July 5, 2018 / 4:06 PM / 2 months ago

Yad Vashem center criticizes Israeli-Polish statement on Holocaust law

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s main Holocaust memorial criticized as historically inaccurate on Thursday a joint statement by the Israeli and Polish prime ministers aimed at ending a dispute over Holocaust legislation in Poland.

A man stands in front of the "Arbeit macht frei" (Work sets you free) gate in the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz, before the annual "March of the Living" to commemorate the Holocaust, in Oswiecim, Poland, April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

The Jerusalem-based center, Yad Vashem, challenged in particular the validity of the leaders’ assertion that the Polish underground and government-in-exile in World War Two came to the aid of Jews facing death at the hands of the Nazis.

Last week, Poland’s ruling conservatives watered down the proposed law, which had drawn Israeli and U.S. condemnation, and removed the threat of jail terms for anyone suggesting the nation was complicit in Nazi crimes against the Jews.

During the war, Jews from across Europe were sent to death camps built and operated by Germans in Nazi-occupied Poland — home to the continent’s biggest Jewish community at the time — including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.

After the law was amended, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki said in a statement that their countries were “friends and partners” and rejected blaming Poland or its citizens for atrocities committed by the Nazis or collaborators in other countries.

Their statement went on to praise the wartime Polish government-in-exile, saying it tried to “raise awareness among Western allies of the systematic murder” of Polish Jews.

Netanyahu and Morawiecki also acknowledged “the fact that structures of the Polish underground state supervised by the Polish government-in-exile created a mechanism of systematic help and support to Jewish people”.

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki attends a debate about the Holocaust bill at the Senate in Warsaw, Poland June 27, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski via REUTERS

But Yad Vashem said its own “thorough review” showed “that the historical assertions, presented as unchallenged facts, in the joint statement contain grave errors and deceptions”.

“The Polish government-in-exile, based in London ... did not work decisively during the war on behalf of Poland’s Jewish citizens,” Yad Vashem said.

“Much of the Polish resistance in its various movements not only failed to help Jews, but was also not infrequently actively involved in persecuting them,” it said.

Poland stood firm on the joint statement.

“For us, the position expressed by the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu is binding,” Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki told the Polish state news agency PAP.

The debate around the statement confirms the need to “strengthen further cooperation of Polish, Israeli, and Jewish historians, teachers, and museum guides to protect the truth about World War Two and the Holocaust, including between teams created by both prime ministers,” he said.

Poles’ behavior during the war has become a central theme for the ruling Law and Justice party, which argues that previous liberal governments in Warsaw tried to teach young people to be ashamed, not proud, of their history.

Thousands of Poles risked their lives to protect Jewish neighbors. But research published since the fall of communism in 1989 showed that thousands also killed Jews or denounced those who hid them to the Nazi occupiers, challenging the national narrative that Poland was solely a victim.

Additional reporting by Marcin Goclowski in Warsaw; editing by David Stamp

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