TEL AVIV – Poland’s President Andrzej Duda said Monday he was “flabbergasted” by Israel’s “violent and very unfavorable reaction” to a controversial bill that would make it illegal to blame Poland for any Holocaust-related crimes.
“We absolutely can’t back down. We have the right to defend the historical truth,” he told public broadcaster TVP.
In an earlier speech, Duda maintained there was “no systematic participation of the Polish nation or the Polish state (in exile) in the Holocaust, but the Polish resistance and Polish state (in exile) fought the Holocaust in an organized and systemic way.”
However, he admitted that “there were wicked people (Poles) who sold their neighbors for money, but it was not the Polish nation, it was not an organized action. … There were also cases of Poles giving up their lives to save their Jewish neighbors.”
President Reuven Rivlin on Monday vowed “we won’t forget” Poland’s role in aiding the Nazis.
“Among the Polish nation there were those who aided the Nazis in their crimes. We will not forget that,” he said at a Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony held by the Athens Jewish community.
However, Rivlin added that there were also others “among them who struggled to save the lives of Jews and were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.”
Historians hold that a large percentage of the Polish population aided the Nazis voluntarily. The son of a Holocaust survivor and a Polish history professor Jan Grabowski said that “the Germans were able to mobilize segments of the Polish society to take part in their plan to hunt down the Jews and help them carry out their Final Solution.”
Efraim Zuroff, another Holocaust historian who serves as the Eastern Europe director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that large swaths of the population either directly killed or else gave up their Jewish neighbors’ whereabouts to the Nazis.
“Everybody knows that many, many thousands of Poles killed or betrayed their Jewish neighbors to the Germans, causing them to be murdered,” said Zuroff. “The Polish state was not complicit in the Holocaust, but many Poles were.”
The comments made by Poland’s president in the wake of Israel’s outrage over the bill came as the Jewish state’s ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari, met with Duda’s cabinet chief, Krzysztof Szczerski.
Azari said that Israel was concerned that the bill infringes on freedom of speech and would limit the discourse surrounding the Holocaust in Poland and its victims, the Foreign Ministry said.
Szczerski responded that the legislation was a necessary step in ensuring that the Polish nation and the government are not blamed for Nazi crimes.
On Monday, Poland indicated that it may not make amendments to the bill, despite a discussion two hours earlier between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki.
Netanyahu and Morawiecki talked and “agreed to immediately open a dialogue between staffs of the two countries, in order to try and reach an understanding over the legislation,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office read.
However, the same evening Polish government spokesperson Joanna Kopcińska said that no interference in “sovereign decisions” would be allowed.
Netanyahu slammed the bill as “baseless” and a “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.”
“We will not accept any attempt whatsoever to rewrite history. We will accept no restriction on research into historical truth,” he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.
Rivlin, in his speech at Athens, also slammed the legislation.
“Just as was said by the former Polish President, ‘One cannot fake history, nor rewrite it, nor hide the truth. Every crime, every offence must be condemned, denounced, must be examined and exposed,’ so he said,” Rivlin stated.
“Our obligation as children of the Jewish nation to the memory of our brothers and sisters who were murdered will always be above all other considerations. The duty to remember is a duty to recognize, to know, to try and understand what happened. To understand how the most terrible destruction in history was made possible. With the aim to ensure, Never Again,” he continued.
“Seventy-three years have passed since the flames of the Auschwitz crematoria were put out. Auschwitz has become a symbol of the whole Jewish Holocaust. … And yet, on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the lower house of the Polish Parliament passed a law to criminalize talk of ‘crimes of the Polish nation,’ threatening custodial sentences to those who use different expressions.”
The controversial bill stipulates that any individual who accuses Poland of being responsible for “crimes against peace and humanity” will be subject to a fine or prison sentence.
“Whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich … or other crimes against peace and humanity, or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the actual perpetrators thereof, shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years,” a translation of the bill reads.