WARSAW, Poland – Poland's government refused to apologize on Monday for Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki's comments about "Jewish perpetrators" during World War II, escalating a row that's upended the country's relations with Israel and is alarming the United States.
When confronted during a conference in Munich on Saturday over Poland's new law that criminalizes suggestions that the Polish nation bore any responsibility for the Holocaust, Morawiecki listed Jews among nations that, along with Germans, were "perpetrators" of Nazi-era crimes.
His intention was to list nations that collaborated with the Germans, said Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz on Monday, adding that use of the word "perpetrators" was a "linguistic mistake" for which there's no need to apologize.
Last month, Poland's ruling party passed the Holocaust law despite U.S. warnings that it censors free speech and may weaken the east European nation's "strategic interests and relations."
The prime minister, whose right-wing nationalist party took power in Poland two years ago, has tried to defend the law, which has outraged many Jews.
"You're not going to be seen as criminal [if you] say that there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators as well as Ukrainian perpetrators — not only German perpetrators," Morawiecki said.
His grouping of "Jewish perpetrators" with Nazi Germans who set out to rid the world of Jews, revolted people far beyond the audience in Munich, provoking denunciations in Israel, a Jewish state founded after an estimated 6 million Jews were murdered.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the comments were "outrageous," while Yair Lapid, an opposition politician, called on Israel to recall its ambassador from Poland.
"The Holocaust was designed to destroy the entire Jewish people and not any other peoples," Netanyahu said after the conversation.
Since then, Morawiecki has appeared at pains to demonstrate he knows the difference.
"The Holocaust, the genocide of the Jews committed by the German Nazis, was a horrific crime," he wrote on Twitter. And the Polish government said in a statement to the Jerusalem Post that Morawiecki "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."
Some Jews did, in fact, work with Nazis during the Holocaust. Germans set up councils of locals — called Judenrat — to help govern their Jewish neighbors in ghettos that had not yet been exterminated.
But Jews on these councils were prisoners themselves and "faced impossible moral dilemmas," the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum wrote.
The Union of Jewish Communities in Poland said in a statement that while there were "Jewish criminals and Jewish police in the ghettos" set up by the Nazis during the war, Morawiecki's comments signaled a "moral blindness and historical ignorance" by putting those "who acted under the greatest duress in one sentence with Polish perpetrators and Ukrainian and German criminals."
Relations between Poland and Israel have deteriorated over the law that makes suggestion of Polish complicity a crime punishable by up to three years in jail — a move seen by critics as an attempt to whitewash history.
"My heart has been broken for the last two weeks," Michael Schudrich, Poland's chief rabbi, said Monday. "This is the worst moment in Polish-Jewish relations in the last 30 years."
The Washington Post contributed to this report.