Education Ministry vows it will ‘tell the truth’ to youth trips visiting Poland

Tour guides at Holocaust sites will not be deterred by local law against putting blame for Nazi atrocities on Polish nation, head of ministry says

Illustrative image of students visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, April 16, 2015. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Illustrative image of students visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, April 16, 2015. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The head of Israel’s Education Ministry said Thursday Israel will not halt high school student trips to Poland and that tour organizers will not be muzzled by a controversial Polish bill that prohibits blaming wartime Poles for the Holocaust atrocities committed by the Nazi regime.

The bill, which prescribes a prison sentence for anyone who refers to “Polish death camps” and forbids mention of Poland’s complicity in the Holocaust, has been pilloried by Israel as a form of historical distortion.

Speaking to Hadashot News, minister director Shmuel Abuav defiantly stressed that trips will continue and “the guides will tell the truth as it happened.”

He pointed to new curricula drafted by the ministry in response to the Polish bill, which examines the murders of over 2,000 Jews by Poles before and after World War II.

Education Ministry director-general Shmuel Abuav, left, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, at a press conference in Jerusalem, January 8, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“No law will silence the instructors and guides, or the story we must tell the younger generation,” Abuav told the television station.

Some 40,000 Israeli high school students will visit Poland this year for purposes of Holocaust commemoration, he noted. The students visit Nazi sites associated with the genocide of European Jewry such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp site.

If passed into law, the new regulations could see tour guides for the school trips to Poland committing a criminal offense if they tell the children that Polish citizens contributed to the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.

Though the law specifically forbids blaming the Polish nation for Nazi crimes, it also leaves the door open to prosecute anyone who “grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes,” according to the text of the bill, which passed the Senate early Thursday. President Adrej Duda has 21 days to sign it into law.

The Israeli government has in the past supported the campaign against the phrase “Polish death camps,” though it strongly criticized the new legislation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced it is a “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.”

Hours after the bill was passed Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a condemnation of the legislation, tweeting “The State of Israel opposes categorically the Polish Senate decision. Israel views with utmost gravity any attempt to challenge historical truth. No law will change the facts.”

Moshe Azman, one of three rabbis claiming to be the chief rabbi of Ukraine, wrote to Education Minister Naftali Bennett proposing that the youth trips visit Ukraine instead of Poland.

“In the light of the adoption by the Parliament of Poland of a new law that prohibits speaking the truth about the Holocaust, I propose that this year…[visits] of Israeli schoolchildren in concentration camps in Poland be canceled,” Azman wrote in the letter Thursday.

Noting that the tours bring tens of millions of dollars a year to the Polish economy, Azman said, “I consider it proper to react financially to the anti-Semitic law, which tries to muzzle the mouths of historians and witnesses of the Holocaust.”

Azman suggested the school students visit Ukraine where the cost of the trip would, he estimated, be half that of trips to Poland.

“In our country, unfortunately, there are many places connected with the Holocaust,” he wrote.

Some 900,000 Jews were murdered in the Ukraine during the Holocaust.

Ukraine’s president called the Polish law “unacceptable” on Thursday, as Kiev took issue with a separate passage imposing a criminal sentence on anyone who denies crimes were committed by Ukrainian nationalists against Poles between 1925-1950.

“I am deeply concerned by the decision of the Polish parliament,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on Facebook.

Some historians say Ukraine’s UPA nationalists committed atrocities during World War II, notably against Poles in Ukraine.

In Poland, however, UPA fighters were seen as death squads responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Poles from what is now western Ukraine.

In 2015, Kiev’s parliament gave unprecedented recognition to those who served in the UPA, recognizing them as “Ukrainian independence fighters”. A year later, Polish MPs recognized as “genocide” the wartime massacre of some 100,000 Poles by Ukrainian nationalists.

Senators attend an overnight session at the Polish Senate in Warsaw, on February 1, 2018., (PAP/Radek Pietruszka/AFP)

Poles were among those imprisoned, tortured and killed in the Nazi camps, and many today feel that Poles are being unfairly depicted as perpetrators of the Holocaust.

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 prewar Polish government and military fled into exile, except for an underground resistance army that fought the Nazis inside the country.

There were many cases of Poles killing Jews or denouncing them to the Germans, however, with deadly anti-Semitic pogroms continuing during and in one case even after World War II.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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