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Outrage Over Poland’s Holocaust Law Prompts Call to Look for a Way Out

  • Senate speaker says contested law shouldn’t be applied for now
  • Move follows criticism by Israel, U.S. and Poland’s EU allies

One of Poland’s most senior lawmakers said it’s time to back away from a new law criminalizing suggestions that the nation was in any way responsible for the Holocaust following an international outcry.

Stanislaw Karczewski, the speaker of Poland’s upper house of parliament from the governing Law & Justice party, said the country’s diplomatic efforts to explain the law may have stalled and that the rules should not be applied before being vetted by the Constitutional Court. The party rushed through the legislation earlier this month, ignoring warnings from the U.S. State Department, Israel and Poland’s European allies.

Stanislaw Karczewski

Photographer: Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

“I’m not sure if we haven’t reached the wall, a dead end, maybe we should say stop and not say anything else," Karczewski told private broadcaster TVN24 on Tuesday. “I’m convinced this law won’t be applied, one would have to be irresponsible to do something that could provoke even more emotions.”

It marks a change of tone from Monday, when Poland’s foreign minister refused to apologize for Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who fanned the conflict by listing Jews among those who were “perpetrators” of Nazi-era crimes along with Germans, Ukrainians, Russians and Poles.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the comments “outrageous” while Yair Lapid, an opposition politician, called on Israel to recall its ambassador to Warsaw.

Vandals painted Nazi swastikas on the gate of Poland’s embassy in Tel Aviv on Sunday, while the east European country’s chief Rabbi said it’s the “worst moment” for Polish-Jewish relations in three decades. The law is due to come into force on Feb. 28. The Constitutional Tribunal said it doesn’t yet know when it will review the legislation.

‘Last Witnesses’

The U.S. warned Poland that the new rules censor free speech and may weaken the nation’s “strategic interests and relations.” The law makes public statements suggesting Polish national or state complicity in the Holocaust a crime punishable by up to three years in jail.

Far from strengthening a narrative that Poles were both heroes and victims of World War II, the legislation triggered increasing scrutiny over Poland’s role in the Shoah. 

“As the last witnesses slowly leave us, we see a deliberate and pernicious attempt to rewrite history and marginalize Jewish suffering," Emmanuel Nahshon, spokesman for Israel’s foreign minister, said on Twitter on Tuesday.

Only 380,000 of Poland’s 3 million Jews, Europe’s largest prewar Jewish community, survived the Holocaust, according to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. 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. Yad Vashem has commemorated about 6,700 Poles for rescuing Jews, the largest number of “Righteous Gentiles” in any country.

‘Kill You Tonight’

Despite pledges by Prime Minister Morawiecki, Israel says it’s concerned the rules would prevent the histories of Holocaust survivors’ from being properly studied. Edward Sonshine, the founder and chief executive officer of Canada’s RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust, whose parents were Polish Jews who survived the war, has one such story.

After the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, Sonshine’s two uncles walked back to his mother’s home town in the south of Poland where his grandfather ran a grain business, to check “who else was alive,” he told Bloomberg News in Toronto. Realizing they wouldn’t make it there before dark and that it wasn’t safe to travel at night, they asked a farmer a few miles from the town to spend the night in his barn.

“A couple of hours later the farmer returned and said: I’ve just been at the tavern and there’s a bunch of guys who are afraid that you’re coming back to get your house and your property back, and they’re coming to kill you tonight,” Sonshine said. His uncles fled “and kept going till they got to east Germany. And that was it for Poland.”

Polish wartime “atrocities” deserve to be talked about “equally with the heroic things,” Sonshine said. “Legislation like this is unfortunate. They made a big mistake.”

— With assistance by Michael Arnold, and Natalie Wong

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