A senior aide to the Polish president has written a letter to a group of US Congressmen amid a dispute over an anti-defamation law that has soured relations between Poland and Israel.
Krzysztof Szczerski, chief of staff for President Andrzej Duda and his top foreign policy adviser, wrote to the US Congressional Bipartisan Taskforce for Combating Anti-Semitism in reply to its letter of January 31 concerning the contested Polish legislation, which could penalise anyone who publicly ascribes blame to the Polish nation or state for crimes committed by Nazi Germany.
In Poland, the proposed new law is seen as a way of stamping out the use of the phrase “Polish death camps,” which many say implies Poland’s involvement in the Holocaust.
Poland has long fought the use of such wording, which has appeared in foreign media in relation to Nazi German-run extermination camps located in occupied Poland during World War II.
But commentators have said that Israel is concerned that the new law could mean penalties for anyone who criticises individual Poles’ role in the Holocaust.
In his letter, Szczerski noted on Friday that almost 6 million Polish citizens – “3 million of them Polish Jews” – lost their lives at the hands of the country’s German and Soviet invaders during World War II.
He pointed out that “Poland was the only German occupied territory where the Nazis introduced [the] death penalty for any attempt of sheltering or assisting the persecuted Jewish population.”
Hundreds of Poles were executed for helping their Jewish compatriots, Szczerski wrote in the letter.
He added that thousands of Poles nevertheless “continued to help their Jewish neighbours despite the draconian law and terrible conditions of the German occupation.”
Szczerski argued: “Nobody in Poland who has elementary knowledge of history denies that there were instances of Polish people behaving disgracefully towards Jews during World War II.
“We condemn such acts and we do not intend to erase them from our past. However, unlike in several other European countries where governments cooperated with … Nazi Germany, such actions were never part of the official policy of the Polish government-in-exile. Poland did not collaborate with the Germans in any form. On the contrary, the Polish Underground State made effort to punish all instances of persecution of the Jewish population.”
According to Szczerski, “we cannot accept” accusations against “the Polish State or the Polish Nation as a whole of being responsible for or complicit in the genocide of the Jewish population during World War II. Such suggestions deny the truth about the Holocaust.”
Poland is “aware of its obligations as the depository of the memory of the Holocaust,” Szczerski said. “It was on the occupied Polish territory that the Germans built and operated the death camps. The Polish Nation was first to witness this unspeakable tragedy. Apart from helping our Jewish neighbours we alarmed the world about the atrocities of the German Final Solution when there was still time to stop it. We remain faithful to fulfilling this duty.”
Every year, Poland hosts thousands of Jewish visitors “tracing their heritage or paying respects to those who perished in the Holocaust,” Szczerski went on. “We open museums, publish books and hold seminars on Jewish history, not hushing up the difficult issues.”
He also wrote to the eight Congressmen that Polish President Andrzej Duda “has consistently condemned all manifestations of anti-Semitism and ethnic or racial hatred, including during his visit to the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem.”
However, “each year we continue to register hundreds of cases where defamatory language, including the phrase ‘Polish death camps,’ reappears. These false assertions must not be accepted.”
Szczerski said: “Defending the truth is impossible when the lies remain unchallenged.”
“On behalf of the President of the Republic of Poland I assure you of our commitment to cooperate on this matter,” Szczerski told the Congressmen.
Presidential nod needed
The disputed Polish bill was passed by the country’s Senate on Thursday and needs to be signed by President Duda before it becomes law.
The legislation has sparked an outcry in Israel. The United States, of which Poland is a staunch ally, has warned that the new law could damage Warsaw’s relations with America as well as with Israel.
Israeli politicians, historians and intellectuals have appealed to the Polish president not to sign the law, which could mean a jail term for anyone who accuses Poland of being complicit in Nazi German crimes during World War II.