Anyone who refers to Auschwitz as a 'Polish' death camp will soon be risking jail time, as nation's senate introduces law to distance itself from horrors of the Holocaust.
Poland’s senate has approved a controversial bill, which stipulates a person can be fined or even jailed for up to three years for referring to Nazi German death camps in Poland as Polish or mentioning Poland as being complicit in crimes committed during the Holocaust.
Several death camps were built by the Nazis in Poland after occupying the country during World War II, including the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Poland has turned to the legal system to “safeguard” history by forcing people to refer to them as Nazi extermination camps or camps located in occupied Poland.
The upper house of parliament voted 57-23, with two abstentions, to approve the bill on Thursday.
When Poland’s deputy ambassador, Piotr Kozlowski, was summoned to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, he said the goal wasn’t to “whitewash” history but “to safeguard it, to safeguard the truth about the Holocaust and to prevent its distortion”.
The new legislation — which still needs to be rubber-stamped by President Andrzej Duda — has not had the desired effect for the Poles. Instead of being disassociated from the war atrocities, Israel, furious with Poland for taking this course, has begun questioning the innocence of the nation.
Yair Lapid, a popular opposition leader in the Israeli parliament, tweeted that “hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier”.
I utterly condemn the new Polish law which tries to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust. It was conceived in Germany but hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier. There were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that.
— יאיר לפיד (@yairlapid) January 27, 2018
Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center, added the bill was “liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust”.
However, it also stated that referring to the concentration camps as “Polish death camps” was a historical misrepresentation.
Israel proposes bill of its own
The Jerusalem Post reports that 61 members of Israel’s Knesset (legislative branch) have co-sponsored a bill to amend the 1986 Law for Defense Against Holocaust Denial.
It would effectively cancel out the Polish bill, by making it a form of illegal holocaust denial. Minimising or denying the involvement of Nazi helpers and collaborators could result in five years imprisonment.
On top of that, the new law would provide legal aid to any holocaust survivors and educators taking students to death camps who face foreign lawsuits for recounting what happened during the Holocaust.
Poland’s involvement in the Holocaust
President Duda looks certain to sign the bill, saying — “We absolutely can’t back down, we have the right to defend the historical truth.”
The truth isn’t so black and white, according to historians.
Yad Vashem’s records indicate more Poles (6,706) have been honoured as “Righteous Among the Nations” than any other group of peoples — a distinction given to citizens who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
The nation also lost six million of its citizens, including three million Polish-Jews, during the German occupation.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes Poland organised one of the largest resistance movements in Europe at that time, which after 63 days of “bitter fighting” culminated in the death of 250,000 poles.
But then, director of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, Laurence Weinbaum, once documented examples of Poles willingly abetting the persecution of Jews for The Washington Post.
“Those who see themselves as defenders of Poland’s good name are often quick to point out that in Poland there was no Quisling regime comparable to that which existed in other countries occupied by Germany — and that the Polish underground fought the Germans tooth and nail,” he wrote.
“The truth is that local authorities were often left intact in occupied Poland, and many officials exploited their power in ways that proved fatal to their Jewish constituents.
Some Poles welcomed the forced removal of their Jewish neighbours from their homes, he added. Some happily enriched themselves at the expense of their dispossessed neighbours, and some “did not recoil from committing acts of murder, rape and larceny — not always orchestrated by the Germans”.
Polish-born American historian Jan Gross, wrote a book ‘Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland’ that, based on strong evidence, suggested Poles massacred hundreds of Jewish women and children in a barn fire rather than the locally agreed upon narrative that Nazis committed the horrific crime.
In 2015, then-FBI director James Comey grouped Poland and Hungary in with Germany as the “murderers and accomplices” during the Holocaust, in a speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Even Weinbaum baulked at that comparison.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert expressed concern prior to the bill being passed that “if enacted this draft legislation could undermine free speech and academic discourse”.
She also said the department was “concerned about the repercussions this draft legislation… could have on Poland’s strategic interests and relationships — including with the United States and Israel”.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his displeasure with Poland’s bill.
“I strongly oppose it. One cannot change history and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” he said in a statement.