More than six decades after the end of World War II, Nazi-era concentration camps again have become the main issue of public debate in Poland.
As a Polish search committee started digging this week for a train presumably filled with Nazi gold taken from Jews, the country's lawmakers debated a ban of terms such as "Polish concentration camps" and "Polish death camps."
That debate was partially spurred by remarks President Obama made in May 2012. Speaking in Warsaw at that time, Obama spoke of a "Polish death camp," rather than correctly referring to it as a "Nazi camp." The remarks outraged Poland and sparked a diplomatic crisis: Then-Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk accused Obama of “ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions."
The White House apologized for the faux pas. But apologies might soon not be sufficient, as Poland is about to make the use of such terms illegal. Wrongdoers face a maximum sentence of three years in prison. An attempt to pass a similar law in 2013 failed, but there has been an increasing shift toward a more nationalistic political agenda in the country more recently.
According to the BBC, the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) is pushing for the new law, which has a good chance of passing and would prohibit "insulting and slandering the good name of Poland." The country was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1939 until 1945.
Polish lawmakers and politicians strenuously reject the use of terms such as "Polish death camps" and "Polish concentration camps," saying such language implies a Polish responsibility for Nazi atrocities that killed millions during World War II. In Poland, Germany operated six camps where Jews and others the Nazis considered enemies were killed.
But critics of the proposed law have pointed out that it is mainly "symbolic" and could be used to stir tensions with other countries where the use of such terms is more prevalent.
The Law and Justice Party's victory in elections in October was seen as a sign that Poland had grown more averse to immigration and European cooperation and was increasingly focusing on its own nationalistic narrative.
Moreover, historians are worried that the party might attempt to make it more difficult to discuss the culpability of at least some Poles in Nazi crimes. It is still a matter of controversy whether a 1941 atrocity by a group of Poles in the town of Jedwabne was carried out after pressure from the Nazis or whether the crimes occurred without German involvement.
Poland's education minister was quoted as saying in July that she was not convinced of any Polish responsibility for the Jedwabne massacre: "You can’t compare anti-Semites to Poles," she said.
But as Israel's Haaretz newspaper has pointed out, former Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski held far different views on the issue and in 2011 "even 'begged forgiveness' for the actions of his countrymen at Jedwabne."
The Polish government has argued that a focus on such controversies could make younger Poles believe that their country was involved in the crimes. Historians have responded that silencing the discourse could infringe upon the freedom of speech and the country's moral responsibility to remember World War II atrocities in all their horrible details.