Jewish groups blast Polish Senate’s passing of Holocaust bill

ADL, B’nai B’rith International, Simon Wiesenthal Center and Orthodox Union among organizations calling on Polish president to veto legislation

Illustrative: A March of the Living delegation at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland on May 5, 2016. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Illustrative: A March of the Living delegation at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland on May 5, 2016. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Jewish groups in the US and abroad lambasted the Polish Senate’s passage of the Holocaust complicity bill Thursday, calling on President Andrzej Duda to veto the legislation in various statements.

The bill, which would criminalize those accusing the Polish nation or state of complicity in the Holocaust, has been pilloried by Israel as a form of historical distortion.

The upper house of parliament voted 57-23, with two abstentions, to approve the bill, bringing the controversial proposal a step closer to becoming law. It must still be signed into law by Duda, who has expressed support for it.

The Anti-Defamation League expressed “profound disappointment” in the vote, with CEO and National Director Jonathan Greenblatt calling it a “misguided attempt to silence certain forms of speech about the Holocaust.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO And National Director of the Anti-Defamation League testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 2, 2017, before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on responses to the increase in religious hate crimes. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“Much work remains to be done in terms of Poland’s coming to grips with its history,” he added.

Supporters argue the legislation is fighting against phrases like “Polish death camps” to refer to concentration camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II.

“We understand and sympathize with Poland’s frustration at the use of the term ‘Polish Death Camps,’ but this law goes well beyond that issue,” Greenblatt argued, saying it “could silence the voices of survivors and their families.”

B’nai B’rith International had similar objections to the bill, asserting that “it is vital that every country confront the most painful and vexing episodes in its past in an open and honest way.”

“For Poland, this means acknowledging a history of anti-Semitism that preceded the Holocaust and has persisted to this day,” the group said.

The world’s oldest Jewish service organization called on the Polish authorities to “reverse this ill-conceived law,” adding that “openness and education are the keys to establishing a historical record based on truth rather than painful inaccuracies.”

Illustrative: Family representatives at the B’nai B’rith/KKL ceremony recognizing Jewish efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust. (Yossi Zamir)

The Simon Wiesenthal Center said it acknowledged the suffering of Poles under Nazi occupation along with the efforts of locals who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

“We fully acknowledge the suffering of the Polish under a brutal Nazi occupation and the incredibly courageous efforts of Polish Righteous Among the Nations,” the anti-Semitism watchdog said. But “the Polish nation must not ignore the widespread complicity of other Poles in the annihilation of Polish Jewry.”

The group called on Duda to “take whatever steps are necessary to bury this ill-conceived bill and ensure the accuracy of the historical narrative of World War II and the Holocaust.”

Orthodox Union President Mark Bane said the legislation “is the wrong way to go about educating future generations about Poland’s role in the Holocaust.”

“Even though Nazi Germany obviously bears primary responsibility for the Shoah, the proposed law grossly minimizes the fact that Polish citizens did indeed commit heinous acts, on Polish soil, against the Jewish people and other victims during World War II,” he added.

Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Though the law specifically forbids blaming the Polish nation for Nazi crimes, it also leaves the door open to prosecute anyone who “grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes,” according to the text of the bill. Duda has 21 days to sign it into law.

Poland’s conservative ruling Law and Justice party authored the bill, which states: “Whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich… or other crimes against peace and humanity, or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the actual perpetrators thereof, shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.”

Israel, along with several international Holocaust organizations and many critics in Poland, argues that the law could have a chilling effect on debating history, harming freedom of expression and leading to a whitewashing of Poland’s wartime history.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has criticized the law as “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.”

On Wednesday, a US Congressional task force on combating anti-Semitism said it was “alarmed” by the legislation and called on Duda to veto it.

Orthodox Union President Mark Bane. (Screen capture/YouTube)

The lower house of the Polish parliament approved the bill on Friday, a day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, timing that has also been criticized as insensitive.

Duda on Sunday sought to defuse the crisis by promising “a careful analysis of the final shape of the act” focused on provisions that have alarmed Israel.

However, the next day Duda told public broadcaster TVP that he was “flabbergasted” by Israel’s “violent and very unfavorable reaction” to the bill.

“We absolutely can’t back down, we have the right to defend the historical truth,” he said.

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