WARSAW, Poland – On Aug. 11, 2021, Poland passed a law limiting former Polish property holders, including Holocaust survivors and their descendants, from regaining land that was lost during World War II. The law went into effect on September 16 — Yom Kippur. This law has understandably stirred up controversy, with the law being labeled by many, including Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, as antisemitic because the law “does not honor the (Holocaust).”
The law is the most recent of a series of actions taken by the Polish government to be criticized as anti-Jewish and anti-Israel — and may have severe consequences for how teenagers abroad learn about and experience the Holocaust.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union and Poland’s transition to democracy and up until recently, Poland and Israel had cordial relations since the fall of the Eastern Bloc and Poland’s transition to democracy. In 1991, Poland’s first post-communist president, Lech Walesa, visited Israel, where he gave a speech to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, apologizing for Poland’s past antisemitism.
A main cause of the diplomatic deterioration since then was the 2015 election of President Andrzej Duda, a right-wing nationalist. While Duda has, at times, appeared friendly to Israel and the Jewish community, he used antisemitic canards in his 2020 re-election campaign, which was successful. In order to rally the support of nationalistic Poles who often harbor antisemitic views, Duda suggested his opponent, Rafał Trzaskowski, may be controlled by Jews.
Under Duda and his party’s control of the legislature, a controversial law was passed in 2018. This law made mentioning the complicity of some Poles in the Holocaust, a historical fact, illegal. While the death camps themselves were not Polish, some Polish citizens took part in assisting Germans with finding and killing Jews. A Polish Deputy Minister of Justice stated the law was necessary “to send a clear signal to the world that we won’t allow for Poland to continue being insulted.” The passage of this law sparked heavy criticism, including from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Israel. Ultimately, the law was watered down, making the punishment only a fine, not jail time, and has not been enforced. Nonetheless, the passage of the law harmed Israeli-Polish relations and raised serious questions about Poland’s commitment to Holocaust remembrance.
An already strained relationship has been made worse by the property restitution law, increasing the diplomatic tension. In response to Israeli criticism of the law, the Polish Foreign Minister, Pawel Jablonski, fired back by threatening to discontinue Jewish youth group visits to Nazi death camps in Poland, through programs like March of the Living. Jablonski stated in August that the trips “sometimes instill hatred for Poland in the heads of young Israelis.” While no action has been taken regarding the continuation of youth group visits to Poland, Jablonski’s statement has raised fears that Poland may limit future Holocaust educational trips. March of the Living has been relatively silent on this issue, but, after a request for a comment on the situation, Liz Sinnreich Panitch, director of programming at International March of the Living, said, “as an educational organization we sincerely hope that education will prevail in this diplomatic crisis.”
In an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, the president of International March of the Living, Phyllis Greenberg Heideman, stressed the importance of Holocaust education and visiting the death camps in person. The lessons of the Holocaust are universal and enormously important for all societies to appreciate, and that understanding is assuredly heightened by personal on-site visits by both the students and adults, she argued.
So far, little progress has been made to restoring Israeli-Polish relations, or on getting changes to the property law in Poland. It is unclear if this inaction will continue, but what is clear, is Poland’s lack of commitment to Holocaust remembrance and education as well as combatting antisemitism. If relations between Israel and Poland further degenerate, there is a real threat that youth group trips to Holocaust sites in Poland could be canceled. A generation of people could miss the opportunity to learn about and remember the Holocaust firsthand. Education is important to preventing a future rise in antisemitism, making the continuation of these trips imperative to strong support of the global Jewish community.