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Poland Holocaust law: Government U-turn on jail threat

Holocaust survivor Malkah Gorka holds a picture from her school days in Poland during a protest in front of Polish embassy in Tel Aviv on February 8, 2018The Polish law has angered many Holocaust survivors in Israel

When Poland made it a criminal offence this year to accuse it of complicity in Nazi war crimes, there was an outcry in Europe, Israel and the US.

Anyone found guilty could face up to three years in jail.

Five months later, the right-wing prime minister has moved to change the law to decriminalise the offence, describing it as a “correction”.

An amendment to the Holocaust law was quickly backed by the lower house of parliament and now moves to the Senate.

The law had been intended to “defend the good name of Poland” but from now on it would be a civil, not a criminal offence, the head of prime minister’s office, Michal Dworczyk, told public radio.

When it was signed by Polish President Andzrej Duda in February there were immediate objections, and he then referred the measures to the Constitutional Tribunal, in effect putting the law on hold.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin publicly challenged the legislation in April, telling his counterpart it was undeniable that while many Poles had fought the Nazis in World War Two, “Poland and Poles had a hand in the extermination” of Jews during the Holocaust.

While admitting that Poland was backtracking on the law, the government said it had had the necessary effect so that no-one would any more be able to use the defamatory phrase “Polish death camps” with impunity.

What the law said

Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) law states: “Whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich… shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.”

However, a person “is not committing a crime if he or she commits such an act as part of artistic or scientific activities”.

Why has Poland backtracked on Holocaust law?

The legislation was partially inspired to prevent the use of the offensive and inaccurate phrase “Polish death camps” in international media and elsewhere.

During World War Two, Poland suffered brutal occupation by the Nazi and Soviet regimes and more than five million Polish citizens, three million of them Jews, died. The Germans conceived and operated the camps in what was then Nazi-occupied Poland.

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks during debate about Holocaust bill at lower house of Parliament in Warsaw, Poland June 27, 2018Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told parliament the government had to take into account the international response to the law

The law explicitly referred to complicity in Nazi crimes by the Polish nation or state.

Poland’s Law and Justice government, while acknowledging that individual Poles took part in crimes against their Jewish neighbours, argued the legislation was correct because the Polish state had ceased to exist under Nazi and Soviet occupation.

The government was surprised, however, by the widespread outrage the law caused, especially from two key Polish allies, Israel and the US, which saw it as an attempt to deny historical truth and muzzle testimony and research into the period.

The law also provoked a brief explosion of anti-Semitic feeling on social media and elsewhere in Poland.

But it’s the harm the dispute has done to Poland’s relations with the US and Israel that has caused the government to take this step.

Warsaw has enough problems in Europe thanks to its dispute with the EU over reforms to the Polish judiciary, so it does not want to fight another front with Washington.

For Poland, the US guarantees its security against potential threats from Russia. The fact that Poland’s President Andrzej Duda did not get a chance to meet President Donald Trump during his recent visit to the US may not have helped either.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he still believed that those who said Poland was responsible for Nazi crimes deserved to be in prison. But he conceded that his government must take into account the international context.

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