What is the controversy over the “Polish death camps”?
On February 6, Poland adopted a law to prosecute, and send to jail for three years, anyone who holds the nation responsible for Nazi war crimes. Several academics and countries such as the United States and Israel criticized the law, saying it was vague and could be abused. The government of the rightwing nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) has, however, said the law will “protect the truth”.
What’s the background of the law?
World War II began with the annexation of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939. An estimated six million Poles were killed. Only a few thousand among the country’s nearly three million Jews survived. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum database lists six killing centres in Poland— Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek. Around 3.5 million Jews were killed in these camps.
Many commentators, including some Holocaust survivors, have alleged that sections of the Polish population at the time collaborated in the killings. However, proponents of the new law argue that the camps only happened to have been built on Polish soil — the Polish people could not be blamed.
It is true that many Poles saved numerous lives during the War, often without regard to their own safety. Among the nationalities of occupied Europe, the largest numbers of those honoured by Israel for resisting the Nazis are Poles. And as late as in 2012, nearly seven decades after the end of the War, President Barack Obama had to apologise after making a reference to “Polish death camps” in a speech.
What does the new law say?
The new law forbids discussion on Polish involvement in Nazi war crimes. “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 3 years,” the law reads. Under the new law, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, which documents and prosecutes crimes committed during the War, can move the court to protect the nation’s reputation. The law does speak of giving concessions to academics and to artistic expressions, but is vague on what these activities may be.
Why was the law introduced?
“It is for me also essential to make sure that we as Poles, as the Polish state and the Polish nation should not be defamed and charged with complicity in the Holocaust… The historic truth is that there was no systematic institutionalised participation among Poles… Back then there was no Poland, the institutions of the Polish state were non-existent,” Polish President Andrzej Duda has said. “Whoever aided people of Jewish nationality in Poland, was under death threat, and his or her family likewise.”
This bill “protects polish interests… our dignity, the historical truth… so that we are not slandered as a state and as a nation,” he has said. But it also “takes into account the sensitivity of those for whom the issue of historical truth, the memory of the Holocaust is incredibly important”.
But why is Israel upset?
Israel says the law will curb free speech, criminalise basic historical facts, and stop any discussion regarding the role some Poles played in Nazi crimes. Activists say the new law has encouraged a rise in anti-Semitism.
How old is this debate?
Over the years, Poland has attempted to address the complex issue, including leading a massive campaign to address “misconceptions”. In 2001, a book titled Neighbours: The Destruction of the Jewish Community at Jedwabne, authored by Princeton professor Jan Gross, described a brutal massacre in the village of Jedwabne, 85 miles northeast of Warsaw, during which some 1,600 Jews were killed with the active involvement of Polish officials and the town council. On the 60th anniversary of the incident, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski apologised: “This was a particularly cruel crime. It was justified by nothing. The victims were helpless and defenceless,” he said. “For this crime, we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness….”
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