You have news here that the Prime Minister of Poland has canceled a visit to Israel over comments by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Poland and the Nazi Holocaust. The full story manages to be more comical, tragic and absurd.
Netanyahu has been trying to build ties to a group of rightist-nationalist governments in Eastern Europe, some of which have at last dabbled in anti-Semitism or what we might call soft Holocaust denialism. Netanyahu has sought to use these ties in the upcoming Israeli election as evidence of how his decade-in-power government is beating back Israel’s diplomatic isolation.
This all builds toward a summit that something called the Visegrad Group (basically nationalist regional group including Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) plan to hold in Israel this coming week. But when Netanyahu was in Poland last week for what amounted to an anti-Iran global summit he said that “the Poles collaborated with the Nazis.” (Later his office claimed, not too convincingly, that he said “Poles”, not “the Poles”, which would be at least somewhat different.) That was a problem since Poland recently passed a law making it literally illegal to claim that the Poles or Poland collaborated with Nazis or were complicit in the Holocaust.
Historically, this is a complicated matter. Poland was the victim of a Nazi invasion and an exceptionally brutal occupation. Non-Jewish Poles were victims of mass killings. They were were also deemed racially inferior, as slavs, by the invading Germans. As a technical matter, the Polish state had ceased to exist by the time almost all of what we call the Holocaust even happened. So the Polish state (“Poland”) couldn’t ‘do’ anything. It is also true that many Poles took courageous actions to save Polish Jews. By and large though, Polish civilians’ attitude toward the murder of Polish Jews (3 million out of just over 3.5 million total) ranged from indifference to active complicity. Indeed, it was the one thing many Poles and the Nazi invaders found they could agree on.
Even this shorthand history leaves out much detail. As a political matter today, however, what is certainly relevant is that the Jewish memory of this part of the Holocaust is exceptionally negative. That memory is that the Poles were almost as eager to fall upon their Jewish fellow countrymen as the Nazis. So any Jewish leaders’ ability to quibble on this point is quite limited. Netanyahu’s office denied he said “the Poles”. They insisted he said “Poles” and The Jerusalem Post dutifully changed the wording. But almost a dozen Israeli reporters were there to hear it and all seem to have heard the “the”.
The Polish Foreign Minister will go instead of the Prime Minister.