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January 28, 2018 10:19 am

Jewish Groups Urge Warsaw to Rethink Legislation That Would Criminalize Blaming Poles for Holocaust-Era Atrocities

avatar by Barney Breen-Portnoy

A memorial at the site of the 1941 massacre of Jews in Jedwabne, Poland. Photo: Aw58 via Wikimedia Commons.

A number of major Jewish groups from around the globe have criticized the advancement of legislation in Poland that would make it illegal to claim that Poles were responsible for Holocaust-era crimes against humanity.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt — the president of the Conference of European Rabbis — said in a statement on Sunday, “The resurgence of a vibrant Jewish community in today’s Poland is one of the miracles of our time, and our appreciation for today’s Polish government and its recent predecessors has been fulsome. However, that in no way excuses the responsibility for Poland’s past and that is Poland’s role in the Holocaust.”

“A new law cannot change or expunge history; such an attempt is an affront to the memory of the millions of victims, Poles, Jews and Polish Jews,” Goldschmidt continued. “We propose that the Polish government call for a commission of experts, to once and for all, put the historical record straight; to what extent Polish citizens collaborated with the Nazis and to what extent they helped save Jews during the Holocaust.”

Agnieszka Markiewicz — the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Central Europe office — stated on Saturday, “This kind of legislation is both provocative and totally unnecessary. It will inflame the debate over historical responsibility.

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“Education, not punitive laws, is essential to building greater awareness of all the facts of what transpired in Poland during World War II and the Holocaust,” Markiewicz went on to say.

Referring to the proposed bill’s ban of phrases like “Polish death camps,” Markiewicz said, “The Polish government should reconsider this measure aimed at penalizing the use of language, even if we agree this language should not be used.”

World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer stated on Sunday, “Poles are understandably sensitive when Nazi annihilation and concentration camps are referred to as ‘Polish,’ simply due to their location on Polish soil, and they want it to be clear that Germans, not Poles, were responsible for establishing and maintaining these factories of death in which millions of Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.”

“While it is true that Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Majdanek, Chełmno, Sobibor and Bełzec should be referred to as ‘Nazi’ or ‘German’ camps in occupied Poland, it is a serious mistake for Poland to seek to criminalize those who do not adhere to this practice,” Singer noted. “Having spent decades in the field of education, I deeply believe that this must be changed through a campaign of education, not criminalization. Poland’s new law is especially objectionable as it stifles any real confrontation with the most chilling aspect of the country’s wartime history — the extent to which local Poles were complicit in the destruction of their Jewish neighbors.”

“Outstanding Polish scholars have made very clear in their meticulously researched writings that this was hardly an isolated phenomenon. Declaring that such literature is defamatory and that those who have produced it are engaged in criminal activity amounts to a whitewash of the historical record and must be thoroughly rejected. The passage of this law can only be seen as an act of historical obfuscation and an attack on democracy,” Singer concluded.

Meanwhile, at an Israeli government cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We have no tolerance for distorting the truth, historical revisionism or Holocaust denial. Last night, I expressed my strong opposition, and I am sure that all ministers would agree, to the law passed in the Polish parliament last Friday regarding the Holocaust that befell our people on Polish soil. The law is due to go through two more stages before it is finally adopted. I expressed our clear position that it must be changed. We will not accept any attempt whatsoever to rewrite history. We will accept no restriction on research into historical truth.”

“On my instruction, our ambassador in Warsaw spoke with the Polish prime minister during a Holocaust memorial ceremony at Auschwitz last night and emphasized our positions,” Netanyahu continued. “During the week, the ambassador and her staff will hold contacts on this issue with the entire Polish leadership, including the prime minister, the president and the Senate. The [deputy] Polish ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry this morning and heard the same exact things.”

In an August 2016 interview with The Algemeiner, antisemitism scholar Manfred Gerstenfeld explained that Poland’s World War II history was “not simple.”

“On one hand, Poles saved Jews,” Gerstenfeld said. “On the other hand, they killed Jews. The Jews were put in ghettos. Jews fled from the ghettos, and some of those Jews fought with the resistance, and others were murdered by the resistance or delivered to the Germans.”

Gerstenfeld added:

You have to make a distinction between two things: the issue that the Poles do not want the camps like Belzec and Auschwitz to be talked about as Polish death camps, which is perfectly legitimate, because they weren’t Polish death camps; they were German death camps in Poland. But have the Poles come to grips with their history? No, they have not. And there are serious indications that they embellish and falsify history of Poles during the war regarding the Jews.

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