MARKOWA, Poland — Poland’s prime minister on Friday said that finding a way out of a diplomatic row with Israel and the US triggered by Warsaw’s controversial Holocaust bill was a “do or die moment” for him.
The controversial bill which Polish leaders say is intended to safeguard Poland’s image abroad sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish or accuses the Polish nation or state of complicity in the Third Reich’s crimes.
Like Israel, the US, the EU and Ukraine have also slammed the legislation, warning it could limit Holocaust research and serve to deny the involvement of individual Poles in Nazi Germany’s extermination of Jews.
“This is a temporary weakening of relations with Israel and the USA but I hope that soon they will improve as we will explain our position,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a group of foreign journalists.
“As a prime minister this a do or die moment. We will be explaining. It’s an important moment,” said the leader of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government who took office after a cabinet reshuffle in December.
Morawiecki and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu have agreed to set up working groups to focus on Holocaust history in a bid to resolve the dispute.
Israel and Jewish groups across the globe are also concerned the bill could open the door to Holocaust survivors being prosecuted for their testimony should it concern the involvement of Poles in war crimes.
Morawiecki has ruled out any such possibility and insisted on Friday that the “law will not limit research at all.”
To take effect, the controversial bill still needs to be approved by President Andrzej Duda, who said earlier this week that Poland “absolutely can’t back down, we have the right to defend the historical truth.”
Morawiecki invited the foreign press along on Friday as he paid tribute to Poles who lost their lives helping Jews during World War II.
Poland opened a museum in 2016 on the exact spot in the southeastern village of Markowa where Nazis executed a young family for sheltering Jews.
The Ulma family were killed by German soldiers on March 24, 1944.
Jozef Ulma, his seven-month pregnant wife Wiktoria and their six young children were all executed, as were the eight Jews they had been harbouring. Saving Jews carried the death penalty in Nazi-occupied Poland.
More than 6,700 Poles — outnumbering any other nationality — have been honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem Institute, a title given to non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
Earlier Friday Israel’s embassy in Warsaw denounced what it said was a “wave of anti-Semitic statements” sweeping across Poland, many of them directed at the Israeli ambassador.
“In the last few days we could not help but notice a wave of anti-Semitic statements, reaching the Embassy through all channels of communication. Many of them targeted Ambassador Anna Azari personally,” the embassy said in a statement on its website.
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. The director of the state-run television station TVP 2, Marcin Wolski, said Monday on air that the Nazi death camps should be called Jewish. “Who managed the crematoria there?” he asked — a reference to the fact that death camp prisoners, usually Jews, were forced to help dispose of gas chamber victims.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party says the law is meant to fight expressions like “Polish death camps” to refer to the wartime camps that Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland, but its provisions are wider, criminalizing talk of Polish complicity in the Holocaust.
A key paragraph of the bill 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 3 years.”
Israel has pilloried the legislation as “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.”
“Everybody knows that many, many thousands of Poles killed or betrayed their Jewish neighbors to the Germans, causing them to be murdered,” said Efraim Zuroff, a prominent historian on the Holocaust and the Eastern Europe director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, on Sunday. “The Polish state was not complicit in the Holocaust, but many Poles were.”
Poles were among those imprisoned, tortured and killed in the camps, and many today feel Poles are being unfairly depicted as perpetrators of the Holocaust. Germany occupied Poland in 1939, annexing part of it to Germany and directly governing the rest.
Unlike other countries occupied by Germany at the time, there was no collaborationist government in Poland. The prewar Polish government and military fled into exile, except for an underground resistance army that fought the Nazis inside the country. However, there were many cases of Poles killing Jews or denouncing them to the Germans, with deadly anti-Semitic pogroms continuing during and in one case even after World War II.