Referring to Auschwitz as 'Polish Extermination Camp' May Soon Be a Crime in Poland

Legislation is a new milestone in the Polish government's recent campaign against anyone who speaks or writes about the role of Poles in persecuting the Jews in the Holocaust or about collaboration with the Nazis.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Main gate of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, in Poland, which was liberated by the Russians, in January 1945.
Main gate of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, in Poland, which was liberated by the Russians, in January 1945.Credit: AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The Polish cabinet gave its support to a bill on Tuesday that would authorize a three-year prison sentence to anyone who claims that Poland collaborated with Nazi Germany. The controversial legislation is expected to generate major opposition within Poland and abroad, but it is also expected to pass easily in the Polish parliament, where the governing right-wing nationalist Law and Justice party has a majority.

The bill provides that anyone claiming that the Polish people or state were responsible for the crimes of the Nazis or collaborated with them or with other crimes against humanity or war crimes would be subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to three years.

Anyone minimizing the role of those “truly responsible” for these crimes, meaning Nazi Germany in this case, would be subject to identical punishment.

The punishment would apply equally to Polish citizens and foreign nationals and would include anyone who violated the law unintentionally, meaning without intending to harm Poland’s reputation. The legislation would also apply to anyone who deliberately or mistakenly refers to the Auschwitz extermination camp, which Nazi Germany built on occupied Polish soil, as a “Polish camp.”

The agency that would conduct investigations of suspected violations of the law and begin criminal proceedings would be the Institute of National Remembrance, a government entity known for its conservative views regarding Poland’s role in the Holocaust. If the law had been in effect in 2012, theoretically even U.S. President Barack Obama would have run afoul of it when he made public reference to a “Polish” extermination camp. The United States later apologized.

Former Auschwitz concentration camp pictured through a fence, January 27, 2014.Credit: Reuters

Inspired by Israel’s efforts to fight Holocaust denial

On Tuesday, at a press conference convened by the Polish justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, the minister said in this regard that “there is no perfect law free of difficulty in being applied, but if we do nothing, we will march in place.” Poland, he said, could learn from Israel about how to respond to those who try to rewrite the history of the Holocaust. When asked how Poland could go after violators of the law in other countries, he said: “If Israel had thought that it would be difficult to look for violators in another country, then it wouldn’t have gone after Holocaust deniers, but it does do so and it bears fruit.”

The legislation is a new milestone in the campaign that the Polish government has been waging in recent months against anyone who speaks or writes about the role of Poles in persecuting the Jews in the Holocaust or about collaboration with the Nazis. The bill follows other steps taken by the Polish government in recent months to glorify the role of Poles in fighting Nazi Germany and minimize their role in the persecution of the Jews.

Illustrative: Holocaust survivors walk with others through the main gate of former Auschwitz Nazi death camp Jan. 27, 2016. Credit: AP

So, for example, several months ago, Poland summoned the Polish-American historian Jan Tomasz Gross for questioning. Gross has spoken about the role of Poles in the genocide of the Jews. It is not clear if there is any intention to put Gross on trial. Although the new law would not be retroactive, he is likely to be one of the proposed legislation’s first victims.

Fifteen years ago, Gross wrote a book, “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” in which he revealed the massacre that Poles had committed on their Jewish neighbors in the village in 1941. In the current prevailing mood, however, historical facts of this nature find no place in Poland. Just last month, Polish Education Minister Anna Zalewska denied that Poles had participated in two pogroms in which Jews were slaughtered by their Polish neighbors after the end of World War II — in Jedwabne and in Kielce, where about 40 Jews were murdered in 1946.

New museum for Polish heroism

In addition, this year, Poland open a lavish museum in the town of Markowa in memory of Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust, including some who have not been recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance authority, although they have been recognized by the Polish government. But it is the museum at the memorial site at Auschwitz that is at the forefront of the battle for Poland’s reputation.

The media staff devote much of their time to tracking down any media reports around the world relating to the subject and requesting that a clarification be published following any reference to “Polish” death camps or even death camps “in Poland.” The museum states that the reference should be to “occupied Poland” and that the camps are to be referred to either as German or Nazi.

Speaking to Haaretz last month on the subject, Poland’s ambassador to Israel, Jacek Chodorowicz, said the steps being taken by the Polish government are prompted by concern over the rewriting of history around the world, transforming Poland from a victim of the Nazis to a collaborator. There is deep knowledge in Israel, he said, about World War II, but there is also a danger that future generations using terms such as Polish death camps will mistakenly interpret what happened, something that Poland is determined to prevent. Such an error, the ambassador added, blurs the truth about the horrors of the Holocaust by diverting blame from Germany to Poland and obscuring the distinction between victim and perpetrator. No one, he added, should be allowed, even without malicious intent, to distort Holocaust history.

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