President Reuven Rivlin, in a meeting on Monday with his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda, fired the latest salvo in a spat between the two nations over the complicity of Poles in anti-Jewish violence during and after World War II, noting that although the Polish people fought against Nazi Germany, “many Poles stood by and even assisted in the murder of Jews.”
During a meeting in Krakow in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Israeli president added that although Nazi Germany was the architect of the Holocaust, others in Europe who helped must also take their share of responsibility.
“We remember that Nazi Germany initiated, planned and implemented the genocide of the Jewish people in Poland and other places and that it takes full responsibility for its actions. And we also remember, with distress, that significant assistance came from across all of Europe, and that also demands the acceptance of responsibility,” Rivlin said.
He added that he invited Duda to Jerusalem for “discussions that will strengthen our relations and the important cooperation between our countries.”
The president noted the “unbreakable bond” between the two nations, but said that history should be left to historians, without political interference.
“This is a bond that must sanctify the purity of history, to leave the work of historical research to historians and experts from Israel, Poland and other countries who research the Holocaust, and let political leaders take responsibility for shaping the present and the future,” Rivlin said.
“Our duty is to fight a determined, clear, uncompromising battle against anti-Semitism and racism,” he added. “We reach out to the Polish people today and ask to work together for the future of the next generation, respecting history and inspired by peace, justice, tolerance and partnership.”
Rivlin was referring to recent efforts by the Polish government to play down the complicity of some Poles in anti-Jewish violence during and after the Holocaust while asserting that the Polish nation, like the Jewish people, was only a victim of the Nazi regime.
Rivlin was a major presence at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem last week to mark the anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Dozens of world leaders attended, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, US Vice President Mike Pence, French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Prince Charles.
However, politics intruded on that event after Putin accused Poland of cooperating with Germany in 1938, while Duda stayed home, charging Russia with downplaying its own role in invading his nation in cooperation with the Nazis the following year.
Duda said he’d avoided going to Jerusalem because he was not given an opportunity to respond on stage should Putin use the event to again lob accusations of anti-Semitism against Poland.
The Yad Vashem memorial museum said the speakers represented the victors of World War II and the country that perpetrated the Holocaust — Germany.
Duda on Monday addressed his absence from the ceremony at Yad Vashem, saying that “Polish participation in the epic fight against the Nazis was ignored,” according to Israel’s Government Press Office.
“I want to stress that the Poles fought for the liberty of the entire world and many Polish citizens fell in the battle for liberty in the war against the Nazis. Our fallen are etched in the annals of Polish history and we remember and honor them and expect others to do the same,” Duda said.
Poland passed a controversial Holocaust law last year that drew sharp international criticism and damaged its relations with Israel, United States and Jewish groups around the world. Many feared the law, which prohibited rhetoric accusing Poland of complicity in Nazi crimes — since the Nazis had occupied Poland, Polish leaders argued — would hamper education and historical research of the genocide.
That dispute was resolved when Poland softened the law, eliminating any serious punitive measures, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart agreed on a joint declaration stressing the involvement of the Polish resistance in helping Jews. It was seen as a diplomatic coup for Poland but Netanyahu faced criticism in Israel, including at Yad Vashem, for agreeing to a statement that they said distorted history.
Leading Israeli historians harshly criticized the joint statement, arguing it inaccurately adopted the Polish narrative of the Holocaust, overstating Polish efforts to rescue Jews and understating anti-Jewish atrocities committed by Poles.
The crisis was reignited last year after Netanyahu was asked by The Times of Israel in Warsaw about the controversial agreement between Israel and Poland. Netanyahu denied suggestions that he was going along with historical revisionism: “Here I am saying Poles cooperated with the Nazis. I know the history and I don’t whitewash it. I bring it up,” he said.
He added that “a not insignificant number” of Poles had collaborated and said, “I don’t know one person who was sued for saying that.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki then canceled Warsaw’s participation in a summit of central European countries in Jerusalem, branding as “racist” a comment by Israel’s foreign minister, who said Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.”
Foreign Minister Israel Katz had 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.”
Duda last week said he will refuse to meet Katz because the foreign minister won’t apologize for the comments.
“There are Jews who were born in Poland before World War II and survived the Holocaust who think the Poles and Poland deserve an apology for the words said by Minister Katz,” Duda said in an interview with Israel’s public broadcaster Kan.
“I have no doubt that these words were very offensive toward us as Poles and toward our country,” he added.
AP contributed to this report.