Yad Vashem: Poland Holocaust law risks ‘serious distortion’ of Polish complicity

World Holocaust Remembrance Center says Nazis set up the camps, but new Polish legislation may ‘blur historical truths’ on the help Germans received from Poles in Holocaust

This photo from October 19, 2012 shows the gate of the former Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
This photo from October 19, 2012 shows the gate of the former Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Amid escalating tensions between Israel and Poland over a new bill passed in the lower house of Poland’s parliament, which would outlaw blaming the Polish nation for crimes of the Holocaust, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem, said that “while the term ‘Polish death camps’ is a historical misrepresentation,” the center opposes the legislation.

The new bill calls for up to three years in prison, or a fine for individuals or organizations using phrases such as “Polish death camps” to refer to the killing sites Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during the war. While the bill is partly a response to cases in recent years of foreign media using “Polish death camps” to describe Auschwitz and other Nazi-run camps, its provisions extend far beyond use of that phrase. It would apply to Poles and foreigners, including Holocaust survivors.

Yad Vashem said in a statement that it “opposes the new legislation passed by the Polish parliament, which is liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust.”

“There is no doubt that the term ‘Polish death camps’ is a historical misrepresentation! The extermination camps were set up in Nazi-occupied Poland in order to murder the Jewish people within the framework of the ‘Final Solution,'” it noted.

“However, restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people’s direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion,” Yad Vashem said, adding that it will continue to support research “aimed at exposing the complex truth regarding the attitude of the Polish population towards the Jews during the Holocaust.”

Earlier Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the Israeli ambassador in Poland to hold an urgent meeting with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to express the prime minister’s “strong opposition” to the bill. Poland’s deputy ambassador in Israel was summoned to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sunday.

“History cannot be re-written,” said Netanyahu in a statement. “The Holocaust cannot be denied.”

Also Saturday, Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid engaged in a heated exchange on Twitter with the Polish embassy in Israel over the bill, which he characterized as an effort to rewrite history.

“I strongly condemn the new law that was passed in Poland, which attempts to deny the involvement of many Polish citizens in the Holocaust,” Lapid wrote in a tweet in Hebrew on Saturday.

“No Polish law will change history, Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered on its soil without them having met any German officer.”

Poland’s embassy in Israel hit back at Lapid, tweeting that his “unsupportable claims show how badly Holocaust education is needed, even here in Israel.” The intent of the Polish legislation, it said, “is not to ‘whitewash’ the past, but to protect the truth against such slander.”

To which Lapid retorted with outrage and a demand for an apology: “I am a son of a Holocaust survivor. My grandmother was murdered in Poland by Germans and Poles. I don’t need Holocaust education from you. We live with the consequences every day in our collective memory. Your embassy should offer an immediate apology.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on the Polish government to amend the bill before it moves forward. The legislation still needs approval from Poland’s Senate and president.

“No law can change the historical truth,” the ministry said in a statement earlier, as a host of Israeli politicians voiced their opposition to the bill.

In a speech before the lower house of Parliament on Friday, Poland’s deputy justice minister Patryk Jaki said, “Non-governmental organizations indicate that every other day the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ is used around the world. In other words, German Nazi crimes are attributed to Poles.”

“And so far the Polish state has not been able to effectively fight these types of insults to the Polish nation,” he added, supporting the bill.

Critics say enforcing the law would be impossible outside Poland, and that within the country it would have a chilling effect on debating history, harming freedom of expression.

While the law contains a provision excluding scholarly or academic works, opponents still see a danger.

They especially worry it could be used to stifle research and debate on topics that are anathema to Poland’s nationalistic authorities, particularly the painful issue of Poles who blackmailed Jews or denounced them to the Nazis during the war.

Dorota Glowacka, a legal adviser with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw, said the broad scope of the bill opens up the potential for abuse.

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