Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was forced to deny being a Holocaust denier on Sunday, after suggesting earlier in the weekend that Jews were partially responsible for their own genocide.
Even so, his words prompted a public scolding from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and deepened a crisis between the two countries that began — ironically — with Poland’s effort to dissociate itself from Nazism.
Morawiecki was speaking at a conference of world leaders in Munich on Saturday when a journalist asked him about a new Polish law that bans accusations the country collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II — despite the fact that historians say some Poles did just that.
The prime minister, whose right-wing nationalist party took power in Poland two years ago, tried to defend the law, which has outraged many Jews. “You’re not going to be seen as criminal [if you] say that there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators as well as Ukrainian perpetrators — not only German perpetrators,” Morawiecki said.
Morawiecki grouping of “Jewish perpetrators” with Nazi Germans who set out to destroy the world’s Jewish population revolted people far beyond the audience in Munich, provoking denunciations in Israel, a Jewish state founded after an estimated 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, a centrist Israeli opposition party, demanded his country recall its Polish ambassador. “The Jewish state will not allow the murdered to be blamed for their own murder,” he said, according to the Associated Press.
Netanyahu called his Polish counterpart’s comments “outrageous” and gave Morawiecki a history lesson the next day, according to Haaretz, about how his wife’s grandfather was betrayed by Poles and murdered by Germans.
“The Holocaust was designed to destroy the entire Jewish people and not any other peoples,” Netanyahu said after the conversation.
“A comparison between the activities of Poles and the activities of Jews during the Holocaust is unfounded,” his office said Sunday.
Since then, Morawiecki has appeared at pains to demonstrate he knows the difference.
“The Holocaust, the genocide of the Jews committed by the German Nazis, was a horrific crime,” he wrote on Twitter. And the Polish government said in a statement to the Jerusalem Post that Morawiecki “by no means intended to deny the Holocaust, or charge the Jewish victims of the Holocaust with responsibility for what was a Nazi German perpetrated genocide.”
Some Jews did, in fact, work with Nazis during the Holocaust. Germans set up councils of locals — called Judenrat — to help govern their Jewish neighbors in ghettos that had not yet been exterminated.
But Jews on these councils were prisoners themselves and “faced impossible moral dilemmas,” the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum wrote. Some of them believed cooperating with Nazis would improve their neighbors’ lives, or spare them from death. And when Germans demanded the Judenrat turn their neighbors over for deportation, some Jewish collaborators refused, and some died for their refusal.
The situation was different for non-Jews in Nazi-occupied countries — including in Poland. While many hundreds of thousands of Poles died during the occupation, and many resisted the Nazis through underground forces, others willingly turned on their Jewish neighbors, whether out of fear, greed or anti-Semitism. About 3 million Polish Jews were killed by Nazis, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Despite such historical accounts, some Poles have long resented any association between their country and the Nazis who conquered it. Poles criticized President Barack Obama when he referred to Nazi death camps on Polish soil as “Polish death camps.”
Morawiecki’s nationalist Law and Justice party has tried aggressively to defend Poland’s image since taking power in 2016 — often with counterproductive results. For example, government ministers defended an enormous march of far-right, anti-immigrant and white supremacist groups through the capital last year.
Last month, Polish lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill that could jail people for saying phrases such as “Polish death camp” or otherwise suggesting Poland collaborated with Nazis. Israeli leaders — along with U.S. officials, Jewish groups and historians around the world — condemned the bill, but it will nevertheless become law later this year. Anyone convicted under the law could face fines or up to three years in jail.
Meanwhile, Morawiecki has been trying to stem accusations of Holocaust revisionism against his government. Arguably, though, the prime minister has only made the situation worse. As his government rushed to defend his comments about “Jewish perpetrators” over the weekend, someone scrawled misshapen swastikas outside the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv.