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Polish law criminalizing some Holocaust speech takes effect today

Officials have said no criminal charges will be filed until completion of constitutional court review

March 01, 2018

The Memorial on the grounds of the former German Nazi Death Camp Treblinka, in northeast Poland, lies snowcovered in February 2011. A Polish law that criminalizes accusing the Polish nation of crimes that were committed by Nazi Germany took effect on Thursday. (Alik Keplicz/The Associated Press)

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, part of a larger effort by the nationalist authorities to harness history for its larger purpose of defending the country's honour and pride.

For years Polish officials have struggled to fight phrases like "Polish death camps" that are sometimes used abroad to refer to death camps that were built and operated by Nazi Germany on occupied Polish territory during the Second World War. Some Poles fear that as the war grows more distant, new generations will mistakenly come to believe that Poles were the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

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The law, however, has sparked a dispute with Israel, where Holocaust survivors and officials fear its true aim is to repress research and debate about Poles who killed Jews during the war. 

Polish and Israeli representatives were in Jerusalem Thursday, holding a first working meeting toward resolving a standoff over the law.

There was skepticism over what the talks might achieve given that the law is already taking effect. The head of Poland's largest opposition party, Grzegorz Schetyna, said Thursday that he saw the Polish government's gesture as "not serious," and said "the trip to Israel makes no sense."

Many Poles have long complained when atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, such as the killings at the Auschwitz death camp, have been linked to the Polish nation. ( Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)

Poland's president signed the law last month but also sent it to the constitutional court for review. Polish officials have said no criminal charges will be brought until the court has made its ruling, expected in several weeks.

But prosecutors are already looking for cases where Poland is defamed over its wartime activities.

'Crimes against peace'

Critics of the law argue that it is so broad and vaguely worded that it could be abused, even in battles against the political opposition. They note a section that criminalizes falsely attributing to the Polish nation "crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes."

Already on Thursday, a prominent Jewish journalist, Konstanty Gebert, challenged prosecutors with an article in the Gazeta Wyborcza daily which he said "may constitute a crime" under the law.

A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms stands behind barbed wire fencing in the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) Nazi concentration camp just after the camp's liberation by the Soviet army in January 1945. (Associated Press)

In his piece, Gebert wrote that "many members of the Polish nation bear co-responsibility for some Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich," referring to the wartime massacres of Jews by their Polish neighbours in villages like Jedwabne in 1941.

He also wrote that "the Polish state committed a crime against peace" when it took part in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, among other examples.

Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland was among the international leaders concerned about the law's impact on free speech.

"We call upon to respect intellectual inquiry and ensure open discussion and education about the horrors of the Nazi death camps," she said on Feb. 2.

The law has also been criticized by the United States, which fears it could stifle free expression and academic research, and has warned Poland that to go through with it could hurt Poland's strategic relationships with both the U.S. and Israel.

Recognizing the concern about the law in the United States, the government dispatched its foreign ministry's undersecretary of state, Marek Magierowski, to Washington this week to meet administration officials, lawmakers and Jewish groups to try to allay their fears.

Magierowski said Wednesday that Poland would never "whitewash" its history and the fact that some Poles did commit "ignoble acts" during the Second World War. But he said the law gave the government a means to fight back when the country is accused of complicity in the Holocaust.

With files from CBC News
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