Jews are safer in Poland than in Western Europe, the country’s president Andrzej Duda said Thursday on a state visit to Israel, even as he rejected any historic culpability by his country during the Holocaust.
Speaking at a meeting organized by the Israel Council on Foreign Relations in Jerusalem on the final day of his visit, Duda said that unlike in France or other parts of Western Europe, Jews can freely walk around openly wearing religious garb, according to Haaretz newspaper.
“Jewish culture is popular in Poland today because it raises positive memories,” Duda said, expressing the conviction that “kippa-wearers in every Polish city are much safer today than in Western Europe — France, for example.”
However, Duda denied his country’s collective guilt for the atrocities of the Holocaust, saying Poles also suffered under the Nazi regime.
“It wasn’t us who invaded Poland in 1939,” he said, referring to the 1939 occupation that triggered World War II. “We did not make the Holocaust. We were conquered by the Germans. We had no free choice.”
The president said his countrymen were just as much victims of the Holocaust as the Jews. “Six million of our citizens were killed, half of them Jewish,” he said. “Hitler wanted to kill the Jewish people, but he also planned to kill the Slavs. Along with the European Jews there were also others in the camps, including Poles, who were killed and persecuted.”
Polish-born political scientist Prof. Shlomo Avineri asked Duda about the Poles who played an active part in killing Jews, which the president downplayed as an outlier.
“The historical truth is what it is. It is not always pleasant or pretty,” the president replied. “Like any nation, there were decent people who showed heroism and risked their lives to save Jews, but there were also people who were despicable.”
Duda also defended recently passed legislation that criminalizes the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” in reference to Nazi extermination camps in occupied Poland. He said the world should not refer to Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibór or Chełmno as Polish concentration camps.
“They were not Polish camps. This absurd name refers only to geography,” he said. “How would you feel if a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv was called ‘an Israeli attack’? How would the Japanese feel if the Hiroshima atomic bomb was referred to as ‘a Japanese nuclear attack’? It is a historical distortion.”
Duda, whose father-in-law Julian Kornhauser is a well-known Polish-Jewish poet, spoke of 1,000 years of good relations between Jews and Poles, interrupted only by the Holocaust. But when asked about pogroms and attacks on Jews before and after the Holocaust, he said that every country has anti-Semitism that must be battled.
“Do you know of any country, other than Israel, where there is no anti-Semitism and where there are only decent people?” he asked. “There is no such country. What is important is that all of us resist it head-on.
“Anyone who supports anti-Semitism in Poland today,” he continued, “removes itself from our community.”
Duda met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday in Bethlehem.