The Current

'Polish death camps': Outlawing phrase will protect Poland's good name, says minister

A proposed law wants to set the record straight and make it illegal to blame Poland for Nazi atrocities committed on its soil during the Second World War. But critics say the bill is whitewashing Holocaust history.
Poland was the site of Nazi death camps including Auschwitz-Birkenau, where approximately one million Jews were systematically killed during the Holocaust. A proposed bill hopes to stop references to 'Polish death camp,' because they were run by Nazi Germany. (Reuters)

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A controversial proposed law in Poland — passed by the country's parliament last week, but awaiting approval from the senate and president — would outlaw statements blaming the Polish state for Nazi atrocities committed in Poland during the Second World War.

Poland was the site of Nazi death camps including Auschwitz-Birkenau, where approximately one million Jews were systematically murdered during the Holocaust. The bill specifies that it would be illegal to refer to these as "Polish death camps," since they were run by Nazi Germany.

"We are introducing a set of new, better, legal instruments which will help us to pursue historical truth and to protect Poland's good name anywhere in the world where it is slandered, shown in a false light, or when Polish history is distorted," Poland's justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro said last week.

But the proposed law quickly drew criticism, with some saying it will muzzle discussion of the country's past — and whitewash history.

Poland's Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro says the proposed law will 'pursue historical truth' and protect Poland's reputation 'anywhere in the world where it is slandered.' (Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski via Reuters)
These attempts to legislate what can and cannot be said is actually destroying the good name of Poland.- Barbara  Kirshenblatt-Gimblett ,  POLIN  Museum

"We will under no circumstances accept any attempt to rewrite history,"said Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "We will accept no limitation on truthful historical research."

Poland's ambassador to Canada Andrzej Kurnicki says the bill does not seek to rewrite the past, but instead make sure the past is reflected accurately.

"We protect the collective memory of the Polish citizens and Jewish citizens related to the Holocaust," Kurnicki tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Poland did not run the death camps, he says, and that is why the term "Polish death camps" is "unacceptable." He says the government is right to criminalize this term, for the same reasons that it's illegal to deny the Holocaust in Poland.

This new penalty will be used in the same way, he said.

He points out that the law would provide exemptions for academic researchers and artists.

Poland's ambassador to Canada Andrzej Kurnicki says the bill is not intended to to rewrite the past but rather make sure history is reflected accurately. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has concerns about what the law will do to discussions about Polish history.

She is a chief curator at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is built on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto.

"Criminalization of speech is not the best way to address the issue of historical truth," she tells Tremonti. "Open debate and education are much more effective."

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said the Law and Justice Party, currently in power in Poland, is promoting a policy of the "triumphalism of innocence" when it comes to the country's history, in order to celebrate the Polish nation. But she says this proposed law will not help create a good image of Poland abroad.

"These attempts to legislate what can and cannot be said is actually destroying the good name of Poland," she says.

Polish journalist Anna Bikont says that when people use the term "Polish death camp," it's generally understood that they mean a death camp in Poland — not one run by the country. But she says there's an underlying reason that this term has become a flashpoint.

"It's... to provoke the reaction that we are the victims, we are the poor Poles and all the world told about us that we were the persecutor — and we were the hero," she tells Tremonti.

She says the bill has prompted a wave of anti-semitism in Poland, including in media forums.

Bikont is the author of The Crime and the Silence, a book about the 1941 massacre of Jews by their Christian neighbours in the town of Jedwabne.

In 2001, a book by Polish-American academic Jan Gross revealed that the massacre was in fact carried out by Poles, and not German Nazis as had previously been thought. The book launched a big discussion in Poland, and Bikont says she was proud of her country for confronting its past when it came to its own treatment of Jewish people.

But she says there has now been a backlash, and that the right-wing Law and Justice Party's stance on this is part of the reason for their popularity.

"A big part of it, of the popularity, was about history, about this history, that it was too difficult for people," she says. "They wanted a party who told, you know, the Poles were perfect, we are only heroes, we never did anything wrong."

Rewriting history in Poland, May 7, 2017 | Click to play audio
Rewriting history in Poland. Alexa Dvorson in Warsaw on the irony of a media clampdown in the country whose vibrant press once fuelled the biggest freedom movement in Eastern Europe. 4:01

Ambassador Andrzej Kurnicki said the Polish people did not collaborate with Nazis against Jewish people nor were they complicit in their actions.

"There were some individuals, I agree, that may behave not the way that we expect, but the Poles paid a price," he says.

Kurnicki also says that though in today's Poland there may be some individuals who express anti-semitic views, it is not the view of society in his country.

"Anti-semitism are not a part of the Polish life, of our community, of our churches," he says.

Kurnicki adds that in his view, the Law and Justice Party is not right-wing.

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page. You can share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturnio and Kori Sidaway.