A profound and bitter battle between Israel and Poland has been brought to crisis point by the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which is being commemorated by world leaders this week at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem and next week at Auschwitz itself.
The roots of the row lay in remarks made last December by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He claimed that Poland helped start World War II, and accused it of being an antisemitic country that had welcomed Hitler’s plan to liquidate Europe’s Jews.
A few days later, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki hit back. “Without Stalin’s complicity in the partition of Poland, and without the natural resources that Stalin supplied to Hitler, the Nazi German crime machine would not have taken control of Europe,” he said.
This dispute escalated when the Polish President, Andrzej Duda, wasn’t invited to speak at the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem on Jan. 23. It had previously been decided that, in addition to Germany, the only speakers would be from the United Kingdom, United States, Russia and France as the four nations that defeated Hitler.
Despite this explanation, Duda decided to boycott the Yad Vashem ceremony on the grounds that he wouldn’t be able to respond should Putin use the event to repeat his accusations against Poland of antisemitism.
The row then escalated still further in salvos of mutual accusations between Russia and Poland, each accusing the other of facilitating or standing idly by Hitler’s assault on Europe and the slaughter of the Jews.
The truth is that both sides are trying to sanitize their highly complex pasts. Both are using their undeniable suffering at the hands of the Nazi regime to absolve themselves of complicity in either Nazi aggression or the onslaught upon the Jews.
The Soviet Union may have made its infamous pact with Germany in 1939 merely as a defensive measure, as Putin has implied. And the Soviet Union was critical to the eventual defeat of Hitler. Nevertheless, that pact gave Hitler the confidence to provoke world war by invading Poland.
The Polish government believes that Putin’s main motive in provoking this row is to weaken Polish influence in the European Union. Warsaw strongly supports maintaining sanctions on Moscow for its annexation of Crimea and has also been fighting a planned Russian gas pipeline.
If Putin, however, was being cynical, Poland’s revisionism has been egregious. Both the Polish prime minister and the head of the Auschwitz museum have declared that the Yad Vashem ceremony shouldn’t have been held at all, with the sole commemoration being the one held every year at Auschwitz.
It is extraordinarily offensive to claim that the State of Israel, which arose from the ashes of the Holocaust, should have no role in commemorating the liberation of the most infamous of the Nazi extermination camps.
The main reason behind this claim appears to be that one of the event’s organizers was the World Holocaust Forum Foundation. This was founded by Moscow-born philanthropist and Jewish activist Moshe Kantor, who is said to be close to Putin. So the Poles viewed the Jerusalem ceremony as a Russian provocation.
But it was also organized by Yad Vashem and the office of Israel’s President. So the Polish boycott was an insult to Yad Vashem and the State of Israel. Yet on BBC radio this week, the Polish prime minister doubled down and insisted that the Yad Vashem ceremony was disrespectful to Poland.
Such arrogance is of a piece with Poland’s appalling historical revisionism. True, its history is complex. The Poles were indeed badly victimized by the Nazis, forming the second-largest group murdered in the extermination camps. They also suffered greatly from Soviet oppression, both during Soviet occupation under the pact, as well as under Stalinist rule after the war.
It’s also the case that more Christian Poles have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for risking their lives to aid Jews during the Nazi period than citizens of any other country in Europe.
But these heroic Poles were themselves targeted and killed by other Poles for trying to save the Jews. There were also Poles who helped the Germans hunt down Jews and kill them.
For what Poland goes to such lengths to deny is that the culture of the country has always been riddled with antisemitism, due in large measure to the primitive prejudices promulgated by the Catholic Church.
Before World War II, antisemitism became increasingly open in Poland with government authorities taking formal measures to exclude Jews from key sectors of public life.
Both during and after the war, there were Polish pogroms against Jews. In 1941, several hundred Jews in Jedwabne were burned alive by their Polish neighbors.
In Kielce in 1946, 42 Jews were killed and more than 40 were wounded in a pogrom conducted by Polish soldiers, police officers and civilians.
Yet Poland furiously denies its historic culture of antisemitism. Last year, its government’s attempt to prohibit rhetoric accusing Poland of complicity in Nazi crimes created a furious row with Israel.
An uneasy peace was brokered when the two countries agreed on a joint declaration stressing the involvement of the Polish resistance in helping Jews. This was condemned by Yad Vashem and other Jewish historians who claimed that this overstated the Poles’ rescue efforts and understated their anti-Jewish atrocities.
The current Auschwitz row has provoked claims that this Polish revisionism is being promulgated by “populist” nationalist politicians. In fact, it has a deeper cultural lineage.
For more than two decades, Poland has denied the centrality to the Holocaust of the Jewish genocide by claiming that the Nazis murdered the Jews in Poland because they were Poles. Denying the victimization of the Jews as Jews enables Poland to deny its own anti-Jewish past.
Ever since the country was liberated from Communist oppression, it has tried to construct a national identity around its status as a victim of both Nazism and the Soviet Union. But in trying to deny their country’s anti-Jewish past, Poles repeatedly indulge in antisemitism.
Both before and during World War II, attacks on Jews were fueled by the belief that the Jews were behind Soviet communism. This has developed into the now widespread accusation of “Jewish-Bolshevism” that makes use of Jewish texts to support obscene claims of Jewish responsibility for the Holocaust.
In an interview in Tablet, Elżbieta Janicka, a Polish historian who focuses on Polish antisemitism, has spoken of how a conference on Polish Holocaust studies held in Paris last year was disrupted by a group of Poles who distributed anti-Jewish propaganda, harassed participants and subjected to them to crude antisemitic remarks, all under the noses of Polish state representatives.
The French minister of science sent an official protest note to the Polish minister of science. In return, she was advised to deal with French antisemitism. Now the conference organizers have prepared a lawsuit.
Last year, the Polish prime minister himself made a notorious comment that Jews were among the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Challenged about this on the BBC, he refused to retract his words and merely implied that he was referring to Jewish collaborators in what he agreed were “terrible times.”
This Auschwitz row is effectively holding the memory of the Jewish dead hostage to international politics. It tells us yet again that, despite such commemorations, too many still regard the Jews as little more than a troublesome and even despised impediment to their own agendas.