TV report: Poland freezes Holocaust law, is sending team to Israel to reword it

Justice minister in Warsaw reportedly says controversial legislation won’t be implemented at this stage; Israel hails diplomatic achievement

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

Poland will not implement its controversial new Holocaust law for the time being, and an official Polish government delegation will fly to Israel in the next few days to try to agree on a mutually acceptable amended version of the legislation, an Israeli television report said Saturday night.

Hadashot news said that, in the wake of pressure and protests from Israel over the legislation, Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro had stated that the law will not be implemented “at this stage.”

Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro (YouTube screen capture)

It said a Polish delegation was due in Israel within days to instead try to hammer out an agreed text of the legislation, which has passed Poland’s parliament and been signed by its president but not implemented to date.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem called the moves “an achievement” for Israel following considerable discussion of the law between Warsaw and Jerusalem in recent weeks.

Yuval Rotem, director-general of the Foreign Ministry, October 13, 2016. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Poland’s president on February 6 signed the controversial legislation, that outlaws blaming Poland as a nation for Holocaust crimes committed by Nazi Germany.

President Andrzej Duda’s office confirmed he had signed over protests from Israel, the US, and the Jewish world. But Duda also 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.

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

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.

“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,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement at the time it was signed. “Israel and Poland have a common responsibility to investigate and preserve the history of the Holocaust.”

There have been reports for days that Poland was offering to send an official delegation to Israel to hammer out agreed-upon amendments to the law. The delegation could reportedly include Poland’s deputy foreign minister and the legal adviser of the prime minister.

Last Saturday, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki exacerbated the crisis over the law by declaring that, alongside Poles, “Jewish perpetrators” also bore responsibility for the Holocaust.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki gives a speech during the Munich Security Conference on February 17, 2018, in Munich, southern Germany. (AFP PHOTO / Thomas KIENZLE)

Addressing the Munich Security Conference, Morawiecki was rejecting criticism of the new law when he was asked by an Israeli journalist if sharing his family’s history of persecution in Poland would be outlawed under the new legislation. “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,” Morawiecki told Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ronen Bergman.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Morawiecki the next day, and told Morawiecki that Israel did not accept the statement. “I told him there’s no basis for this comparison, between the act of Poles and the acts of Jews during the Holocaust,” Netanyahu told Israeli reporters following a speech at the Munich Security Conference.

Responding to calls for Israel to recall its ambassador in Poland to Israel, the prime minister said the government was trying to resolve the issue without taking such a dramatic measure, but “all options are on the table.”

On Tuesday, Poland’s foreign minister told a Polish newspaper that there had been cases in which Jews denounced to the Nazis the Poles who were hiding them. Polish-Jewish relations during World War ll were complex, Jacek Czaputowicz told Dziennik Gazeta Prawna. “There were traitors among Poles and [there were] former heroes,” he said. “There were also cases, however, that Jews caught by the Germans denounced the Poles who were hiding them. The situation was extremely complicated.”

On Wednesday, Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki had said that no criminal charges would be brought against offenders, but Poland might demand the retraction of untrue statements. In the event of false accusations, Poland will “react, demand clarifications, argue against them, but no means of prosecution will be implemented,” Cichocki said on TVN24.

According to Poland’s Jewish community leader Klaudia Klimek, Duda requested that the constitutional court 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 earlier this month. 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.

Duda has 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.

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 among those who fought 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.

The law first was proposed about two years ago, soon after Law and Justice took power in 2015, but had not been an issue of public debate until 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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