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Yad Vashem says Polish Holocaust law amendment a step in the right direction

But MK Yair Lapid calls change a ‘bad joke,’ says Poles must completely scrap legislation and apologize to ‘those who perished’

Beginning in 1942, Jews in the Lodz ghetto of Nazi-occupied Poland were deported to death camps including Chelmno and Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Yad Vashem)
Beginning in 1942, Jews in the Lodz ghetto of Nazi-occupied Poland were deported to death camps including Chelmno and Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Yad Vashem)

The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum on Thursday called Poland’s dropping of criminal penalties for blaming Nazi crimes on the country a “positive development in the right direction,” but an Israeli lawmaker who led criticism of the legislation said the change was not nearly enough and called for the law to be scrapped altogether.

The original legislation, introduced by Poland’s conservative ruling party, had sparked a bitter dispute with Israel, which said it inhibits free speech about the Holocaust.

“We believe that the correct way to combat historical misrepresentations is by reinforcing open, free research and educational activities,” Yad Vashem said in a statement. “Yad Vashem reiterates its support for ensuring that educators and researchers are not hindered in grappling with the complex truth of Polish-Jewish relations before, during and after the Holocaust.”

The Holocaust museum had strongly condemned the law ahead of its passage, saying in January it would “blur the historical truths” of some Poles complicity with the Nazis. It did however say the term “Polish death camps,” which has particularly rankled Poles, was a “historical misrepresentation.”

Striking a sharply different note than Yad Vashem, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid called the amendment to the law a “bad joke.”

Yesh Atid MK Yair Lapid leads a party faction meeting at the Knesset on June 11, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“This law should be wiped from the Polish book of laws. They should cancel this scandalous law and ask for forgiveness from those who perished,” Lapid wrote on Twitter.

Lapid, the son of a Holocaust survivor, has been one of the most outspoken Israeli critics of the law, which he labelled an attempt to rewrite history.

In addition to Israel, the United States also strongly opposed the legislation, warning it harmed Poland’s strategic relations with Israel and the US.

One key paragraph of the law stated, “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.”

The new draft bill was presented to parliament by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and lawmakers held an emotional debate, with members of the opposition lashing out at the Law and Justice party for passing the law in the first place.

The new version removes the penal provisions and is likely to allow Poland to repair its international standing and relationship with its allies. However, Law and Justice also risks losing some support from its nationalist voters.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visits the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews during WWII, in Markowa, Poland, on Februay 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

One nationalist lawmaker, Robert Winnicki, described it as caving in to Jewish interests. He even tried to block the podium, seeking to prevent a vote that he called a “scandal,” but the vote went ahead anyway.

Morawiecki tried to put a positive spin on the whole affair, arguing that while abandoning the original law, it still had been a success because it had made Poland’s wartime history a topic of international debate.

“Our basic goal was to fight for the truth, for Poland’s good name, to present what reality looked like, the realities of World War II and we achieve this goal,” Morawiecki said.

In response to the removal of penalties, Jewish community leader Klaudia Klimek said that the result was positive; however, “as usual, this government destroyed good relations with Israel, Ukraine and the US and only after reasonable external pressure admitted its mistake and changed.”

The dispute with Israel sparked a wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric in Poland, even by members of the government and commentators in public media, as well as hate speech directed against Poles abroad.

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda (R) and Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin (L) arrive to attend the March of the Living, a yearly Holocaust remembrance march between the former death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, in Oswiecim on April 12, 2018 (Janek Skarzynski/AFP)

In April, a Polish nationalist group asked prosecutors to investigate whether Israeli President Reuven Rivlin broke the law during a visit to Poland.

The vice president of the National Movement, Krzysztof Bosak, said the request was filed after Rivlin told his Polish counterpart during commemorations at Auschwitz that Poland enabled the implementation of Germany’s genocide.

In February, Morawiecki said that, alongside Poles, Jews were also responsible for perpetrating the Holocaust.

“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,” he told Yedioth Ahronoth.

In March, the Polish attorney general’s office described the law as partly unconstitutional, saying the it was “dysfunctional,” could have “opposite results than those intended,” and could “undermine the Polish state’s authority.”

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