World News

Israel Slams ‘Baseless’ Holocaust Legislation in Poland

Posted January 27, 2018 6:39 p.m. EST

JERUSALEM — Legislation in Poland that would outlaw blaming Poles for the crimes of the Holocaust has prompted swift and furious condemnation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Israeli lawmakers across the political spectrum.

The measure, which passed in the lower house of the Polish Parliament on Friday, would make it illegal to suggest Poland bore responsibility for atrocities committed on its soil by Nazi Germany during the occupation in World War II.

“The law is baseless; I strongly oppose it,” Netanyahu said in a statement Saturday. “One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied.”

Netanyahu said he had instructed the Israeli ambassador to Poland to meet with the Polish prime minister and express his disapproval.

The bill, which would need approval from Poland’s Senate and the president to become law, sets prison penalties for using phrases such as “Polish death camps” to refer to concentration camps set up by the Nazis in Poland.

Defenders of the bill say it is meant to indicate German responsibility for the Holocaust.

“Jews, Poles, and all victims should be guardians of the memory of all who were murdered by German Nazis,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland said Saturday night on Twitter, after the backlash began. “Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase.”

But critics, including those in Israel, home to tens of thousands of aging Holocaust survivors, believe the law would hamper dialogue about the Holocaust and distort history.

Yair Lapid, leader of a centrist opposition party in Israel and the son of a Holocaust survivor, wrote of the Holocaust on Twitter: “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.”

The Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv responded, saying Lapid’s “unsupportable claims show how badly Holocaust education is needed, even here in Israel,” and the legislation was intended “not to ‘whitewash’ the past, but to protect the truth against such slander.”

Lapid fired back.

“My grandmother was murdered in Poland by Germans and Poles,” he wrote. “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.”

Many pointed out that the effort to outlaw mention of Polish complicity in the Holocaust coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp on Polish soil.

About 250,000 Holocaust survivors were living in Israel a decade ago, about half the number who arrived after the state was founded in 1948, according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial. Most are now over 80, and thousands die each year.

Yad Vashem agreed with Poland that the term “Polish death camps” was “a historical misrepresentation” but added in a statement that it opposed the new legislation, saying it was “liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust.”