The leaders of Poland’s Jewish community on Monday expressed anger and said they were offended by the words of newly appointed acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who quoted the late prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, saying that Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.”
Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, and Monika Krawczyk, chair of the board of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, wrote in a letter that Katz’s words harmed them as Jews who live in Poland.
“It is a fact that some Poles participated either actively or passively in murderous acts by Nazis against the Jews, but we remember also that the Polish government did not collaborate officially with the Third Reich,” Schudrich and Krawczyk wrote.
They also noted that Polish citizens constituted the largest group of Righteous Among the Nations, saving Jews from the Nazis at great risk to themselves.
“It’s a fact that Poles are the majority of Righteous Gentiles. Labeling all Poles as anti-Semites defames (them), it harms anybody who considers them to be the true face of the Polish nation and it is a slur that also damages us, Polish Jews, who are a part of Polish society,” they wrote.
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Monday canceled Warsaw’s participation in a summit of central European countries in Jerusalem, branding Katz’s comments “racist.”
“The words of the Israeli foreign minister are racist and unacceptable… it is clear that our foreign minister (Jacek) Czaputowicz will not be traveling to the summit,” Morawiecki told Polish media.
Katz first made the remark in a TV interview on Sunday, a few hours after he was appointed acting foreign minister by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I am a son of Holocaust survivors and I was even born and grew up in a community made up of Holocaust survivors,” Katz told Channel 13. “The memory of the Holocaust is something we cannot compromise about; it is clear and we won’t forget or forgive.
“In diplomacy, you try not to offend, but nobody will change the historical truth to do something like that,” he added. “Poles collaborated with the Nazis, definitely. As [former prime minister] Yitzhak Shamir said, they suckle anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.”
On Monday morning, Katz added to his original statement when he told Israel Radio that “the Poles took part in the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust. Poland became the biggest cemetery of the Jewish people.”
Morawiecki, who was originally due to attend the summit in Israel, had already withdrawn from it on Sunday, saying his foreign minister would attend, after tensions rose over the weekend due to comments by Netanyahu on Poles’ collaboration with the Nazis that the Prime Minister’s Office said were misquoted by Israeli media.
The American Jewish Committee said it hoped years of reconciliation work between Poland and Israel would not be undone by the latest dispute. CEO David Harris said that “competing historical narratives” had strained the two countries’ relations before.
Harris says such disputes usually resulted from “varying assessments of the magnitude of anti-Semitism in Poland, especially before and during World War II.”
He said it was important for public officials in Israel and Poland to choose their words carefully and not to let disagreements “escalate out of control.”