Washington warns Holocaust bill could hurt relations with Poland

State Dept. spokeswoman urges Warsaw to ‘reevaluate’ legislation that may spark ‘divisions among our allies’

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, August 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, August 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration urged Poland on Wednesday to reconsider a controversial bill that prescribes a prison sentence for anyone who refers to “Polish death camps” and forbids mention of Poland’s complicity in Nazi crimes, warning that its passage would impair Poland’s ties with the United States and Israel.

“We encourage Poland to reevaluate the legislation in light of its potential impact on the principle of free speech and on our ability to be effective partners,” State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

Just before International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Poland’s nationalist-controlled Parliament introduced the draft bill that criminalizes blaming the Polish nation or state for Nazi atrocities committed on Polish soil during the Holocaust.

The Polish Senate was debating the measure on Wednesday.

“The history of the Holocaust is painful and complex,” Nauert said. “We understand that phrases such as ‘Polish death camps’ are inaccurate, misleading, and hurtful.”

And yet, she went on to say the draft legislation would impinge on the Polish people’s speech rights, while hurting the government’s relations with the US and strengthening the two nations’ common foes.

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

“If enacted this draft legislation could undermine free speech and academic discourse,” she said. “We all must be careful not to inhibit discussion and commentary on the Holocaust. We believe open debate, scholarship, and education are the best means of countering inaccurate and hurtful speech.”

“We are also concerned,” she continued, “about the repercussions this draft legislation, if enacted, could have on Poland’s strategic interests and relationships – including with the United States and Israel. The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies benefit only our rivals.”

Poles were among those imprisoned, tortured and killed in the camps, and many today feel that 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.

A May 1944 ‘selection’ of Hungarian Jews on the ramp at Birkenau, where one-million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust (Wikimedia Commons)

There were many cases of Poles killing Jews or denouncing them to the Germans, however, with deadly anti-Semitic pogroms continuing during and in one case even after World War II.

The Israeli government has in the past supported the campaign against the phrase “Polish death camps,” though it has strongly criticized the new legislation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was a “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.”

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