(Bloomberg) -- Poland’s government must acknowledge that anti-Semitism was widespread during and after World War II, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said, joining an intensifying dispute over the country’s past treatment of Jews.
Poland lurched into the international spotlight this year after the government pushed through legislation making it illegal to suggest Poles and their nation were complicit in the Holocaust with the aim of outlawing phrases such as “Polish death camps.” While the law has drawn condemnation from the U.S. and Israel, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has argued that Poles were victims of the Nazi regime that committed mass murder on their soil. He blamed the outrage on what he calls a growing anti-Polish feeling around the word.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of Simon Wiesenthal Center, cited a declassified U.S. intelligence report released by the organization this week that counters the Polish narrative. The 33-page document from 1946 describes widespread anti-Semitism in Poland after liberation from the Nazi occupation. It states that some Jews, fearing for their lives, sought refuge in camps for displaced people in the U.S. zone in Germany rather than staying.
“What made us release the document were comments by Polish officials that there were bad Poles just like there were a few bad Jews, which never acknowledged that there was pervasive anti-Semitism before, during and after the war,” Hier said in a phone interview late Thursday. “No Polish government has the right to say that there were just a few Polish anti-Semites.”
The dispute has plunged Poland’s ties with Israel into their lowest point since before the 1989 fall of communism, prompting an emergency visit by diplomats to the Jewish state Thursday. The delegation sought to alleviate concerns that the law could curb freedom of debate about the Holocaust. They also tried to calm outcry over statements last month from Morawiecki, who listed Jews among the “perpetrators” of Nazi-era crimes alongside Germans, Ukrainians, Russians and Poles.
Jacek Sasin an aide to the prime minister, insisted Friday that the dispute is a misunderstanding. Anti-Semitism exists across Europe. Poland is an oasis of peace and tolerance, with some marginal incidents that the government doesn’t tolerate, he told broadcaster TVP1.
The turmoil continues to simmer, however. The ruling conservative Law & Justice party also suspended one of its senators after he shared a German Nazi propaganda film and a compilation of anti-Semitic slogans on social media. Last week, a ruling party lawmaker proposed a resolution saying it was the communists serving Soviet Russia, rather than Poles, who were behind a series of anti-Semitic purges in 1968.
Hier, who’s parents emigrated from Poland in the 1920s, said neither he nor his organization is anti-Polish. Reckoning with Poland’s difficult past doesn’t change the fact that the nation had thousands of “Righteous Gentiles” who saved Jews and are commemorated in Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, more than any other country.
The Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center, a global human rights organization researching the Holocaust and hate in a historic and contemporary context, brings hundreds of Jews to Polish cities every year as part of its education mission, he said.
“Of course there were no Polish death camps, but any scholar will tell you that the problem of anti-Semitism in Poland had nothing to do with communism,” Hier said. “Poland would go really far by saying: we didn’t murder Jews but we have to acknowledge that anti-Semitism was a serious problem in Poland.”
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