Polish president signs controversial Holocaust law, office says
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Polish president signs controversial Holocaust law, office says

Legislation outlaws blaming Polish nation for Nazi crimes, will be sent to constitutional court for review

Poland's President Andrzej Duda gives a press conference on February 6, 2018 in Warsaw to announces that he will sign into law a controversial Holocaust bill which has sparked tensions with Israel, the US and Ukraine (AFP PHOTO / JANEK SKARZYNSKI)
Poland's President Andrzej Duda gives a press conference on February 6, 2018 in Warsaw to announces that he will sign into law a controversial Holocaust bill which has sparked tensions with Israel, the US and Ukraine (AFP PHOTO / JANEK SKARZYNSKI)

Poland’s president on Tuesday signed controversial legislation that outlaws blaming Poland as a nation for Holocaust crimes committed by Nazi Germany, according to his press office.

President Andrzej Duda’s office confirmed he enacted the law on Tuesday, about six hours after he announced he planned to do so, over protests from Israel, the US and the Jewish world.

But Polish diplomats in Israel told The Times of Israel on Tuesday evening that the legislation had yet to be signed and declined to offer an estimate on when Duda would ratify the legislation.

Earlier on Tuesday, Duda said he would also ask Poland’s constitutional court to evaluate the bill — leaving open the possibility it would be amended.

The legislation, proposed by Poland’s conservative ruling party, has sparked a bitter dispute with Israel, which says it will inhibit free speech about the Holocaust. The United States also strongly opposes the legislation, saying it could hurt Poland’s strategic relations with Israel and the US.

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. The bill would also set fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish.

The law takes effect 14 days after it’s officially published, but it wasn’t immediately clear when that will be.

Illustrative image of students visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, April 16, 2015. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said in response to Duda’s announcement that “Israel continues to work with the authorities in Poland and expresses to them Israel’s reservations about the Polish bill.”

“Israel noted the fact that the Polish president referred the law to the Constitutional Court for clarifications on the matter, and hopes that in the period before the verdict is, it will be possible to agree on changes and amendments to the law,” it said in a statement. “Israel and Poland have a common responsibility to investigate and preserve the history of the Holocaust.”

Israeli television reported on Tuesday evening that Poland is offering to send an official delegation to Israel to hammer out agreed-upon amendments to Poland’s controversial Holocaust bill. According to Channel 10 news, Israel has not yet responded to the offer.

The delegation would include Poland’s deputy foreign minister and the legal adviser of the prime minister, the network reported.

According to Jewish community leader Klaudia Klimek, Duda has requested that the tribunal probe whether the bill contravenes freedom of speech, and also whether the language of the bill is understandable to laypeople.

“Every person has the right to understand the law,” Klimek told The Times of Israel on Tuesday afternoon. Klimek, who heads the Krakow branch of Poland’s largest Jewish cultural organization, TSKZ, said that agreeing to sign the bill, but stalling its progress with the tribunal, was Duda’s “only option.”

One 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 three years.”

Poland’s authorities have described the legislation as an attempt to protect the country’s reputation from what it believes is confusion about who bears responsibility for Auschwitz and other death camps Nazi Germany set up in occupied Poland.

In his announcement earlier on Tuesday in which he vowed to sign the law, Duda acknowledged there were doubts about the legislation’s intent, leading some observers to interpret his request for a constitutional review as a way to save face while calming the storm.

But critics say it was a diversionary tactic.

Slawomir Neumann of the centrist Civic Platform party accused Duda of giving in to the pressure of nationalists and anti-Semites and said his signing “deepens the diplomatic crisis.”

Neumann, head of the party’s parliamentary caucus, also described the constitutional court as a body without independence that will rule as the governing party wants.

Holocaust scholars and institutions have strongly denounced the law as well, arguing that its unclear wording creates the potential for abuse. Polish officials note that a provision in the law exempts historic research and works of art.

Polish officials have long argued a Holocaust speech law is needed to fight expressions like “Polish death camps” for the Nazi camps where Jews and others were exterminated.

Defending the law, Duda said it would not prohibit Holocaust survivors and witnesses from talking about crimes committed by individual Poles.

“We do not deny that there were cases of huge wickedness,” he said in a speech.

But he said the point of the law is to prevent the Polish nation as a whole from being wrongly accused of institutionalized participation in the Holocaust. He recalled that the Polish government at the time had to go into exile and Polish officials were those who struggled to inform the world that the Germans were putting Jews to death on Polish soil.

“No, there was no systemic way in which Poles took part in it,” Duda said.

Beata Mazurek, the spokeswoman for the conservative Law and Justice and a deputy parliament speaker, tweeted a quote by a Catholic priest who had said that the Israeli ambassador’s criticism of the bill “made it hard for me to look at Jews with sympathy and kindness.”

Many conservative lawmakers and commentators are now accusing Israelis and American Jews of using the issue as a pretext for getting money from Poland for prewar Jewish property seized in the communist era.

Jerzy Czerwinski, a senator with the ruling party, said on state radio Monday that he saw a “hidden agenda” in the opposition.

“After all, we know that Jewish circles, including American, but mostly the state of Israel, are trying to get restitution of property or at least compensation,” he said.

On Monday evening, a small group of far-right advocates demonstrated in front of the presidential palace demanding that Duda sign the law. They carried a banner that said, “Take off your yarmulke. Sign the bill.”

The bill first was proposed about two years ago, soon after Law and Justice took power in 2015, but hadn’t been an issue of public debate recently. Many people were surprised when lawmakers suddenly approved it on January 26, the day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Jan Grabowski, a historian at the University of Ottawa in Canada who studies Polish violence against Jews during the war, called Duda’s signing of the law “further proof that the nationalists now in power in Poland will do anything to cater to the hard, right-wing core of their electorate.”

“Unfortunately, it is not only the nationalists but also the whole Polish society which will have to pay the price,” said Grabowski, who is also a member of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw.

Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.

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