Israel rebukes Polish envoy, calls for rewriting Holocaust complicity bill

Foreign Ministry blasts ‘surprising and unfortunate’ legislation preventing discussion of Poles’ collaboration with Nazis

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Deputy Polish Ambassador to Israel Piotr Kozlowski walks outside the Foreign ministry in Jerusalem after a meeting with Israeli officials on January 28, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Deputy Polish Ambassador to Israel Piotr Kozlowski walks outside the Foreign ministry in Jerusalem after a meeting with Israeli officials on January 28, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Poland’s deputy ambassador to Israel was dressed down at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on Sunday after Polish lawmakers over the weekend advanced a bill that would outlaw blaming the Polish nation for the crimes of the Holocaust committed in Poland.

Piotr Kozlowski met with the ministry’s deputy director general for Western Europe, Dr. Rodica Radian-Gordon, and its director for world Jewish affairs, Akiva Tor.

A statement released by the Foreign Ministry after the meeting said the officials “expressed Israel’s opposition to the wording of the law,” and said passing the bill on International Holocaust Memorial Day was particularly “surprising and unfortunate.”

“This legislation will not help in exposing historical truths, may harm academic freedom and prevent discussion about the legacy of World War II,” the statement said, calling on the Polish government to amend the wording of the bill and “conduct a meaningful dialogue with Israel.”

“We are not trying to erase history, but rather trying to uphold the truth,” Kozlowski said after the 15-minute meeting, adding, “I heard what I expected to hear.” He said the law aims not to “whitewash” but rather “to safeguard” history.

Poland’s Ambassador to Israel Jacek Chodorowicz was not in the country on Sunday.

On Friday, the lower house of the Polish parliament passed legislation that prescribes prison time for using phrases such as “Polish death camps” to refer to the killing sites Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II.

The bill is partly a response to cases in recent years of foreign media using the term “Polish death camps” to describe Auschwitz and other Nazi-run camps. It also makes it illegal to “deliberately reduce the responsibility of the ‘true culprits’ of these crimes,” in reference to the murder of around 100,000 Poles by units in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during World War II.

The bill still needs approval from Poland’s Senate and president. However, it marks a dramatic step by the country’s current nationalist government to target anyone who tries to undermine its official stance that Poles were only heroes during the war, not Nazi collaborators who committed heinous crimes.

“Whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich… or other crimes against peace and humanity, or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the actual perpetrators thereof, shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years,” a translation of a key paragraph of the bill reads.

Main entrance to Auschwitz (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Tulio Bertorini)
Main entrance to Auschwitz (CC BY-SA Tulio Bertorini)

The legislation sparked outrage in Israel, with some lawmakers accusing the Polish government of outright Holocaust denial as the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Saturday.

In a statement that evening, Netanyahu called the Polish bill “baseless” and said “history cannot be rewritten.”

“The Holocaust cannot be denied,” he wrote, adding that he had instructed the Israeli embassy in Poland to “meet tonight with the Polish prime minister to relay my firm stance against this bill.”

His statement came on the heels of a heated Twitter exchange over the bill between Yair Lapid, the chairman of the opposition Yesh Atid party, and the Polish embassy in Israel.

Lapid, the son of a Holocaust survivor, took to Twitter to slam the bill, characterizing it as an effort to rewrite history.

“I strongly condemn the new law that was passed in Poland, which attempts to deny the involvement of many Polish citizens in the Holocaust,” Lapid wrote on Saturday. “No Polish law will change history, Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered on its soil without them having met any German officer.”

The embassy in Israel hit back at Lapid, tweeting that his “unsupportable claims show how badly Holocaust education is needed, even here in Israel.” The intent of the Polish legislation, it said, “is not to ‘whitewash’ the past, but to protect the truth against such slander.”

In response, Lapid demanded an apology: “I am a son of a Holocaust survivor. My grandmother was murdered in Poland by Germans and Poles. I don’t need Holocaust education from you. We live with the consequences every day in our collective memory. Your embassy should offer an immediate apology.”

Later on Saturday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki pushed back against the Israeli anger over the bill, saying that the name Auschwitz and the phrase “Arbeit macht frei,” two of the Holocaust’s most enduring symbols, were not Polish.

Incoming Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki gives a speech to lawmakers at the parliament in Warsaw on December 12. (AFP Photo/Janek Skarzynski)

“Auschwitz is the most bitter lesson on how evil ideologies can lead to hell on earth. Jews, Poles, and all victims should be guardians of the memory of all who were murdered by German Nazis,” Morawiecki tweeted. “Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase.”

Auschwitz was the name of the most notorious Nazi death camp on Polish soil, where over 1 million people were killed, most of them Jews. A gate on the front of the camp read “Arbeit Macht Frei,” German for “Work makes you free.”

Morawiecki also noted on Twitter that Israel and Poland had signed a joint statement in 2016 opposing use of the term “Polish death camps.”

‘Polish version of the Nakba law’

While the bill garnered near unanimous condemnation from Israeli lawmakers, the Joint (Arab) List’s Hanin Zoabi on Sunday compared the Polish legislation to an Israeli law that allows the government to withdraw funding from institutions that mark Israel’s independence as a Palestinian “catastrophe.”

“The law is the Polish version of the Nakba Law,” Zoabi said in a biting statement. “Anyone using the Holocaust for oppressive political purposes should not be surprised by its denial.

“Those denying responsibility for their own war crimes committed against the Palestinians… should not be surprised when others do the same,” she said.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

read more: