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Poland set to amend controversial Holocaust law, nixing penalties

Prime minister says legislation, which Israel fiercely objects to, may not be serving purpose of ‘defending the good name’ of the country

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)

Poland is considering amending a controversial law that calls for prison terms of up to three years for attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish state or nation, Michal Dworczyk, the head of the Polish prime minister’s executive office, said Wednesday.

According to the Bloomberg news service, Dworczyk told public radio that an amendment would seek to “move away” from penalizing those who transgress the law, as it may “divert attention from the aim of the law.”

He added that “the law’s purpose was to defend the good name of Poland.”

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. It also sets fines or a maximum three-year prison term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish.

The legislation, introduced by Poland’s conservative ruling party, has sparked a bitter dispute with Israel, which says it inhibits free speech about the Holocaust. The United States also strongly opposes the legislation, warning it harms Poland’s strategic relations with Israel and the US.

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.”

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 it was “dysfunctional,” could have “opposite results than those intended,” and could “undermine the Polish state’s authority.”

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