Poland signals talks with Israel will not change controversial Holocaust bill

Spokesperson says dialogue with Jerusalem over legislation that criminalizes the blaming of Poland for Nazi crimes ‘will not concern sovereign decisions of parliament’

A student on a trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in modern-day Poland on April 27, 2014. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
A student on a trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in modern-day Poland on April 27, 2014. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Warsaw on Monday said that the talks it had agreed to hold with Israel amid outrage over a controversial bill that would criminalize blaming the Polish nation for Nazi crimes would not interfere with the Polish parliament’s “sovereign decisions,” indicating that the country could be unwilling to substantially change its position.

On Sunday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, held talks and “agreed to immediately open a dialogue between staffs of the two countries, in order to try and reach an understanding over the legislation,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office read.

Netanyahu has pilloried the legislation, which prescribes prison time for referring to “Polish death camps” and criminalizes the mention of Polish complicity in Nazi crimes, as “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.”

But two hours after the Prime Minister’s Office issued its statement, Polish government spokesperson Joanna Kopcińska tweeted: “Prime Minister @MorawieckiM talked today with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the current Polish-Israeli relations and historical conditions. It was agreed that there will be a dialogue between the teams of both countries. However the conversation will not concern sovereign decisions of the Polish parliament.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry downplayed her tweet, saying her view does not represent the government.

However, her statement would seem to indicate that Israel won’t have any influence on reworking the law, which Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have demanded be fixed.

The bill, passed by the lower house of the Polish parliament Friday, still needs approval from Poland’s Senate and president. Still, it marks a dramatic step by the nationalist government to enforce its official stance that all Poles were heroes during the war. Historians say many Poles collaborated with the Nazis and committed heinous crimes.

The Israeli delegation to the bilateral talks will be headed by Foreign Ministry director Yuval Rotem, the ministry said Monday. Israel does not currently have a dedicated foreign minister, with Netanyahu taking on the role in addition to other duties.

On Sunday, Netanyahu said he expected Poland to fix the law, and Israel’s Foreign Ministry summoned Poland’s deputy ambassador to express Israel’s opposition to the bill, and said it expects the draft to be amended before final approval.

“The legislation will not help continue exposing the historical truth and can impede the freedom of research,” the ministry said in a statement.

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda said in a statement on Sunday that he would review the legislation and present his “final evaluation of procedural legal provisions after the completion of parliament’s work and a careful analysis of the final shape of the act.”

Mateusz Morawiecki signs a document confirming him as Poland’s new prime minister at the presidential palace in Warsaw on December 11, 2017. (AFP Photo/Janek Skarzynski)

But Morawiecki showed little sign of backing down on the law Sunday, tweeting an allegory about blaming a family for the murder of another family.

“A gang of professional thugs enters a two-family house.They kill the first family almost entirely.They kill the parents of the second, torturing the kids.They loot and raze the house. Could one, in good conscience, say that the second family is guilty for the murder of the first?” he wrote.

On Saturday, he defended the Polish stance, saying the name Auschwitz and the saying “Arbeit macht frei,” German for “Work makes you free,” were not Polish.

He also pointed to a 2016 joint statement between Israel and Poland which contained language opposing use of the term “Polish death camp.”

Polish officials claim the law aims not to “whitewash,” but rather “to safeguard” history.

A student on a trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in modern-day Poland on April 27, 2014. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)

But the legislation has still 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 Saturday, 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.”

Most Popular
read more: