Polish president vows to sign controversial Holocaust legislation

Andrzej Duda says the bill will face judicial review to determine whether it infringes on free speech, is comprehensible to laypeople

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Polish President Andrzej Duda at the presidential palace, Warsaw, April 10, 2016. (Mateusz Wlodarczyk/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images/JTA)
Polish President Andrzej Duda at the presidential palace, Warsaw, April 10, 2016. (Mateusz Wlodarczyk/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images/JTA)

Polish President Andrzej Duda announced on Tuesday he will sign controversial legislation penalizing certain statements about the Holocaust. Unusually, however, he said the bill would be reviewed by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal.

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.

The bill prescribes penalties for those who blame Poles as a nation for crimes committed by Nazi Germany during World War II. It needs Duda’s signature to become law, and he has spoken in its favor.

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.”

According to Jewish community leader Klaudia Klimek, Duda has requested that the tribunal probe whether it 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, minutes after the announcement. 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.”

The infamous German inscription that reads ‘Work Makes Free’ at the main gate of the Auschwitz I extermination camp in Oswiecim, Poland, on November 15, 2014. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images via JTA)

“The ruling party couldn’t withdraw the bill under the pressure of foreign countries — Israel and the US — and signing the bill would bring a diplomatic catastrophe,” she said.

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

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.”

On Monday, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told Israeli reporters that it was too late to amend the bill and sought to explain its rationale.

“I know the Jewish people and acknowledge that there were Polish criminals who murdered Jews during the Holocaust,” he said. “But they were not the majority, and Poland definitely isn’t responsible for the murder of millions of Jews. We are victims of the Holocaust too, and saying that death camps or concentration camps were ‘Polish’ is a crime.

Morawiecki told the journalists that his aunt is Jewish and lives in the central Israeli city of Herzliya, and that he himself had sent his children to a Jewish school, the Makor Rishon news site reported.

“This may sound provocative, but I think you couldn’t have survived on this land without the help of a Polish family,” he continued. “If 150,000 Jews survived World War II, most of them, if not all, survived thanks to the Polish population. My aunt lives in Herzliya, and she perfectly understands this narrative.”

The lower house of parliament approved the legislation on January 26, the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the Senate gave its approval on Thursday.

Klimek, who as a leader of the TSKZ represents Poland’s 6,000-strong active Jewish community, said the bill is “stupid” and should never have been submitted — let alone the day before International Holocaust Memorial Day.

In fact, she said, it has achieved exactly the opposite of what it aimed to achieve. In the past week, she said, the term “Polish death camps,” which it seeks to outlaw, has exploded on Twitter and other social media outlets.

Klaudia Klimek heads up the Warsaw wing of Poland’s largest Jewish cultural organization, the TSKZ. (courtesy)

“I do understand that the Polish government and ruling party would like to take care of the country’s image, but it should be done through education, not legislation,” said Klimek.

Poland on Monday canceled an upcoming visit by Education Minister Naftali Bennett after he said he would use the trip to tell Poles “the truth” about their complicity in the Holocaust, a Polish government spokesperson said.

“The government of Poland canceled my visit, because I mentioned the crimes of its people. I am honored,” Bennett said in a statement, arguing that in calling off the trip, the Polish government had chosen “to avoid the truth.”

“The blood of Polish Jews cries from the ground, and no law will silence it,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denounced the bill as a “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.”

Amid the row over the bill, Israel’s embassy in Warsaw on Friday condemned a “wave of anti-Semitic statements,” many of which it said were directed at Israeli Ambassador Anna Azari.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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