Poland Passes Bill Criminalizing Claims of Its Involvement in the Holocaust

On Thursday, Jan. 25, Poland’s Senate passed a bill banning any claims insinuating the country’s complicity in the Nazi atrocities occurring on Polish soil during World War II. The bill also states that such an action is punishable by up to three years in prison.

The bill only needs the President’s signature to become a law, and according to NPR, Polish President Andrzej Duda has signaled that he intends to sign it.

As per Reuters, Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said Wednesday before the vote that, “We, the Poles, were victims, as were the Jews. It is a duty of every Pole to defend the good name of Poland.”

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Germans killed at least three million Jewish citizens of Poland and an additional 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians. Not to mention, some of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps were established on Polish soil, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, where about one million Jews and 75,000 non-Jewish Poles perished.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki defended the bill by tweeting, “Auschwitz is the most bitter lesson on how evil ideologies can lead to hell on earth. Jews, Poles and all victims should be guardians of the memory of all who were murdered by German Nazis.” He also added that “Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase.” This phrase he is referring to, written at the entrances of several Nazi concentration camps, means “work sets you free” in German.

Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons

The country has received a lot of criticism for this bill, and not just from European countries. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert commented, “The history of the Holocaust is painful and complex. 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.”  She added, “We believe open debate, scholarship and education are the best means of countering inaccurate and hurtful speech,” encouraging Polish officials to reconsider this decision.

According to NPR, Nauert particularly noted the harm the legislation posed to Poland's relationship with Israel, whose Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, immediately categorized the bill as “baseless.”

The spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Emmanuel Nahshon, tweeted, “Israel opposes categorically the Polish Senate decision.” He went on to tweet, “Israel views with utmost gravity any attempt to challenge historical truth. No law will change the facts.”

NPR explains that Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to Holocaust victims, argues that the point is not to assign blame to all Polish people, thousands of whom are recognized by the center as Righteous Among the Nations, or “non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust,” but rather to preserve open dialogue about a painful, complicated tragedy.

Yad Vashem agreed with Polish lawmakers that the term "Polish death camps" is erroneous, but said education programs, rather than “this problematic piece of legislation,” are the proper response to such inaccuracies.

Auschwitz survivors returned to Poland on Saturday to mark the seventy-third anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland.