nazis’ liquidation of Jews and their atrocities, but also initiated murderous acts without prompting from Berlin.