Sidestepping some of the darker aspects of the Jewish experience in Poland throughout the Holocaust era, Polish President Andrzej Duda chose to highlight the more positive aspects of Jewish-Polish relations in a speech Thursday at the March of the Living.
Speaking to the roughly 12,000 participants from 40 countries during a concluding ceremony at Poland’s Birkenau death camp, Duda said that “for many centuries, the old, historic polish town of Oswiecim [the Polish name for Auschwitz] was not associated with anti-Semitism and extermination.”
Throughout his speech, the Polish president largely avoided mention of Polish complicity in the Holocaust, bringing to mind a law, passed in Poland in February, that calls for prison terms of up to three years for attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish state or nation. The law also sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish.
“These were evoked when Germany invaded and destroyed the independent Polish state, then brought its death camps and crematoria,” he continued.
“For 1,000 years, the Jewish nation regarded my country as the land of Polin, a hospitable, safe home,” Duda said. “In Oswiecim there were houses of worship and schools. Just 80 years ago, in the Second Republic of Poland, Jews were almost 50% of the population” of Oswiecim.
“We lived as fellow citizens in one sovereign state. Together we fought for Polish independence,” he added.
“That coexistence was brutally interrupted by the Germans, who imposed their own inhumane laws on occupied Polish lands, confined Jews to ghettos, and condemned them to death. They wanted to break the solidarity of the Polish nation, separated us with walls and barbed wire,” he said.
Moreover, the Polish president highlighted the actions of those Poles who tried to help Jews during the Holocaust.
Despite the Nazi occupation, “Poles nevertheless helped. The Polish resistance group Zegota helped Jews. Many of my compatriots helped individually. They’re the heroes of both our nations.”
The Nazis, Duda reflected, transformed Poland from “a blessed land, which for centuries welcomed Jews fleeing persecution from abroad… into a place of Holocaust.”
Polish officials even tried to warn Western governments of the Holocaust, he argued, but “our calls fell on deaf ears” in Britain and the United States.
Duda made no mention of Holocaust survivors murdered by Polish civilians upon returning to their homes after the war, something that his Israeli counterpart, Reuven Rivlin, made a point of mentioning at a state ceremony marking the opening of Holocaust Remembrance Day on Wednesday.
During a joint press conference with Duda earlier Thursday, Rivlin also made a point of mentioning Polish complicity in the Holocaust, appearing to challenge the controversial law banning such speech.
“There is no doubt that there were many Poles who fought the Nazi regime, but we cannot deny that Poland and Poles had a hand in the extermination,” Rivlin said.
Addressing the March of the Living later Thursday, Rivlin asserted that “no nation can legislate forgetfulness.
“No law can cover the blood,” he added, in a direct reference to the recently passed legislation, which has sparked a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Poland.
“We did not march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, from Auschwitz 1 to Auschwitz 2. We marched from death to life, from the Holocaust to rebirth, from Auschwitz to Jerusalem,” the president continued. “Each footstep in this march was a step in the history of the Jewish people.”
While largely avoiding mention of Polish complicity in the Holocaust, Duda — like Rivlin — made a point of emphasizing the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis.
“Auschwitz is synonymous with the Holocaust,” the Polish president said. “Here Jews were terrorized, separated from their loved ones, deprived of belongings, and taken to the gas chamber. Many died within an hour of arriving.”
“We meet where Nazi Germans perpetrated the most horrible crime in history,” a crime “beyond comprehension,” he continued. “The suffering of the Jewish nation here is beyond human comprehension.”
Duda made a point of mentioning the Polish victims of the Nazis as well, though he emphasized that Jewish people were the primary victims of Hitler’s regime.
“Through our presence here, we want to express our feelings. We come together, Jews, a nation of survivors, and Poles, also brutally persecuted by Hitler’s Third Reich, to pay tribute,” he said. “We come together because we do remember and want to pass on the truth to future generations, to demonstrate that the demonic plan of the Germans, who wanted to wipe out the Jewish nation, failed.”
During the earlier press conference, Rivlin reflected differently on Poland. While he acknowledged the country had been “a forge of the Jewish nation’s soul,” he added that it had turned into “our deep sorrow, also the largest Jewish graveyard.”
The Polish president avoided addressing Rivlin’s concerns directly, instead only acknowledging that “there is great disagreement” on the matter. Duda pointed out that “at no point did we want to block testimony [on the Holocaust], on the contrary we wanted to defend the historical truths, and as a leader, I want to do this at any price, even when it is difficult for us.”