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February 28, 2019 9:29 am

How Israel Should Handle Poland’s Holocaust Crimes and Antisemitism

avatar by Manfred Gerstenfeld


Far right ONR (National Radical Camp) activists walk past the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz, to pay tribute for Polish victims at the “death wall”, during the ceremonies marking the 74th anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel.

“Calibration” is crucial in diplomacy. And when it comes to Israel’s relations with Poland, calibration is the key condition. While both countries have an interest in good diplomatic relations, Israel has a second interest: to avoid an attitude that enables Poland and Poles to whitewash or distort horrible elements in the country’s history towards the Jews.

As long as Israeli authorities calibrate their statements and stick to the truth, they will have the moral high ground in the relationship. But a lack of sophistication, professionalism, and moderation can easily destroy this.

Shortly after he became Israel’s foreign minister, for example, Yisrael Katz said (quoting former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir) that Poles suckle antisemitism with their mother’s milk.

With his offensive comments, Katz greatly damaged what could have been an important Israeli diplomatic success — an official meeting of the four Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) in Israel. Due to his remarks, the Polish government chose not to send their representative, which resulted in the cancellation of the official conference. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has worked patiently on improving relations with these countries.

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Katz would have served his country’s interests well if he had fully apologized for his untrue statement.

It is, however, illusory to think that such an apology would have ended Israel’s problems with Poland. The awkward issues between Poland and Israel keep returning, because it seems impossible for many Poles to admit that not all of their ancestors were victims of the Germans during World War II. A substantial number of Poles murdered Jews, or delivered them to the Nazis.

Since the beginning of this century, there have been important disclosures about massive crimes committed by Poles against Jews during the Holocaust.

Jan Gross revealed the murder of almost all the local Jews in the village of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors. A much wider perspective on extreme antisemitic crimes by Poles was provided by Jan Grabowski. The research by his team found that approximately 200,000 Jews were murdered by Poles during the Holocaust. Grabowski, who teaches at the University of Ottawa, has filed a lawsuit against the Polish League Against Defamation in the Warsaw District Court. He claims that 134 people who signed the league’s statement against his research have defamed him.

Another Israeli who apparently does not know what calibration means when it comes to Poland is the controversial historian Daniel Blatman. He has accepted the Polish government’s offer to head the country’s problematic Holocaust museum, which is scheduled to open in Warsaw in 2023. Blatman wildly attacked Yad Vashem in an article titled, “Yad Vashem Teaches the Holocaust Like Totalitarian Countries Teach History.”

In a 2016 interview, Poland’s Minister of Education, Anna Zalewska, refused to acknowledge the fact that Polish citizens were responsible for killing their Jewish neighbors in Jedwabne. She also refused to admit the responsibility of the Poles who murdered their Jewish neighbors in Kielce in 1946.

The number of problematic aspects concerning contemporary Poland is also large. A study by the University of Bielefeld, published in 2011, found that 63 percent of Poles agree with the antisemitic assertion that Israel is carrying out a war of extermination against the Palestinians. These figures were also high in the six other EU countries where the study took place. Yet in no other country was the percentage higher than 50 percent.

The strong desire of many Poles to distort their country’s past leads to the need for Israel to anticipate future problems. A current example is the discussion in Germany about establishing a monument in Berlin dedicated to the Poles murdered during the German occupation.

German atrocities should be remembered — even more so now in view of contemporary developments in Germany. As Jews, we should be sensitive towards extreme atrocities committed against others. But we must also protect history and the truth.

In 1979, the “Polish” Pope John Paul II visited Auschwitz. He said there: “Six million Poles lost their lives during the Second World War, a fifth of the nation.” One should not let this semantic amalgamation pass. Three million Poles were murdered by the Germans in racist murders, which constituted 10 percent of the Polish people. But three million Polish Jews were murdered in exterminatory antisemitism — more than 90 percent of all Polish Jews.

If the monument for Polish victims in Berlin materializes, Jews and Israel have to beware that no distorted texts appear on it.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is the emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank.

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