Poland’s senate has approved a law that would penalize suggestions of Polish blame for Nazi crimes committed inside the country during the Holocaust.
Lawmakers passed the measure Thursday by a vote of 57-23. Poland’s lower house of parliament gave its approval last week. To become law, it needs only the signature of President Andrzej Duda.
The law would make it a crime to call the Nazi genocide of Jews a Polish crime, or the Nazi death camps Polish death camps, even though some of the most brutal Nazi atrocities took place on Polish soil.
“It appears that what the Polish government was trying to do was to try to cleanse the image that Poland was in some way complicit with the Nazis and in the concentration camps that existed on Polish soil occupied by Germany during World War Two,” said Russell Stone, a professor emeritus at the American University’s Center for Israel Studies.
The United States expressed concern about how the measure could impact free speech and Polish relations with the U.S. and Israel.
“We understand that phrases such as ‘Polish death camps’ are inaccurate, misleading, and hurtful,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Wednesday. “We all must be careful not to inhibit discussion and commentary on the Holocaust. We believe open debate, scholarship, and education are the best means of countering inaccurate and hurtful speech.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel will not tolerate “distortion of the truth, rewriting history, and denial of the Holocaust.”
Some experts fear the new Polish law could also mean jail for Holocaust survivors when talking about their ordeals. The measure exempts artistic and research work.
Duda, the Polish president, said this week there was no institutional participation by Poland in the Holocaust, but it did recognize criminal actions toward Jews by some individual Poles.
“There were wicked people who sold their neighbors for money. But it was not the Polish nation, it was not an organized action,” Duda said.
He pointed out that some Poles sacrificed their own lives to save Jews from the Nazis, and that the Polish underground and government in exile resisted efforts to wipe out European Jewry.
Poland was home to one of the world’s most thriving Jewish populations before Nazi Germany invaded in 1939. However, some historians say many Poles collaborated with the Nazis in persecuting Jews.
Holocaust survivors who returned to Poland after the war found themselves victims of further anti-Semitism.