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25th Sep 2022

Polish Holocaust law threatens US and EU ties

  • Auschwitz: Nazi Germany killed 3 million Poles and 3 million Polish Jews (Photo: Clark & Kim Kays)

Poland's president has signed a Holocaust gag law, widening rifts with the country's Western allies.

"It's important to protect the good name of Poland and the Polish people … so that we are not slandered as a state and as a nation," the president, Andrzej Duda, said in Warsaw on Tuesday (6 February).

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"We have a right to our historical truth," he added.

The law says that "whoever publicly and contrary to the facts attributes to the Polish nation or to the Polish state responsibility or co-responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the German third reich … shall be liable to a fine or deprivation of liberty for up to three years".

It excludes those who speak "within the framework of artistic or scientific activity".

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, also said last week: "We don't have any intention to prosecute someone who says that somewhere a single Jew or a family were murdered. Such events took place and we never denied this."

But the law's critics say it will gag Holocaust survivors and historians from discussing the facts.

They also see it as part of a lurch toward the far right in central Europe.

The US, Poland's principle ally in Nato, led the rebukes following Duda's signature on Tuesday.

"The United States is disappointed that the president of Poland has signed legislation that … adversely affects freedom of speech and academic enquiry," US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said.

Israeli politicians spoke out in more strident terms.

The law was "a badge of shame" for Poland that "insulted" Holocaust survivors and "paved the way for Holocaust deniers," Merav Ben-Ari, a centrist Israeli MP said.

The EU has stayed quiet on the issue.

But the European Jewish Association (EJA), a pressure group in Brussels, wrote to the heads of the EU institutions urging them to reprimand Warsaw.

"It seems inconceivable that an EU member state can be permitted to whitewash history by imposing draconian legislation that can imprison people for holding an alternative view," the EJA's chief, rabbi Menachem Margolin, said.

Duda said he would ask Poland's constitutional court to review the final wording of the legislation.

But this highlighted Poland's existing rift with the EU institutions, which have threatened sanctions on grounds that PiS seized political control of the country's highest tribunal and other courts.

The Holocaust law should be seen as part of a broader anti-EU turn by the Polish government, Jan T. Gross, a historian at Princeton University in the US, told The New York Times newspaper.

"The folks in power now in Poland tend to identify the EU with Germany. The notion of wartime victimhood at the hand of Germans follows pretty easily into one of sovereignty," he said.

Judy Dempsey, a Berlin-based expert for Carnegie Europe, a think tank, said PiS was "squandering the great gains" Poland had made in its relations with Western powers after the Cold War.

"It is turning its back on Poland's post-communist period, during which a main political objective was to anchor the country in the Euro-Atlantic organisations of Nato and the EU. This goal was complemented by a narrative of rapprochement and reconciliation with Israel ... and Germany, Poland's most important Western neighbour," she said.

Wider trend

Poland's right-wing lurch comes amid similar developments in Hungary, whose leader, Viktor Orban, recently plastered Budapest in posters accusing Jewish billionaire George Soros of a conspiracy to flood the EU with Muslim migrants.

"Those [in the region] who always had these anti-semitic, xenophobic feelings now feel empowered," Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, told the Wall Street Journal newspaper.

Schudrich spoke after a Polish fascist group, the All Polish Youth, chanted anti-semitic slogans outside Duda's building in Warsaw on Monday.

The same group took part in a Polish national day rally last November.

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

Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial centre, has honoured thousands of Poles who risked their lives to help Jews.

It has backed Poland's condemnation of public figures who used the misleading phrase "Polish death camps" to refer to Nazi concentration camps in occupied Poland.

Jedwabne 'opinion'

But Poles also stand accused of isolated crimes, including the Jedwabne massacre in 1941, when 40 Polish farmers killed some 340 Jewish men, women, and children while Nazi troops stood by.

The new law could see people jailed for blaming the massacre on the Poland instead of Nazi Germany.

But it leaves PiS ministers free to question the historical record.

The fact the Poles burnt the Jews in a barn in the Jedwabne village was "a matter of opinion," PiS education minister Anna Zalewska, who is still in office, said on the anniversary of the killings in 2016.

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