Poland Digs in Over Nazi Complicity as Israel Vows Response

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki defended a bill outlawing public allegations of Polish complicity in Holocaust-era crimes that has sparked denunciations and counter-legislation in Israel, where it’s seen as Holocaust denial.

The bill passed in the upper chamber of Poland’s parliament late Wednesday, after it was approved in the lower house on the eve of international Holocaust Remembrance Day last week. A phone call between Morawiecki and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday failed to derail the bill, which would impose jail time or fines for suggesting Poles helped the German Nazis in the murder of almost all of the country’s Jews during World War II.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday that it “views with utmost gravity any attempt to challenge historical truth. No law will change the facts.” The U.S. State Department described the legislation as a threat to free speech and urged Poland to reassess the potential to hurt relations with the U.S. and Israel.

Poles say they’re unfairly held complicit in Nazi war crimes during a period when their country was occupied and an estimated 2.7 million non-Jewish civilians were killed, including a large number of resistance fighters. The law would impose fines or up to three years in jail for claiming that Poland or the Polish nation bears responsibility for crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany on its soil. Works of art and science are exempt from penalties.

‘Complicated History’

“Poland will never curb the freedom of the debate on Holocaust,” Morawiecki said in a televised address late Thursday, explaining that the nation needs to fight false allegations of its complicity. “We understand the emotions of Israel. A lot of work needs to be done to be able to tell our joint and often complicated history together."

Many Holocaust scholars, however, have concluded that some Poles helped the Nazis kill Jews on their territory.

Before the Polish Senate vote, Israeli legislators drew up a draft amendment defining any attempt to deny or minimize the crimes of Nazi collaborators as Holocaust denial, which carries a five-year prison sentence in the Jewish state. The Israeli legislation would provide state backing for any Holocaust survivor or educator prosecuted under the Polish bill.

‘Historical Responsibility’

“Many Poles and others heard about, knew, and helped the Nazi extermination machine,” said co-sponsor Itzik Shmuli of the liberal Zionist Union faction. “We will not allow the abettors to hide behind the Nazis and disavow their historical responsibility.”

Transport and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz of the governing Likud party urged Netanyahu, who is also Israel’s foreign minister, to recall the ambassador from Warsaw for consultations.

Polish President Andrzej Duda must sign the law for it to take effect. On Monday, he said he “will never come to terms with slandering Poland and false accusations.”

“There was no complicity in the Holocaust, either on the part of Poland as a state, a non-existent state, or on the part of Poles perceived as a nation,” he said in a statement.

Only 380,000 of Poland’s 3 million Jews -- Europe’s largest pre-war Jewish community -- survived the Holocaust, according to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Some of the survivors were attacked by Polish neighbors when they sought to return to their homes after the war.

While some Polish civilians participated in the murder of Jews or turned them over to Nazis to avoid being executed for hiding them, others resisted. Yad Vashem has commemorated about 6,700 Poles for rescuing Jews, the largest number of “Righteous Gentiles” in any country.

The Polish bill “jeopardizes the free and open discussion of the part of the Polish people in the persecution of the Jews,” Yad Vashem said in a statement Thursday, calling its passage “most unfortunate.”

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