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Polish PM defends Holocaust bill that upset Israel, Ukraine

3 minApproximate reading time

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Thursday defended a controversial Holocaust bill intended to safeguard his country's image abroad but which has instead drawn dismay from Israel, the US, the EU and Ukraine.

The head of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party government spoke after the senate approved the legislation, which sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish or accuses Poland of complicity in the Third Reich's crimes.

"One of the worst forms of lies (regarding the Holocaust) is to minimise the responsibility of the real perpetrators and to attribute that responsibility to their victims," Morawiecki said in a national address.

"We want to fight against this falsehood... That's why we amended the law... The camps where millions of Jews were murdered were not Polish. This truth needs to be protected."

Israel, however, has expressed concern that the legislation, which relates to the extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II, could serve to deny the involvement of individual Poles in the Holocaust.

"Israel views with utmost gravity any attempt to challenge historical truth. No law will change the facts," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said on Thursday.

The legislation was approved by the lower house of parliament on Friday, prompting a flurry of Israeli efforts to have the bill dropped, as well as a rebuke from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"We have no tolerance for the distortion of the truth and rewriting history or denying the Holocaust," he said on Sunday.

Morawiecki responded Thursday that "we understand the emotion coming out of Israel" but added that "spreading the truth about the Holocaust is not just Israel's job, but also Poland's."

"Our government condemns all crimes committed on Poland's soil during World War II, regardless of the nationality of the perpetrators or victims. We will never restrict freedom of speech regarding the Holocaust."

- 'Despicable slander' -

EU president and former Polish premier Donald Tusk also condemned the bill for having caused the false "Polish camps" term to be repeated in recent days.

"The authors of the bill have promoted this despicable slander across the globe, more effectively than anyone ever has before," Tusk said on Twitter.

Polish President Andrzej Duda now has 21 days to sign the bill into law.

Its main aim 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."

Both the senate and the lower house of parliament are controlled by the PiS, which has sought to revive patriotism through a policy of extolling Polish heroism in the face of Nazi Germany, the communist regime, Ukrainian nationalists or the Soviet Red Army.

The bill has also angered Kiev, which takes issue with a section that imposes a criminal sentence on anyone who denies crimes were committed by Ukrainian nationalists against Poles between 1925 and 1950.

"I am deeply concerned by the decision of the Polish parliament," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on Facebook, describing the premises on which the law was based as "totally biased and completely unacceptable".

Some historians say Ukraine's UPA nationalists committed atrocities during World War II, notably against Poles in Ukraine.

In Poland, UPA fighters were seen as death squads responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Poles from what is now western Ukraine.

In 2015, Kiev's parliament gave unprecedented recognition as "Ukrainian independence fighters" to those who served in the UPA. A year later, Polish MPs recognised as "genocide" the wartime massacre of some 100,000 Poles by Ukrainian nationalists.

- 'Holocaust denial' -

In Israel, opposition MP Itzik Shmuli said Poland had become "the first nation to legislate Holocaust denial".

Israeli lawmakers on Wednesday penned a bill of their own to amend Israel's law regarding Holocaust denial so that diminishing or denying the role of those who aided the Nazis in crimes against Jews would be punishable with jail.

Washington also expressed concern that the bill "could undermine free speech and academic discourse" and have repercussions on Poland's ties with the United States and Israel.

During the war, Poland was attacked and occupied by Nazi Germany and six million of its citizens were killed, half of them Jews.

More than 6,700 Poles -- outnumbering any other nationality -- have been honoured by Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial as "Righteous Among the Nations", a title given to non-Jews who stood up to the Nazis.

Yad Vashem has called the legislation "unfortunate" and "liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust".

But it added that referring to the extermination camps the Nazis built in Poland as Polish is "an historical misrepresentation".

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