It's one thing, however, for Polish officials and historians to argue against the use of "Polish death camps" and quite another for the country's government to threaten anyone who uses it, anywhere on Earth, with three years' imprisonment. That is the stricture contained in legislation passed by the lower house of Parliament, or Sejm, last Friday, on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The day falls on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, where more than 1 million people, most of them Jews, were murdered . . . on Polish soil.
Historians continue to debate the degree of Polish responsibility for the Holocaust. Though the camps were a Nazi enterprise, anti-Semitism was rife in Poland before the war, some of it government- sponsored. Though many Poles fought the Nazi occupation and tried to save Jews, some also helped round them up, stole their property and participated in massacres. In addition to outlawing the term "death camps," the legislation criminalizes any suggestion that "the Polish nation" or "Polish state" was "responsible or complicit" in Nazi crimes. As the Israeli Holocaust remembrance center Yad Vashem pointed out, that could have the effect of obscuring "historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population."
The context in which the legislation has been put forward by the ruling Law and Justice party only makes it more disturbing. The right-wing nationalist government and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have embraced xenophobia, demonizing Muslim refugees; Mr. Kaczynski once claimed they carry "various parasites and protozoa" that "could be dangerous here." A march of tens of thousands of far-right nationalists in Warsaw last November attracted neo-Nazis from around the region and echoed with chants of "white Europe." In 2016, the government's education minister discounted two well-documented massacres of Jews by Poles, in Jedwabne in 1941 and Kielce in 1946.
Poland's prewar Jewish population of 3 million was all but eradicated by the Holocaust, and many who remained in the country were driven out by an anti-Semitic campaign conducted by the Communist government in 1968. Yet even without Jews, anti-Semitism survives in the country, nurtured by far-right media and political factions. In that sense, the new law is less a needed defense of Polish honor than it is a dog whistle to the most extreme elements of Mr. Kaczynski's base. Rather than suppress discussion of Poland's role in the Holocaust, it is likely to stimulate more of it. And the cause of free speech might just inspire a few more uses of "Polish death camps," accurate or not.