Poland’s Jewish groups say Jews feel unsafe since new Holocaust law

Poland’s Jewish organizations say the country’s controversial new Holocaust law has led to a “growing wave of intolerance, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism,” leaving many within the community feeling unsafe.

An open letter on the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland website signed by several communal bodies says threats to the Jewish community have risen since the government announced the law, which makes it illegal to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in crimes committed by Nazi Germany, including the Holocaust.

The law also bans the use of terms such as “Polish death camps” in relation to Auschwitz and other camps in Nazi-occupied Poland and carries a three-year prison sentence.

“The current wave of anti-Semitism arose in response to an amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance,” the statement from the Jewish groups says.

“We believe this law to be poorly constructed and detrimental to open discussion of history. If Poland’s government believes that even sporadic mentions of ‘Polish Death Camps’ must be criminalized, certainly the rising intolerance and anti-Semitic hatred in our country should be subject to similarly serious measures. Our government possesses the legal instruments to combat hatred but lacks political will. We call upon our politicians to change course.”

Polish President Andrzej Duda signed the legislation earlier this month ahead of it being assessed by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal. It has sparked fury from Jewish organizations, Israel, the United States and France.

Tensions were exacerbated Saturday when Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki caused outrage at a security conference in Germany with comments that Jews were among the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

A Polish government representative sought to clarity Morawiecki’s remarks, insisting they were not “intended to deny the Holocaust, or charge the Jewish victims of the Holocaust with responsibility for what was a Nazi Germany-perpetrated genocide.”

Morawiecki’s comments sparked fury in Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoning his Polish counterpart to register his disgust.

They also unnerved many Jews in Poland, where an estimated 10% of its 3.5 million Jews survived the Holocaust.

Many of those who survived and their family members were then deported in 1968 in the midst of an “anti-Zionist” campaign in which the communist government blamed the Jewish community for economic problems. Many lost their jobs, were attacked in the press and had their citizenship revoked, losing the right ever to return to Poland.

It was only until 1989 and the fall of communism that Polish Jews were allowed to return home.

Anti-Semitism ‘is a dangerous, growing problem’

“On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the anti-Semitic events of March 1968 and 75 years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Polish Jews do not feel safe in Poland,” the statement from Poland’s Jewish groups says.

“In significant ways, present threats to Poland’s Jewish community are different from those we experienced in the past. Unlike many of Europe’s Jews today, we do not now face direct physical threats. Despite a lack of physical violence, however, our situation is far from normal.

“It is unacceptable for Poland’s leaders to merely state that anti-Semitism is wrong without recognizing publicly that it is a dangerous, growing problem in our country today.

“We receive authorities’ inaction as tacit consent for hatred directed toward the Jewish community and call upon Polish leadership to punish those whose actions threaten our well-being. As representatives of Polish Jewish organizations, we call on public institutions, police, media outlets, schools, and members of the Polish public to combat anti-Semitism, and we are eager to cooperate with them in this critical mission.”

‘Deafening silence by the leadership’

Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, told CNN on Tuesday that the fallout from the new law has been so fierce it has left many members of the Jewish community wondering if they are still welcome in Poland.

Schudrich said the open letter was not a political move but more of an opportunity to show how the community is feeling.

“This is one of the most devastating effects of the past few weeks,” Schudrich said.

‘It is devastating that such questions are asked and speaks to the fragility of the situation. It’s not just the new law but the tone of the discussion with almost no reaction from leadership to that tone. A deafening silence by the leadership.”

During the Holocaust, 30,000 to 35,000 Polish Jews were saved with the help of non-Jewish Polish citizens, according to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.

Yad Vashem has honored more Poles as Righteous Among the Nations — non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust — than those of any other country, but there is a consensus among historians that certain Poles and groups collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. Recent Polish governments have sought to challenge that narrative.

Earlier this month, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki told CNN that the new law was “not meant to revise the history whatsoever; this is meant to guard the truth about the Holocaust.”

“We have to realize that when he or she says that the Polish state or the Polish nation is responsible for the Holocaust, they diminish the responsibility of the real perpetrators,” Cichocki said.