Historians say Polish bill on death camps reference extreme

Law would jail people who use term "Polish death camps."

By JTA
August 19, 2016 01:28
3 minute read.
Auschwitz

Survivors of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz arrive to the former camp in Oswiecim.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Holocaust experts said Thursday that a Polish bill to jail people who use the term “Polish death camps” was based on a correct demand but blown out of proportion.

“I can’t imagine they will seriously try to implement this law,” said Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s top Nazi-hunter. He did, however, stress that the demand was based on facts.

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“They were not Polish death camps.

They didn’t run them, there weren’t any Polish guards there, they are 100 percent right – they were Nazi death camps in Poland. But I can’t imagine they would actually put people in jail for using the term,” he said, noting that US President Barack Obama could be jailed under the law for having used the term “Polish death camp” in 2012.

“It’s a declarative statement, an educational issue,” opined Zuroff, adding that it is part of a much wider phenomenon of laws in various countries to criminalize certain statements about history.

The bill, which the government put forward on Tuesday, would prohibit assigning blame to Poland for the actions of Nazi Germany. Historians and artists would be exempt in their work.

Drafted by the Justice Ministry, the measure also would criminalize accusing Poland of international war crimes or crimes against peace or humanity. The punishment would be a fine or up to three years in jail.

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“The history of the Holocaust is a complex one and the Nazi occupation of Poland is no different. Accuracy when talking about this period of history is essential but the emphasis and priority should be to reach universal understanding and recognition of the facts through education,” remarked Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust.

Anti-Russian sentiment is fueling a nationalist revival in Poland, where some historians, politicians and activists are engaged in a campaign to absolve their countrymen of any wrongdoing during World War II and the Holocaust, which at time shades into revisionist history.

Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center said that while it was dedicated to providing accurate historical information, it questioned the effectiveness of Poland’s campaign to educate the public.

“Their basic demand to call the former concentration camps, German-Nazi camps operated on Polish German-occupied soil is an appropriate demand.

When you call them Polish camps you accuse Poles of establishing and operating them,” said Yad Vashem’s chief historian Prof. Dina Porat.

She noted that in 2006, Yad Vashem supported the request of the Polish government to clarify the reference of the official name of Auschwitz-Birkenau for the UNESCO registry and echoed the call to refer to it as “the former German-Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp.”

“But the way they [the Poles] would like to enforce it is more than extreme,” she added, telling The Jerusalem Post she had received prior warning of the move, which will be aided by an app to scan materials for the offending words. “A law that would put you in prison for up to three years is unheard of, especially when you take into account that this is just one item of a law according to which whoever defames Poland and say Polish people, officials or institutions were involved in war crimes and crimes against the Jews, is defaming Poland and should be punished.

This is like an attempt to smother research and freedom of speech.”

Porat pointed to Polish historians Jan Gross and Jan Grabowski who have been the subject criminal investigations over their work on Polish crimes against Jews.

Yad Vashem sent a petition to Poland, signed by a host of scholars, to stand in solidarity with their fellow historians.

“There is fear of the Polish government rewriting history to whitewash Second World War Poland and present it to the world as a nation that was pure victim that should be pitied and compensated,” Porat said.

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