Polish Leader Faces Backlash After Suggesting Jews Shared Holocaust Blame

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is now trying to make it clear he's not a Holocaust revisionist.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki made his controversial comment at an international conference on security in Munich, Germany, Feb. 17, 2018.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki made his controversial comment at an international conference on security in Munich, Germany, Feb. 17, 2018.
Michaela Rehle / Reuters

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is attempting to make amends after delivering a controversial statement on Saturday that suggested “Jewish perpetrators” bore some responsibility for the Holocaust.

Morawiecki is now trying to make it clear that he is not a Holocaust revisionist, according to The Washington Post.

“The Holocaust, the genocide of the Jews committed by the German Nazis, was a horrific crime. Even during those dark hours of war and murder, there were individuals of all nations who bravely carried out gestures of the greatest mercy,” Morawiecki tweeted on Sunday. “Sadly, this period also exposed dark parts of human nature, which for some meant collaboration with German Nazis. Dialogue on these difficult chapters of our history is essential.”

Morawiecki’s tweets came after a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had labeled Morawiecki’s original statement “outrageous.”

During the call, the Israeli leader reportedly told his Polish counterpart that “there was no basis for comparing the actions of Poles during the Holocaust to those of Jews,” according to Netanyahu’s office.

The Polish government told Reuters that Morawiecki’s comments were not intended to deny the Holocaust or claim that Jewish victims were responsible for “Nazi German-perpetrated genocide.”

Morawiecki’s troubles began during a panel on Saturday at the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany, when he was questioned about Poland’s controversial Holocaust complicity bill. The measure seeks to punish people for suggesting that Poland collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. Using phrases like “Polish death camp” to refer to concentration camps that were located in the country during the Holocaust could result in fines or up to three years of jail time.

Morawiecki visits the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews during Worls War II in Markowa, Poland, on Feb. 2, 2018.
Morawiecki visits the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews during Worls War II in Markowa, Poland, on Feb. 2, 2018.
Agencja Gazeta / Reuters

Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, the son of two Holocaust survivors, told Morawiecki that during the Holocaust, his mother’s Polish neighbors attempted to betray Jewish families who were in hiding to the Nazis.

“If I understand correctly, after this law is legislated ... I would be considered criminal for saying this,” Bergman told the Polish leader. He then asked, “What is the purpose? What is the message you’re trying to convey to the world?”

Morawiecki responded that “it’s extremely important to first understand that of course it’s not going to be punishable, not going to be seen as criminal to say that there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators as well as Ukrainian perpetrators — not only German perpetrators.”

He added that many Polish families helped to hide Jews from the Nazis, and that there were many Polish victims of the war, as well.

“There were Polish perpetrators,” Morawiecki said, “But we cannot agree with mixing perpetrators with victims, because this would be first of all an offense to all the Jews and all the Poles who suffered greatly during the second World War.”

He took exception to the phrases “Polish death camps” and “Polish concentration camps.”

“Well, ladies and gentlemen, there were no Polish death camps. ... There were German Nazi death camps.”

Watch the exchange below.

Nazi ideology deemed Poles as racially inferior, according to The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Nearly two million non-Jewish Polish civilians were killed by the Nazis, while millions of others were imprisoned or deported as forced laborers.

Thousands of Poles did in fact choose to help Jewish families survive the Holocaust. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, has recognized over 6,600 non-Jewish Poles with the distinction “Righteous Among the Nations” for saving Jews.

But many other Poles did collaborate with the Nazis. The USHMM said that the Nazis called on Polish police and railroad personnel to help guard Jewish ghettos and deport people to death camps. Individual Poles also helped identify Jewish families in hiding, or plundered their property.

According to the USHMM, there were some Jewish leaders who were forced to help the Nazis implement anti-Jewish policies. The Nazis formed local councils known as Judenrat to ensure that their orders were carried out. Before “liquidating” a Jewish ghetto, for example, the Nazis would ask the Judenrat to give them a list of Jewish residents for deportation.

Some Jewish leaders who refused to cooperate were killed by the Nazis. Others complied under duress, hoping that it would keep at least a portion of the population alive.

The Holocaust ultimately killed about 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population, more than 3 million people.

The actions of the Judenrat must be examined in context, according to Havi Dreifuss, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University. Dreifuss told Haaretz that the phenomenon of Jews collaborating with Nazis was “marginal,” but the hostility of most Poles towards their Jewish neighbors was the “norm.”

In addition, she said, there’s a difference in motive.

“While most Jews collaborated hoping to save themselves, their family or part of their community – Poles helped Nazi Germany hunt Jews due to various reasons, among them hatred and financial benefits,” Dreifuss said.

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