Polish Education Minister Under Fire for Holocaust Comments

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

Poland's education minister has implied that accounts of Polish citizens murdering Jewish people during the Holocaust were inconclusive.

Education Minister Anna Zalewska of the right-wing Law and Justice Party expressed her opinion in an interview with the TV24 network.

In Jedwabne, on July 10, 1941, a few dozen Polish people killed at least 340 of their Jewish neighbors. Many were burned alive inside of a barn. These facts are corroborated by the Polish government's own Institute of National Remembrance and several Polish presidents, including current president Andrzej Duda, but Zalewska expressed incredulity.

She said:

"It is a historical record in which there have been many misunderstandings, many very biased opinions. The tragic situation that took place in Jedwabne is controversial. Many historians, eminent professors, show completely different scenarios."

The Institute of National Remembrance is pushing for the exhumation of Jedwabne's mass grave to answer questions about the tragedy, including those raised by the discovery of bullet casings nearby.

Jedwabne is one of around 20 sites where Polish citizens killed a total of 1,500-2,500 Jewish locals during the Holocaust or very soon after it. This relatively low level of complicity with the Holocaust doesn't sit well with Polish people, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Israel director, Efraim Zuroff. He says the country has a "deep-rooted and largely justified perception by Poles as being primarily victims during World War II."

According to the head of Never Again, an anti-racism watchdog group, the organization is "appalled by those comments which amount to denial of the historical truth about anti-Semitic pogroms."

According to the Jewish News Service, former Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski tweeted that if Prime Minister Beata Szydlo "doesn't fire Zalewska, then nobody should be surprised if her government is considered ‘Judeo-skeptic.'"

President Duda's opinion on the matter has seemed to vary over time, according to the Jerusalem Post. His party, Law and Justice, seems to err on the side of intolerance and pander to extreme nationalists. He criticized his predecessor for apologizing in 2011 for Jedwabne and denied the events completely.

In a 2015 televised debate, he said:

"We did not, as we are falsely accused by others, participate in the Holocaust. Lord knows that Poles didn't take part in the Holocaust."

This month, however, Duda acknowledged that Poles killed Jews during the Holocaust. He was speaking at Kielce, where dozens of Holocaust survivors were killed in 1946, In this attack, 42 people were shot by Polish police because of false blood libel accusations.

He stated that "ordinary people were involved in the attack." He also mentioned that he would like experts to find out why the attack happened, which critics see as a reference to a narrative that views any violence against Jewish people as retribution for atrocities perpetrated by communist Jews against Poles before the German occupation, when parts of Poland were under the control of the Red Army. Duda said:

"I leave it down to historians and sociologists to determine how it happened and why it happened, why people reacted in this particular way."

The Polish people have largely denied responsibility for any of these pogroms, blaming them on the Germans, until the 2000 book "Neighbors" by Polish-American sociologist Jan Tomasz Gross. This seminal book led to official state apologies for the atrocities, reports Vanessa Gera of the Times of Israel.

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