The News has been full of reports that Poland is criminalizing any mention of Poles being involved in the Nazi Holocaust during World War II.
According to Ha’aretz, “Polish Parliament’s Lower House Votes to Criminalize Mention of Polish Crimes in the Holocaust” (28 January 2018). According to the Times of Israel (27 January 2018), Yad Vashem protested that “restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people’s direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion” of the Holocaust. The same report records Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu as responding with the quip, “History cannot be re-written. The Holocaust cannot be denied.” Netanyahu later added that Israel had “no tolerance for the distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust” (The Telegraph, UK, 29 January 2018).
But all of these statements are highly misleading. The Polish legislation does nothing to stop people discussing the role of individual Poles in the Holocaust. The amendment is restricted to prohibit calling the actions of Nazi Germany in the Holocaust as actions of the “Polish State” or “Polish Nation”.
The legislation (Druk nr 806) introduces amendments to the Institute of National Remembrance Act (Instytucie Pamięci Narodowej). Article 55A(1) introduces a fine or prison sentence for anyone who
“ascribes to the Polish Nation or to the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich”.
So the amendment does not apply to those who blame individual Poles for individual acts of collaboration with the Nazis. The scale of the involvement of Poles in the Holocaust is a matter of ongoing historical debate. Polish authorities tend to emphasize the role of those who assisted Jews during the German occupation, and minimize the role of those Poles who were complicit. Others have less favourable opinions of Polish involvement in the Nazi Holocaust. Yet this debate will still be allowed under the legislation, as the legislative amendments don’t apply to this debate. In addition, there is an explicit exemption even for attributing it to the Polish Nation or State, for “artistic or academic activity” (Article 55A(3)).
What the Polish legislation does deal with is the false attribution of the German Holocaust to the Polish Nation or State. This is beyond doubt, as the Polish State did not in fact exist after the German takeover during WWII, except in exile. Poles have been understandably upset that the German death camps have been regularly, but misleadingly, referred to as “Polish death camps” – including in a 2012 speech by the US President Barack Obama. They are especially aggrieved given the fact that 6 million Poles died at the hands of the German Nazis, including 3 million Jewish Poles and 3 million non-Jewish Poles.
As recently as 29 June 2017, Israel agreed that the description “Polish death camps” was incorrect. On that date, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (of which Israel is a member) adopted a statement that the use of the terms “Polish camps” and “Polish death camps” was “historically unsupportable”.
So Israel last year agreed that the term “Polish Death Camps” contravenes the Stockholm Declaration’s requirement to tell the truth of the Holocaust and to avoid denial and distortion. But now that Poland has made the very phrase “Polish Death Camps” illegal, Israel has taken the opposite stance, interpreting the Polish legislation as itself being a “denial of the Holocaust”.
The Israeli response is, at least, a badly judged response based on poor news reporting. I have read dozens of news reports on the controversy which has arisen in the last few days. None of them quote the actual legislation at the heart of the matter. That journalistic failure has led directly to Israel’s misguided opposition to the Polish legislation.