Poland softens Holocaust law that sparked international fury

Poland to amend Holocaust law upending ties with Israel, US. (Bloomberg pic)

WARSAW: Poland is watering down its controversial law that criminalizes any suggestion the nation was responsible for the mass murder of Jews during World War II, five months after the legislation caused international outrage.

Lawmakers passed an amendment on Wednesday to eliminate the prospect of jail time for convicted offenders and President Andrzej Duda has already signed it into law. To “protect Poland’s honor,” it remains a crime subject to civil suits and financial penalties, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said.

“This law and a certain type of shock was needed,” Morawiecki told parliament, presenting the amendment using an accelerated procedure. Those who falsely accuse Poles of such crimes “deserve to go to jail,” but Poland now realizes it can’t impose such rules internationally, he said.

The so-called Holocaust Law added to a string of international conflicts sparked by the nationalist government’s agenda. Poland is in an escalating dispute with the European Union over the independence of its courts and opposition to taking in Muslim refugees, risking political sanctions as well as a sharp reduction in aid from the bloc.

The law had outraged Israel, which saw it as an “attempt to challenge the historical truth” and muzzle elderly Jews who survived the Shoah from sharing their stories. The US State Department said the rules were a threat to free speech and may weaken “Poland’s strategic interests and relations.”

On Wednesday, Morawiecki and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held simultaneous press conferences in Warsaw and Jerusalem, signing a joint statement that hailed the cooperation between the two countries, condemned anti-Semitism, “anti-Polonism” — or hostility toward Polish people — and other negative national stereotypes.

“It’s obvious that the Holocaust was an unprecedented crime committed by Nazi Germany against the Jewish nation, including all Poles of Jewish origin,” the two prime ministers said in their joint statement. “We’ve always agreed that the term ‘Polish concentration death camps’ is blatantly erroneous and diminishes the responsibility of Germany for establishing those camps.”

Poles say they’re unfairly held complicit in German Nazi war crimes during a period when their country was occupied and an estimated 2.7 million non-Jewish civilians were killed, including a large number of resistance fighters.

Jewish ‘Perpetrators’
Morawiecki, who fanned the controversy by listing Jews among the “perpetrators” of Nazi-era crimes alongside Germans, Ukrainians, Russians and Poles, said in February that the outcry over the rules showed a global bias against Poland.

The law “triggered the biggest crisis for Poland’s reputation this century,” opposition lawmaker Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz told parliament. She said the amendment was a small step in the right direction, but too late. “Why did so much need to be destroyed in our relations with Jews, with Israel, with the U.S.? Why did you have to ruin the atmosphere around Poland and open the sewers of anti-Semitism,” she said.

When the president signed the original law in February, far-right groups gathered outside the Presidential Palace in Warsaw in support of the legislation. Citing the law, a fringe nationalist group asked prosecutors to investigate if Israeli President Reuven Rivlin broke the law during a speech in Poland.

‘Right Direction’
While Morawiecki said on Wednesday that Poles passed the trials and tribulations of World War II “with flying colours,” a declassified US intelligence report published by Holocaust researchers at the Simon Weisenthal Center this year paints a different picture.

The 33-page document from 1946 describes widespread anti-Semitism in Poland after liberation from the Nazi occupation. It states that some Jews, fearing for their lives, sought refuge in camps for displaced people in the U.S. zone in Germany rather than staying. Only 380,000 of Poland’s 3 million Jews — Europe’s largest pre-war Jewish community — survived the Holocaust, according to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial

Yad Vashem, which also has commemorated 6,700 Poles for rescuing Jews, the largest number of “Righteous Gentiles” in any country, said on Wednesday the amendment “is a positive development in the right direction.”