It could soon be a crime to blame Poland for Nazi atrocities, and Israel is appalled
By Avi Selk January 27 at 5:15 PM The Washington Post
Polish lawmakers voted Friday for a bill that would fine or jail people who blame the country for Nazi atrocities on its soil during World War II, including the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews at the Auschwitz death camp.
It comes as the country has become more nationalistic. Tens of thousands of people chanted and marched through Warsaw last year in an annual gathering of Europe’s far-right movements, and the majority party has sought to protect Poland’s image.
The vote was condemned by Israel, where some leaders accused Poland of a form of Holocaust denial. “One cannot change history and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, echoing the country’s president and foreign minister, according to Deutsche Press.
In a Twitter argument with the Polish embassy, a member of the Israeli parliament tweeted that “there were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that.”
But the bill, which Haaretz reports would jail even foreigners for up to three years for using terms such as “Polish extermination camps,” passed the lower legislature overwhelmingly. For the country’s ruling Law and Justice Party, it’s part of a years-long effort to prevent people from “slandering the good name of Poland,” as officials once put it.
Many historians warn against trying to simplify Poland’s role in the Holocaust.
The country was occupied for years by the forces of Nazi Germany, who herded Jews into ghettos, shot at least 200,000 of them and killed an additional million in Auschwitz, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Throughout the occupation, Poles fought back through underground movements and resistance armies. A quarter-million Polish civilians died during a 1944 uprising against the German army in Warsaw, according to the museum.
But between these broad strokes of Nazi genocide and Polish heroism, some Poles also turned on Jews — or at least helped Germans kill them.
Villagers in Jedwabne, for example, reportedly locked about 300 Jewish residents in a barn and burned them alive in 1941, the BBC wrote. Some modern-day Poles deny the story or blame Germans for pressuring the villagers, but others see evidence of willing complicity throughout the occupation.
Jan Karski, a famed Polish resistance fighter, once told an interviewer of the “ruthless, often without pity” attitude some of his countrymen held for Poland’s large Jewish population.
The director of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, Laurence Weinbaum, once wrote for The Washington Post about documented examples of Poles willingly abetting the persecution of Jews.
“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,” Weinbaum 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 neighbors from their homes, he wrote. Some happily enriched themselves at the expense of their dispossessed neighbors, and some “did not recoil from committing acts of murder, rape and larceny — not always orchestrated by the Germans.”
That said, Weinbaum thought then-FBI director James B. Comey went too far when he spoke of Poland’s “murderers and accomplices” during a 2015 speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum — rhetorically equating the country to Germany.
A few years earlier, President Barack Obama incensed many Poles when, during a speech honoring Karski, he spoke of “Polish death camps”. The White House later apologized.
As The Post noted, Obama’s statement helped spur Polish lawmakers’ efforts to ban the term and prosecute people who confuse their country with the Nazi regime. They tried to pass a bill in 2013 and failed. But Poland has turned toward nationalism since then, and in 2016, the conservative Law and Justice Party won the first parliamentary majority since the end of communism.
The party has aggressively protected Poland’s image. After a massive right-wing march through Warsaw in November, with banners and chants of “white Europe” and “pure blood,” some government officials defended the event as a simple independence day rally. One minister even called it “beautiful.”
“Poland is being unfairly attack by hostile media,” the founder of the Polish League Against Defamation complained after the rally, according to Radio Poland.
Three months later, at least in regard to Nazis, attacking Poland could soon become a crime.
If the bill passes Poland’s senate and becomes law, which Haaretz reports seems likely, it will apply not just to Poles but to anyone in any country who blames the Polish state for Nazi crimes.
“The implication of the new law means that in theory, a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Poland who lives in Israel, who may make a statement such as ‘the Polish people were involved in the murder of my grandfather in the Holocaust’ or ‘my mother was murdered in a Polish extermination camp,’ would be liable for imprisonment in Poland,” Haaretz wrote.