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Polish bill over wartime history angers Israel, Ukraine

4 min

Warsaw (AFP)

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 around extolling Polish heroic deeds in the face of Nazi Germany, the communist regime, Ukrainian nationalists or the Red Army.

The Law and Justice (PiS) party in power also strives to glorify Poles who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II, and makes it a priority to fight against the propagation of historical accounts that it sees as false and harmful.

Until recently, the policy had not garnered much opposition, with the exception of a few bitter exchanges with Ukraine and bickering at home over a World War II exhibition in Gdansk that the Polish government felt was not patriotic enough.

But things got heated when Poland's lower house of parliament on 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 read 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 separate passage of the bill, which allows justice officials to go after anyone who denies crimes committed in 1925-50 by Ukrainian nationalists, including those who collaborated with Nazi Germans.

Ukraine "categorically opposes a new bid to impose a unilateral treatment of historical events," the ministry said in a statement on Friday.

It expressed its "great concern over the intent to present Ukrainians only as 'nationalist criminals' and 'Third Reich collaborators'."

Volodymyr Vyatrovych, head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, condemned the Polish measure as "dangerous not for Ukraine, but for Poland".

"This is a serious step towards the curtailment of freedom of speech and introduction of party censorship," he said on his Facebook page.

- 'German crimes' -

Polish President Andrzej Duda sought to defuse the crisis by promising on Sunday to take a look at the bill provisions that alarmed Israel.

Duda will present his "final evaluation of procedural legal provisions after the completion of parliament's work and a careful analysis of the final shape of the act", his office said in a statement.

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

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who had a Sunday phone call 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."

On Monday, the Jewish advocacy group the American Jewish Committee (AJC) added its voice to the chorus of criticism of the legislation, all while agreeing that Nazi German death camps should not be referred to as Polish.

"This kind of legislation is both provocative and totally unnecessary. It will inflame the debate over historical responsibility," AJC Central Europe director Agnieszka Markiewicz said in a statement.

"The Polish government should reconsider this measure aimed at penalising the use of language, even if we agree this language should not be used."

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

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