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Israel and Poland try to tamp down tensions after Poland’s ‘death camp’ law sparks Israeli outrage

The former Auschwitz death camp, run by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki spoke by phone Sunday and agreed to open a dialogue to avoid further diplomatic fallout following Poland’s initial approval of a law making it a criminal offense to mention Polish complicity in crimes committed during the Holocaust.

The crisis between the two countries appeared to be deepening Sunday as Poland’s deputy chief of mission, Piotr Kozlowski, was summoned to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem to explain why his country would promote such legislation.

Polish lawmakers voted Friday for a bill that would fine or jail people who blamed Poland or Poles for Nazi atrocities committed on its soil during World War II, including the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. The law still needs final approval from the Polish Senate and the country’s president.

It comes as the country has become more nationalistic. Tens of thousands of people chanted and marched through Warsaw last year in an annual gathering of Europe’s far-right movements, and the majority party has sought to protect Poland’s image.

Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Kozlowski the vote’s timing was “particularly surprising and miserable,” pointing out that Friday was the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was also the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in southern Poland.

Conveying a message from the Israeli government, the ministry said the “legislation will not help further the exposure of historical truth and may harm the freedom of research, as well as prevent discussion of the historical message and the legacy of World War II.”

Following the meeting, Kozlowski told Israeli reporters that the goal of the law “is not to whitewash history, but to safeguard it and safeguard the truth about the Holocaust and prevent its distortion.” According to Reuters, Polish officials say the law would not limit Holocaust research or the freedom of expression.

Even though several death camps, including the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau, were built on Polish soil, Poles say they should be referred to as Nazi extermination camps or camps in occupied Poland, disassociating Poland from the Nazi crimes committed there.

Israelis, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reacted furiously to the law, seeing it as an attempt by Poland to rewrite history and even deny the Holocaust.

“One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” a statement from Netanyahu said.

How Poland became a breeding ground for Europe’s far right

In a heated Twitter argument with the Polish Embassy, Yair Lapid, a popular opposition leader in the Israeli parliament, tweeted that “there were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that.”

The bill, which would jail even foreigners for up to three years for using terms such as “Polish extermination camps,” passed the lower legislature overwhelmingly. For the country’s ruling Law and Justice party, it is part of a years-long effort to prevent people from “slandering the good name of Poland,” as officials once put it.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center, which last week hosted Vice President Pence, said the law was “liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust.”

The center said it agreed that the term “Polish death camps” was a historical misrepresentation — the extermination camps were set up in Nazi-occupied Poland in order to murder the Jewish people within the framework of the “Final Solution.”

“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,” read the Yad Vashem statement.

Many historians warn against trying to simplify Poland’s role in the Holocaust.

The country was occupied for years by the forces of Nazi Germany, who herded Jews into ghettos, shot at least 200,000 of them and killed an additional million in Auschwitz, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Throughout the occupation, many Poles fought back through underground movements and resistance armies. A quarter-million Polish civilians died during a 1944 uprising against the German army in Warsaw, according to the museum.

But between these broad strokes of Nazi genocide and Polish heroism, some Poles also turned on Jews — or at least helped Germans kill them.

Villagers in Jedwabne, for example, reportedly locked about 300 Jewish residents in a barn and burned them alive in 1941, the BBC wrote. Some modern-day Poles deny the story or blame Germans for pressuring the villagers, but others see evidence of willing complicity throughout the occupation.

Jan Karski, a famed Polish resistance fighter, once told an interviewer of the “ruthless, often without pity” attitude some of his countrymen held for Poland’s large Jewish population.

The director of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, Laurence Weinbaum, once wrote for The Washington Post about documented examples of Poles willingly abetting the persecution of Jews.

“Those who see themselves as defenders of Poland’s good name are often quick to point out that in Poland there was no Quisling regime comparable to that which existed in other countries occupied by Germany — and that the Polish underground fought the Germans tooth and nail,” Weinbaum wrote. “The truth is that local authorities were often left intact in occupied Poland, and many officials exploited their power in ways that proved fatal to their Jewish constituents.”

Some Poles welcomed the forced removal of their Jewish neighbors from their homes, he wrote. Some happily enriched themselves at the expense of their dispossessed neighbors, and some “did not recoil from committing acts of murder, rape and larceny — not always orchestrated by the Germans.”

That said, Weinbaum thought then-FBI director James B. Comey went too far when he spoke of Poland's “murderers and accomplices” during a 2015 speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum — rhetorically equating the country to Germany.

Poland defends massive far-right protest that called for a ‘White Europe’

A few years earlier, President Barack Obama incensed many Poles when, during a speech honoring Karski, he spoke of “Polish death camps”. The White House later apologized.

The White House says President Barack Obama ‘misspoke’ Tuesday during a ceremony honoring a World War II hero. Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom posthumously on Jan Kozielewski, who alerted Allied leaders of the mass killing of Jews in 1943. (Video: The Washington Post)

As The Post noted, Obama’s statement helped spur Polish lawmakers’ efforts to ban the term and prosecute people who confuse their country with the Nazi regime. They tried to pass a bill in 2013 and failed. But Poland has turned toward nationalism since then, and in 2016, the conservative Law and Justice Party won the first parliamentary majority since the end of communism.

The party has aggressively protected Poland’s image. After a massive right-wing march through Warsaw in November, with banners and chants of “white Europe” and “pure blood,” some government officials defended the event as a simple independence day rally. One minister even called it “beautiful.”

“Poland is being unfairly attack by hostile media,” the founder of the Polish League Against Defamation complained after the rally, according to Radio Poland.

Three months later, at least in regard to Nazis, attacking Poland could become a crime.

If the bill passes Poland’s Senate and becomes law, which the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports seems likely, it will apply not just to Poles but to anyone in any country who blames the Polish state for Nazi crimes.

Since the initial vote, Reuters reported, Holocaust survivors have been giving interviews about Poles refusing to help them or turning them over to Nazis.

“When they came to round us up and put us in the ghetto, father said to run away quickly,” Esther Lieber told the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “We were very scared and fled into the woods. The Poles threw stones at us and cursed us.”

Haaretz wrote that, given the proposed law’s breadth, survivors could soon face prosecution in Poland for giving such testimony.

“The implication of the new law means that in theory, a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Poland who lives in Israel, who may make a statement such as, ‘The Polish people were involved in the murder of my grandfather in the Holocaust’ or ‘My mother was murdered in a Polish extermination camp,’ would be liable for imprisonment in Poland,” Haaretz wrote.

This article has been updated.

More reading:

Obama once referred to a ‘Polish death camp.’ In Poland, that could soon be punishable by 3 years in prison.

After Obama’s ‘Polish death camp’ mistake, calls for a stronger mea culpa