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Polish president signs Holocaust bill, drawing rare U.S. rebuke

Polish President Andrzej Duda said Feb. 6 he will sign a bill he claims protects Poland's "dignity." Critics say it bans true statements about the Holocaust. (Video: Reuters)
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BERLIN — Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a law Tuesday banning people from accusing Poland of Holocaust atrocities committed by the Nazis and from referring to concentration camps as "Polish death camps" -- heightening tensions with the United States and Israel, which have criticized the measure.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that he was “disappointed” in Duda's decision. “Enactment of this law adversely affects freedom of speech and academic inquiry . . . We believe that open debate, scholarship, and education are the best means of countering misleading speech,” Tillerson said.

Duda also announced Tuesday that he would ask the country’s Constitutional Tribunal to review the bill to check whether it complies with Poland’s fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech, potentially opening the door to amendments.

Responding to the news of Duda's decision, Israel's Foreign Ministry expressed hope that the constitutional review would prompt “changes and corrections.” But the law is expected to take effect before the tribunal would be able to issue any clarifications, and the independence of the judges themselves.

Poland wants to outlaw blaming Poles for Nazi atrocities. But what about the Jedwabne massacre?

“The constitutional tribunal in its current composition serves the goals of the ruling party . . . It is definitely not independent,” said Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But referring the bill to the tribunal was probably still the best available option to the Polish president.”

Buras added: “To the international audience, especially the U.S. and Israel, it signals that the Polish side sees the seriousness of the case and is perhaps ready for some changes. But it also signals to the ruling party’s most conservative domestic supporters that the government is not ready to back down.”

By refusing to veto the bill, Duda dashed the possibility of political negotiations, which Israel and the United States had still hoped for in recent days. Instead, the bill is to take effect within the next two weeks. The tribunal is now the only institution that could still reverse the law in its entirety or in parts.

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)

The bill’s international critics argue that it violates freedom of expression. Once in effect, it will essentially ban accusations that some Poles were complicit in 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 whom the Nazis considered enemies were killed. Anyone convicted under the law will face fines or up to three years in jail.

Polish officials have emphasized that artistic and historical research work will not be affected by the ban. “But there is too much room for interpretation,” said Agnieszka Markiewicz, the director of the American Jewish Committee's central Europe office. “Who is going to determine what artistic or academic expression means? A scholar associated with a university might be excluded, but what about a schoolteacher who shares some of the horrible stories that happened in Poland?”

Markiewicz said that the American Jewish Committee agreed that those crimes were committed by individuals rather than the Polish state and that the term “Polish death camps,” was “unjust and untrue,” but she cautioned that an extensive ban on freedom of speech was the wrong way forward.

The State Department agreed in a statement last week that the phrase “Polish death camps” was “inaccurate, misleading, and hurtful.” But it also cautioned that the bill “could undermine free speech and academic discourse.” The department warned that if the legislation is signed, it could have repercussions for “Poland’s strategic interests and relationships.”

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

On Tuesday, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, argued that Poland's decision to pursue the law was a denial of facts. “It is not credible to engage in the denial,” Hoenlein said, according to the Associated Press.

Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki spoke on the phone 10 days ago, but despite appearing to agree to a diplomatic dialogue, the Polish government stood by the bill last week and pursued Senate approval.

Polish Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki later referred to Israeli reactions as “proof of how necessary this bill is.”

In a speech on Tuesday, Duda used less provocative rhetoric. “[We] do not deny that there were cases of huge wickedness” on the part of some Poles toward Jews, he said, according to the AP. But Duda stressed that “there was no systemic way in which Poles took part in” Nazi crimes.

Poland was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1939, but unlike in other European countries, there was no collaborationist Polish government. About 6 million Polish citizens were killed during World War II, about half of them Jews.

Throughout years of Nazi occupation between 1939 and 1945, a number of Polish underground movements resisted the Nazis. It is that chapter of history that the Law and Justice Party wants to emphasize.

But historians have long argued that it is not the full story: Some Poles, they say, were complicit in the Nazi crimes. Historians have pointed to incidents, including a 1941 atrocity in the town of Jedwabne, in which Poles rounded up and killed their Jewish neighbors.

Critics say that the legislation is mainly intended 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 Rafal Pankowski in an interview last week. The Law and Justice party’s emphasis on Poland’s heroic past has proved an effective electoral strategy, even as it has faced a damaging international backlash.

The debate about the bill has also triggered an intense focus on the very questions of complicity that nationalist Poles were hoping to sweep aside once and for all. The government's attempt “absolutely backfired,” said Markiewicz, the director of the American Jewish Committee's  central Europe office.

“Of course, Poland has the right to [demand people to tell] the whole truth. This country suffered immensely. It had the biggest resistance movement in Europe and helped the Allies in fighting the Nazis. It was on the right side of history,” she said. “But in the past few days, the term 'Polish death camp' has probably been used more than ever in the past years.”

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