JERUSALEM/WARSAW (Reuters) - Israel’s prime minister and Holocaust survivors on Sunday bridled at a draft Polish law that would make it illegal to suggest Poland bore any responsibility for Nazi atrocities committed on its soil.
The Israeli foreign ministry summoned Poland’s charge d’affaires - the ambassador was abroad – to object to the bill, which is still going through parliament.
“We will under no circumstances accept any attempt to rewrite history,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in lengthy public remarks to his cabinet.
Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki talked by phone late on Sunday, the Israeli leader’s office said, and they “had agreed to open immediate dialogue between teams from both countries to try to reach understandings on the legislation.”
Before World War Two, Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish community of some 3.2 million. Nazi Germany attacked and occupied Poland in 1939 and later built death camps including Auschwitz and Treblinka on Polish soil. Most of the Jews that lived in Poland were killed by the Nazi occupiers.
The Polish government said in a statement the legislation aimed to stop the Polish people or state being blamed for Nazi crimes.
The bill, passed by the lower house of parliament on Friday, would make the use of phrases such as “Polish death camps” punishable by up to three years in prison.
To become law, the bill, which could yet be amended, must be approved by the Senate and Polish President Andrzej Duda.
“We will accept no limitation on truthful historical research,” Netanyahu earlier told his cabinet.
“Our ambassador in Warsaw, at my instruction, spoke with the prime minister of Poland during last night’s ceremony commemorating the Holocaust at Auschwitz, and emphasized these positions of ours,” he said, referring to a service to mark the 73rd anniversary of the death camp’s liberation.
Warsaw says the bill will not limit freedom to research or speak about the Holocaust.
“Jews, Poles, and all victims should be guardians of the memory of all who were murdered by German Nazis. Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ is not a Polish phrase,” Morawiecki said on Twitter on Saturday.
The German phrase, which translates as “work sets you free”, was set into the wrought iron gates at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps.
The Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) said that Poland had been in the past many times presented as an ally of Hitler, which made it necessary to protect its reputation.
Poland lost about 3 million of its non-Jewish citizens, including many of its intellectuals and members of the elites during World War Two. The capital Warsaw was razed to the ground in 1944 after a failed uprising in which 200,000 civilians died.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, said the phrase “Polish death camps” would be a historical misrepresentation but that the bill was “liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population”.
At Israel’s request, Duda’s top policy adviser will meet Israel’s ambassador on Monday to discuss the legislation.
Holocaust survivors interviewed in Israel’s best-selling daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, gave first-hand accounts of how Poles refused them help or turned them over to German authorities.
“There were good Polish people ... but there were also Poles who were very cruel,” Esther Lieber, 81, told the newspaper. “When they came to round us up and put us in the ghetto, father said to run away quickly. We were very scared and fled into the woods. The Poles threw stones at us and cursed us.”
Yad Vashem says about 30,000 to 35,000 Jews, around one percent of all of Polish Jewry, were saved with the help of Poles. More than 6,700 Poles, the largest number of rescuers from a single country, have been honored by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations”.
Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Jon Boyle