WARSAW, Poland – Poland’s president signed legislation Tuesday that imposes prison terms of up to three years for falsely and intentionally attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany to Poland.
Acknowledging the concerns of Israel, the United States and Holocaust scholars, President Andrzej Duda said he would ask the country’s constitutional court to review the law, leaving open the possibility it could be amended.
A closer look at the political issue reveals why it created diplomatic divisions between Poland and Israel and revived bitter memories in both countries:
Poland’s positionPoland’s ruling Law and Justice party vowed to push through a law regulating public statements about the country’s Holocaust experience soon after it came to power in 2015. The party depicted it as a way to protect Poland’s good name. The idea seemed to have been dropped, but made a sudden reappearance when the lower house of parliament approved a bill on Jan. 26, the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Polish government officials argued the law was needed to discourage the use of expressions such as “Polish death camps” to refer to the camps Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II.
While “Polish” is almost always used as a geographic description in that context, Poles feel the phrase cruelly portrays their country as having been in charge of the Nazi-run camps, while in fact Poles made up the largest group of victims after Jews.
Israeli’s objectionsIsraeli officials strongly objected to the law, arguing that it goes beyond precision in language. They see the legislation as part of a slippery slope that minimizes the role of Poles in the Holocaust, as well as the painful Jewish past in a country with a long history of anti-Semitism.
The prevailing view in Israel and among Holocaust scholars is that many Poles were willing to at least look the other way, if not actively collaborate, with the Nazis. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon has said that there is no question the World War II camps in occupied Poland were German death camps.
“The issue is the legitimate and essential freedom to talk about the involvement of Poles in the murder of Jews without fear or threat of penalization,” he said.
An ally’s interestsThe United States firmly warned Poland last week that moving forward with the law could hurt Polish strategic interests and “our ability to be effective partners.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. understands that phrases like “Polish death camps” are “inaccurate, misleading, and hurtful,” but voiced concern the legislation could undermine free speech and academic discourse.
“We are also concerned about the repercussions this draft legislation, if enacted, could have on Poland’s strategic interests and relationships,” she said. “The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies benefit only our rivals.”
A long shared historyBefore the outbreak of World War II, Jews lived in Poland for centuries, thriving in some eras and even becoming the world’s largest Jewish population at one point.
But anti-Semitism grew virulent in the decades before the war, driving many Polish Jews to emigrate. Some became Israel’s founders and the Jewish state’s first citizens.
Like people in other parts of German-occupied Europe, Poles reacted to the mass killing of Jews in different ways. Some risked their lives and those of their families to shelter Jews; nearly 7,000 have been recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center.
Historians say some Poles were complicit in the killings, denouncing Jews to the Germans or taking part in slayings themselves. The Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw estimates that 180,000-200,000 Jews died at the hands of Poles or because Poles identified them to the Germans as Jewish.
Repercussions for historiansHolocaust historians and other scholars in Poland and abroad came out firmly against the law, with many saying it will lead to self-censorship.
Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, reiterated its concerns Tuesday. It said in a statement that the law’s “flaws are liable to result in the distortion of history due to the limitations that the law places on public expressions.”
Polish officials say they only want to fight historical lies and distortions, primarily ones they see as downplaying the responsibility of Germany’s Nazi perpetrators.
“We must protect the good name of Poles and of Poland,” Poland’s president said. “This is also a question of our sensibility, which we are entitled to.”