Rebuffing ire over bill, Warsaw says Auschwitz, ‘Arbeit macht frei’ not Polish

Mateusz Morawiecki signals backing for bill criminalizing blaming Poles for Holocaust atrocities, amid escalating row with Israel

A March of the Living delegation at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland on May 5, 2016. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
A March of the Living delegation at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland on May 5, 2016. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki pushed back Saturday against Israeli anger over a bill that would outlaw blaming the Polish nation for Holocaust crimes committed on Polish soil, saying that the name Auschwitz and the phrase “Arbeit macht frei,” two of the Shoah’s most potent symbols, were not Polish.

The comments came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for an urgent meeting between Israeli diplomats in Poland and Morawiecki to express his “strong opposition” to the bill passed on Friday by the lower house of the Polish parliament criminalizing statements suggesting Polish responsibility for atrocities committed on its soil during the Holocaust.

“Auschwitz is the most bitter lesson on how evil ideologies can lead to hell on earth. Jews, Poles, and all victims should be guardians of the memory of all who were murdered by German Nazis,” Morawiecki wrote on Twitter late Saturday. “Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase.”

Auschwitz was the name of the most notorious Nazi death camp on Polish soil, where over 1 million people were killed, most of them Jews. A gate on the front read “Arbeit Macht Frei,” German for “Work makes you free.”

Morawiecki also noted on Twitter that Israel and Poland signed a joint statement in 2016 opposing use of the term “Polish death camps.”

The new bill prescribes criminal proceedings for individuals or organizations who allegedly defame the “Polish nation” by assigning guilt or complicity to Poles for crimes committed on Polish soil during the Holocaust. Phrases such as “Polish death camps” to refer to the killing sites Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II may be punishable by three years in prison or a fine, according to the law. The bill is partly a response to cases in recent years of foreign media using “Polish death camps” to describe Auschwitz and other Nazi-run camps.

The bill also makes it illegal to “deliberately reduce the responsibility of the ‘true culprits’ of these crimes,” in reference to the murder of around 100,000 Poles by units in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during the World War II.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland speaks in Budapest on January 26, 2018 (AFP /Attila KISBENEDEK)

At a speech earlier in the day marking the 73rd anniversary of the camp, Morawiecki emphasized German culpability for the atrocities and listed the Poles as among the victims, according to a statement from his office.

A crushing, brutal force destroyed the Jewish nation and part of the Polish nation. It was a German force, and we must call the truth by what it is: yes is yes and no is no,” he said.

The comments came as Israel raged against the Polish law, sparking a diplomatic crisis.

In a statement Saturday evening, Netanyahu called the Polish bill “baseless” and said “history cannot be re-written.”

“The Holocaust cannot be denied,” Netanyahu wrote, adding that he instructed the Israeli embassy in Poland to “meet tonight with the Polish prime minister to relay my firm stance against this bill.”

The deputy Polish ambassador to Israel was summoned to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs for talks on Sunday, the ministry said. The Polish ambassador is currently not in the country.

A foreign ministry official told AFP the Polish bill was “an attempt to rewrite and falsify history, something that the Jewish people and Israel will never accept.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said that a possible recall of the Israeli ambassador to Poland for consultations was “not off the table.”

Netanyahu’s statement came on the heels of a heated exchange over the bill between Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, a member of the Israeli opposition, and the Polish embassy in Israel.

Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, in his office at the Knesset (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Lapid, the son of a Holocaust survivor, took to Twitter on Saturday 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 in a tweet in Hebrew 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.”

He also tweeted in English.

Poland’s 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.”

To which Lapid retorted with outrage and a demand for 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.”

The Polish bill was blasted by a host of Israeli politicians including Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan, Minister of Intelligence Yisrael Katz, and the head of the Joint (Arab) List MK Ayman Odeh who said the legislation was “embarrassing and dangerous.”

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, noting that exactly 73 years had passed since the Auschwitz death camp on Polish soil was liberated, cited the words of a former Polish president about how history could not be faked and the truth could not be hidden.

“The Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the entire world must ensure that the Holocaust is recognized for its horrors and atrocities,” Rivlin said. “Also among the Polish people, there were those who aided the Nazis in their crimes. Every crime, every offense, must be condemned. They must be examined and revealed.”

Some major news organizations have banned language referring to Polish death camps.

Former US President Barack Obama used it in 2012, prompting outrage in Poland. Obama made the comment while awarding the Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a resistance fighter against the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. Karski died in 2000.

During an East Room ceremony honoring 13 Medal of Freedom recipients, Obama said that Karski “served as a courier for the Polish resistance during the darkest days of World War II. Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself. Jan took that information to President Franklin Roosevelt, giving one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and imploring to the world to take action.”

After complaints, the White House said Obama misspoke.

The main gate of the former Auschwitz extermination camp in Oswiecim, Poland, with the infamous sign reading ‘Work sets you free.’ (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images/via JTA)

Poland’s deputy justice minister Patryk Jaki said in a speech before the lower house on Friday “Non-governmental organizations indicate that every other day the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ is used around the world. In other words, German Nazi crimes are attributed to Poles.”

“And so far the Polish state has not been able to effectively fight these types of insults to the Polish nation,” he added, supporting the bill.

Jaki likened the move to Israel’s passage in 2016 of the controversial “NGOs bill” which requires more transparency by foreign-funded NGOs, a majority of them critical of Israel. Critics had called the law undemocratic and an assault on free speech.

“I don’t know why Poland would have more difficulty acting in an efficient manner like Israel does, why it should have less effective tools than Israel,” he told parliament.

Critics say enforcing the law would be impossible outside Poland, and that within the country it would have a chilling effect on debating history, harming freedom of expression.

While the law contains a provision excluding scholarly or academic works, opponents still see a danger.

They especially worry it could be used to stifle research and debate on topics that are anathema to Poland’s nationalistic authorities, particularly the painful issue of Poles who blackmailed Jews or denounced them to the Nazis during the war.

Today’s Poles have been raised on stories of their people’s wartime suffering and heroism. Many react viscerally when confronted with the growing body of scholarship about Polish involvement in the killing of Jews.

For decades, Polish society avoided discussing the killing of Jews by civilians or denied that anti-Semitism motivated the slayings, blaming all atrocities on the Germans.

Jews from Poland and abroad gather for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of a massacre of Jews in Jedwabne, Poland, on Sunday, July 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Michal Kosc)

A turning point was the publication in 2000 of a book, “Neighbors,” by Polish-American sociologist Jan Tomasz Gross, which explored the murder of Jews by their Polish neighbors in the village of Jedwabne. The book resulted in widespread soul-searching and official state apologies.

But since the conservative and nationalistic Law and Justice party consolidated power in 2015, it has sought to stamp out discussions and research on the topic. It demonized Gross and investigated whether he had slandered Poland by asserting that Poles killed more Jews than they killed Germans during the war.

Holocaust researchers have collected ample evidence of Polish villagers who murdered Jews fleeing the Nazis. According to one scholar at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, of the 160,000-250,000 Jews who escaped and sought help from fellow Poles, about 10 percent to 20 percent survived. The rest were rejected, informed upon or killed by rural Poles, according to the Tel Aviv University scholar, Havi Dreifuss.

The memorial issued a statement Saturday night opposing the Polish legislation and trying to put into historical context the “complex truth” regarding the Polish population’s attitude toward its Jews.

“There is no doubt that the term ‘Polish death camps’ is a historical misrepresentation,” the Yad Vashem memorial said. “However, restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people’s direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion.”

AP contributed to this report.

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