A Polish law that makes it a crime to accuse the Polish nation of Nazi-era atrocities took effect on Thursday, as officials from Warsaw arrived in Jerusalem for meetings with the Israeli Foreign Ministry on the controversial legislation.
As currently written, the legislation calls for prison terms of up to three years for attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish state or nation. The bill would also set fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish.
The legislation, proposed by Poland’s conservative ruling party, has sparked a bitter dispute with Israel, which says it will inhibit free speech about the Holocaust. The United States also strongly opposes the legislation, warning it could hurt Poland’s strategic relations with Israel and the US.
For years Polish officials have struggled to eliminate phrases like “Polish death camps” that are sometimes used abroad to refer to death camps that were built and operated by Nazi Germany on occupied Polish territory during World War II. Some Poles fear that as the war grows more distant, new generations will mistakenly come to believe that Poles were the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
One key paragraph of the law states, “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich… or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.”
Jewish groups, Holocaust survivors and Israeli officials fear its true aim is to repress research on Poles who killed Jews during World War II. The law and subsequent backlash have unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism in Poland.
As the law took effect Thursday, Polish and Israeli representatives were in Jerusalem holding a first working meeting toward resolving a standoff over the law.
The law has also created tensions with Ukraine due to a provision that criminalizes denying the wartime crimes of Ukrainian nationalists, who killed up to about 100,000 Poles in wartime massacres.
Poland’s president signed the law last month but also sent it to the constitutional court for review. Polish officials have said no criminal charges will be brought until the court has made its ruling, expected in several weeks.
But prosecutors are already looking for cases where Poland is defamed over its wartime activities.
Recognizing the concern about the law in the United States, Poland dispatched its foreign ministry’s undersecretary of state, Mark Magierowski, to Washington this week to meet administration officials, lawmakers and Jewish groups to try to allay their fears.
Magierowski said Wednesday that the government had been surprised by the outcry over the legislation and allowed that Warsaw had not properly “prepared the groundwork” for explaining the law’s intent and impact. At the same time, he said, media reports and comments from foreign politicians had “brutally misinterpreted” the law and its intent, hence the necessity of his visit.
Magierowski said Poland would never “whitewash” its history and the fact that some Poles did commit “ignoble acts” during World War II. But, he said the law gave the government a means to fight back when the country is accused of complicity in the Holocaust. Previous attempts to push back, such as protesting use of the phrase “Polish death camps,” had been unsuccessful, he said.
“Those efforts had been fruitless,” he said, adding that the new law is a necessary “legal tool to allow us to fend off the narrative of Polish complicity.”
Since the law was signed, Poland’s foreign minister told a Polish newspaper that there had been cases in which Jews denounced to the Nazis the Poles who were hiding them and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has suggested Jews perpetrated the Holocaust, too.