On Polish soil, President Reuven Rivlin told his Polish counterpart, Andrjez Duda, on Thursday that while some Poles helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust, others took part in their extermination.
“There is no doubt that there were many Poles who fought the Nazi regime, but we cannot deny that Poland and Poles had a hand in the extermination,” Rivlin said during a joint press conference with Duda in Krakow.
“The country of Poland allowed the implementation of the horrific genocidal ideology of Hitler, and witnessed the wave of anti-Semitism sparked by the law you passed now,” the president added, challenging recently passed legislation that criminalized the mention of complicity by the Polish state in the Holocaust.
The president noted that Israel honors those Poles who gave their own lives to save Jews, but pointed out the widespread anti-Semitism that existed in Holocaust-era Poland and the fact that many Poles also participated in the extermination.
“People murdered and then inherited [the property of the dead]. Here was the foundation” of anti-Semitic feeling “that allowed the Nazis to do as they wished, not only in Poland but throughout Europe,” Rivlin said.
“This land was a forge of the Jewish nation’s soul, and to our deep sorrow, also its largest Jewish graveyard. You can’t erase such a rich history, full, painful history,” Rivlin told Duda.
“Policymakers have a duty to shape the future. Historians have a duty to describe the past and investigate history. One must not overstep into the field of the other.”
For his part, Duda welcomed his Israeli counterpart to Poland. “Our meeting today is a great honor, but also of course a testimony to the enormity of the disaster that happened here,” Duda said.
The Polish president acknowledged that “three million Jews were murdered in Poland in the Holocaust” and assured Rivlin that Poland “will never forget them.”
Addressing the recent controversy over the Holocaust legislation, Duda admitted “there is great disagreement” on the matter but reiterated that “at no point did we want to block testimony [on the Holocaust]; on the contrary we wanted to defend the historical truths, and as a leader, I want to do this at any price, even when it is difficult for us.”
Rivlin’s own words ahead of the annual March of the Living from Auschwitz barracks to the Birnenau death camp, which he led, echoed a speech he gave the previous evening in Israel at a state ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance eve.
He asserted that no country can “legislate the forgetting” of Jews murdered during the Holocaust, in what ostensibly was meant to be a jab at Warsaw.
“We do not expect European countries to pass on to the younger generation a sense of guilt. However, we do expect and demand that they pass on the torch of memory and responsibility,” he said.
Rivlin used similar rhetoric during the Thursday press conference, telling Duda that “cooperation between Israel, Poland, and the Jewish people on remembrance and memorial, in education and research is the way to pass the torch of remembrance and responsibility to the next generations.”
Passed in February, the Polish law calls for prison terms of up to three years for attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish state or nation. The law also sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish.
One key paragraph of the law states, “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich… or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.”
The legislation, which was introduced by Poland’s conservative ruling party, has sparked a bitter dispute with Israel, which says it will inhibit free speech about the Holocaust. The United States also strongly opposes the legislation, warning it could hurt Poland’s strategic relations with Israel and the US.
Jewish groups, Holocaust survivors and Israeli officials fear its true aim is to repress research on Poles who killed Jews during World War II. The law and subsequent backlash have unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism in Poland.
Earlier this month, senior Israeli and Polish diplomats met in Jerusalem in a bid to resolve differences, with both sides vowing to preserve “the truth.”
But last month, Poland demanded that the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem remove a reference to “Polish police” guarding the Lodz ghetto.