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25th Jan 2021

Poland's reputation at risk in 'death camp' law

  • Referring to Nazi German death camps in occupied Poland as 'Polish camps' could lead to three years in jail (Photo: icrf)

A new Polish law on Holocaust remembrance has caused a rift with Israel and could further damage Poland's name in Europe.

The bill, passed by Poland's lower house of parliament on Friday (26 January), threatens prison terms and fines against Polish or foreign nationals who blame Poles for atrocities against Jews committed by Nazi Germany in World War II.

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  • Morawiecki: 'Polexit is about as possible as a Germanexit' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The stiffest penalties are for use of the term "Polish death camps" or similar to refer to German concentration and extermination camps in occupied Poland.

The use of the phrase by the then US president Barack Obama on TV in 2013, who later apologised to Poland, originated the Polish bill.

But an analysis of the legislation by Haaretz, an Israeli daily, said it was so loosely worded that it could criminalise testimony by Holocaust survivors of anti-semitic behaviour by Poles during the Nazi German occupation.

"When they came to round us up and put us in the ghetto … We were very scared and fled into the woods. The Poles threw stones at us and cursed us," Esther Lieber, a Holocaust survivor, told Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli daily, in an example of the type of statement that could become illegal in Poland if the Polish senate and its president enact the bill.

Friday's vote prompted a rebuke by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who equated the bill with Holocaust denial and who phoned Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki to complain.

"One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied," Netanyahu said.

The Israeli foreign ministry summoned the Polish ambassador to tell him that the law "may harm the freedom of [historical] research, as well as prevent discussion of the historical message and the legacy of World War II".

Public debate

The new bill also prompted a public debate on Poland's role in the Holocaust in media and social media.

Nazi Germany exterminated 3 million Polish Jews and 3 million other Poles.

Israeli historians, such as Yisrael Gutman, have said a small minority of Polish police and Polish local authorities aided the Nazi forces.

But thousands of other Poles sheltered Jews despite the fact they and their entire families faced execution by Nazi soldiers if they were caught doing that.

Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, has honoured 6,706 Poles as being Righteous Among the Nations - the largest national group out of the 26,500 or so names in its roll-call.

"There is no doubt that the term 'Polish death camps' is a historical misrepresentation … However, restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people's direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion," Yad Vashem said in a statement.

Anna Azari, Israel's ambassador to Poland, said "everybody knows" it was not Poland who built the death camps.

But she added that in Israel the law was seen as "the possibility to punish testimony by Holocaust survivors … the impossibility of telling the truth".

EU confrontation

Poland's clash with Israel comes amid a separate confrontation with EU institutions that has seen its name, once synonymous with pro-EU enthusiasm and economic success, dragged through the mud in Brussels.

The ruling, right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party has seized control of Polish courts and judges on grounds the current judicial cadre were communist-era stooges.

It has rejected Arabic and Muslim asylum seekers from Greece and Italy under an EU scheme in favour of white and Christian ones from Ukraine.

It also turned a blind eye when neo-fascist groups took part in a march in Warsaw on Polish independence day last November.

Speaking about potential EU sanctions against Poland over its judicial reforms, Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz told Polish weekly Do Rzeczy this weekend that Poland ought to be "open" to what the European Commission had to say.

But he said Poland's "position was unchanged" and added that "not just Hungary", but also other EU allies, would veto sanctions.

Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland's prime minister, said he was "saddened that things had gone so far" in the EU dispute.

He said it would take at least "a few months" to settle the affair, but added that any talk of Poland's EU exit was a wild exaggeration.

"Polexit is about as possible as a Germanexit", he said.

Poland shows no sign of concessions to Commission

While the dialogue between Warsaw and the Commission has improved since new prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki entered office, there is no sign of compromise over rule of law concerns - as the clock ticks towards a March deadline.

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