Highly controversial legislation in Poland would make it a crime to blame the nation for the Holocaust, a step Israel’s government has soundly condemned — opening a rift between the two countries and sparking a heated diplomatic feud.
Ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day last week, Poland’s far-right government approved a bill banning Holocaust accusations against the Polish people, as well as descriptions of Nazi concentration camps as Polish. Anyone found guilty under the law could face fines and up to three years in prison. Poland’s Senate approved the legislation on Thursday and it now awaits the president’s signature. The bill has been met with outrage from the Israeli government, which condemned “any attempt to challenge historical truth.”
“The law is baseless; I strongly oppose it,” Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a statement last weekend. “One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied.”
Knesset member Yair Lapid — the son of a Holocaust survivor — blasted the law on Twitter, writing that “[t]here were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that.”
I utterly condemn the new Polish law which tries to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust. It 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.
— יאיר לפיד (@yairlapid) January 27, 2018
President Trump’s administration has similarly expressed concern over the law. “We are also concerned about the repercussions this draft legislation, if enacted, could have on Poland’s strategic interests and relationships,” said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.
But Polish lawmakers say the law is a far cry from Holocaust denial.
“I don’t know if there is some misrepresentation or misinformation in regard to how the Israeli side understands parts of this legislation,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said on Monday prior to the vote. “But we, as a state, as a nation, have a right to defend ourselves from an evident slander, an evident falsification of historical truth, which, in this case, for us is a slap in the face.”
The legislation itself speaks to a source of decades-old tension. Complicity in the German-led Holocaust runs deep across Europe and extermination camps are still preserved for historical purposes throughout the continent. For Poles, they’re especially visible. The country was home to Europe’s largest Jewish population before it became Adolf Hitler’s base for carrying out the “Final Solution” — the planned extermination of the global Jewish population. The Nazis built six death camps in occupied Poland and more than 1.1 million people died at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, located near the Polish city of Krakow. Upwards of 800,000 Jews died at Treblinka, to the north of Warsaw. Around 90 percent of Poland’s pre-war Jewish population was ultimately murdered during the Holocaust.
While many governments collaborated with the Nazi regime, Poland is more of an anomaly. Poland’s government never collaborated with the Nazis and actively resisted the German government. Around 3 million non-Jewish Poles were murdered by the Nazis and the city of Warsaw itself staged a brutal and bloody uprising in an effort to overthrow the regime. That history of occupation and resistance is one Poles are proud of and many want global attitudes to reflect those sentiments, something Polish lawmakers say the pending legislation would do.
Jewish groups and other commentators argue the situation is more muddled. Polish Jews actively suffered from discrimination prior to the Nazi occupation and anti-Semitism has been a struggle for the country throughout its history. While many Poles have been commended for helping Jews during the Holocaust, a number of Poles also willingly betrayed their neighbors and helped to orchestrate pogroms.
Contemporary efforts to revive Poland’s Jewish population have struggled, in no small part because the country’s overwhelmingly Catholic majority and increasingly right-wing shift under the Law and Justice Party (PiS) have fueled a hostile environment for minorities. Around 60,000 people marched in a Polish Independence Day demonstration last November, holding up Christian imagery along with signs reading “White Europe” and other slogans singling out Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and immigrants.
Demonstrations like those alarmed Poland’s Jewish community — as has the current legislation at the heart of Poland’s spat with Israel. Comments from Polish lawmakers have also led some to worry the law will serve to “All Lives Matter” the genocide.
“Death and suffering in German Nazi concentration camps were a shared experience of Jews, Poles and many other nations,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in defense of the legislation, giving weight to the idea that multiple populations suffered equally under the Nazi regime, which intentionally targeted Jews globally for extermination.
Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center has agreed that the term “Polish death camps” is historically incorrect while arguing that the bill will “blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust.” Historians more broadly have worried that the bill could make it hard to discuss the very real complicity of some Poles during the Holocaust.
Some Polish lawmakers have voiced concern — less so over the bill and more over its timing.
“How is it that nobody had foreseen that it was a terrible idea to accept this bill on the eve of the anniversary of International Holocaust Remembrance Day?” asked Senator Anna Maria Anders. “Now we have a terrible, terrible international crisis.”
Israel’s embassy in Poland has reportedly received waves of anti-Semitic messages since the bill’s passage. Agnieszka Markiewicz, director of the American Jewish Committee’s central Europe office, told the Washington Post that the legislation is causing a crisis not seen in decades.
“We’re facing the biggest crisis in Polish-Jewish relations since after 1989 [when the Berlin Wall came down]. The way this conflict has escalated is horrible. There are things that have been said and done on both sides — including by Israeli politicians who said that there were Polish camps — which haven’t been helpful. Polish people don’t bear responsibility for the Holocaust, as such. But like other nations, they do bear responsibility for the behavior or attitudes of some,” she said.
Duda has three weeks to sign the legislation, which he is expected to approve. Arguments over complicity in the Holocaust will likely continue across the region. Descendants of Holocaust survivors and victims have spent four years protesting a Hungarian monument in Budapest that they say downplays Hungary’s role in willingly sending 450,000 Jews to their deaths. In Israel, some activists are taking a different stance entirely, tying European efforts to avoid their complicity during the Holocaust to Israel’s Nakba Law, which would deny state funds to cultural and educational institutions acknowledging the 1948 displacement of Palestinians.