World Jewish Congress slams Polish Holocaust bill’s ‘historical obfuscation’

While saying Poles ‘understandably sensitive’ about term ‘Polish death camps,’ WJC CEO says legislation amounts to a ‘whitewash’ of history

The railway track leading to the infamous ‘Death Gate’ at the Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination camp on November 13, 2014, in Oswiecim, Poland. (JTA/Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images/File)
The railway track leading to the infamous ‘Death Gate’ at the Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination camp on November 13, 2014, in Oswiecim, Poland. (JTA/Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images/File)

The World Jewish Congress on Sunday sharply criticized a Polish bill that would make it illegal to blame the Polish nation for crimes carried out during the Holocaust, calling the draft legislation “an act of historical obfuscation and an attack on democracy.”

The bill, which also outlaws the term “Polish death camps,” has been roundly condemned by Israeli leaders and Jewish groups since it was approved by the Polish parliament Friday.

The measure, intended to apply to both Poles and foreigners, must still pass the Senate before being signed by the president.

In a statement, the CEO and executive vice president of the WJC said that, while Poles are “understandably sensitive” about Nazi extermination and concentration camps in occupied Poland being called Polish, “it is a serious mistake for Poland to seek to criminalize those who do not adhere to this practice.”

“Having spent decades in the field of education, I deeply believe that this must be changed through a campaign of education, not criminalization,” said Robert Singer. “Poland’s new law is especially objectionable as it stifles any real confrontation with the most chilling aspect of the country’s wartime history — the extent to which local Poles were complicit in the destruction of their Jewish neighbors.”

World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer delivers a speech at the memorial event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the 1941 Nazi mass murder of Kiev’s Jews in the Babi Yar ravine on September 27, 2016. (Shahar Azran / WJC)

Singer also said the bill’s effect of outlawing scholarly works on Poles who collaborated with the Nazis would amount to a “whitewash” of history.

“Outstanding Polish scholars have made very clear in their meticulously researched writings that this was hardly an isolated phenomenon. Declaring that such literature is defamatory and that those who have produced it are engaged in criminal activity amounts to a whitewash of the historical record and must be thoroughly rejected,” he said, adding that “the passage of this law can only be seen as an act of historical obfuscation and an attack on democracy.”

Amid the blowback over the bill, Polish President Andrzej Duda promised Sunday he would review the legislation.

Israel’s Ambassador to Poland Anna Azari told the Polish PAP news agency that Israel believes the article outlawing blaming Poles for crimes of the Holocaust could open the door to Holocaust survivors being prosecuted for their testimony, should it concern the involvement of Poles in war crimes.

She said that, while Israel’s government rejects the legislation, it also “understands” who built death camps like Auschwitz and that it was “not the Poles.”

Duda appeared to address the concerns expressed by Azari saying that “everyone whose personal memory or historical research speaks the truth about the crimes and shameful behavior that occurred in the past with the participation of Poles has full right to this truth.”

A top Duda aide was set to meet with Azari on Monday in Warsaw, after Israel summoned the Polish deputy ambassador to express concerns over the legislation on Sunday.

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda speaks during commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of a massacre of Jews in Kielce, Poland, Monday, July 4, 2016 (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Poland was attacked and occupied by Nazi Germany in World War II, losing six million of its citizens, including three million Jews in the Holocaust.

Polish officials routinely request corrections when global media or politicians describe as “Polish” the former death camps such as Auschwitz set up by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said he expected Poland to amend proposed legislation that would outlaw the blaming of Poles for crimes committed during the Holocaust, as the Foreign Ministry summoned a Polish envoy to express its displeasure.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 28, 2018. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

Netanyahu said at his weekly cabinet meeting Sunday that Israel has “no tolerance for the distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.”

In a statement Saturday, Netanyahu called the Polish bill “baseless” and said “history cannot be rewritten.”

“The Holocaust cannot be denied,” he wrote.

Also on Sunday, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told Army Radio that other nations, particularity the Americans, had expressed their opposition to Warsaw over the bill as well.

Polish officials claim the law aims not to “whitewash,” but rather “to safeguard” history.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki pushed back against the Israeli anger over the bill, saying that the name Auschwitz and the phrase “Arbeit macht frei,” two of the Holocaust’s most enduring symbols, were not Polish.

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