Historian Yehuda Bauer, 92, says the joint Israeli-Polish statement on Poland’s controversial Holocaust law attacks the memory of the Holocaust and silences attempts to tell the stories of what befell Polish Jews at the hands of their countrymen
“This is giving in to the Polish narrative, an attack on the memory of the Holocaust, and a danger to any future independent research that people might want to conduct in Poland,” says eminent Holocaust historian and Israel Prize laureate Professor Yehuda Bauer.
Bauer, 92, spoke in response to a joint statement issued by the governments of Israel and Poland this week announcing an alteration to Poland’s controversial Holocaust law, which made it a criminal act to accuse the Polish nation or the Polish people of responsibility for Nazi atrocities committed in Poland.
After lengthy negotiations, the criminal sanctions were removed, although the law still permits civil lawsuits against researchers and activists.
The statement made last week by Israeli Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that even though most of the mass extermination of the Jews of Europe was perpetrated in Poland, the main responsibility for the crimes lay with the Germans and many Poles had helped save Jews during the Holocaust. The statement plays down the role the Polish people played in the killings.
Bauer expresses worry and anger about it.
“As far as I am concerned, an Israeli government that attacks the memory of the Holocaust is a disaster,” Bauer tells Israel Hayom.
“All they did here was to cancel the clause making it a criminal offense to study Polish atrocities during the Holocaust, not the civil clause that allows them [researchers] to be sued for damages. In other words, anyone who claims that in a given city, village or town in Poland a crime took place and the local police handed Jews over to the Germans, could face a civil lawsuit. In such a suit, the burden of proof will be on him, not on the plaintiff.
“Who in Poland today, with the law in its current form, would dare to keep studying the history [of the Holocaust] without ignoring the part many Poles played in cooperating with the Nazis? You’d need to be insane to keep probing. Any archive clerk who discovers new documents, and there are plenty of them, won’t tell anyone, because it would be to their detriment. … A large part of the research in Israel is based on the devoted research of our Polish colleagues, who wanted to expose the truth, even when it’s unpleasant. But now that will stop,” says Bauer.
‘They were afraid to save Jews’
Bauer says that for years, Poland has attempted to hide its past because talking about Polish anti-Semitism and abetting the Germans made the Poles uncomfortable.
“Only those willing to sacrifice themselves bucked the stream, and now all that will stop,” says Bauer.
“This is a fatal blow to the memory of the Holocaust, in acknowledging reality and facts, and an indirect blow to the memory of the Righteous Among the Nations of Poland themselves, who put their own lives in danger to rescue Jews. People in Israel must understand the prevailing sentiment in Poland back then: If you saved Jews, it wasn’t the Germans you needed to be afraid of, it was your neighbors.
“The Polish police and other official entities consistently helped murder Jews. For example, the commander of Poland’s first armed underground, General [Stefan] Rowecki, who was not anti-Semitic in the least, warned the Polish government-in-exile that it must not condemn the persecution of Jews or declare equal rights for Jews when the war was over. He explained at the time that if it did, it would lose popular support because most of the Polish people were anti-Semitic. An official document [of this warning] exists.”
Bauer says the recent steps by the new Polish government, which he describes as “a kind of radical nationalist, right-wing Bolshevism,” are part of a “worldwide wave of anti-liberal democratic governments that are based on extreme nationalism.”
He says this attitude in Poland seeks to silence the responsibility of the Polish people, the national police that persecuted Jews and handed Jews over to the Germans, and an entire system that could have “dragged its feet and avoided [cooperating].”
“They have now been joined by the Israeli government,” says Bauer.
The world wants to forget
In Bauer’s opinion, by making a joint declaration with the government of Poland, the Israeli government is helping silence the minority in Poland who want to expose the truth.
“Now they’ll say to anyone who criticizes the Polish government for suing Polish [Holocaust] researchers, ‘What do you want now? The Israeli government supports this.’ If the United States or a European country tries to defend Polish researchers who want to learn the truth and show what really happened, the Polish government will tell them, ‘Israel agreed to this statement.’ This indirectly helps deny the role Poland played in murdering the Jews of Europe.”
Q: What should Israel have done instead?
A: “I know that the Israeli government wants a diplomatic benefit, to arrange support in the world. I understand this issue very well. The practical aspect and Israel’s need for international support are not foreign to me.
“However, in my opinion, they sold the memory of the Holocaust, historical truth, for beans,” says Bauer. He adds that this “short-sightedness” infuriates him.
Bauer says that while he does not think that as a researcher his role is to get involved in history and tell the government what to do, which he feels is the job of politicians.
“They know how to operate when it comes to pragmatics,” he says.
But Bauer stresses that the tendency to operate only in terms of what is practical has harmed the truth.
“It’s important to me to speak up about this,” he said.
“The joint statement is a crude mistake and an attack on the Jewish people’s responsibility for what was done to them: to commemorate it, to study it and to tell [the story] of it. It’s our obligation to stand up and tell the world – which wants to forget, which is busy forgetting for reasons of its own—the truth, whatever that is.”
When Bauer is asked how Netanyahu’s decision differs from the declaration by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, about the “other Germany,” this infuriates him.
“I don’t think there is any need to compare or connect what is happening now to what happened in the past. All these comparisons are irrelevant. Ben-Gurion and the Germans are one thing, and Israel is 2018 is a different story. I don’t think one has anything to do with the other. All these comparisons are problematic, and if we are to draw a comparison with the past, the Jewish people now have a free country of their own that can protect them. In the 1930s and 1940s, we didn’t have a country,” he says.
“Now we do, and I demand that it stand up. It needs to take a stand against all nationalist movements that deny or mitigate the Holocaust. It’s important for us, and not only for us. It’s important to those Poles I admire who were killed by their own people for rescuing Jews.
“What does the new statement say, after all? It minimizes these people’s heroism, their choosing goodness in a society that was very anti-Semitic. I’m really offended on the part of these heroes I admire and hold dear.”
By: Assaf Golan