Poland changes its controversial Holocaust law

Netanyahu welcomes the move; Lapid calls the change a ‘bad joke’

A visitor to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum walks past a mural of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Washington, January 26, 2007 (photo credit: REUTERS/JIM YOUNG)
A visitor to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum walks past a mural of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Washington, January 26, 2007
(photo credit: REUTERS/JIM YOUNG)
Poland has amended its controversial Holocaust law that made it a crime punishable by up to three years in jail to say “Polish concentration camps,” four months after the law went into effect and badly strained ties with Israel and the US.
Polish lawmakers voted on Wednesday by a vote of 388-25, with five abstentions, to water down the law and remove parts that imposed jail terms on people who suggest the nation was complicit in Nazi crimes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is pleased that Poland “fully rescinded” clauses in its Holocaust law.
In Warsaw, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed changes to the law.
“I’m pleased that the Polish government, the parliament, the senate and the president of Poland decided today to fully rescind the clauses that were signed and caused a storm and consternation in Israel and among the international community,” Netanyahu said in Tel Aviv in a live announcement that included the reading of a statement agreed upon with the Polish government that was issued in Warsaw at the same time.
Netanyahu read the statement, which said the two governments agree on the need to conduct free research into the Holocaust without concern of legal action. The statement said Poland had expressed understanding of the significance of the Holocaust as the most tragic event in the Jewish national experience.
The statement also stressed that it is erroneous to use the term “Polish death camps” or to in any way diminish the responsibility of the Germans for the crimes. The statement also noted that there were numerous Poles who saved Jews, and that the Polish government in exile attempted to sound the alarms about the atrocities being committed.
Both governments, the statement read, condemn antisemitism in all its forms and anti-Polish sentiments and “call to a return to civil and respectful dialogue in public discourse.”
Last week, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told visiting Polish Minister for Entrepreneurship and Technology Jadwiga Emilewicz that Israeli-Polish ties would not return to normal until the controversial law was changed.
He told the The Jerusalem Post that while all agreements with Poland already in effect would continue, no new agreements with Warsaw would be entered into until the law is changed.
The unexpected U-turn came as the ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party seeks to bolster security ties with Washington and faces heightened scrutiny from the European Union.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki did not say what precisely had prompted his morning announcement. However, he told parliament that the terms of the existing law had already done their job by raising awareness of Poland’s role in World War II – the government says Poles were the victims of Nazi aggression, not fellow perpetrators.
The law had been meant as “a kind of shock,” and courts would still be able impose fines, he added.
“The purpose of this law was and still is one fundamental message: Fight for the truth, fight for the truth of World War II and postwar times,” Morawiecki said.
“A publisher in the United States or in Germany will think twice before publishing today an article using the expression ‘Polish SS,’ ‘Polish gestapo’ or ‘Polish concentration camps’ if he risks a lawsuit and a fine of 100 million euros or dollars,” Morawiecki added.
According to the prime minister, the “severe provisions” of criminality in the law aroused so much controversy that it began to be “counterproductive.”
The changes triggered a heated debate inside the parliament, with Robert Winnicki of the far-right National Movement unsuccessfully trying to postpone the vote and accusing the government of “crawling” before the Jewish communities. He called the move a “scandal.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz – of the liberal Modern Party – asked why it had taken so long for the government to change a law that had caused such damage to Poland’s international reputation.
Michal Dworczyk, the head of the prime minister’s chancellery, said in a public radio interview that the intent of the law was to “defend the good name of Poland” and counteract the use of the words “Polish death camps” instead of “Nazi death camps,” but that this caused a crisis with Israel and “our other partners,” including the US.
He said now the issue will be dealt with through “civil-legal tools” rather than through criminalization.
Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, who sharply condemned the law when it was first brought to the parliament in January, characterized the proposed change as “a bad joke.”
“This law has to be wiped off of the law books in Poland,” said Lapid, the son of a Holocaust survivor. “They should cancel this scandalous law and ask forgiveness from the dead.”
Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli, who proposed two Knesset bills to counter the Polish legislation, welcomed the changes, but said they do not go far enough.
“According to the law, it will still be forbidden to mention the role of the Poles in the crimes against the Jews, but now – rather than this resulting in criminal proceedings – it will result in civil proceedings,” he said.
Shmuli said even the amended version of the law “casts a heavy cloud and places the mark of Cain on modern Poland, which instead of learning from history prefers to deny and blur it. We promise the Holocaust survivors that this effort will not succeed.”
Yad Vashem issued a statement calling the Polish move a “positive development in the right direction.”
“We believe that the correct way to combat historical misrepresentations is by reinforcing open, free research and educational activities,” the statement read. “Yad Vashem reiterates its support for ensuring that educators and researchers are not hindered in grappling with the complex truth of Polish-Jewish relations before, during and after the Holocaust.”
Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich told the Post that it was an “important move to correct this mistake,” but added it was not yet clear exactly what the implications are of making the law a civil instead of criminal offense.
“We have to look carefully at what else it [the law] says. I applaud them for their effort, but the devil is in the details. The intention is positive; let’s see if the results will also be positive,” said the rabbi.
Schudrich noted that the original law had been written to protect Poland’s image from incorrect terminology, such as “Polish death camps,” but that it had been drafted in such an unclear manner as to be “wide open to misrepresentation,” which caused the exact opposite effect of the intent of the law.
“The law was designed to protect Poland’s name but in fact ended up giving Poland a very bad name,” he said in reference to the strong opposition from the US and Israel, as well as more than half of the Polish population.
The president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald S. Lauder, welcomed the decision to remove criminal liability from the law, saying that the Polish government had realized the legislation was untenable.
“I have made clear in recent months – including in face-to-face conversations with both President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Morawiecki – our profound opposition to this legislation, which leads to an undeniable obfuscation of history and undermines democracy,” said Lauder.
“The law as it stands now stifles any real discussion of the extent to which local Poles were complicit in the annihilation of their Jewish neighbors during the German occupation. It sets a dangerous precedent and is contrary to the values Poland has worked to uphold and promote.”
On Tuesday, the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists submitted an opinion to Poland’s Constitution Tribunal reviewing the law, saying the imposition of “criminal restrictions on freedom of expression not only violates constitutional and international law’s standards but also harms Poland itself and its relations with the Jewish people.”
The IAJLJ issued a statement saying that according to its legal position, “The amendment severely and disproportionately violates the freedom of expression protected by international and European treaties (to which Poland is a party), is incompatible with the provisions of the Polish Constitution itself that protects freedom of expression and freedom of the press – and has already caused increase in antisemitism in Poland. There is also concern that the amendment will cause a chilling effect when it comes to the study of the Holocaust, since researchers will be cautious in their statements and afraid to publish their research.”
The controversial law, under the heading “Protection of the reputation of the Republic of Poland and the Polish Nation,” reads: “Whoever, publicly and contrary to the facts, attributes to the Polish Nation or to the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich... or for any other offenses constituting crimes against peace, humanity or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the actual perpetrators of these crimes, shall be liable to a fine or deprivation of liberty for up to three years.”
The law states that if the “perpetrator” acts unintentionally, “they shall be liable to a fine or restriction of liberty.” It excludes those acting “within the framework of artistic or scientific activity,” and says the law is applicable irrespective of where the “prohibited act” took place, and regardless of whether the offender is a Polish citizen or a foreigner.
Reuters contributed to this report.