Holocaust experts denounce Polish law as ‘whitewash’ of culpability

“The law is dangerous and I oppose it. It’s part of the political agenda of the Polish ‘Law and Justice’ party that rejects the notion of Polish complicity during the war, says Dr. Efraim Zuroff of the Wiesenthal Center.

By Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News

Israeli leaders were sharply critical of a new Polish law that bans phrases such as “Polish death camps.” Holocaust experts say that while Poland is “technically correct” when they say the concentration camps  were  German, the legislation is being exploited in an attempt to clear Poles of the murder of so many Jews.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by telephone with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki Sunday evening. “The two agreed that teams from the two countries would open an immediate dialogue in order to try to reach understandings regarding the legislation,” the Prime Minister’s Office stated.

Dr. Efraim Zuroff, head of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told World Israel News (WIN), “The Poles are correct that death camps were built and operated by Germans, but they are using this law to whitewash the Polish murder of Jews. Under the new law the camps must be referred to as ‘Nazi’ and not ‘Polish’ concentration camps. There was no Polish government at the time because the country was occupied by Nazi Germany. But that fact should not be used as a cover up of the widespread murder of Jews carried out at the hands of Poles in Nazi-occupied Poland.”

‘The law is dangerous’

“The law is dangerous and I oppose it. It’s part of the political agenda of the Polish ‘Law and Justice’ party that rejects the notion of Polish complicity during the war. In places like Estonia, Croatia and Lithuania, local police were integrated into the Nazi occupation forces and they worked together. That was not the case in Poland because the Nazis considered the Polish people to be sub-human. Many Poles were murdered by Nazis. But let’s not forget, even before the war there was deep and widespread anti-Semitism by masses of people who wanted the Jews out,” Zuroff said.

Member of Knesset (MK) Yair Lapid got into a twitter battle with the Polish embassy in Israel after he posted his strong condemnation of the bill, which he charged “tries to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust. It [Holocaust] was conceived in Germany, but hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier. There were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that,” Lapid wrote.

‘A gut reaction’

The Polish embassy responded to Lapid, claiming that its objective “is not to ‘whitewash’ the past, but to protect the truth against such slander.”

Zuroff also criticized Lapid, saying, “His words were a gut reaction and they were filled with passion, but unfortunately he does not know the facts and his remarks were absurd.”

An Israeli official who preferred to remain unnamed told WIN, “Our politicians are shooting from the hip. Yes, the Polish law is terrible, but some of the comments from Israel were terribly inaccurate.”

Dr. Laurence Weinbaum, director of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, which operates under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress, told WIN, “The new law is especially problematic. It attempts to inhibit and even suppress any serious discourse on the reaction of Polish society to the destruction of Polish Jewry. Scholarship and its transmission should not be censored by the state, something that harks back to the worst days of Communist repression.”

“Unfortunately,” continued Weinbaum, “in present-day Poland, there is a pronounced disinclination to confront certain chilling truths recently exposed by courageous Polish historians of the post-Communist generation. These scholars have demonstrated that local participation in the torment, despoliation, and destruction of Jews was not a marginal phenomenon, and that many Poles and other Europeans saw the removal of their Jewish neighbors as a beneficial byproduct of an otherwise grievous occupation. For some, the temptation of instant self-gratification was irresistible, and they did not recoil from committing acts of murder, rape and larceny—not always orchestrated by the Germans.”

“However, it is undeniable that the Germans and Austrians were the architects and executors of the Final Solution. They were responsible for the creation and operation of the factories of death. Therefore, careless references to ‘Polish’ death camps, and the implication that Poles were somehow responsible for their existence, is certainly objectionable,” he said.

Endorsing a twisted narrative

Turning to Israeli politicians’ reactions to the Polish law, Weinbaum told WIN,  “It is most unfortunate that some politicians who are not qualified to comment on history have made irresponsible assertions, and in so doing have poisoned the atmosphere. It is no less unfortunate, however, that in recent months, some members of Knesset and other prominent Israelis have actually endorsed the twisted narrative of some Polish nationalists who place the heroism of Polish rescuers at the very core of the story of the Shoah in Poland, suggesting that such efforts were entirely commonplace and representative of normative local behavior at that time.”

The new bill prescribes criminal proceedings for individuals or organizations who allegedly defame the “Polish nation” by assigning guilt or complicity to Poles for Holocaust crimes committed on Polish soil. 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.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the cabinet,  “Israel has zero tolerance for  distorting the truth, rewriting history or denying the Holocaust.” He said that Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Anna Azaria, made Jerusalem’s  position known to the Polish prime minister at a memorial ceremony marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the site of the Auschwitz death camp on Saturday night.

During the coming week, he said, she will hold additional meetings about the matter with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki as well as with President Andrzej Duda and the Polish senate. The president and senate still have to sign off on the legislation before it becomes law.