On Holocaust distortion, Poland is the ‘tip of the iceberg,’ Nazi hunter says

Efraim Zuroff welcomes Israel’s opposition to the Polish complicity bill, but laments that other countries have been getting away with much worse for decades

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff in his Jerusalem office, January 2018. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff in his Jerusalem office, January 2018. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

When Israel vigorously protested a controversial Polish law outlawing accusing Poland of complicity in Nazi crimes, this was an anomaly in decades of willfully ignoring Eastern European Holocaust distortions, Efraim Zuroff, the world’s leading Nazi hunter, charged this week.

Though he said Jerusalem did well to express its opposition, he predicted that eventually Israeli realpolitik concerns would prevail and that the Jewish state will not continue to challenge Eastern European governments for their problematic characterizations of the Holocaust and their role in it.

“This issue with Poland is really the tip of the iceberg. There is a very large iceberg that has existed for many years,” said Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office.

It was ironic that the Israeli government chose to speak out on Poland’s Holocaust complicity bill, which was passed last week by the two houses of the country’s parliament and now awaits final confirmation by President Andrzej Duda, he said, when it has never chastised such countries as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Croatia and Hungary, which played a more active role aiding the Nazis in their genocide of the Jews during World War II and have for decades tried to downplay their guilt.

“There has never been an Israeli reaction to Holocaust distortion,” Zuroff charged. “There was nothing. Nada. Gornisht. The Lithuanians can say whatever the hell they want, they can glorify people who murdered Jews.”

The Polish bill’s passing triggered an outcry by Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserting that “we have no tolerance for distorting the truth, historical revisionism or Holocaust denial.”

Israel will not tolerate Holocaust distortion. Oh really? For 25 years, they’ve not said a word

He summoned the Polish deputy ambassador to the Foreign Ministry, instructed Israel’s envoy to Warsaw to urgently discuss the matter with Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and also spoke to him himself in an effort to delay the bill’s passing.

“We will not accept any attempt whatsoever to rewrite history,” Netanyahu declared on January 28.

“When Bibi made that statement I almost fell off my chair, quite frankly,” Zuroff said, using the prime minister’s nickname. “Israel will not tolerate Holocaust distortion. Oh really? For 25 years, they’ve not said a word.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and ‘Bild’ newspaper chief editor, Kai Diekmann, right, look at original blueprints of the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland, in Berlin, August 27, 2009 (AP Photo/Rainer Jensen, Pool)

Zuroff has for years urged Jerusalem to challenge Eastern European nations over what he says is a twofold effort to misrepresent the Holocaust.

“There are two major components of Holocaust distortion. One is to hide or minimize the role of local collaborators. The other one is to claim that Communism is just as bad as Nazism, and that Communism should be categorized as genocide,” said Zuroff, who wrote his doctorate on the history of US-Jewish responses to the Holocaust.

Some Eastern European countries have laws prohibiting people from denying the Communist “genocide.”

Zuroff argues this is anti-Semitic and possibly worse than the Polish bill. “Because if Communism is categorized as genocide, it means that Jews committed genocide. Jewish communists were among those who committed the crimes of the Communist regime. If Jews committed genocide, how can we complain about their committing genocide,” he said.

“It’s a brilliant strategy to deflect the criticism of their crimes, get them sympathy as victims of genocide and silence the Jewish criticism. And, also, of course undermine the uniqueness of the Shoah.”

A memorial to the 70,000 Jews of Vilnius and its environs killed by Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, Vilnius, Lithuania, February 16, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)

Official Israel, in its dealings with Eastern European countries, has never addressed these issues, lamented Zuroff, who was born in New York and moved to Israel in 1970. Indeed, Israel purposely turned a blind eye to Holocaust distortion because of other interests, he charged.

“As an Israeli by choice, it pains me, it really pains me,” he said.

Israel until now has trodden carefully with Eastern European Holocaust distortion because it was hoping to improve bilateral relations with countries previously hostile to the Jewish state.

“It’s realpolitik,” Zuroff said, adding that some of these states have indeed developed strong bilateral ties with Israel. Croatia and Latvia, for instance, abstained on the recent United Nations vote condemning the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

But the Jewish state today has so much to offer — in the fields of security, cybersecurity, agriculture, and so on — that it no longer needs to betray its moral convictions, Zuroff said.

Croatian Parliament president Marko Došen giving Nazi salute (far left) accompanied by Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac (far right) and other Catholic Church leaders. (public domain via wikipedia)

“Certainly in the case of the Baltic countries, these countries need Israel more than Israel needs them. Israel hasn’t yet internalized the fact that Israel has become a much stronger country and can stand on its principles a little more than it could in the past.”

The fact that the government last week reacted so strongly to the Polish law has to do with the fact that “Poland has a special place in Jewish history,” he said. Many Israelis are the children or grandchildren of Polish survivors, which made the issue especially resonant.

“I’m happy, but I’m a bit cynical,” he said, adding that he was surprised the government had finally reacted. “Now you discover Holocaust distortion? It’s much worse in other countries, and Poland isn’t the most radical example either, because the Poles were not incorporated into the mechanism of mass murder,” he said.

As opposed to, for instance, Hungarians or Lithuanians, the Nazis considered the Poles untermenschen (subhuman) and did not formally integrate them into their system of mass annihilation of the Jews.

Israel finally confronting an Eastern European country was a “watershed moment,” Zuroff added, though he seemed skeptical about Jerusalem fundamentally changing its approach to Holocaust distortion.

“I feel vindicated in a certain sense. The question is where is this going. I think that realpolitik will prevail. That’s what I am afraid of.”

The Foreign Ministry had no immediate response.

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