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Poland’s Senate passes Holocaust complicity bill despite concerns from U.S., Israel

Under a new law passed in Poland on Feb. 1, any suggestion the country was complicit in the Holocaust could land offenders in jail. (Video: Reuters)
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Despite Israeli and U.S. criticism, Poland’s Senate approved a highly controversial bill Thursday that bans any Holocaust accusations against Poles as well as descriptions of Nazi death camps as Polish.

What will be the impact of the law?

The law would essentially ban accusations that some Poles were complicit in the Nazi crimes committed on Polish soil, including in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, where  more than 1.1 million people died. Germany operated six camps in Poland where Jews and others that the Nazis considered enemies were killed.

Poland’s Senate passes Holocaust complicity bill despite concerns from U.S., Israel

Once the legislation is signed into law by Polish President Andrzej Duda, anyone convicted under the law could face fines or up to three years in jail.

Why do the United States and Israel oppose the measure?

Critics of the bill, including the U.S. State Department and Israeli officials, fear that it will infringe upon free speech and could even be used to target Holocaust survivors or historians.

“We are also concerned about the repercussions this draft legislation, if enacted, could have on Poland’s strategic interests and relationships,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

In Israel, the reaction was fierce. “One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement last week.

Israel’s housing minister, Yoav Galant, condemned the bill Thursday after it was passed by Poland’s Senate, tweeting that it constituted “Holocaust denial.”

Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center similarly cautioned that the bill could “blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust,” though it agreed that the term “Polish death camps” was a historical misrepresentation.

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Agnieszka Markiewicz, director of the American Jewish Committee's central Europe office, agreed that the term “Polish death camps” should not be used, but she emphasized that a ban was the wrong way forward. “Where the problem lies is that the bill is very broad, and [that term] is not even mentioned in it,” Markiewicz told The Washington Post on Thursday.

“We’re facing the biggest crisis in Polish-Jewish relations since after 1989,” she said, referring to the year the Berlin Wall came down. “The way this conflict has escalated is horrible. There are things that have been said and done on both sides — including by Israeli politicians who said that there were Polish camps — which haven't been helpful. Polish people don’t bear responsibility for the Holocaust, as such. But like other nations, they do bear responsibility for the behavior or attitudes of some.”

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Even though Markiewicz stressed that there was still time to stop or modify the legislation, others worried about the more immediate repercussions for Poland's Jewish community. Speaking to The Post, Warsaw-based political scientist and advocate Rafal Pankowski said he had never experienced as much anti-Semitism in Polish public discourse as he did this week.

“Anti-Semitism is not a new phenomenon here, but we're seeing an explosion of that sentiment in popular media mainstream. It's something that is very worrying,”  Pankowski said.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid a wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes Monument in Poland on Jan. 27, marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. (Video: Reuters)

How has Poland responded?

Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki spoke by phone on Sunday. Despite appearing to agree to a diplomatic dialogue, the Polish government stood by its bill this week and pursued Senate approval.

Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki later referred to Israeli reactions as “proof of how necessary this bill is.” On Thursday, Poland's Foreign Ministry responded to the State Department criticism, writing in a statement that “the legislation’s main aim is to fight all forms of denying and distorting the truth about the Holocaust as well as belittling the responsibility of its actual perpetrators.”

Leading Polish politicians defended the legislation on Friday, with Morawiecki again emphasizing that Poland did not share any responsibility for the Holocaust. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, said that the term “Polish death camps” and other comparisons constituted “a scandalous and immensely immoral lie.”

Poland’s deputy chief of mission in Israel, Piotr Kozlowski, has said the goal of the proposed law “is not to whitewash history, but to safeguard it and safeguard the truth about the Holocaust and prevent its distortion.”

But historians worry that such a law would make it impossible to discuss the culpability of at least some Poles in Nazi crimes. It is still a matter of controversy, for instance, 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.

The Polish government has argued in the past 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 freedom of speech and run counter to the country's moral responsibility to remember World War II atrocities in all their horrible details.

What triggered the law?

Throughout years of Nazi occupation in which hundreds of thousands of civilians died between 1939 and 1945, a number of Polish underground movements resisted the Nazis. It is that chapter of history that the ruling Law and Justice party wants to emphasize. But historians have long argued that it’s not the full story: Some Poles, they say, were complicit in the Nazi crimes.

Poles were especially dismayed when, in 2012, President Barack Obama incorrectly referred to a “Polish death camp.” Three years later, then-FBI director James B. Comey also appeared to equate the country’s role in the Holocaust to that of Germany's.

Both remarks outraged Poland and sparked a diplomatic crisis. Then-Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk accused Obama of “ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions.” Despite the outrage, Poland failed to pass a law to ban the term in 2013. When the more right-wing Law and Justice party won the overall majority in 2015, it vowed to try again to stop critics from “insulting and slandering the good name of Poland.”

The party's critics say that the new draft legislation is mainly supposed to fuel nationalistic sentiments in the country. “This is all about nationalism really, and about the imposition of a nationalist historic narrative,” said political scientist Pankowski. Poland is not a unique case, he said, and there's a similar Holocaust-related law in Ukraine, for instance. But so far, Poland was considered to be central Europe's most progressive nation in dealing with its past.

How are Polish voters reacting?

The Law and Justice party’s emphasis on Poland’s heroic past has proved an effective domestic electoral strategy, even as it has faced a damaging international backlash after accusations of having emboldened the far right itself.

In November, an estimated 60,000 people marched alongside ultranationalists and Nazis to mark the 99th anniversary of Polish independence. Some of the protesters carried banners and held up signs that had a clear far-right extremist message, including “Clean Blood,” reported by Politico, and “White Europe,” described by the Associated Press.

The march was not organized or officially promoted by the governing party. Yet officials refrained from condemning the march for days — and even publicly voiced support.

While the incident drew international condemnation, it certainly did not damage the party’s standing at home. If anything, the party has only gained in popularity.

Ruth Eglash and Avi Selk contributed to this report.