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Polish foreign minister indicates ‘Poles of Jewish ethnicity’ share blame for Holocaust

The comments are the latest in a growing controversy over Poland's culpability in the genocide.

A general view of the Auschwitz main gate during the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oswiecim. CREDIT: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
A general view of the Auschwitz main gate during the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oswiecim. CREDIT: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The government of Poland further escalated international tensions over the issue of accountability in the Holocaust this week, appearing to level a measure of blame at Jews for the genocide.

Following the passage of a bill criminalizing any suggestion of Polish complicity in the Holocaust, Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz seemed to suggest the actions of Polish Jews deserved to be analyzed more critically, as opposed to those of other Poles. A tweet published Monday by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, quoted Czaputowicz’s comments to Polsat, one of Poland’s largest television channels.

“FM #Czaputowicz on @PolsatNewsPL: It is not about falsifying history, it is about studying it. We are discussing the behavior of Poles of Jewish ethnicity. We need calm discussions and work carried out by historians,” the tweet read.

Czaputowicz’s comments came a day after Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki played down accusations of Holocaust denial. On Saturday, Morawiecki told a conference of world leaders in Munich that Jews had a role in the Holocaust akin to those of other groups, including Nazis themselves.

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“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.

The comments further inflamed a firestorm that has been raging for weeks and spurred furious comments from Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Morawiecki that “a comparison between the activities of Poles and the activities of Jews during the Holocaust is unfounded.” Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Israeli opposition party Yesh Atid, demanded Israel’s ambassador to Poland be recalled.

“The Jewish state will not allow the murdered to be blamed for their own murder,” Lapid told the Associated Press.

Jewish groups more broadly panned the comments. A statement from Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, demanded an “immediate retraction and apology” from the Polish prime minister, calling his remarks “nothing short of an attempt to falsify history that rings of the very worst forms of anti-Semitism and Holocaust obfuscation.”

Morawiecki sought on Sunday to clarify the comments, holding his second phone conversation with Netanyahu in three weeks over the same topic. Morawiecki later tweeted about the discussion.

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“The Holocaust, the genocide of the Jews committed by the German Nazis, was a horrific crime. Even during those dark hours of war and murder, there were individuals of all nations who bravely carried out gestures of the greatest mercy,” he wrote. “Sadly,this period also exposed dark parts of human nature, which for some meant collaboration with German Nazis. Dialogue on these difficult chapters of our history is essential—a dialogue we hope to continue w/ Israel. Today, I spoke about this with Prime Minister @netanyahu[.]”

Beata Mazurek, a spokesperson for Poland’s ruling far-right Law and Justice Party (PiS), said the prime minister’s initial comments “told the truth that is difficult for the Israeli side to accept” and asserted that Morawiecki had nothing to apologize for, a sentiment Foreign Minister Czaputowicz echoed a day later.

The back-and-forth over Jewish accountability in the Holocaust is only the latest in an ongoing dispute over Poland’s own role in the genocide. Last month, the country’s PiS-led government approved legislation banning any implication that the Holocaust was led by Poles or that Nazi concentration camps were in any way Polish. Those found in violation face stiff fines and up to three years in prison.

The legislation came just prior to Holocaust Remembrance Day and sparked a diplomatic feud with Israel, along with mass-condemnation from Jewish groups. Nonetheless, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, signed the bill into law two weeks ago, drawing rare rebuke from the United States.

“Enactment of this law adversely affects freedom of speech and academic inquiry,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “We believe that open debate, scholarship, and education are the best means of countering misleading speech.”

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Poland’s efforts to distance itself from the atrocities carried out during the Holocaust date back decades. While many countries across Europe aided the Nazis in their efforts to exterminate Jews, Poland itself was occupied by the Nazi regime for years, something the country actively resisted. Poles themselves share a legacy of deep animosity towards the Nazi occupation and around 3 million non-Jewish Poles were murdered by the Nazis.

That’s a compelling narrative, one that in no way changes the realities of Polish Jewish history. During the Nazi occupation, six death camps were established in Poland. More than 90 percent of the country’s Jewish population — once the largest in Europe — died during the genocide and the population has never fully recovered. While Poland’s government actively resisted the Nazi regime, Jewish Poles experienced persecution and discrimination both before and after the occupation at the hands of their neighbors.

Many Poles have been honored for their role in saving the lives of Jews, but many have also been singled out as perpetrators. Critics of Poland’s Holocaust speech law worried prior to its signing that the legislation would make it harder to discuss and probe that reality.

Proponents argue that the law clarifies any misperception that “Polish death camps” ever existed — an incorrect wording that suggests the camps were run by Poland. President Obama once used the phrasing and later issued an apology. Polish officials have argued that while a few Poles did assist the Nazis, they were hardly alone — citing, as Czaputowicz and Morawiecki did, Jews themselves.

Historians and other experts argue that’s hardly fair — as the target of a genocidal campaign, many Jews were forced to police and report on their neighbors and families. While some went so far as to commit suicide rather than help, others complied. Those who assisted were ultimately sent to their deaths regardless.

Havi Dreifuss, a Tel Aviv University professor, told Haaretz that comments from Polish officials likely serve “to blur the differences between the murderers and the victims” — something that misrepresents history.

“First, the scope of the phenomenon was marginal in the Jewish case – important but marginal – whereas the hostile reaction of many Poles to the persecuted Jews was a norm in most parts of Poland. Poles hated and feared Nazi Germany, but many of them saw the murder of the Jews as a ‘positive’ outcome of the war. Second, there is the question of motives,” Dreifuss said. “While most Jews collaborated hoping to save themselves, their family or part of their community – Poles helped Nazi Germany hunt Jews due to various reasons, among them hatred and financial benefits.”

Poland’s ongoing efforts to distance the country from its dark history are in line with a broader PiS-driven push to revive Polish nationalism. A surge in anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment has spread across the country in recent years, targeting minority communities — including Polish Jews and Muslims — in the process.

During a Polish Independence Day march last year, upwards of 60,000 people marched in a demonstration widely decried as a display of white supremacy and nationalism. Marchers carried signs declaring “Europe will be white” and a number of other slogans, including “Poland Catholic, not secular.” Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak later called the march “a beautiful sight.”