Poland’s senate passed a controversial bill that would make it illegal to link the Polish people or state to the crimes of the Holocaust, ignoring Washington’s objections and outraging many Israelis who see it as an attempt to whitewash history.
The bill now has 21 days to be signed off by Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, who’s already said he supports it, to become law.
The vote on the legislation, which criminalizes speech suggesting Polish complicity in Nazi crimes against the Jews, had already caused uproar in Israel when it passed through Poland’s lower house on Friday.
A Polish envoy in Tel Aviv was reprimanded, before Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the issue with his Polish counterpart Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. The pair announced afterwards that both countries had agreed to talks to open a dialogue on the bill with the hope of reaching a common understanding.
But the senate’s vote on the bill, pushed forward without any changes, has all but erased any progress the leaders made in Israel days earlier.
Israeli lawmaker and former minister Tzipi Livni said the vote amounted to “spitting in the face of Israel twice, both as the nation of the Jewish people and also against the prime minister who announced he had reached agreements with the Poles.”
Israeli Cabinet Minister Yisrael Katz said the bill constituted “a denial of Poland’s part in the Holocaust of the Jews.”
Ahead of the vote, Israeli lawmakers debated changes to their own Holocaust speech laws that would make denying or minimizing the role of collaborators a crime. The U.S. has also called on Warsaw to drop the bill, out of concerns it impinges on free speech and could hamper academic discourse.
Poland’s right-wing government says the law is needed to safeguard the country’s reputation from historical inaccuracies — such as the description of Nazi-built concentration camps situated on Polish soil as “Polish death camps.”
“We have to send a clear signal to the world that we won't allow for Poland to continue being insulted,” deputy justice minister Patryk Jaki told reporters Thursday.
Many Polish politicians have expressed surprise at the vehement Israeli response. “We are very sad and surprised our fight for the truth, for the dignity of Poles, is perceived and interpreted in this way,” Senate speaker Stanislaw Karczweski said.
The role of Poles in Nazi atrocities on Polish soil during World War II has long been a sensitive subject. Poland, home to Europe’s largest pre-war Jewish population, was the first country invaded by Nazi Germany, which inflicted huge suffering on Jews and ethnic Poles alike. About 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population of 3.2 million were killed during the genocide, and millions of non-Jewish Poles were also killed.
While most Polish Jews were killed by the Nazis, historians say that Poles were also complicit in many Jewish deaths — whether indirectly, by informing on them, or actively killing them in events such as the pogrom in Jedwabne in 1941.
Others, though, worked to save their Jewish neighbors. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, recognizes more than 6,700 Poles — the most from any nation — as the “Righteous Among the Nations” who risked their lives to save Jewish lives. It estimates that their efforts saved up to 35,000 people, about one percent of Poland’s Jewish population at the time.
Cover image: Survivors and guests light candles at the Monument to the Victims at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, during ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day, near Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2018. (REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)