Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 June 2019

Polish prime minister cancels Israel visit amid new Holocaust tensions

Last year new law made it illegal to blame Polish nation for collaborating in Holocaust

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki listens during a press conference on the sidelines of a Visegrad group countries (V4) and Germany Summit at Bratislava Castle. AFP
Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki listens during a press conference on the sidelines of a Visegrad group countries (V4) and Germany Summit at Bratislava Castle. AFP

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki cancelled his plans to attend a meeting of central European leaders in Israel starting on Monday amid new tensions over how Polish behaviour during the Holocaust is remembered and characterised.

Mr Morawiecki informed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of his decision by phone on Sunday, Michal Dworczyk, who heads the prime minister's chancellery, said. Poland's foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, plans to attend instead, he said.

It "is a signal that the historical truth is a fundamental issue for Poland, and the defence of the good name of Poland is and always will be decisive," Deputy Foreign Minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek explained.

Mr Netanyahu said on Thursday during a Middle East conference hosted by the United States and Poland that "Poles cooperated with the Nazis" – wording suggesting that some Poles participated in killing Jews during the German occupation of Poland.

He was initially quoted by some Israeli media outlets as saying not "Poles" but "The Poles" cooperated, phrasing which could be taken as blaming the entire Polish nation.

Mr Netanyahu's office said he was misquoted. The Polish government summoned the Israeli ambassador on Friday and later said it was not satisfied with the explanation of the Israeli leader being quoted incorrectly.

Mr Netanyahu was supposed to meet with the leaders of the four central European countries known as the Visegrad Group — Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — during the two-day meeting in Israel.

This incident follows a major spat that Warsaw and Jerusalem had last year over a new Polish law that makes it illegal to blame the Polish nation for collaboration in the Holocaust.

At the height of the crisis, Mr Morawiecki at one point equated Polish perpetrators of the Holocaust to supposed "Jewish perpetrators."

Now, with general and European elections later this year, Mr Morawiecki bowed out of the Jerusalem trip because he "has to think about the far-right and anti-Semitic electorate," said Tomasz Lis, the editor of the Polish edition of Newsweek and a critic of the government.

Germany occupied Poland in 1939, annexing part of it to Germany and directly governing the rest. Unlike other countries occupied by Germany, Poland did not have a collaborationist government.

The prewar Polish government and military fled into exile, and an underground resistance army fought the Nazis inside the country and tried to warn a deaf world about the Holocaust. Thousands of Poles also risked their own lives to help Jews.

Because of that history, Poles find references to Polish "collaboration" to be unfair and hurtful.

However, individual Poles did take part in killing Jews during and after the war. Many Holocaust survivors and their relatives carry painful memories of persecution at Polish hands. In Israel, there has been anger at what many there perceive to be Polish attempts today to whitewash that history.

The dispute last sparked an explosion of anti-Semitic hate speech in Poland, and there were signs of another spike in recent days.

Updated: February 18, 2019 08:53 AM