The last surviving Christian Poles who helped Jews during the Holocaust appealed to Polish and Israeli authorities to return to a path of “dialogue and reconciliation” amid a diplomatic crisis and bitter emotions sparked by a controversial new Polish law that criminalizes some forms of Holocaust speech.
The letter, published Monday, is addressed to the governments and parliaments of Israel and Poland.
It was signed by 50 Poles who describe themselves as the last survivors of the more than 6,700 Poles who have been recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations” — gentiles who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust.
They wrote that they oppose divisions being sown between Poles and Jews and seek a “future based on friendship, solidarity and truth.”
Earlier this month, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed the controversial legislation, which outlaws blaming Poland as a nation for Holocaust crimes committed by Nazi Germany.
The legislation, proposed by Poland’s conservative ruling party, sparked a bitter dispute with Israel, which says it will inhibit free speech about the Holocaust. The United States also strongly opposes the legislation, saying it could hurt Poland’s strategic relations with Israel and the US.
As currently written, the legislation calls for prison terms of up to three years for attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish state or nation. The bill would also set fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish.
Poland’s authorities have described the legislation as an attempt to protect the country’s reputation from what it believes is confusion about who bears responsibility for Auschwitz and other death camps Nazi Germany set up in occupied Poland.
On Saturday, Hadashot news reported that in the wake of pressure and protests from Israel, Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said the law would not be implemented “at this stage.” The report said a Polish delegation was due in Israel this week to instead try to hammer out an agreed text of the legislation, which has passed Poland’s parliament and been signed by Duda, but has yet to be implemented.
However, the Polish government’s spokeswoman Joanna Kopczynska rejected the report on Sunday and said the law would come into force as planned on March 1, according to Channel 10.
“There is indeed a good chance for a meeting between a Polish team and an Israeli team to discuss the issue, but a date for that hasn’t been set,” Kopczynska said, adding that the Polish team had already been established.
Poland’s justice ministry spokesman, Jan Kanthak, also responded to “media reports” about the Holocaust law, writing on Twitter that “any law passed by the parliament and signed by the president becomes a law that comes into force according to the date mentioned in it.”
Earlier this month, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki exacerbated the diplomatic crisis between the two countries by declaring that, alongside Poles, “Jewish perpetrators” also bore responsibility for the Holocaust.
Addressing the Munich Security Conference, Morawiecki was rejecting criticism of the new law when he was asked by an Israeli journalist if sharing his family’s history of persecution in Poland would be outlawed under the new legislation. “Of course it’s not going to be punishable, [it’s] not going to be seen as criminal to say that there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as there were Ukrainian; not only German perpetrators,” Morawiecki told Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ronen Bergman.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Morawiecki the next day and told him that Israel did not accept the statement. “I told him there’s no basis for this comparison, between the act of Poles and the acts of Jews during the Holocaust,” Netanyahu told Israeli reporters following a speech at the Munich Security Conference.
Responding to calls for Israel to recall its ambassador in Poland to Israel, the prime minister said the government was trying to resolve the issue without taking such a dramatic measure, but assured that “all options are on the table.”