A controversial new law that bans mentions of Polish complicity in the Holocaust will not lead to criminal charges, a top government official said Wednesday.
The recently adopted law has sparked a bitter conflict with Israel, where it is seen as trying to whitewash the actions of some Poles during World War II. It takes effect Feb. 28. In reaction to criticism, it is to be reviewed by Poland’s constitutional court, which can order changes.
Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki said late Tuesday that no criminal charges will be brought against offenders, but Poland might demand the retraction of untrue statements. The government says the law is intended to defend Poland’s good name and fight slander.
In the event of false accusations, Poland will “react, demand clarifications, argue against them, but no means of prosecution will be implemented,” Cichocki said on TVN24.
The law allows prison terms of up to three years for blaming the Polish nation for Holocaust crimes.
Cichocki heads Poland’s team for discussing legal and historic issues with Israeli representatives. The Polish and Israeli prime ministers decided to hold the discussions in response to the controversies stemming from Poland’s law. The two sides have not yet met.
The bill is partly a response to cases in recent years of foreign media using the term “Polish death camps” to describe Auschwitz and other Nazi-run camps. It also makes it illegal to “deliberately reduce the responsibility of the ‘true culprits’ of these crimes,” in reference to the murder of around 100,000 Poles by units in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during World War II.
The law marks a dramatic step by the country’s current nationalist government to target anyone who tries to undermine its official stance that Poles were only heroes during the war, not Nazi collaborators who committed heinous crimes.
“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,” a translation of a key paragraph of the bill reads.
Outrage in Israel
The legislation sparked outrage in Israel, with some lawmakers accusing the Polish government of outright Holocaust denial as the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day in late January.
The dispute has elicited bitter recriminations on both sides. Some Israelis have accused the mostly Catholic Poles of being driven by anti-Semitism and of trying to deny the Holocaust. Poles believe that they are being defamed by being linked to German crimes of which they were one of the largest group of victims.
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 pilloried the law as “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history, and the denial of the Holocaust.”
Last week, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki added fuel to the fire when he told an Israeli reporter that alongside Poles and Germans, that Jews also perpetrated the Holocaust.
“There were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as there were Ukrainian; not only German perpetrators,” Morawiecki said at the Munich Security Conference, sparking further Israeli anger.
Netanyahu slammed his remarks, calling them “outrageous,” and accused the Polish government was misrepresenting history.
Days after Morawiecki’s remarks, the Polish embassy in Tel Aviv was vandalized with Swastikas and anti-Polish graffiti. Police have opened an investigation into the incident, but have yet to capture the perpetrators.
On Sunday, Polish Foreign Minister weighed in on the growing diplomatic dispute, saying that some Jews denounced to the Nazis the Poles who were hiding them, noting the “complicated ethical dilemmas” both peoples faced during the war.
Amid the dispute some Polish commentators, including in government-controlled media, have made strong anti-Jewish remarks.
In one instance, the head of a state-run channel suggested referring to Auschwitz as a “Jewish death camp,” in response to an outcry over use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the Nazi killing site in German-occupied Poland.