By Jonathan S. Tobin
It’s never wise to get into an argument about the Holocaust with Yad Vashem.
That’s the moral of the story with regard to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inept attempt to resolve a quarrel with the Polish government over its controversial Holocaust law. Netanyahu erred badly by agreeing to language in a joint declaration with the Poles that misrepresented the truth about the actions of both the Polish government-in-exile and the Polish people during the war, and earned a strong and entirely justified rebuke from Israel’s Holocaust Museum and Memorial Center.
But as much he was in the wrong, those who are treating this dispute as a reason to continue this age-old conflict are missing the point. We should never acquiesce to falsifying history, but Netanyahu was right to think that it’s time to try to put this issue to rest, and continue to forge a new and productive relationship with a nation that, in contrast to its past, now wants to be friends with Israel and the Jewish people.
Netanyahu may have thought he had ended the problem when he announced an agreement with Poland on June 27 after Warsaw amended the law that made it a crime to claim that Poles aided the Nazis’ efforts to murder the Jews. The statement contained much that was good in that it acknowledged the magnitude of the Holocaust, condemned all forms of anti-Semitism and pledged that nothing in Polish law would interfere with Holocaust research or free speech about the subject.
Poland had stirred up a storm of protest by passing a law last year that pleased nationalists who are infuriated that some people refer to Auschwitz and other Nazi death factories as “Polish concentration/death camps.” They’re right that the camps were the work of the Germans and not the Poles. But the law and a general revisionist campaign about the subject didn’t stop there. Warsaw seems to want to cover up the long history of Polish anti-Semitism, including that of the pre-war independent republic. But its leaders also wish to deny the truth that many Poles either collaborated with the Nazis or engaged in anti-Jewish violence on their own both during and after the war.
Netanyahu correctly values good relations with the nations of Eastern Europe, most of which seem more interested in close ties with Israel than their Western European counterparts that are focused on attacking the Jewish state for its measures of self-defense and favor the Palestinians. He was right to see Poland’s Holocaust law as an issue that needed to be resolved in order to facilitate closer ties, including persuading Warsaw to follow the United States in moving its embassy to Jerusalem.
But though he involved Yad Vashem historian Dina Porat in the negotiations with the Poles, she wasn’t shown the final document negotiated by the two nations. That was a mistake. The statement that was published contained claims that the Polish government-in-exile in London tried to raise awareness of the murder of the Jews and that the Home Army—the official resistance force to the Germans—“created a mechanism of systematic help and support to Jewish people.”
Both claims are false. While the Polish exiles were responsible for the mission of Jan Karski, the heroic non-Jewish officer who personally brought word of the truth of the Holocaust to the Allies, including President Franklin Roosevelt, such efforts were limited. And far from systematically helping the Jews, the Home Army was openly hostile to them.
Although, as the statement says, many Poles could be counted among (as Yad Vashem calls them) “the righteous among the nations” who saved Jews, those heroes were actually quite rare. That’s especially the case when compared to the large numbers of other Poles who collaborated or acted against the Jews on their own.
It was shocking for Israel to sign on to such a statement was putting the Jewish state’s seal of approval on a document that doesn’t tell the truth about the Holocaust. This opens up the government to difficult questions. Surely, Netanyahu—a man who is steeped in Jewish history—knew the sections about the actions of the Polish government and Home Army were false. Did he not read those parts carefully, or was he just too interested in papering over differences with the Poles to insist that they be removed?
But those crying foul over this exchange need to acknowledge something that’s just as important as the historical record.
As much as we must honor the truth, the Poles deserve to have their suffering at the hands of the Nazis honored. Poland’s independence and safety were sacrificed by the great powers in 18th and 19th centuries, and then again during the Second World War. They were not the perpetrators of the Holocaust. The Poles were not all marked for death by the Nazis as the Jews were, but nearly 2 million died in the war, and hundreds of thousands were put in the camps. Poles also fought bravely to resist the Germans.
None of this excuses the crimes of individual Poles or the indifference of its officials. But more than seven decades later, it’s clear that the Polish people are trying to distance themselves from anti-Semitism. At a moment when the Poles are threatened by a resurgent Russia and Israel by its Islamist foes, surely it’s right for the two peoples to set aside a history of suffering and emphasize what they have in common.
Those who wish to turn this issue into a cause célèbre are not doing Jews or Poles any favor. As much as the historical record must be defended, it would be wrong to condemn Netanyahu too harshly for trying to find a path towards a closer friendship with Poland.
Yes, the Poles need to be persuaded to back away from myths that make them feel better about their past. In the meantime, Jewish groups, including Yad Vashem, would do well to lower the temperature and continue to work towards finding common ground with a people that wants to turn the page on a sordid past.