Herzog to Polish president: Story of Holocaust must recall evil of Nazis, accomplices

Israeli president appears to reference dispute over WWII narrative in speech as he joins German, Polish counterparts in Warsaw for 80th Ghetto Uprising memorial

President Isaac Herzog speaks at a commemoration on the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Warsaw, Poland on April 19, 2023. (Courtesy of the office of the President of the State of Israel)
President Isaac Herzog speaks at a commemoration on the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Warsaw, Poland on April 19, 2023. (Courtesy of the office of the President of the State of Israel)

President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday stressed the importance of remembering the crimes of both the Nazis and their collaborators in his speech at Poland’s official ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The comment appeared to be a veiled reprimand of Poland’s Holocaust narrative, with the country repeatedly minimizing the role of Polish co-conspirators in the genocide.

Herzog joined Polish President Andrzej Duda and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Polish capital’s Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, along with dozens of Holocaust survivors and dignitaries for the memorial.

Turning to Duda, Herzog thanked his counterpart for his “colossal efforts and your commitment to the task of remembrance and commemoration, including right here, in this place,” but emphasized the importance of acknowledging the raw history of the Holocaust.

“We must remember: there is nothing postmodern or relativistic about Holocaust remembrance. Absolute evil existed, in the form of the Nazis and their accomplices. And absolute good existed, in the form of the victims and the rebels, from every nation. And in passing this heritage down to posterity, it must reflect this indisputable axiom,” he said.

“The heroism of the resistance and the rebels and the imperative to remember that terrible chapter of history, when the Jewish People faced complete annihilation and destruction rained down upon Poland and many other countries, offer a platform for important dialogue between Poland and Israel and for the advancement of friendship between our peoples,” Herzog added.

Herzog was set for a trilateral meeting with Duda and Steinmeier during his visit, amid diplomatic tensions between the three countries over the historical narrative of World War II, which are sowing divisions between Germany and Poland, even as both countries assist Poland’s eastern neighbor Ukraine in its war with Russia.

Front from right, Polish President Andrzej Duda, Agata Kornhauser-Duda, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, Michal Herzog, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Elke Buedenbender attend a Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commemoration event in Warsaw, Poland, April 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Israel’s relations with Poland deteriorated after Warsaw passed a law in 2018 that made it illegal to blame the Polish nation for Nazi crimes. Then-foreign minister Yair Lapid called the law an attempt to whitewash Polish complicity. Attempts at reconciliation led to a recent draft agreement between Poland and Israel on the resumption of Israeli school trips to Nazi former death camps, which drew fire for its inclusion of recommended sites that critics say provide a distorted view of the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, Polish politicians have been seeking reparations from Germany for crimes against Polish citizens, a demand that Germany so far has not been prepared to meet.

“I stand here at these sacred moments, in a place where whole branches of our people were cut down, destroyed, tortured and exterminated,” Herzog said on Wednesday.

“In a place where Jewish hope and faith faced challenges the likes of which humanity had never known. And I cannot help but imagine the daughters and sons of my people, ‘beloved and pleasant in their lives, and in their deaths never divided,’ he stated.

“I imagine what they would have said, what they would have thought, if in those dark hours, in the stench of the sewers and suffocating cellars, staring down the barrels of guns and tanks, someone had whispered in their ears that eighty years later, we — the presidents of Poland, Israel and Germany — would be standing here and saluting their heroism and swearing an eternal oath together to their sacred memory, an oath with a singular core: never again.”

The Warsaw Ghetto Revolt’s aftermath, when German forces set the ghetto ablaze to murder or capture 50,000 Jews hiding in bunkers in April-May 1943 (Z. L. Grzywaczewski / from the family archive of Maciej Grzywaczewski, POLIN Museum)

Duda, who did not reference the dispute, began his speech with an overview of the Nazi and Soviet aggression in Poland when German troops and soldiers fighting for the Soviet Union occupied and divided Poland.

Steinmeier said: “The terrible crimes Germans perpetrated here fill me with shame but also gratitude and humility to be able to participate in this event as the first German head of state to do so.”

In the Ghetto Warsaw Uprising, the largest-scale act of armed resistance by Jews during the Holocaust, a few hundred members of two Jewish underground movements launched a series of hostile actions against German troops with makeshift and smuggled arms. The Germans needed several weeks to quell the uprising, in which multiple German soldiers died. The Germans subsequently burned down the ghetto and murdered about 50,000 people who were left in it when the uprising began.

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