Polish Parliament Approves Jail Time for Using Phrase 'Polish Death Camps'

Critics say enforcing such a law would be impossible outside Poland and that within the country it would have a chilling effect on debating history

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Women are pictured in their barrack after the liberation in January 1945 of the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) concentration camp.
Women are pictured in their barrack after the liberation in January 1945 of the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) concentration camp. Credit: AFP

The lower house of the Polish parliament approved a bill Friday that prescribes prison time for defaming the Polish nation by using phrases such as "Polish death camps" to refer to the killing sites Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II.

The bill passed Friday is a response to cases in recent years of foreign media using "Polish death camps" to describe Auschwitz and other Nazi-run camps.

Many major news organizations are sensitive to the issue and ban the language, but it nonetheless crops up in foreign media and statements by public officials. Former U.S. President Barack Obama used it in 2012, prompting outrage in Poland.

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Many Poles fear such phrasing makes some people, especially younger generations, incorrectly conclude that Poles had a role in running the camps.

The legislation calls for prison sentences of up to three years. It still needs approval from Poland's Senate and president.

Critics say enforcing such a law would be impossible outside Poland and that within the country it would have a chilling effect on debating history, harming freedom of expression.

While the law contains a provision excluding scholarly or academic works, opponents still see a danger.

They especially worry it could be used to stifle research and debate on topics that are anathema to Poland's nationalistic authorities, particularly the painful issue of Poles who blackmailed Jews or denounced them to the Nazis during the war.

Dorota Glowacka, a legal adviser with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw, said the broad scope of the bill opens up the potential for abuse.

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