Despite Promise to Israel, Polish Senate Passes Bill Criminalizing Mention of Nation's Complicity in Holocaust

The legislation, which requires the approval of the president, calls for up to three years behind bars for those citing the Polish people's involvement in the Nazis' crimes

The German Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, 2015.
Matthias Schrader / AP/ מתיא

The upper house of the Polish parliament, the Senate, backed a controversial bill criminalizing allegations of the Polish nation's complicity in the Holocaust. The bill has caused a storm of opposition in Israel.

"We have to send a clear signal to the world that we won't allow for Poland to continue being insulted," Patryk Jaki, a deputy justice minister, told reporters in parliament.

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The Senate voted on the draft bill in the early hours on Thursday and it will now be sent to President Andrzej Duda for a final signature. 

Poland's PAP news agency reported 57 senators voted for the draft bill, with 23 against and two abstentions.

The Senate's approval of the bill came despite Polish assurances that a dialogue on the legislation would be held with Israel before a vote on it in the Senate. It had previously been approved by the lower house of parliament.

The legislation, which still requires the approval by Poland's president to become law, bans any claims that the Polish people or Polish state were responsible or complicit in the Nazis' crimes, crimes against humanity or war crimes. The bill also bans minimizing the responsibility of "the real perpetrators" for these crimes.

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In explanatory notes accompanying the bill, it was noted that it aims to fight expressions such as "Polish extermination camps," which purportedly attribute guilt for the Nazis' crimes to the Poles -- rather than reference Nazi concentration camps in Poland. The bill calls for an imprisonment of up to three years for violations of the legislation.

The lower house of parliament passed the bill last Friday. Media reports of the lower house's passage of the bill created political, public and media storm in Israel. Israelis officials took several steps in response, including a telephone call between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki. The Polish deputy ambassador in Israel was summoned to the Israeli Foreign Ministry for clarifications, and Israel's ambassador in Warsaw had contacts on the matter with the Polish president's office.

The contacts resulted in the two countries agreeing to set up a joint taskforce to discuss the matter, but even before the sides began their work, the Polish Senate approved the bill. The last stage of the Polish legislative process is its approval by Polish President Andrzej Duda, who has the power to request changes to the legislation or even veto it. In recent comments, however, Duda has expressed support for the legislation, which he said corrects a historic wrong and defends Poland's reputation.

The legislation carves out an exception for "artistic and scientific" activity. The Polish Foreign Ministry has said that law would also not limit the freedom to conduct research or to hold historical debate. The president's chief of staff, Krzysztof said the purpose of the law was "preventing lies and baseless accusations directed at the Polish people and the Polish state." For its part, the Polish Foreign Ministry said it was meant "to prevent the deliberate defamation of Poland."

Earlier the president's office attempted to calm concerns in Israel, stating: "Anyone who has a true personal memory or historical research on crimes and on improper conduct that took place in the past with the participation of Poles has the full right to verify this."

The United States asked Poland to rethink plans to enact proposed legislation, arguing Wednesday that if it passes it could hurt freedom of speech as well as strategic relationships.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Neather Nauert voiced her government's concerns, saying that the U.S. understands that phrases like "Polish death camps" are "inaccurate, misleading, and hurtful" but voiced concern the legislation could "undermine free speech and academic discourse."

"We are also concerned about the repercussions this draft legislation, if enacted, could have on Poland's strategic interests and relationships — including with the United States and Israel. The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies benefit only our rivals," Nauert said.

"We encourage Poland to reevaluate the legislation in light of its potential impact on the principle of free speech and on our ability to be effective partners."

Nauert's statement came only days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Warsaw, where he paid respects to Jewish and Polish victims of the war on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Earlier Wednesday, a U.S. congressional task force on combatting anti-Semitism said it was "alarmed" by the legislation and called on Polish President Andrzej Duda to veto it.

"We are deeply concerned that this legislation could have a chilling effect on dialogue, scholarship, and accountability in Poland about the Holocaust, should this legislation become law," the bipartisan group said.

The lower house of the Polish parliament approved the bill on Friday, a day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, timing that has also been criticized as insensitive.

Reuters contributed to this report.