Poland to outlaw references to 'Polish death camps' in Holocaust bill

Poland's senate has approved a controversial bill that makes it illegal to accuse Poles of complicity in crimes commi...

Posted: Feb 1, 2018 2:05 PM
Updated: Feb 1, 2018 2:05 PM

Poland's senate has approved a controversial bill that makes it illegal to accuse Poles of complicity in crimes committed by Nazi Germany, including the Holocaust.

The bill, which passed with 57 votes to 23 (with two abstentions) early Thursday morning, also bans the use of terms such as "Polish death camps" in relation to camps such as Auschwitz, which were located in Nazi-occupied Poland.

To become law, the bill must now be signed by Polish President Andrzej Duda, who has previously expressed his support.

Violations will be punished by a fine or a jail sentence of up to three years.

While there is a consensus among historians that certain Polish individuals and groups and some state-affiliated organs did collaborate with the Nazi occupiers, recent Polish governments have sought to challenge that narrative.

This legislation, which will outlaw any remark that attributes responsibility to Poland for the Nazi crimes, marks the most significant victory for those seeking to defend "the good name of Poland," a stated aim of the bill.

'Serious distortion'

The news from Poland's upper house came just days after a public spat between Poland and Israel over the proposed legislation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the bill "baseless," saying: "One cannot change history and the Holocaust cannot be denied."

Israel's Holocaust museum and the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem, said in a statement the new legislation risked blurring "the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust."

The statement went on: "There is no doubt that the term "Polish death camps" is a historical misrepresentation!... However, restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people's direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion."

'Sloppy attitude' about Polish history

While critical of the legislation, historian Anita Prazmowska from the London School of Economics has some sympathy for Poland's position.

"Successive governments have been trying to persuade journalists and politicians to stop using the phrase 'Polish death camps,'" she told CNN.

"It comes down to a rather sloppy and cavalier attitude towards Polish history... towards one of the most painful periods in Polish history."

At least three million Polish Jews and 1.9 million non-Jewish citizens were killed during the Holocaust, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The issue has come to a head in recent years with the growth of the right-wing Law and Justice Party in Poland and several high-profile controversies.

In 2012, then US President Barack Obama used the phrase "Polish death camp" during a Medal of Freedom ceremony, sparking immediate condemnation from Donald Tusk, Poland's prime minister at the time.

"When someone says 'Polish death camps,' it is as if there were no Nazis, no German responsibility, as if there was no Hitler," Tusk said. "That is why our Polish sensitivity in these situations is so much more than just simply a feeling of national pride."

Speaking at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum three years later, then FBI director James Comey referred to "the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary," again arousing ire in Poland.

The phrase "Polish death camp" is also often used in news reports about Auschwitz and other camps that were located in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Misleading remarks such as these are "extremely irritating for the Poles," said Prazmowska.

Academic freedom 'in danger'

But Prazmowska is also concerned about trying to tackle the problem by enacting a law. "Legislation shouldn't be used to force a particular historic interpretation," she said.

She sees the move as part of a broader attempt to revise negative aspects of Polish history to serve a nationalist agenda today.

"The government is trying to present itself as a defender of Polish dignity," she said. "It's part of the government's agenda to appeal to people, to present itself as a defender of the Polish nation."

Svenja Bethke, member of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Leicester in the UK, described the legislation as a "tragedy" and a "scandal."

She is concerned about the potential impact on historians such as herself.

Many of her colleagues are "very concerned," she told CNN. "They're worried about not being able to work as a historian on this period in Poland anymore."

"When powerful institutions are able to put certain limitations on historical research," academic freedom "is in danger," she said.

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