Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has protested a bill passed by the lower house of the Polish parliament which would make it illegal to use terms such as “Polish death camps” to refer to the camps set up by the Nazis.
“The law is baseless; I strongly oppose it,” Netanyahu said in a statement on Saturday. “One cannot change history and the Holocaust cannot be denied. I have instructed the Israeli Ambassador to Poland to meet with the Polish Prime Minister this evening and express to him my strong position against the law.”
The legislation, designed to make it clear that Nazi Germany is responsible for the crimes against humanity that took place in the camps, calls for prison sentences of up to three years. It still needs approval from Poland’s Senate and the country’s president.
The law passed by the lower house of parliament a day before the observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day was drafted in response to the use of the term Polish death camps in foreign media reports. It contains a provision excluding scholarly or academic works.
The camps, such as Auschwitz, were built and run by the Nazis after they occupied Poland in 1939.
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin said in a statement about the legislation that there were Polish people who aided the Nazis and those who fought against them.
“Only 73 years have passed since the gates of hell were flung open. Living Holocaust survivors are disappearing from the world and we still have to fight for the memory of the Holocaust as it was,” Rivlin said.
“The Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the entire world must ensure that the Holocaust is recognized for its horrors and atrocities. Also among the Polish people there were those who aided the Nazis in their crimes. Every crime, every offense, must be condemned. They must be examined and revealed. There were also others among them who fought and were recognised as Righteous Among the Nations,” Rivlin said.
Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog called on Netanyahu to recall the ambassador to Poland for “urgent consultations” over the law and “to make our protest against it clear to the Polish Government and Parliament.”
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked called the legislation an attempt to “rewrite history” and to absolve Poland of any responsibility for what took place on its soil during the Holocaust.
Going even further, Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid Party, wrote on Facebook that “Poland was complicit in the Holocaust,” adding that “Hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered on its soil without them having met any German officer.” According to Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, no more than 2,500 Jews were killed by Poles during the Holocaust and directly thereafter. Lapid got into an argument on Twitter with the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv over the legislation.
“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,” Lapid tweeted on Saturday afternoon.
The embassy tweeted the link to a statement from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance which stated its support of refraining from using the term Polish death camps.
“Your unsupportable claims show how badly Holocaust education is needed, even here in Israel,” the embassy tweeted. “The intent of the Polish draft legislation is not to ‘whitewash’ the past, but to protect the truth against such slander,” it also tweeted.
“I am a son of a Holocaust survivor. My grandmother was murdered in Poland by Germans and Poles. I don’t need Holocaust education from you. We live with the consequences every day in our collective memory. Your embassy should offer an immediate apology,” Lapid responded.
Yad Vashem,Israel’s Holocaust memorial, said in a statement issued Saturday night that it opposes the new legislation, saying it is “liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust.”
“There is no doubt that the term ‘Polish death camps’ is a historical misrepresentation,” the statement also said. “The extermination camps were set up in Nazi-occupied Poland in order to murder the Jewish people within the framework of the ‘Final Solution.’ However, restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people’s direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion. Yad Vashem will continue to support research aimed at exposing the complex truth regarding the attitude of the Polish population towards the Jews during the Holocaust.”
The World Jewish Congress has also strongly objected to the proposal, calling it “an act of historical obfuscation and an attack on democracy.”
“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,” said WJC CEO Robert Singer, noting that more than 70,000 non-Jewish Poles were also estimated to have perished at Auschwitz alone.
“While it is true that Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Majdanek, Chełmno, Sobibór and Bełżec 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 said. “Having spent decades in the field of education, I deeply believe that this must be changed through a campaign of education, not criminalisation. 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,” Singer said. “The passage of this law can only be seen as an act of historical obfuscation and an attack on democracy.”