Poland’s senate passed a bill this week to levy criminal penalties on anyone who refers to the extermination camps operating throughout the country during World War II as being of Polish origin, drawing protests from Israel and the United States.
More than 3.1 million people — mostly Jews — were murdered at the Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno, and Majdanek camps during the Nazi occupation. Tens of thousands of Jews also died in nearly 700 ghettos established throughout the country.
“Individual Poles often helped in the identification, denunciation, and hunting down of Jews in hiding, often profiting from the associated blackmail, and actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property,” says the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, noting some Poles also participated in pogroms against their Jewish neighbors, such as the massacre at Jedwabne in 1941.
The controversial bill sent to President Andrzej Duda states that “whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich … shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years,” with an exclusion for “such an act as part of artistic or scientific activities.”
“The camps where millions of Jews were murdered were not Polish. This truth needs to be protected,” said Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
Last Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the draft law as “baseless; I strongly oppose it.”
“One cannot change history and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” Netanyahu said, noting he ordered the Israeli Ambassador to Poland to meet with Morawiecki “and express to him my strong position against the law.” Netanyahu’s office said the next day that “teams from the two countries would open an immediate dialogue in order to try to reach understandings regarding the legislation.”
State Department press secretary Heather Nauert said Wednesday that “the history of the Holocaust is painful and complex,” and “we understand that phrases such as ‘Polish death camps’ are inaccurate, misleading, and hurtful.”
“We are concerned, however, that if enacted this draft legislation could undermine free speech and academic discourse. We all must be careful not to inhibit discussion and commentary on the Holocaust. We believe open debate, scholarship, and education are the best means of countering inaccurate and hurtful speech,” Nauert said. “We are also concerned about the repercussions this draft legislation, if enacted, could have 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.”
“We encourage Poland to reevaluate the legislation in light of its potential impact on the principle of free speech and on our ability to be effective partners.”
The criticism has provoked anti-Semitic backlash among some in Poland, with the director of the state-run television station TVP 2 declaring the camps should be referred to as “Jewish death camps.” Polish state radio commentator Piotr Nisztor said that “if somebody acts as a spokesman for Israeli interests, maybe they should think about giving up their Polish citizenship and accepting Israeli citizenship.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the bill “an ill-conceived attempt to whitewash the widespread participation of individual Poles in the persecution and murder of Jews during the Holocaust.”
“While the term ‘Polish death camps’ is historically inaccurate and should not be used under any circumstances, the other elements of this bill are a crass attempt to silence any discussion of the widespread phenomenon of complicity by individual Poles in Holocaust crimes, as well as the murder of numerous Jews by members of the Armia Krajowa, the nationalist military arm of the Polish government-in-exile in London,” the center said in a statement.
“We fully acknowledge the suffering of the Polish under a brutal Nazi occupation and the incredibly courageous efforts of Polish ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, but we will not and the Polish nation must not ignore the widespread complicity of other Poles in the annihilation of Polish Jewry.”