Poland marks new holiday for Poles who saved Jews in WWII

Amid strained ties with Jerusalem over Holocaust bill, Polish PM says rescue of Jews is ‘one of the most glorious pages of Polish history’

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki arrives on the first day of a summit of European Union (EU) leaders at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on March 22, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ludovic MARIN)
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki arrives on the first day of a summit of European Union (EU) leaders at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on March 22, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ludovic MARIN)

Polish officials held ceremonies honoring Poles who gave shelter and aid to Jews during the Holocaust, as the country for the first time marked a new national holiday in their memory.

The main celebrations were held Saturday in the southern village of Markowa, where German forces in 1944 executed a Polish man and his pregnant wife — Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma — their six children, and the eight Jews they were hiding.

Poland’s president and prime minister sent letters that were read at the ceremony praising the courage of the Markowa family and the thousands of other Poles who helped Jews, even at the penalty of death, during Germany’s wartime occupation.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said helping Jews at that time was “one of the most glorious pages of Polish history.”

Morawiecki has been a central figure in the weeks of bitterness that have erupted between Poland and Israel over a controversial new Holocaust speech law.

The legislation, which came into force earlier this month, imposes fines or up to three years in jail on anyone who ascribes “responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for crimes committed by the German Third Reich.”

Last week, the Polish attorney general’s office declared the law partly unconstitutional, saying that penalizing acts committed abroad independently of local laws demonstrated “excessive interference.”

It added that the law was “dysfunctional,” could have “opposite results than those intended,” and could “undermine the Polish state’s authority.”

Polish officials have been taking part in talks in Israel aimed at damage control after an angry dispute triggered by the law.

Members of Israeli and Polish delegations attend a special dialogue at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem on March 1, 2018, regarding the Polish controversial Holocaust law. (Gali Tibbon/AFP)

The Polish government says it is a necessary tool to fight cases in which Poland is inaccurately blamed for German crimes that were carried out in occupied Poland during World War II.

Israel and other critics, however, fear that the law — which is in any case unenforceable outside of Poland — is really aimed at trying to stifle research and discussion within Poland into anti-Jewish wartime violence.

Amid the heated debates, Morawiecki sparked further criticism with comments seen as insensitive and historically wrong.

At a forum of world leaders in Munich last month he listed “Jewish perpetrators” of the Holocaust along with German, Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish perpetrators, seeming to suggest that Jews were partly responsible for their own genocide.

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