Poland's Holocaust Law: First Lawsuit Filed Using Contentious Legislation

The suit argues that an Argentine newspaper manipulated its readers and harmed the Polish nation by publishing a photograph with an article about a pogrom

Flowers are placed at the memorial to Janusz Korczak who died in the gas chamber of the Treblinka Nazi German death camp in 1942 together with the children of the Jewish orphanage that he ran in the Warsaw Ghetto, at the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, March 1, 2018. A Polish law that makes it a crime to accuse the Polish nation of crimes that were committed by Nazi Germany took effect on Thursday. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Just one day after Poland’s controversial new Holocaust law took effect, a Polish organization filed the first lawsuit invoking it.

The Polish League Against Defamation, an independent organization considered close to Poland’s right-wing, nationalist government, filed suit in Warsaw on Friday against the Argentine paper Pagina 12, accusing it of damaging Poland’s reputation.

The paper had published an article about the 1941 pogrom committed by Poles against their Jewish neighbors in the town of Jedwabne, an incident that has become a symbol of Polish collaboration with Nazi crimes. The lawsuit focused specifically on the photo accompanying the article, which doesn’t illustrate the pogrom itself but shows a group of Polish partisans who fought the country’s communist regime in the 1950s.

The suit argues that by linking the pogrom, which took place when Poland was under Nazi occupation, with Polish “freedom fighters” who fought the communist occupation that began once World War II ended, the paper was being “manipulative” and “harming the Polish nation and the reputation of Polish soldiers.” Moreover, it charged, the paper was seeking persuade its readers that Poland is anti-Semitic.

The paper’s choice of photograph demonstrated “great historical ignorance, for which it ought to apologize to all Poles,” the suit adds.

However, since the article was published in December, before the law took effect, it’s not clear whether the suit will be admissible.

The new law makes it a crime to claim the Polish nation was involved in the crimes of the Nazis, war crimes or crimes against humanity, “in defiance of the truth.” The sentence for violators ranges from a fine to three years in jail. Poland deems the law applicable to everyone, even people who aren’t Polish citizens.

The law, which officially took effect on March 1, was approved by the Polish parliament last month and then signed by President Andrzej Duda. But the Polish Justice Ministry said it wouldn’t enforce the legislation until it has been reviewed by Poland’s constitutional court. No date for the court hearing has been set yet.

Israel has been harshly critical of the law, and Polish and Israeli representatives met at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on Thursday in an effort to find a solution that would satisfy both countries. Israel argues that the law distorts history and will undermine academic research and freedom of expression. But Thursday’s three-hour meeting did not produce an agreement, and the parties plan to meet again.

Meanwhile, a Polish parliamentary committee which is examining the possibility of demanding reparations from Germany announced this weekend that Berlin owes it $850 billion for damages incurred during World War II.

“We are talking about very large but justified sums for war crimes, for the destroyed cities, the lost demographic potential of our country,” said Arkadiusz Mularczyk, a member of parliament from the ruling Law and Justice party, on Friday. He chairs the parliamentary committee established in September to estimate the amount of reparations Poland should seek if it chooses to do so.

Germany flatly refuses to pay reparations, saying this issue was settled back in the 1950s with Poland’s communist government of the time. But Poland rejects this argument, saying the communist regime’s decisions don’t bind the governments that came after it, because they were not made freely, but under pressure from the Soviet Union.