Israel made it clear to the Polish government that it opposed a bill passed by the Polish parliament on Friday prescribing prison sentences of up to three years to anyone using the phrase “Polish death camps” or any other reference to Polish involvement in the murder of millions of Jews and other victims during the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night issued a statement saying, “The law is baseless; I strongly oppose it. 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.”
President Rivlin responded to the Polish bill by quoting former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, who said at the Knesset: “One cannot fake history, one cannot rewrite it, one cannot hide the truth. Every crime, every offence must be condemned, denounced, must be examined and exposed.”
The term “Polish death camp” was first used by Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski in a 1944 article that was titled “Polish Death Camp.” Similar early postwar uses of this term can be found in the 1945 issues of several magazines including Contemporary Jewish Record, The Jewish Veteran, and The Palestine Yearbook and Israeli Annual. In 1947, Hungarian-born Jew and Belgian resistance fighter Eugene Weinstock referred in his work Beyond the Last Path to Auschwitz as “the Polish death camp.”
Many Poles fear that the term “Polish Death Camps” gives some people, especially younger generations, the impression that Poles had a role in running the death camps.
History has recorded plenty of Polish acts of violence against Jews besides running the trains to the death camps, which was the purview of the Polish government, and supporting the death camp industry. Acts of anti-Semitism in Poland that were not forced by the Nazis included the Jedwabne pogrom of July 10, 1941, which resulted in the death of at least 340 Polish Jews of all ages, who were locked in a barn and set on fire. Pervasive anti-Jewish violence in Poland in the years 1944–46 was attributed to an anti-Communist insurrection against the new pro-Soviet government after the end of the war, and so were filed not under the classic Polish anti-Semitism but under the fight against the “Żydokomuna” (Jewish communism).
The Jewish community consisted of about 10% of the general population in Poland by 1939, and was all but eradicated by the end of the war. Countless researchers say that anti-Jewish sentiments motivated many Poles to collaborate with Nazis, and the attempt to revise history under penalty of prison by the Polish parliament, on the eve of International Holocaust Memorial Day was certainly brazen.
Or, as Minister of Public Security, Strategic Affairs and Minister of Information Gilad Erdan put it: “The bill passed by the Polish parliament is a terrible law that will undermine the ability to educate against hatred and racism. It is impossible to deny the role of many Poles in the Holocaust and the help they offered the Nazis in carrying out the murder. I call on the Polish government to act immediately to abolish this shameful legislation.”