Poland Senate passes controversial Holocaust bill

US, Israel denounce Polish draft law that seeks to criminalise acts blaming Poles for complicity in Nazi war crimes.

    There have been calls for Israel to recall its ambassador to Poland to protest the bill's passage [File: AP]
    There have been calls for Israel to recall its ambassador to Poland to protest the bill's passage [File: AP]

    Poland's Senate has approved a contentious bill that criminalises acts blaming Poland or its citizens for complicity in Nazi war crimes, drawing strong rebuke from its allies and Jewish organisations.

    The legislation, which seeks to punish individuals who publicly describes Nazi Germany concentration camps as "Polish death camps", passed overwhelmingly early on Thursday, and is now awaiting the signature of President Andrzej Duda.

    Poland's state news agency PAP reported that 57 senators voted for the bill, while 23 voted against with two abstentions.

    If signed into law, the legislation sets fines or a maximum three years imprisonment for anyone found guilty of violating it. 

    In a statement following the approval of the bill, the US State Department called on Poland "to re-evaluate the legislation", warning of "divisions" that could affect Warsaw's "strategic interests and relationships".

    "The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies benefit only our rivals," Heather Nauert, State Department spokesman, said in a statement.

    The Polish Foreign Ministry responded with its own statement, saying that while there are differences in opinion on the draft legislation, "the current legislative work under way in Poland to develop legal solutions that would protect historical truth will not affect Poland’s strategic partnership with the Unites States."

    Poland is an ally of the US and Israel, both of which warned against the passage of the bill.

    On Thursday, Yisrael Katz, Israel's intelligence minister, urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to recall Israel's ambassador to Poland to protest the passage of the bill.

    Katz said the bill's passage "constitutes a denial of responsibility and of Poland's role in the Jewish Holocaust", he was quoted by Haaretz newspaper as saying.

    In the run-up to the passage of the bill, Netanyahu had warned that Israel has "no tolerance for the distortion of the truth, and rewriting history or denying the Holocaust".

    Israel's parliament members are also reportedly considering retaliatory measures, making the denial of the Holocaust, or of those who aided the Nazis as punishable by a jail term.

    Polish politicians have defended the bill, and on Monday, President Duda was quoted as saying that Warsaw "absolutely can't back down, we have the right to defend the historical truth".

    A total of 57 senators voted for the bill, while 23 voted against with two abstentions [File: Reuters]

    'Polish complicity'

    According to historical evidence, there were over one million people, the majority of them Polish Jews, who died in the Nazi Germany controlled Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, located south of modern-day Poland. Millions more Polish Jews and other non-Jewish Polish civilians were murdered across the country.

    Polish politicians who are supporting the bill have insisted that Germany should be blamed solely for the Holocaust.  

    The Holocaust Memorial Museum in the US, however, said many Polish citizens "were complicit in the crimes against Jews", even as it acknowledged that thousands of Poles also risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbours. 

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    The Washington, DC-based museum said some Polish agencies, including the police force and railroad personnel, played a role in the deportation and sending of Jews to the death camps.

    In one incident in July 1941, the museum also reported that Polish residents in Jedwabne, "participated in the murder of hundreds of their Jewish neighbours".

    "The law would chill a free and open dialogue addressing Poland’s history during the Holocaust, including in Polish schools and universities as well as in the media," the museum said in a statement.

    The US State Department statement also touched on the dispute, saying 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," it said. 

    "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."

    The office of Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had earlier said it was forming a team "to continue historical dialogue" with Israel.

    Morawiecki also said Netanyahu had agreed during a phone call "that the 'Polish death camps' phrase was harmful and inappropriate".

    Meanwhile, Radio Poland reported that Israeli diplomats and officials "were well familiar with the Polish government's proposal and that their initial remarks were taken into account".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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