WARSAW, Poland – A joint statement by the prime ministers of Poland and Israel was meant to lay to rest a months-long dispute over how to remember Polish behavior during the Holocaust. Instead, the document has re-opened wounds that go back decades.
Prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Mateusz Morawiecki signed and recited the statement in their respective capitals last week after Poland scrapped potential prison terms for anyone claiming the country bore some responsibility for the Holocaust.
The declaration, which denounced "anti-Polonism" alongside anti-Semitism, was seen as a diplomatic coup for Poland, which has long sought international recognition of the massive suffering its people experienced under German occupation and for the heroism its wartime resistance fighters showed against the Nazis.
This week, a Polish state-run bank, PKO Bank Polski, paid for ads in major international newspapers to publish the full statement — an example of how Polish state authorities harness the profits of state enterprises to support their ideological positions.
The bank told The Associated Press Friday that it will not publicize how much it paid for the ads, which ran in The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and major papers in Germany, France, Spain, Britain and Israel.
In an emailed statement, PKO Bank Polski Foundation President Malgorzata Glebicka said the campaign was part of a broader "mission of disseminating historical truth and building an accurate image of Poland in the world."
Publication of a triumphant Polish message in Israel sparked an outcry against Netanyahu, who was accused of accepting a narrative that betrays the Jewish people. Polish-born Holocaust survivors and their offspring in Israel remember anti-Semitism in Poland from before, during and after World War II.
On Wednesday, the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, in a rare rebuke of the Israeli government, said the prime ministers' statement contains "grave errors and deceptions." The Jerusalem-based institution said the document exaggerates in particular the work of Poland's wartime resistance to help the country's sizeable Jewish population.
"Much of the Polish resistance in its various movements not only failed to help Jews, but was also not infrequently actively involved in persecuting them," Yad Vashem said.
The prime ministers' statement acknowledged the cruelty perpetuated against Jews by individual Poles in some cases, but largely stressed Polish resistance efforts to protect Jews.
"We acknowledge and condemn every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during the World War II" and honor the "heroic acts of numerous Poles" who saved Jews, the statement read. It also rejected "blaming Poland or the Polish nation as a whole for the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators of different nations."
In Poland, the bank has also faced some questions for paying what was likely a large sum to get the statement a wide audience.
"It is sad, all things considered, that a bank in which millions of Poles hold their savings wasted its funds to troll the Israeli public," said Michal Bilewicz, a social psychologist at Warsaw University who specializes in the Holocaust. "On the one hand, they lower interest rates on accounts, and on the other hand they spend millions on government propaganda."
While Netanyahu faces calls to disavow the statement, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki said Poland considers it "binding."
The reaction in Israel "confirms our belief that we need to further enhance the cooperation of Polish, Israeli, and Jewish historians, teachers and museum guides to protect the truth about World War II and the Holocaust," he said.
Yad Vashem also said Poland's amended Holocaust speech law, while no longer allowing prison as a criminal penalty, still provides for possible civil penalties that could impede Holocaust research.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum backed Yad Vashem's position Friday, saying the revision lawmakers made last week "does not address our primary concern, which is the potential for intimidation, self-censorship and politicization."