Israel’s embassy in Warsaw on Friday denounced what it said was a “wave of anti-Semitic statements” sweeping across Poland, many of them directed at the Israeli ambassador, in the midst of a diplomatic row over Polish complicity in Holocaust atrocities and the freedom to debate the issue.
On Wednesday night, the Polish Senate voted in favor of a controversial law which sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish or accuses the Polish nation or state of complicity in the Third Reich’s crimes.
“In the last few days we could not help but notice a wave of anti-Semitic statements, reaching the Embassy through all channels of communication. Many of them targeted Ambassador Anna Azari personally,” the embassy said in a statement on its website.
“We have restrained ourselves from reaction, but we feel we should no more. Anti-Semitic statements are overflowing the internet channels in Poland, but they have become present on the mainstream media too, especially on (public broadcaster station) TVP Info.
The Israeli mission noted that “Israel stands with Poland in using the proper term for the death camps – German Nazi camps.”
But, it said, “We hope that over 30 years of work and dedication of wonderful people, both in Poland and in Israel, will not be in vain and that we will be able to cooperate in an atmosphere of dialogue and shared understanding.”
The legislation has been the subject of serious criticism and expressions of concern by Israel and Washington, as well as many Jewish organizations and international institutions, including the International Auschwitz Council.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it was increasingly concerned about a spate of anti-Semitic expressions in the Polish media in the wake of the Holocaust bill.
In one instance, the head of a state-run channel suggested referring to Auschwitz as a “Jewish death camp,” in response to an outcry over use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the Nazi killing site in German-occupied Poland. The director of the state-run television station TVP 2, Marcin Wolski, said Monday on air that the Nazi death camps should be called Jewish. “Who managed the crematoria there?” he asked — a reference to the fact that death camp prisoners, usually Jews, were forced to help dispose of gas chamber victims.
Wolski was joined on his show by a right-wing commentator, Rafal Ziemkiewicz, who only a day earlier had used an extremely derogatory term to refer to Jews on Twitter. The comment was later removed. And on another talk show Saturday on Polish state TV, anti-Semitic messages posted by viewers on Twitter were shown at the bottom of the screen as one participant said that a Jewish guest was “not really Polish.” The state TV director later apologized for the messages, blaming a technical glitch that caused them to go onto the screen unedited.
In another case, a Polish state radio commentator, Piotr Nisztor, suggested that Poles who support the Israeli position should consider relinquishing their citizenship. “If somebody acts as a spokesman for Israeli interests, maybe they should think about giving up their Polish citizenship and accepting Israeli citizenship,” Nisztor said in a comment carried on the radio’s official Twitter account.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party says the law is meant to fight expressions like “Polish death camps” to refer to the wartime camps that Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland, but its provisions are wider, criminalizing talk of Polish complicity in the Holocaust.
A key paragraph of the bill 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 3 years.”
Israel has pilloried the legislation as “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.”
“Everybody knows that many, many thousands of Poles killed or betrayed their Jewish neighbors to the Germans, causing them to be murdered,” said Efraim Zuroff, a prominent historian on the Holocaust and the Eastern Europe director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, on Sunday. “The Polish state was not complicit in the Holocaust, but many Poles were.”
Poles were among those imprisoned, tortured and killed in the camps, and many today feel 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. However, there were many cases of Poles killing Jews or denouncing them to the Germans, with deadly anti-Semitic pogroms continuing during and in one case even after World War II.
Israel, along with several international Holocaust organizations and many critics in Poland, argues that the law could have a chilling effect on debating history, harming freedom of expression and leading to a whitewashing of Poland’s wartime history.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.