Poland Backtracks on Controversial Holocaust Law, Scrapping Threat of Prison

Polish prime minister says government will reopen discussions on law, which would criminalize accusing Polish nation of complicity in Nazi crimes

File photo: Visitors pass the main gate reading 'Arbeit Macht Frei' at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.
Bloomberg

Six months after its approval in parliament, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced on Wednesday his intention to backtrack the controversial Holocaust law, which criminalized anybody accusing the Polish nation of complicity in Nazi crimes. 

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Morawiecki asked the parliament to reopen discussions on the law following months of discussions between Israel and Poland. He said that he hopes that the changes to the Holocaust Law will result in improved relations with Israel.

His office stated that the government feels the law did not achieve its goal of "defending the good name of Poland": Morawiecki wants the law amended, so as not to impose criminal responsibility and a prison sentence on violators.

The prime minister's office also stated that the Institute of National Remembrance would continue to fight for the "historic truth" using the "civilian" tools at its disposal.

Poland's lower house of Parliament voted on Wednesday to remove jail penalties after holding  an emotional debate on Wednesday morning, with members of the opposition lashing out at the Law and Justice party for ever passing the law. Morawiecki told them in a session that was televised to the nation that the purpose of both the original and the amended legislation is the same, "the fight for the truth of the Second World War and post-war times."

"Those who say that Poland may be responsible for the crimes of World War Two deserve jail terms" Morawiecki told parliament. "But we operate in an international context and we take that into account."

In its current form, the law makes it a criminal offense to accuse the Polish people or Polish state of being responsible or a partner to the Nazi crimes and outlaws the use of the term "Polish death camps" in reference to death camps that Nazi Germany established in Poland during World War II. It also makes it an offense to blatantly minimize "the responsibility of the real perpetrators of the crimes."

"We're not backtracking from the most important provisions of the bill on National Remebrance Institute; to us, the truth about history is still essential, we want to speak about truth," said Senate Speaker Stanisaw Karczewski. "At the moment, we're operating under different circumstances. The reality has taken us by surprise. We must admit that because none of us had foreseen such consequences. We must take all the circumstances into account." 

The latest development comes after months of contact on the matter between the governments of Israel and Poland.

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World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder hailed the move, but urged further examination of the "inherently flawed" legistlation. "The law as it stands now stifles any real discussion of the extent to which local Poles were complicit in the annihilation of their Jewish neighbors during the German occupation. It sets a dangerous precedent and is contrary to the values Poland has worked to uphold and promote," Lauder said in a statement.

The Polish parliament's approval of the law created a crisis in Poland's relations with Israel and the Jewish community worldwide. Opponents of the legislation, including Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance authority and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, have claimed that the law promotes Holocaust denial and limits debate on the part that some Poles played in the Holocaust.

The International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists on Tuesday called on Poland's constitutional court to strike down the law. Polish President Andrzej Duda had already referred it to the court for its review, effectively suspending its implementation prior to a court ruling.

In a friend of the court brief filed with the Polish constitutional court on Tuesday, the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, which has thousands of lawyers around the world, took the position that the law severely and disproportionally restricts freedom of expression protected by international and European rights conventions which Poland is a signatory of, and is also inconsistent with the Polish constitution's protections of freedom of expression.

“The imposition of such criminal restrictions on freedom of expression not only violates constitutional and international law’s standards but also harms Poland itself and its relations with the Jewish people,” Meir Linzen, the group's president, said.

"The organization recognizes that Poles were the victims of the Nazi horror regime, after Poland ceased to exist as a state, and were under Nazi occupation since the beginning of World War II. The organization acknowledges and is grateful for the Poles who risked their lives in helping to save Jews during the Holocaust. That being said, it is impossible to ignore the fact that some Poles assisted the Nazis in their actions to exterminate the Jewish people, and there is no place to impose restrictions on freedom of expression regarding this sensitive and painful issue, which should be the subject of free and unlimited public discourse and academic research."