Lapid is overreaching on Polish anti-Semitism


Over the last year, Yair Lapid, the co-chair of Israel’s opposition Blue and White Party, has made several outspoken statements about Poland, Polish anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Each time, his message has been the same: Poland is denying the complicity of ordinary Poles in the Nazi extermination of the Jews; contemporary anti-Semitism in Poland is reflective of a hatred of Jews going back centuries; any Israeli politician who refuses to recognize this reality is dishonoring the victims of the Holocaust.

All of this has taken place against the background of a government-led offensive in Poland aimed at establishing an unmovable doctrine: that the 3 million Polish Jews murdered during World War II are the responsibility of the Germans alone; Poles suffered as much as the Jews did from German occupation; Poles tried to protect Jews whenever the opportunity allowed. Legislation approved by the Polish parliament in 2018 effectively makes it a crime to discuss Polish collusion with the Nazi regime.

Lapid’s emergence as the loudest voice in Israel to oppose Polish revisionism is based partly on his having grown up in a family that was scarred, like nearly everyone else’s, by the Holocaust. Like most of us, he takes the Holocaust personally. But there is also a political calculation involved. Lapid’s nemesis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has looked vulnerable on the issue of Poland, having been criticized by, among others, Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer for allegedly compromising the integrity of the Shoah for the sake of a closer strategic relationship with the nationalist government in Warsaw.

Lapid’s point was inadvertently demonstrated by Netanyahu himself last February. In an offhand attempt to prove that Poland wasn’t really policing discourse around the Holocaust as zealously as some were suggesting, Netanyahu told reporters in Warsaw that no one disputes that “Poles cooperated with Nazis.” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Marowiecki promptly announced that he would boycott a summit in Jerusalem the following week involving Israel, Poland and three other central European countries.

Since then, the anti-Semitic atmosphere in Poland has worsened. A common claim in the media is that Jews are invoking the specter of Polish guilt as a prelude to forcing Poland into passing a law restituting the individual assets of Polish Jews that were stolen during the war — an act Polish nationalists would regard as a treacherous abandonment of the principle that Germany, and Germany alone, was responsible for the fate of the Jews.

Then there were Easter celebrations two weeks ago — an eerie reminder, as Jews around the world celebrated Pesach, of how persistent the presence of anti-Semitism in Poland is, from ordinary rural folk all the way to the upper echelons of the Catholic Church. In the town of Pruchnik, a group of adults and young children dragged an anti-Semitic effigy of Judas through the streets, while Catholic Bishop Andrzej Jeż dedicated his Holy Thursday sermon to blaming alleged Jewish control of the media for stories of sexual abuse in the Church.

So there is little reason for Jews to feel positively about Poland at the moment, and doubtless there are many in our community who endorse Lapid’s latest attacks on Poland’s war record.

In an interview with a Polish news outlet, Lapid made the following comments. “Poles cooperated in creating and running extermination camps,” he said. “Poles handed over Jews to the Germans and thus sent them to death.”

Later on, he continued: “There were many Polish Righteous Among the Nations who saved Jews, and we are grateful to them for all time. But can you pretend that there were no Polish helpers in the extermination camps? Of course, they were!” And finally, there was this: “It is no coincidence that the Nazis created their center of extermination in Poland. They knew that the Polish population would help them.”

Some of these statements can be illustrated with historical documentation — for example, the betrayal of at least 60,000 Jews to the Gestapo by their Polish neighbors. But the more dramatic claims made by Lapid have little basis in truth, and repeating them only damages the fight against Polish historical revisionism.

No one denies that there was a powerful anti-Semitic political movement in Poland between World War I and World War II, as was the case in much of Europe. But when the Nazis occupied Poland, they digressed from normal practice by directly administering the country. As a result, there was no Polish equivalent of Pétain in France or Quisling in Norway. Nor did you find Poles serving in the SS, as was the case with Ukrainians or Lithuanians. Nor was there a Polish pro-Nazi paramilitary, like the Ustaša in Croatia or the Arrow Cross in Hungary. Yet Lapid claims nonetheless that the Polish nation bears the lion’s share of Holocaust guilt.

The idea that the Nazis situated the six main extermination camps in Poland solely because of the country’s native anti-Semitism is fanciful and needlessly insulting. The reasoning in Berlin, if one can call it that, was based on strategic considerations. Poland had the largest single population of Jews on the continent, 2.9 million — in other words, about half the total number of Holocaust victims — of whom died in the extermination camps built and managed by Nazis in the country where they lived. By Nazi standards, this was very efficient.

Secondly, Poland’s relatively advanced rail system and its central location in Europe influenced the Nazi extermination planners.

Finally, the trains that carried Jews to the slaughter had to leave from somewhere else before arriving at one of those extermination camps in Poland. The trains came bearing Jews from Paris, Amsterdam, Budapest, Salonika and all other points of the compass; cities and towns where neighbors saw their Jewish fellow citizens dragged from their homes and schools to be herded to their deaths in Poland. Why are the Poles guiltier for watching the victims arrive than are the Dutch or the Greeks who watched them leave?

The fact that it is Poland that has chosen to weaponize the Holocaust during its current nationalist resurgence doesn’t license us to be cavalier with the truth, to make vague or inaccurate statements, or to repeat falsehoods that can be simply disproved. The moral high ground is always where the truth can be found.