Dr.Gerstenfeld’s “Relations with Poland: Israel Has To Be Continuously Vigilant” was first published in Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), and republished here with the author’s consent.
Relations with Poland: Israel has to be continuously vigilant
Polish-Israeli relations are very complex, in view of Poland’s past. Thus Israel has to be continuously alert to avoid the falsification of horrible historical events. One major issue where this came to the fore, was the Polish Holocaust law, which was again amended in 2018. It has elicited many international reactions. The resulting publicity has once again brought the massive participation of Poles in the murders of Jews during the Holocaust as well as the country’s major pre- and post-war antisemitism into the limelight.
Many details reemerged in the media. Historian Jan Gross was widely quoted. He documented in his book, Neighbors, how the Jews of the village of Jedwabne during the Holocaust, were burned to death in a barn by Polish residents of the town.1 The work of historian Jan Grabowski who teaches at the University of Ottawa, Canada also received much more attention than in the past. He and his research colleagues have detailed the murder of 200,000 Jews by Poles during the Holocaust. They confirmed this figure which was already established by Polish Jewish historian Szymon Datner about fifty years ago.2
The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) has published for the first time a declassified State Department document from 1946 which compared Polish treatment of Jews to that of German Nazis. It stated that after the war, many Jews preferred to flee even to Germany rather than to return to Poland.3
Best known among Polish antisemitic crimes in the immediate post-war years is the 1946 pogrom in the town of Kielce where 37 Jews were murdered. In the summer of 2018, it was fifty years ago that 13,000 people of Jewish origin were stripped of their Polish citizenship and expelled from the country. On the occasion of the anniversary, Polish President, Andrzej Duda, offered a complex apology. The Washington Post titled the article devoted to it: “Poland’s president offers a non-apology apology for ’68 antisemitic purge.”4
More than fifteen years ago, I interviewed the then head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, the late David Bankier. He said: “Most Polish underground organizations believed that post-Hitler Poland would be a country without Jews…. those who remained would have to leave Poland after the war. This view was expressed even in the Zegota organization, the council for aid to the Jews set up by the Polish resistance. Among them were people who endangered their own lives.” Bankier remarked that the belief that Poland was not a country where Jews should live was highly indicative of the accuracy of Polish feelings at that time.5
A 2011 study by the University of Bielefeld found that 63% of Poles agree with the statement that: “what the State of Israel does today to the Palestinians is in principle not different from what the Nazis did to the Jews in the Third Reich.”6 This percentage was even substantially higher than in the other European countries where this poll was taken.
Polish diplomat Jan Dziedziczak, the deputy director of the Polish Foreign Ministry, complained about a text at the Yad Vashem museum. It says that most of the Polish police officers after 1939, returned to duty under the German occupiers. It also says that in 1943 16,000 Polish police officers, some armed, served under the Germans.
Yad Vashem states about the Polish police that it was employed “on a wide scale against the Jewish population,” and “had an active role in policing ghettos in occupied Poland and searching for Jews who sought refuge with the local population after escaping from ghettos and camps.”
The Polish police demonstrated “absolute devotion” to the Nazi authorities, according to Yad Vashem, “although a handful of cases of assistance to Jews by some officers also occurred.”7
As long as Israeli authorities calibrate their statements and stick to the facts they will have the moral high ground in the Israeli-Polish relationship. Lack of sophistication, professionalism and calibration can destroy this. Israel Katz demonstrated that shortly after he became acting Israeli foreign minister. Quoting former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, he said, that Poles suckle antisemitism with their mother’s milk.8
That statement was already eminently false when Shamir said it. No one is born an antisemite or suckles antisemitism with their mother’s milk. Katz spoiled what could have been an important Israeli diplomatic success – an official meeting of the four Visegrad countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) in Israel. Poland canceled its participation, which led to the annulment of the meeting.9 Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had worked patiently on improving relations with these countries.
Katz’s words even drew a condemnation of the pro-Israeli U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.10 The Israeli minister would have served his country’s interests well if he had fully apologized for his untrue and damaging statement.
Another Israeli who apparently does not know what calibration
means is the controversial Hebrew University historian Daniel Blatman. He has accepted the Polish Government’s offer to head the problematic ghetto museum which is scheduled to open in Warsaw in 2023. Blatman has wildly attacked Yad Vashem in an article titled, Yad Vashem teaches the Holocaust like totalitarian countries teach history.11 What will be represented in the museum and how that is done has the potential to lead to substantial future conflicts.
Israel’s leading Holocaust scholar, Yehuda Bauer has said that apparently Blatman’s role is to serve as a Jewish-Israeli fig leaf for this new museum supported by the nationalist Polish regime.12
The strong desire of many Poles to embellish distort their country’s past leads to the need for Israel to anticipate future problems. A current example, is the discussion in Germany about establishing a monument in Berlin dedicated to the Poles murdered during the German occupation. German atrocities should be remembered, even more so now in view of the contemporary developments in the countryGermany. As Jews we should be sensitive toward extreme atrocities committed against others, the more so if committed by the nation which which exterminated Jews at the same time this happened.
Seemingly this monument issue has nothing to do with Jews, yet one we hasve been forewarned. In 1979 the “Polish” Pope John Paul II visited Auschwitz. He said there: “Six million Poles lost their lives during the Second World War, a fifth of the nation.” This was aOne should not let this semantic amalgamation. pass. Three million Poles were murdered by the Germans in racist murders, ten percent of the Polish people. The Germans saw the Poles as an inferior people. Three million Polish Jews were murdered in exterminatory antisemitism, more than 90% of the Polish Jews. The Germans considered the Jews to be sub-human, bacteria and vermin.
The issue of a monument for Polish victims in Berlin seemed largely theoretical until now. Yet rather suddenly, during his recent visit to Poland a few weeks ago,n July and August this year, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas came out in favor of a German memorial for the Polish victims of the Nazi rule. He said: “Such a memorial is not only a gesture of reconciliation, it would be important also for us Germans as well.”13
If the monument for Polish victims in Berlin materializes, Jews and Israel have to make sure well ahead that no texts distorting history appear on it.