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Yad Vashem historians respond to the joint statement of the Governments of Poland and Israel concerning the revision of the 26 January 2018, amendment to Poland’s Act on the Institute of National Remembrance

05 July 2018

The announcement on 27 June 2018, regarding the intention of the Government of Poland to revise the controversial amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, approved on 26 January 2018 by the Polish Sejm, stirred hopes of a positive development and a step in the right direction. Pursuant to the announcement, the Prime Ministers of Poland and Israel released a joint statement declaring the deletion of Sections 55a and 55b of the amendment, which defined any public reference —“contrary to the facts”— that the Polish Nation or the Polish State was responsible and/or shared responsibility for “Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich” as a criminal offense, subject to up to three years in prison.

A thorough review by Yad Vashem historians shows that the historical assertions, presented as unchallenged facts, in the joint statement contain grave errors and deceptions, and that the essence of the statute remains unchanged even after the repeal of the aforementioned sections, including the possibility of real harm to researchers, unimpeded research, and the historical memory of the Holocaust.

 

Historical assertions in the statement

The statement contains highly problematic wording that contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field. The joint statement’s wording effectively supports a narrative that research has long since disproved, namely, that the Polish Government-in-Exile and its underground arms strove indefatigably—in occupied Poland and elsewhere—to thwart the extermination of Polish Jewry. As such, they created a “mechanism of systematic help and support to Jewish people” and even took vigorous action against Poles who betrayed Jews. Although the joint statement acknowledges that there were cases in which Poles committed cruelties against Jews, it also says that “numerous Poles” risked their lives to rescue Jews.

The existing documentation and decades of historical research yield a totally different picture: the Polish Government-in-Exile, based in London, as well as the Delegatura (the representative organ of this Government in occupied Poland) did not act resolutely on behalf of Poland’s Jewish citizens at any point during the war. 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.

On the question of the balance of forces between aid and persecution, too, the past three decades of historical research reveal a totally different picture: Poles’ assistance to Jews during the Holocaust was relatively rare, and attacks against and even the murder of Jews were widespread phenomena. Notwithstanding the existence of the impressive rescue organization Żegota (the Council for Aid to Jews), supported by the Polish Government-in-Exile, this body’s activity cannot be projected onto Polish society as a whole and its actions cannot be attributed to the institutions of the Polish resistance at large. Furthermore, an examination of the documentation and research shows that even Poles who attempted to help beleaguered Jews were afraid of their Polish neighbors no less than they were of the German occupiers. The attempt to amplify the relief that was extended to the Jews and portray it as a widespread phenomenon, and to minimize the role of Poles in persecuting the Jews, constitutes an offense not only to the historical truth, but also to the memory of the heroism of the Righteous Among the Nations.

The statement also illegitimately uncouples the disaster that befell the Jews from its concrete historical context and the reality of occupied Poland during the war by claiming that during the war “some people, regardless of their origin, religion, or worldview, revealed their darkest side at that time.” Beyond the outrageous insinuation that Jews also revealed “their darkest side at that time,” those who revealed this side, in the context of the specific amendment at issue—one that proposes to fight those who defame the “Polish Nation”—were not devoid of identity. They were Polish and Catholic, and they collaborated with the German occupier, whom they hated, in persecuting the Jewish citizens of Poland.

Similarly, we vehemently reject the attempts to juxtapose the phenomenon of antisemitism with so-called "anti-Polonism." While we should put an end to the use of the misleading and ill-conceived concept of “Polish death camps,” calling the use of such terms “anti-Polonism” is fundamentally anachronistic and has nothing whatsoever to do with antisemitism.

 

Revising the amendment without changing its essence

Rescinding the sections of the Act that concern criminal sanctions is undoubtedly important. The repeal, however, reverses the explicit exception that was made for academic research and artistic endeavor in the wording of the amendment. Other sections that remain unchanged make it actionable under civil law to impugn the good name of the Polish State and the Polish Nation. The joint statement says that no legal action will be taken in the field of research or education on the Holocaust. However, this is not clearly stated in the amendment. Our stance in principle is that any attempt to limit academic and public discourse on historical issues to a single unchangeable national narrative by means of legislation and punishment is inappropriate and constitutes a material infringement of research.

Accordingly—

  • It is the duty of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, with its experience in research on and commemoration and memory of the Holocaust, to point out historical inaccuracies and warn against the risk of material infringement of freedom of discussion about the Holocaust.
  • Poland is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). For this reason, too, it incumbent upon Poland to act for the preservation of memory of the Holocaust and to combat the distortion of Holocaust facts.
  • The right way to correct historical distortions and erroneous historical outlooks is by means of reliable historical research, unimpeded and pressure-free public discourse, and even-handed and open educational activity.

Yad Vashem, will continue to carry out the academic and moral mission that it has been pursuing ever since it was established: to promote responsible research by providing opportunities and conditions for researchers and educators around the world as well as in Israel, to contend unrestrictedly with the complex truth of the Holocaust era, including relations between Polish non-Jews and Polish Jews before, during, and after the Holocaust.

For the detailed stance of the historians at Yad Vashem, click here