Polish Senate approves Holocaust legislation that criminalizes use of terms such as ‘Polish death camps’

Katarzyna Markusz

The main gate of the former Auschwitz extermination camp in Oswiecim, Poland. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) – The Polish Senate passed legislation that criminalizes accusing the Polish state for the crimes committed by the Germans during World War II.

The amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance was adopted early Thursday morning by a vote of 57 to 23, with two abstentions. The legislation, designed to make it clear that Nazi Germany is responsible for the crimes against humanity that took place in the camps, was approved last week by the lower house of the Polish Parliament, or Sejm. The legislation must still be signed by the country’s president.

The law would make it illegal to use terms such as “Polish death camps” to describe the camps set up by the Nazis in Poland. Violation of the law could result in up to three years in prison. It contains a provision to exclude scholarly or academic works.

On Sunday, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, said in a statement that he would carefully review the legislation. “Everyone whose personal memory or historical research speaks the truth about the crimes and shameful behavior that occurred in the past with the participation of Poles has full right to this truth,” he said.

Also on Sunday, Israel and Poland announced that it would  open an “immediate dialogue” over the legislation, that was criticized by Israeli lawmakers, Yad Vashem, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and scholars.

Eight U.S. congressmen signed a joint letter on the legislation to Polish to President Andrzej Duda. The American politicians point out that Poland was one of the countries that suffered the most during  World War II, and recalled the merits of many Poles who, despite the threat of the death, saved Jews. “However, many cases have also been documented where Poles – directly or indirectly – assisted the Nazis in murdering innocent Jews. Punishing anyone for talking about these facts would be an injustice,” the congressmen wrote.

“Poland was the only occupied country in which no local SS group was active, there was no institutional cooperation with Hitler, which there was in stronger countries,” Patryk Jaki, the author of the legislation, said during debate in the Senate. He noted that Polish citizens tried to sue German newspapers for use of the term “Polish death camps.”  The courts refused because citizens did not have the right to appear on behalf of the state.

In January, a German court in Koblenz issued a verdict, ordering ZDF television to apologize for using the term “Polish death camps.” The station had been sued by former Auschwitz inmate Karol Tendera. The court in Koblenz found that there had been a violation of Tendera’s personal rights and ordered publication of the apology. ZDF may appeal this judgment.

Jaki wants the Poles to show their successes in saving Jews and talk about heroes, such as Witold Pilecki, who informed the world about Auschwitz; and publicize the Righteous Among the Nations who saved Jews, and the Polish people who helped in deciphering the Nazi code, Enigma

Jaki said that no one could have predicted Israel’s reaction to the legislation. “No one was aware that Israel would protest at all,” he said. “There was no signal over that last year that there would be a protest against this law. How could we know? The ambassador’s task was to signal if she has any comments. Let us assume that if there is a dispute, Poland is not always guilty. Let’s look at what words Israeli politicians are using towards Poland now.” Jaki said that he was meeting intensively with Israel Ambassador Anna Azari, but they were mainly talking about reprivatization of Jewish property and assets.

Jan Dziedziczak, secretary of state in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the new law is a struggle for Poland’s position on the international stage. “Our country always stood on the side of the weaker, we first said ‘no’ to Hitler and did not collaborate. The Polish Underground State unambiguously decided to save Jews. We know it, but now the world has a different picture,” he said.

He said the fact that Israeli lawmaker Yair Lapd, the son of a Holocaust survivor, said that there were Polish death camps means: “This is the proof that this law is essential.”

The Deputy Speaker of the Senate, Bogdan Borusewicz, filed a proposal to reject the new law. He said that Jewish organizations in the U.S. supported Polish efforts to join NATO and “fought with the term ‘Polish camps’ with us.”

“This is our most important ally. Now we are entering into conflict with the United States. This law makes the seams of anti-Semitism that are in the Polish nation come to the surface. The Polish government is responsible for this,” he said.

Senate Speaker, Stanisław Karczewski, said that the legislation was written “to look after the good name of Poland.” He assured, that “we want the Jews to be our friends. We will meet, debate, talk.”

The U.S. State Department on Wednesday criticized the Polish legislation, which “could undermine free speech and academic discourse.” According to the Department’s statement, the bill, “could have [repercussions] on Poland’s strategic interests and relationships – including with the United States and Israel. The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies benefit only our rivals.”

Meanwhile, a demonstration of Polish national organizations planned Wednesday in front of the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw did not take place. The organizers canceled the event after the voivode office issued a ban on closing streets near the embassy. The ban is valid until February 5. Nationalists said they would meet in social media instead of at the embassy.

Lawmaker Robert Winnicki, who heads an ultranationalist  organization in Poland, in a news conference in the Sejm on Wednesday said that “Poland has been subject of attack by the Israeli elite and Jewish circles in the world for many days.” He said making it impossible to organize a demonstration next to the Israeli embassy is to limit the “voice of citizens who wanted to defend Polish dignity.” He called the decision “scandalous and unacceptable.”

“It’s false that we had an excellent relationship with Israel,” Winnicki said. “We really had a unilateral unrequited love of the Polish political class to Israel.” The lawmaker urged the Polish government to “rise from its knees in its relations with Israel.” He also said he resents that an amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance was reviewed with the Israeli ambassador.  Winnicki also called Poland a “hostage” to the United States. “We have a lot to do with Arab countries. It is not our business to stand by Israel’s side. We must behave with dignity,” he said.

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