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Israeli foreign minister visits Poland to ‘restore’ ties


WARSAW, Poland — The Israeli and Polish foreign ministers met Wednesday in a step that they hailed as a breakthrough in restoring a relationship that has been badly damaged due to bickering over Holocaust memory over the past five years.

The ministers signed an agreement that they say will allow for the resumption of Israeli youth trips to Poland, one of several points of contention that have led to bitter feelings between the two countries.

The visit by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen is the first at that level since 2018, and Poland’s Foreign Ministry says it will be followed by Israeli President Isaac Herzog attending observances next month for the 80th anniversary of the World War II Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

“I came here to restore the relationship between our countries, and I found in you, my distinguished colleague, a trusted partner,” Cohen said at a news conference alongside Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, whom he referred to more than once as his friend.

“This is an important moment in the relations between our countries,” Cohen said.

The tensions of the past years have been marked by a withdrawal of ambassadors and Poland’s prime minister canceling a planned visit to Israel in 2019. Israel has since returned an ambassador to Poland, but there is still no Polish ambassador in Israel.

Their disagreements are rooted largely in the Holocaust and how to remember Polish involvement in the killing of Jews by German forces during WWII.

Nazi Germany occupied Poland in 1939 and killed millions of Jews and non-Jews. Unlike other countries occupied by Germany, there was no collaborationist government in Poland. While some Poles risked their lives to save Jews, others helped the Germans hunt down and kill them.

Poland’s governing nationalists have sought to depict Polish crimes as a marginal phenomenon and focus almost exclusively on remembering the Polish heroes who helped Jews. That position has been condemned by historians, Israeli authorities and Jewish survivors who suffered persecution at Polish hands before, during and after the war, and accuse the government of seeking to whitewash history.

For years, young Israelis have made pilgrimages to Auschwitz and other Holocaust sites, as well as historic Jewish sites in cities like Krakow and Warsaw. But last year Israel canceled the trips, claiming the Polish government was trying to control the Holocaust-studies curriculum taught to Israeli children.

Poland, in turn, rejected Israel’s demand to have security guards join organized Israeli school visits to Poland. The Polish officials argue that Poland is a safe country, and the presence of armed guards perpetuate an image of it as an antisemitic place where Jews need protection.

The Polish-Israeli dispute led to an explosion of antisemitic rhetoric in 2018 on social media and Polish state media, but physical violence is extremely rare, making the country safer than than many in Western Europe.

Cohen and Rau signed an agreement that will allow for the immediate resumption of youth delegations.

“This agreement closes a certain stage, which is far from optimal, a certain stage in our bilateral relations and opens prospects for relations that are balanced, equal and based on reciprocity,” Rau said.

Ties began to deteriorate when Poland passed a Holocaust speech law in 2018 that made it illegal to blame Poland as a nation for the Holocaust — legislation so controversial that it was watered down, and even then has not been applied in practice.

Then in 2021 Poland’s parliament passed a law that effectively left Holocaust survivors and their descendants unable to reclaim property seized by the post-WWII communist regime.

Poland for centuries was home to a large Jewish community that numbered 3.3 million on the eve of the Holocaust. Only about 10% survived, and postwar persecution drove out many more. Today’s Jewish community is very small but has seen some growth since the end of communism more than three decades ago.

Israel was founded in the wake of the Holocaust as a refuge for Jews. It is home to a large but rapidly dwindling population of Holocaust survivors and its annual Holocaust memorial day coincides with the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.