Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki talks at the Munich Security Conference Saturday in Germany. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

MUNICH — Throughout the years, the annual Munich Security Conference has seen its fair share of encounters between representatives of nations who usually refrain from speaking to each other. After weeks of international debate over a controversial Holocaust complicity bill, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Saturday became the latest world leader forced to unexpectedly explain himself on the conference stage.

During a panel discussion in the southern German city, prominent Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, the son of two Holocaust survivors, confronted the Polish leader with the controversy that the Polish government initially stirred itself but has attempted to downplay following an international outcry.

“Sorry for being this personal,” Bergman said, addressing the audience and Morawiecki, before recalling the stories of his parents. There were Poles who betrayed Jews by providing the Nazis with details about them, he said, referring to personal experiences of his mother. “After the war my mother swore that she would never speak Polish for the rest of her life.”

“If I understand correctly, after this law is legislated ... I would be considered criminal for saying this,”  said Bergman, who is also a contributor to the New York Times. “What is the purpose? What is the message you're trying to convey to the world? You are creating the opposite reaction, just attracting more attention to those atrocities.” Bergman's remarks triggered applause by some in the audience.

It was the first time the relative of a Holocaust survivor publicly confronted a senior Polish official over the law, which was signed last week by President Andrzej Duda, even as critics in Israel, the United States and elsewhere warned that it would prohibit freedom of expression.

Once in effect, the law is phrased in a way that it could be used to 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 would face fines or up to three years in jail.

If Morawiecki's intention on Saturday was to calm tensions, he certainly wasn't successful. Several members of the high-profile selected audience and international commentators subsequently described the prime minister's response as “appalling,” “intolerable,” “surreal” and “shocking.”

“You're not going to be seen as criminal (if you) say that there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators as well as Ukrainian perpetrators — not only German perpetrators,” Morawiecki said.

His response was seen by some as putting the same blame for Nazi crimes on Jews and Polish citizens, even though historians have found a number of cases in which Polish citizens or groups collaborated with the Nazis.

The real intention of the law, Morawiecki said, was instead to ban the use of the word “Polish death camps,” which has repeatedly been used to refer to Nazi concentration or death camps on today's Polish territory. There is widespread agreement that the term “Polish death camps,” is misleading and wrong, but it has often been used accidentally, including by former president Barack Obama.

“Polish embassies had to react 260 times only in 2017 with regards to the expression 'Polish death (or) concentration camps.' ... There were no Polish death camps. ... There were German Nazi death camps,” said Morawiecki, who went on to say that international understanding of Polish history was flawed because “for 50 years, 45 years to be precise, we couldn't defend our case.” Morawiecki was referring to the Cold War era, when Poland was part of the Soviet bloc.

He also indicated that he believed other countries, including the Czech Republic, had been “promoting” the fate of exterminated villages under the Nazis during World War II in a more powerful way. The prime minister went on to refer to statistics showing that no other nation in the world suffered more under the Nazis than Poland — an assessment shared by historians. But the sudden focus on that dark chapter of history by a right-wing government that has been known to stir nationalist sentiments has led to questions about the bill's real motivations.

When the country's complicity law was signed by the Polish president last week, a government-associated body released a YouTube campaign under the slogan “Today, we are still on the side of truth,” which has so far been watched by over 12 million people.

“We did much to save Jews. As a state. As citizens. As friends,” the video summarizes.

Morawiecki on Saturday cited numbers showing that far more Poles had helped and rescued Jews than had collaborated with the Nazis. “There was no puppet government,” he went on to say.

“There were Polish perpetrators,” Morawiecki acknowledged, before backtracking: “We cannot agree with mixing perpetrators with victims, because this would be first of all an offense to all the Jews and victims who suffered during World War II.”

But Morawiecki's remarks appeared far from convincing to those who have raised concerns over the law. “His reaction was unbelievable,” Bergman wrote in a response to the Polish prime minister.

Griff Witte contributed to this report.

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