A Controversial Bill Would Criminalize Claims that Poland Was Complicit in the Holocaust

February 1, 2018
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

Barbed wire fences are pictured at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018. AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Update: On Feb. 6, 2018, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed into law a controversial bill that criminalizes language that suggests Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement that the United States was “disappointed” by the decision, adding that “Enactment of this law adversely affects freedom of speech and academic inquiry.”

On Thursday, the Polish senate voted to pass legislation that would make it illegal to claim that Poland was “responsible or co-responsible” for Nazi crimes committed while the country was brutally occupied by the Third Reich during World War II.

If Polish president Andrzej Duda signs the bill, a penalty of up to three years in jail could be imposed on Polish and foreign citizens who make claims of Poland’s complicity in the Holocaust, with an exception for statements made in the course of “artistic or academic activity.”

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party said the measure was intended to protect Poland’s reputation and clarify its history.

“It is a duty of every Pole to defend the good name of Poland. Just as the Jews, we were victims,” former Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said prior to the vote. President Duda, who now has 21 days to sign the measure, has acknowledged “wicked” deeds by individual Poles during the Holocaust, but said this week, “it was not the Polish nation, it was not an organized action.”

Poland’s government did not formally surrender to the Third Reich or partner with the Nazis, and has long objected to terms like “Polish death camps” that imply the state’s participation in Nazi activities.

Israel has strongly condemned the bill, and in a statement this week the U.S. State Department warned that its passage “could undermine free speech and academic discourse.”

While it was occupied by the Third Reich, Poland was the site of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and other Nazi-run concentration camps, in which millions of Jews were killed during the Holocaust. While many Poles actively resisted the Germans and were themselves killed, the 1996 FRONTLINE film, Shtetl, unearthed accounts that others provided Nazis with assistance in identifying and apprehending Jews, and at times killed them themselves.

The film’s Polish and Jewish director, Marian Marzynski, was taken in by Polish Christians and survived the Holocaust. But he says that 90 percent of his family did not. In Shtetl, he returned to his home country to explore this deeply painful chapter in Poland’s history — searching for the lives and memories of an entire Jewish community lost in the Holocaust.

The debate underpinning today’s bill, and Poland’s struggle to grapple with elements of its past and its identity, is not new: When Shtetl aired, it sparked controversy, angering segments of the Polish and Polish-American community, which argued that the accounts it contained would harm Polish-Jewish relations, and who said the film ignored many cases of Polish heroism against Nazis.

Watch Shtetl in full below:

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