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

Thursday 1 February 2018, by siawi3

Source: The Washington Post, Feb 1st 2018

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

By Rick Noack

February 1 at 6:07 AM

Photo: Barbed wire fences are pictured at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

Despite Israeli and U.S. criticism, Poland’s Senate approved a highly controversial law on 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?

Once it is signed by the president, anyone convicted under the law could face up to three years in jail or fines.

The law essentially bans accusations voiced by historians and even Holocaust survivors that some Poles were complicit in the horrific Nazi crimes committed on Polish soil, including in the Auschwitz Birkenau extermination camp, where over 1.1 million Jews were murdered. Germany operated six camps in Poland where Jews and others the Nazis considered enemies were killed.

Why have the United States and Israel opposed the law this week?

Critics of the new law, including the U.S. State Department and Israeli officials, fear that it will infringe upon free speech. “One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” said a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week.

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,” even though it agreed that the term “Polish death camps” was a historical misrepresentation.

[Israel and Poland try to tamp down tensions after Poland’s ‘death camp’ law sparks Israeli outrage]
video 0:53
Tillerson lays wreath at Holocaust memorial in Poland

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

How has Poland responded?

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

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

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

Historians are worried that the law will 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 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.

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 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, too.

Those accusations alone would likely never have triggered the sweeping law that is now set to take effect, but Poles were especially dismayed when in 2012 President Barack Obama incorrectly referred to “Polish death camps.” Three years later, then-FBI director James B. Comey also appeared to equate the country’s role in the Holocaust to Germany.

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, in order to stop critics from “insulting and slandering the good name of Poland.”

How are Polish voters reacting?

The Law and Justice Party’s focus on emphasizing Poland’s heroic past has proven to be an effective domestic electoral strategy, even as it has faced a particularly damaging international backlash after accusations of emboldening 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,” as seen by Politico and “White Europe,” described by AP.

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

Whereas the incident drew international condemnations, it certainly didn’t damage the party’s standing at home. If anything, it has only gained in popularity.

Ruth Eglash and Avi Selk contributed to this report.

Rick Noack is a foreign affairs reporter based in Berlin. Previously, he worked for The Post from Washington, D.C. as an Arthur F. Burns Fellow and from London.