Polish Holocaust rescuers urge dialogue with Israel

Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust call for dialogue between Poland and Israel amid row over Holocaust law.

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Some of the last surviving Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust on Monday called for dialogue and reconciliation between Poland and Israel amid an unprecedented row over a law making it illegal to attribute Nazi crimes to the Polish state.

The call was made in an open letter signed by 50 Poles honored as "Righteous Among the Nations" by Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial for risking their own lives to save Jews.

"We Righteous... call on the governments of Israel and Poland to return to dialogue and reconciliation," said the letter, quoted by AFP.

"We reject discord between Jews and Poles" who are "linked by a 1,000-year history of coexistence", it said, adding that "hundreds of Poles lost their lives for their gestures of solidarity" with Jews under the Nazi occupation.

The law, which was approved by the Polish Senate and then signed by the president, allows a sentence of up to three years in prison for anyone ascribing "responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for crimes committed by the German Third Reich." It applies to both citizens of Poland as well as foreign citizens.

Poland's right-wing government has faced international criticism over the law, which was meant to protect Poland from false accusations of complicity in the Holocaust.

Israel sees it as a bid to deny the participation of individual Poles in killing Jews or handing them over to the Nazis. It is also concerned the legislation could open the door to prosecuting Holocaust survivors for their testimony, something that Poland denies.

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki said last week no criminal charges will be brought against offenders, but mentioned that his country will require some remedy for untrue statements.

Last Saturday it was reported that the Polish government would delay implementation of the law in order to allow for dialogue with Israel. Subsequent reports quoting Polish sources said the legislation was not delayed and will take effect on March 1.

"As in every nation, in ours, there were also despicable people who acted of their own accord, not in the name of the Polish state. They were Poles and we were afraid of them too," the letter by the Righteous Among the Nations said.

Yad Vashem has recognized more than 26,500 people who saved Jews from the Holocaust, including more than 6,700 Poles.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki triggered fury in Israel and the international Jewish community by saying recently that there were also "Jewish perpetrators" of the Holocaust, referring to Jews who served in police units in ghettos set up by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called the remark "unacceptable" and tantamount to denying the Holocaust.

Morawiecki's spokeswoman later insisted his remarks "were by no means intended to deny the Holocaust, or charge the Jewish victims of the Holocaust with responsibility for what was a Nazi German perpetrated genocide".

AFP contributed to this report.