Polish law criminalizing some Holocaust speech takes effect

Published March 1, 2018, 7:35 PM

by Francine Ciasico

By Associated Press

WARSAW, Poland — A Polish law that makes it a crime to accuse the Polish nation of crimes that were committed by Nazi Germany took effect on Thursday, part of a wider effort by the nationalist authorities to harness history to defend the country’s honor and pride.

For years Polish officials have struggled to fight phrases like “Polish death camps” that are sometimes used abroad to refer to Auschwitz and other death camps that Nazi Germany built and operated on occupied Polish territory during World War II.

FILE - This Friday, Feb. 18, 2011 file photo, shows the Memorial on the grounds of the former German Nazi Death Camp Treblinka, near the village of Treblinka, northeast Poland. A Polish law that criminalizes accusing the Polish nation of crimes that were committed by Nazi Germany has taken effect, Thursday March 1, 2019. The law has sparked a crisis with Israel, where officials fear its true aim is to repress research on Poles who killed Jews during World War II, something Polish officials deny. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz, File)
FILE – This Friday, Feb. 18, 2011 file photo, shows the Memorial on the grounds of the former German Nazi Death Camp Treblinka, near the village of Treblinka, northeast Poland. A Polish law that criminalizes accusing the Polish nation of crimes that were committed by Nazi Germany has taken effect, Thursday March 1, 2019. The law has sparked a crisis with Israel, where officials fear its true aim is to repress research on Poles who killed Jews during World War II, something Polish officials deny. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz, File)

Some Poles fear that as the war grows more distant, new generations will mistakenly come to believe that Poles were the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

The law, however, has sparked a crisis with Israel, where Holocaust survivors and officials fear its true aim is to repress research and debate about Poles who killed Jews during the war.

Polish and Israeli representatives were in Jerusalem Thursday, holding a first working meeting toward resolving a standoff over the law.

But there was skepticism over what the talks might achieve given that the law is already taking effect. The head of Poland’s largest opposition party, Grzegorz Schetyna, said Thursday that he saw the Polish government’s gesture as “not serious,” and said “the trip to Israel makes no sense.”

The law has also created tensions with Ukraine due to a provision that criminalizes denying the crimes of Ukrainian nationalists, who killed up to about 100,000 Poles in wartime massacres.

Poland’s president signed the law last month but also sent it to the constitutional court for review. Polish officials have said no criminal charges will be brought until the court has made its ruling, expected in several weeks.

But prosecutors are already looking for cases where Poland is defamed over its wartime activities.

The law has also been criticized by the United States, which fears it could stifle free expression and academic research, and has warned Poland that to go through with it could hurt Poland’s strategic relationships with both the U.S. and Israel.

Recognizing the concern about the law in the United States, the government dispatched its foreign ministry’s undersecretary of state, Marek Magierowski, to Washington this week to meet administration officials, lawmakers and Jewish groups to try to allay their fears.

Magierowski said Wednesday Poland would never “whitewash” its history and the fact that some Poles did commit “ignoble acts” during World War II. But, he said the law gave the government a means to fight back when the country is accused of complicity in the Holocaust.

Previous attempts to push back, such as protesting use of the phrase “Polish death camps,” had been unsuccessful, he said, and the new law is a necessary “legal tool to allow us to fend off the narrative of Polish complicity.”

 
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