World

Poland PM tries to defend Holocaust speech law

Poland's controversial legislation regulating Holocaust speech could have been timed and presented better, the prime minister acknowledged Friday, but he insisted that the law is needed to defend historical truth.

Mateusz Morawiecki admits timing of law was 'unfortunate,' tours Holocaust exhibit on Friday

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks during a visit to the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II in Markowa on Friday, telling foreign correspondents the controversial law is needed in order to avoid any suggestion Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. (Pawel Supernak/EPA-EFE)

Poland's controversial legislation regulating Holocaust speech could have been timed and presented better, the prime minister acknowledged Friday, but he insisted that the law is needed to defend historical truth.

Mateusz Morawiecki spoke on Friday to foreign correspondents at a museum that memorializes Polish Christians who risked their lives to help Jews during the German occupation of Poland during the Second World War.

Poland is involved in a bitter diplomatic spat with Israel over the legislation, which would outlaw publicly and falsely attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish nation. The penalty for violations is up to three years in prison.

Morawieck defended the law, calling it necessary to protect historical truth and prevent the Polish people as a whole from being blamed for the murder of Jews during the Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1945.

"All the atrocities and all the victims, everything that happened during the Second World War on Polish soil, has to be attributed to Germany," Morawiecki said. "We will never be accused of complicity in the Holocaust. This is our 'to be or not to be."'

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

He insisted the law — which has been passed by parliament and awaits the president's signature — would not impinge on freedom of speech, as feared by some. Israel, the most vocal critic, fears the legislation will be used to whitewash the involvement of some Poles in killing Jews during the occupation.

"This law is not going to limit speech, not even one iota," Morawiecki said.

He did, however, say that Poland should have better explained its intentions to the world and acknowledged the timing was "unfortunate."

Bill making it illegal to accuse Polish people of complicity now headed to president to sign 1:13

The lower house of parliament approved the legislation on Jan. 26, the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Senate gave its approval on Thursday. President Andrzej Duda now has three weeks to sign or veto it; he has so far indicated that he supports the law.

Canada, U.S. condemn law

The legislation has also been criticized by Canada and the U.S., who worry about its potential adverse impact on freedom of speech.

"We call upon [Poland] to respect intellectual inquiry and ensure open discussion and education about the horrors of the Nazi death camps," Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland said in a tweet on Friday.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement earlier this week the legislation could affect "our ability to be effective partners [with Poland]."

"We all must be careful not to inhibit discussion and commentary on the Holocaust," State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in the statement.

Morawiecki toured the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in Markowa after first paying his respects outside the building at memorials to Poles who helped Jews and Jewish Holocaust victims.

He then sat down with reporters to explain his feelings about the law.

Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, has documented 6,706 Polish "Righteous Among the Nations" — gentiles who gave shelter to Jews without profit motive. That number represents only those cases that could be documented, and historians believe there were many cases that never came to light, including cases of helpers and Jews discovered and killed.

The German forces imposed the death penalty not only on any person caught helping, but their entire families. Similar laws were in place elsewhere in occupied Europe, but they were imposed more brutally in Poland.

The museum, which opened in 2016, stands near the place where German soldiers in 1944 killed Jozef Ulma, his pregnant wife, Wiktoria, and their six small children, as well as eight members of the Goldman, Gruenfeld and Didner families that the Ulmas were sheltering.

Mateusz Szpytma, deputy director of the museum, said it is estimated that between 700 and 1,100 Poles were killed by the Germans for helping Jews during the war.

With files from CBC News