New Polish law rids Poland of responsibility from Nazi war crimes

Polish President Andrzej Duda (Courtesy of President of the Republic Poland)WARSAW – Accusations of revisionist history rang in from around the world last week after Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a bill into law that would make attributing Nazi war crimes to Poland an offense punishable by up to three years in prison.

But many Polish citizens believe it's due time that the world adjust its rhetoric: They say no one should be allowed to refer to Nazi extermination camps housed in Poland during the nation's occupation by Germany during World War II as "Polish death camps," a term they feel muddies historical fact and tarnishes the nation's reputation.

"The phrase needs special regulations with criminal sanctions," said Mariusz Przadak, 38, a bar owner in Warsaw. "This law is in line with the ruling party's politics, but also pleases most Poles who want to hear what a great, wise and noble nation we were and still are."

Poland's ruling rightwing Law and Justice Party vowed to create special regulations over speech that associates Poland with the horrors of the Holocaust when it most recently came to power in 2015. But it had delayed such a move until parliament approved a bill on the matter Jan. 26 – on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The international backlash that followed was swift, not least from Israel, which argued that the legislation glosses over Poles' role in the Holocaust, as well as the deep roots of anti-Semitism that still run through this largely homogenous, Catholic nation today.

But here in Poland, the move was greeted warmly by many who believe phrases like "Polish death camps" mislead people into thinking that Poles ran such notorious sites like Auschwitz-Birkenau, where an estimated 1.1 million individuals perished during the war more than seven decades ago.

"In my opinion, the regulation should have been made 30 years ago," said Tomasz Jarosz, 44, the owner of a private IT firm in Warsaw. "It defends historical truth."

Still, despite the backing of the government, a recent poll indicated 32 percent of Poles hold negative opinions of the legislation, as compared to 40 percent who support it.

That’s because the nuanced debate surrounding the legislation is rooted in historical trauma, said Pawel Machcewicz, a professor of political history at the Institute for Political Studies in Warsaw.

"History matters a lot in Poland, and the Second World War was the most painful and tragic period for the Poles," he said. "Almost every family suffered from Nazi, Soviet or Ukrainian terror. So this is still a very vivid memory that's been passed down through generations."

After Jews, ethnic Poles were the Nazi's largest group of victims during the war, with Poland's Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) estimating that some 2.7 million were murdered by the Nazis as they expanded Germany's easternmost borders. The IPN also estimates that almost 3 million ethnically Polish Jews were killed during occupation.

Still, over the past two decades, Machcewicz said that information has resurfaced that's forced Poles to reevaluate their collective belief that they were purely victims of the war.

Beginning in the year 2000, the public began having difficult conversations about Poland's role in the Holocaust after an expose was published about the mass murder of Jews in the town of Jedwabne in 1941, in which some 40 townspeople, together with Nazi forces, locked the town's Jewish population in a barn and set it ablaze, murdering 340 people.

"But soon it was discovered that there were many places like this," said Machcewicz. "It was confronting the most painful and, to a great extent, unexpected issues of our history."

The Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw estimates that as many as 200,000 Jews died at the hands of Poles, or because Poles outed them as Jewish to the Nazis, during the war.

Those revelations about such sensitive issues of Polish history triggered a defensive shift toward glorifying positive elements of Polish history, said Machcewicz – and opened the door for politicians to use it for their own benefit.

"This current situation in Poland, this sensitivity, is on the one hand something genuine, something grassroots, resulting from this very sensitive, emotional background," he said. "But on the other hand, it has been exploited and promoted politically by the Law and Justice Party."

The party has said that the law is meant to defend Polish history against slander, but many think the party – accused as recently as last summer of eroding democratic institutions such as the nation's judiciary – will use the new legislation to silence dissenters and gloss over history.

"I regard penalizing people who talk about Polish camps as harmful – not for Poland on the international stage, but for an honest dialog about historical interpretation in Poland," said Franciszek Plociennik, 29, who works at a museum in Warsaw. "I am afraid of other steps that may affect historical education by modifying history in order to glorify the Poles."

Members of the Law and Justice Party have already said that the law could be extended to such works as the expose about the pogrom in Jedwabne, said Machcewicz, a clear indication that this debate is no longer just about the phrase "Polish death camps."

"This isn't about the so-called "Polish death camps," he said. "This is much more broadly against this historical and public reflection which discusses these very painful parts of Polish history about how Poles dealt with the Jews during the war."

Supporters of the legislation don't deny those intentions.

"The amendment is a very important movement in the fight for preserving Poland's good reputation," said Lukasz Rynkowski, 30, of Warsaw. "What will decide if it works is whether they apply other, soft measures....Time will tell if this happens."

Davis reported from Berlin.

An alternative version of this story can be found here.

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