President Reuven Rivlin said Wednesday that no country can “legislate the forgetting” of Jews murdered during the Holocaust. The comment was apparently directed at Poland, which recently passed a law criminalizing the mention of complicity by the Polish state in the World War II genocide.
Speaking at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, at the official state ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, Rivlin asserted that “Germany didn’t buy the Jews’ forgiveness, just as no nation can legislate their forgetting.”
“The Jewish people will always bear the banner of the struggle against anti-Semitism and racism,” Rivlin stated. “No political, diplomatic or economic interest can cause us to turn a blind eye to them — neither in Europe nor anywhere else.”
The president went on to invoke the Holocaust survivors murdered by Polish civilians upon returning to their homes after the war, a reality that plagued hundreds of Polish Jews that escaped Nazi horrors.
At the same time, Rivlin made sure not to sweepingly blame the entire Polish nation for the atrocities committed during the Holocaust on its soil.
“The citizens of Poland, just as the citizens of France, the Soviet Union and other countries, were murdered by the Nazis,” he said.
“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.
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.
Rivlin’s speech did not appear to accuse the Polish state or nation of Holocaust crimes, nor refer to Polish death camps.
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.
Holocaust Remembrance Day begins
The ceremony at Yad Vashem, held after sunset, ushered in one of the most melancholy days on Israel’s calendar.
Places of entertainment and cafés close down. TV and radio stations broadcast documentaries about the Holocaust and interviews with survivors or somber music until sundown the next day.
According to the Hebrew calendar, the Holocaust Remembrance Day falls on the same date as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising — the ultimately doomed revolt that played such an important role in defining Israel’s national psyche.
Israel’s identity is defined by the axiom that never again will Jews be helpless in the face of annihilation.
On Thursday morning, Israelis will come to a mournful, two-minute standstill to remember the dead as a siren wails across the country. Pedestrians stop in their tracks. Cars pull over on highways and roads and many people exit their vehicles to stand still in contemplation.
The names of Holocaust victims are read out in the Knesset.
A study released hours before Wednesday’s opening ceremony found that violent attacks on Jews worldwide dropped in 2017, despite a rise in other forms of anti-Semitism, in a year characterized by normalization and mainstreaming of anti-Semitism not seen in Europe since World War II.
Researchers at Tel Aviv University said assaults specifically targeting Jews fell 9 percent last year. They recorded 327 cases, compared to 361 in 2016, which had already been the lowest number in a decade.
But they noted attacks were far more brazen. Most dramatic were a pair of cases in France, where a Jewish woman was thrown to her death out of her apartment window and a Holocaust survivor was stabbed and burned to death in her Paris home.
Threats, harassment and insults have also driven thousands of French Jews to relocate.
Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry releases the report every year on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust memorial day.
Increased security measures are credited with reducing violence, but it may be masking a trend of anti-Semitism becoming more mainstream and acceptable, particularly in European politics. The report described a toxic triangle made up of the rise of the extreme right, radical Islamism and a heated anti-Zionist discourse on the left accompanied by anti-Semitic expressions.