WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The last surviving Christian Poles who helped Jews during the Holocaust appealed Monday to Polish and Israeli authorities to return to a path of “dialogue and reconciliation” amid a diplomatic crisis and a surge of anti-Semitism sparked by a new Polish law that criminalizes some forms of Holocaust speech.
They made their appeal in an open letter which 89-year-old Anna Stupnicka-Bando, read to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during a ceremony in Warsaw also attended by five other surviving rescuers.
The letter, addressed to the Polish and Israeli governments and parliaments, was signed by 50 Poles who describe themselves as the last survivors of the more than 6,700 Poles who have been recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations” — gentiles who risked their own lives, and their families’ lives to hide Jews from the occupying German forces.
The remaining survivors were still young during the war that ended more than seven decades ago, most of them teenagers who assisted their parents in sheltering Jews.
In their letter they wrote that they oppose divisions between Poles and Jews and seek a “future based on friendship, solidarity and truth.”
Morawiecki paid tribute to them, saying they had “served humanity and Poland … saving our common brothers during the times of the second apocalypse.”
The prime minister also thanked them for seeking reconciliation “at this difficult time when Poland is fighting for truth after many decades of negligence.”
The law that raised tensions between Poland and Israel criminalizes falsely attributing the Holocaust crimes of Nazi Germany to Poland. The measure has angered Holocaust survivors and officials in Israel, where it is seen as an attempt to whitewash the actions of Poles who killed Jews during World War II.
Polish officials insist the law won’t be used against anyone who speaks the truth, only those who try to defame Poland with lies.
Bartosz Cichocki, a deputy foreign minister, said Monday that “the fears expressed by Israel and international opinion” are “completely unfounded.”
There has been a resurgence of openly anti-Semitic comments in Polish public life amid the crisis, sometimes expressed by elected officials or carried by public media. Leaders in Poland’s Jewish community have called it the worst anti-Semitism in Poland in decades and said it has created fears among many members.
Some Jewish officials and groups have also made anti-Polish comments. The most provocative was a video released last week by a U.S.-based philanthropy, the Ruderman Family Foundation, which shows people using the historically inaccurate term “Polish Holocaust” in open defiance of the law.
The foundation withdrew the video amid outrage by Poles and Jewish organizations in Poland and elsewhere, which said using the term was wrong and unfair and exacerbated an already difficult situation.
Also Monday, Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, published an open letter in The New York Times in which he said the legislation “has created a firestorm of ill will” and urged Polish officials to resume dialogue with Jewish representatives.
“This entire controversy must now be dialed back, and I would like to see Polish and Jewish leaders sit down now and get back to the business of reconciliation and progress,” Lauder wrote.
Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed.