Poland amends controversial Holocaust law, nixing penalties

World Jewish Congress says criminalization was an ‘egregious mistake,’ calls for further examination of ‘inherently flawed’ legislation

A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Auschwitz death camp, photographed just after the liberation by the Soviet army, in January 1945.  (AP Photo/ File)
A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Auschwitz death camp, photographed just after the liberation by the Soviet army, in January 1945. (AP Photo/ File)

Polish lawmakers passed changes to a controversial Holocaust speech law on Wednesday, removing criminal provisions for attributing Nazi crimes to Poland.

The amendments passed 388 to 25, with five abstentions, following an emotional session in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament.

The original legislation, introduced by Poland’s conservative ruling party, had sparked a bitter dispute with Israel, which said it inhibits free speech about the Holocaust. The United States also strongly opposed the legislation, warning it harmed Poland’s strategic relations with Israel and the US.

One key paragraph of the law stated, “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.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki arrives on the first day of a summit of European Union (EU) leaders at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on March 22, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ludovic MARIN)

The new draft bill was presented to parliament by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and lawmakers held an emotional debate, with members of the opposition lashing out at the Law and Justice party for ever passing the law in the first place.

Stefan Niesiolowski of Civic Platform called the original law “idiocy,” while Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, of the Modern party, asked why it had taken the ruling party half a year to reverse course on a move that had harmed Poland’s most important international relationships.

“Why so late? Why did so much have to be broken?” she said to lawmakers.

The new version removes the penal provisions and is likely to allow Poland to repair its international standing and relationship with its allies. However, Law and Justice also risks losing some support from its nationalist voters.

One nationalist lawmaker, Robert Winnicki, described it as caving in to Jewish interests. He even tried to block the podium, seeking to prevent a vote that he called a “scandal,” but the vote went ahead anyway.

Morawiecki tried to put a positive spin on the whole affair, arguing that while abandoning the original law, it still had been a success because it had made Poland’s wartime history a topic of international debate.

“Our basic goal was to fight for the truth, for Poland’s good name, to present what reality looked like, the realities of World War II and we achieve this goal,” Morawiecki said.

World Jewish Congress leader Ronald S. Lauder welcomed the move, saying the criminalization was “an egregious mistake” and calling for further examination of the “inherently flawed” law.

“Poles are understandably upset when Nazi German annihilation and concentration camps are referred to as ‘Polish’ simply due to their location on German-occupied Polish soil, but it was an egregious mistake to criminalize those who do so, within the framework of a law that in its essence threatens Poland’s good name and international standing,” Lauder said in a statement.

In response to the removal of penalties, Jewish community leader Klaudia Klimek said that the result was positive; however, “as usual, this government destroyed good relations with Israel, Ukraine, and the US and only after reasonable external pressure admitted its mistake and changed.”

The dispute with Israel sparked a wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric in Poland, even by members of the government and commentators in public media, as well as hate speech directed against Poles abroad.

In April, a Polish nationalist group asked prosecutors to investigate whether Israeli President Reuven Rivlin broke the law during a visit to Poland.

President Reuven Rivlin, center, and Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, left, participate in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau site in Poland, as Israel marks the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, on April 12, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/ Flash90)

The vice president of the National Movement, Krzysztof Bosak, said the request was filed after Rivlin told his Polish counterpart during commemorations at Auschwitz that Poland enabled the implementation of Germany’s genocide.

Rivlin told Polish President Andrjez Duda that, while some Poles helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust, others took part in their extermination, and that Poland as a country played a role.

“There is no doubt that there were many Poles who fought the Nazi regime, but we cannot deny that Poland and Poles had a hand in the extermination,” Rivlin said in Krakow.

“The country of Poland allowed the implementation of the horrific genocidal ideology of Hitler, and witnessed the wave of anti-Semitism sparked by the law you passed now,” the president added, challenging the legislation.

In February, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that, alongside Poles, Jews were also responsible for perpetrating the Holocaust.

“Of course, it’s not going to be punishable, [it’s] not going to be seen as criminal to say that there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as there were Ukrainian; not only German perpetrators,” he told Yedioth Ahronoth.

In March, the Polish attorney general’s office described the law as partly unconstitutional, saying the it was “dysfunctional,” could have “opposite results than those intended,” and could “undermine the Polish state’s authority.”

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