World Jewish Congress praises Polish decision to amend Holocaust law

Polish lawmakers passed changes to a disputed Holocaust speech law on Wednesday, removing criminal provisions for attributing Nazi crimes to Poles.

Opposition member calls the original law 'idiocy' in contentious session in parliament

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, talks with a lawmaker during a parliament debate on changes to the controversial Holocaust law in Warsaw on Wednesday. (Alik Keplicz/Associated Press)

Polish lawmakers passed changes to a disputed Holocaust speech law on Wednesday, removing criminal provisions for attributing Nazi crimes to Poles.

The amendments passed 388-25 with five abstentions following an emotional session in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament.

Poland's senate approved the changes a few hours later. The changes must still be approved by President Andrzej Duda, who is expected to do so.

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, welcomed the decision.

Lauder said the organization was "pleased that the Polish government has recognized the untenable nature of its new Holocaust law."

Lauder said, "Poles are understandably upset when Nazi German annihilation and concentration camps are referred to as 'Polish' simply due to their location on German-occupied Polish soil, but it was an egregious mistake to criminalize those who do so."

The original version of the law, which was passed early this year, called for prison terms of up to three years for falsely accusing the Polish nation of Holocaust crimes that were committed by Nazi Germany. The ruling Law and Justice party said it needed a tool to fight back against foreign media sometimes calling Auschwitz and other German death camps "Polish death camps" because they were operated on occupied Polish territory.

But the law sparked a major diplomatic crisis with Israel, where many felt it was an attempt to whitewash episodes of Polish violence against Jews during the Second World War. The United States warned it threatened academic freedom and that it would harm Poland's "strategic position."

Poland's Holocaust legislation faces fierce backlash

5 years ago
Duration 3:19
Poland's recently introduced legislation to minimize the country's role in the Holocaust is facing fierce backlash in Israel, where the Polish embassy was spraypainted with two swastikas. The graffiti is likely a response to a law that was passed in Poland earlier in February saying it's illegal to say that Poland bore responsibility for the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during the second World War. Critics say it's an attempt to silence people and rewrite Poland's place in history

The new draft bill was presented to parliament by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and lawmakers held an emotional debate, with members of the opposition lashing out at the Law and Justice party for ever passing the law in the first place.

Nationalist politician causes a scene

Stefan Niesiolowski of Civic Platform called the original law "idiocy" while Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, of the Modern party, asked why it took the ruling party half a year to reverse course on a move that had harmed Poland's most important international relationships.

"Why so late? Why did so much have to be broken?" she said to lawmakers.

The new version removes the penal provisions and is likely to allow Poland to repair its international standing and relationship with its allies. However, Law and Justice also risks losing some support from its nationalist voters.

One nationalist lawmaker, Robert Winnicki, described it as caving in to Jewish interests. He even tried to block the podium, seeking to prevent a vote that he called a "scandal," but the vote went ahead anyway.

Photo dated Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, shows Israeli youths with their national flags, marching by the monument to some 900,000 European Jews killed by the Nazis between 1941 and 1944 at the Treblinka death and labor camp, at Treblinka memorial, Poland. (Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press)

Morawiecki tried to put a positive spin on the whole affair, arguing that while abandoning the original law, it still had been a success because it had made Poland's wartime history a topic of international debate.

"Our basic goal was to fight for the truth, for Poland's good name, to present what reality looked like, the realities of World War II and we achieved this goal," Morawiecki said.

"A publisher in the United States or in Germany will think twice before publishing today an article using the expression 'Polish SS", 'Polish gestapo' or 'Polish concentration camps' if he risks a lawsuit and a fine of 100 million euro or dollars," Morawiecki added.

Many Poles fear that as the war becomes more distant there is confusion about who bears responsibility for Auschwitz and other death camps Nazi Germany set up in occupied Poland during the war. The conservative authorities said the original law was modelled on anti-defamation laws in many other countries, including laws criminalizing Holocaust denial.

However, Holocaust survivors and other Jews in Israel and the United States feared that it would stifle discussion about the Holocaust and enable Poland to whitewash the role of the Poles who killed or denounced Jews during the German wartime occupation of Poland.

Historian Jan Grabowski says Poland wants to sanitize its history, but that there are uncomfortable truths about its role in the Holocaust.

The dispute with Israel sparked a wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric in Poland, even by members of the government and commentators in public media, as well as hate speech directed against Poles abroad.

The law was also sent to the constitutional Tribunal for review by the president, who said he had some doubts about it. It was never enforced in practice.

With files from Reuters