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Polish bill over wartime history angers Israel, Ukraine

2 min 33Approximate reading time

A bill designed to defend Poland's image abroad, which notably sets fines and jail terms for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish, has instead led Israel and Ukraine to accuse Warsaw of trying to rewrite history.

Since coming to power in 2015, Poland's governing nationalists have sought to revive patriotism through a historical policy that centres on extolling Polish heroic deeds in the face of Nazi Germany, the communist regime, Ukrainian nationalists or the Red Army.

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is championing the stories of Poles who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II, and has made it a priority to fight the propagation of historical accounts that it sees as false and harmful.

Until recently, the policy had not garnered much opposition, but things got heated when Poland's lower house of parliament last Friday adopted legislation regarding the extermination of Jews by Germans in occupied Poland during World War II.

The measure, which is intended to apply to both Poles and foreigners, sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to death camps set up by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland as being Polish.

In the eyes of Poland's governing nationalists, the main goal of the measure is to prevent people from ascribing "responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for crimes committed by the German Third Reich -- or other crimes against humanity and war crimes."

- 'Freedom of speech' -

But the Israeli government saw one of the bill's passages as an attempt to deny Polish participation in Nazi Germany's extermination of Jews and feared that it would open the door to prosecuting any Holocaust survivors who mention that involvement.

"We have no tolerance for the distortion of the truth and rewriting history or denying the Holocaust," Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday.

Ukraine's foreign ministry meanwhile took issue with a different passage of the bill, which allows justice officials to go after anyone who denies crimes committed from 1925-1950 by Ukrainian nationalists, including those who collaborated with Nazi Germans.

It expressed "great concern over the intent to present Ukrainians only as 'nationalist criminals' and 'Third Reich collaborators'," the ministry said in a statement on Friday.

Volodymyr Vyatrovych, head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, condemned the Polish measure as "a serious step towards the curtailment of freedom of speech and introduction of party censorship."

- 'German crimes' -

Polish President Andrzej Duda on Sunday sought to defuse the crisis by promising "a careful analysis of the final shape of the act" focused on provisions that have alarmed Israel.

To take effect, the bill still needs to be approved by the Senate -- which could modify it -- and Duda.

But on Monday Duda told public broadcaster TVP that he was "flabbergasted" by Israel's "violent and very unfavorable reaction" to the bill.

"We absolutely can't back down, we have the right to defend the historical truth," he added.

In a fiery speech earlier in the day, he insisted there was "no systematic participation of the Polish nation or the Polish state (in exile) in the Holocaust, but the Polish resistance and Polish state (in exile) fought the Holocaust in an organised and systemic way."

He acknowledged that "there were wicked people (Poles) who sold their neighbours for money, but it was not the Polish nation, it was not an organised action... but there were also cases of Poles giving up their lives to save their Jewish neighbours."

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who spoke by telephone on Sunday with Netanyahu, seemed to be treading lightly.

Netanyahu's office said in a statement that the two leaders agreed to "immediately open a dialogue" to reach an understanding about the legislation.

But PiS spokeswoman Beata Mazurek was less conciliatory, writing on Twitter: "We won't be changing any of the provisions of the law... We're tired of Poland and Poles being accused of German crimes."

Six million Poles, half of whom were Jews, were killed during World War II.



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