Poland Opposes Calls to Scrap Bill on Nazi Camp Talk

Updated on
  • Israel says won’t tolerate rewriting of history by new law
  • Leaders of both countries agree to dialogue in phone call

Poland has rejected Israel’s demand to scrap a bill that would make it a crime to blame Poles for Holocaust-era atrocities.

Poles say they are unfairly held complicit in Nazi war crimes during a period when their country was occupied and an estimated 2.7 million non-Jewish civilians were killed, including a large number of resistance fighters.

Benjamin Netanyahu on Jan. 28.

Photographer: Tsafrir Abayov/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli leaders and Holocaust survivors see the proposed legislation as an attempt to whitewash Polish wartime crimes against the Jews.

“We will not tolerate distorting the truth, rewriting history or denying the Holocaust,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of the Israeli cabinet meeting on Sunday.

Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki spoke late Sunday and agreed to try to reach an understanding regarding the draft law. But Joanna Kopcinska, a spokeswoman for the Polish premier, said the dialogue between the countries “will not concern sovereign decisions of the Polish parliament.”

Morawiecki leads a government run by the Law & Justice party, which since winning a 2015 election has vowed to take the country away from some of the European Union’s liberal, multicultural values and return the country to its traditional Catholic roots. It also seeks to draw attention to the complex nature of the country’s history, and is considering demanding reparations from Germany for damages incurred during World War II.

“There is declaration by the Polish government to form a working group to discuss the issue with the Israeli side, but I would like to say very clearly that this does not mean we are ready to negotiate the provisions of this law,” Jacek Sasin, an aide to the prime minister, told state broadcaster TVP Info. “There is no stepping back.”

Weighty Date

Poland’s lower house approved the proposed legislation on Friday, a date heavy with resonance: the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the most notorious German Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The bill still requires approval of the upper house of Poland’s parliament and must be signed by President Andrzej Duda to become law.

“There was no participation by Poland or the Polish people as a nation in the Holocaust,” Duda said during a visit to Zory in the south of the country. “In fact, it was an active participant in the fight against the Holocaust.”

Some historians have concluded that Poles made the Nazi genocide possible. Poland’s Jewish community was the biggest in all of Europe before World War II, at more than 3 million, and only 380,000 survived the genocide, according to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

Poland objects to that narrative of culpability. While some Polish civilians participated in the murder of Jews or turned them over to Nazis to avoid being executed for hiding them, others resisted. About 6,700 Poles were commemorated by Yad Vashem for rescuing Jews, the largest number in any country.

For years, Poland has sought to eradicate the use of phrases such as “Polish death camps” that suggest collaboration with the Nazis. The draft law would impose fines or up to three years in jail for claiming that Poland or the Polish nation bears responsibility for crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany on its soil. Works of art and science are exempt from penalties.

Not Polish

“Jews, Poles, and all victims should be guardians of the memory of all who were murdered by German Nazis,” Morawiecki wrote on his Twitter account after the annual ceremony at the camp’s museum. “Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase.”

Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, pushed back against that argument.

“The issue is NOT the death camps. Of course they were not Polish,” he said on Twitter. “The issue is the legitimate and essential freedom to talk about the involvement of Poles in the murder of Jews without fear or threat of penalization. Simple.”

(Corrects name of Israeli spokesman in second to last paragraph.)
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