Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Saturday that alongside Poles, Jews were also responsible for perpetrating the Holocaust.
Morawiecki was rejecting criticism of a new law that criminalizes mentions of Polish complicity in the Holocaust at the Munich Security Conference, when he was asked by an Israeli journalist if sharing his family’s history of persecution in Poland would be outlawed under the new legislation.
“Of course it’s not going to be punishable, [it’s] not going to be seen as criminal to say that there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as there were Ukrainian; not only German perpetrators,” he told Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ronen Bergman.
Morawiecki said the law aimed to prevent falsely attributing Nazi crimes in Poland under Nazi occupation to Polish government policy at the time. He said that last year Polish embassies had to respond 260 times to statements referring to “Polish death camps.”
He said the Polish people generally aided their “Jewish brothers and sisters” during the war, and the lines between Holocaust victims and perpetrators was becoming increasingly blurred.
Earlier this month, the Polish Senate passed the legislation that prescribes prison time for using phrases such as “Polish death camps” to refer to the killing sites Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II.
The upper house of parliament voted 57-23, with two abstentions, to approve the bill, putting the controversial bill a step closer to becoming law. It must still be signed into law by the president, who supports it.
The bill is partly a response to cases in recent years of foreign media using the term “Polish death camps” to describe Auschwitz and other Nazi-run camps. It also makes it illegal to “deliberately reduce the responsibility of the ‘true culprits’ of these crimes,” in reference to the murder of around 100,000 Poles by units in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during World War II.
The bill still needs approval from Poland’s Senate and president. However, it marks a dramatic step by the country’s current nationalist government to target anyone who tries to undermine its official stance that Poles were only heroes during the war, not Nazi collaborators who committed heinous crimes.
“Whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich… or other crimes against peace and humanity, or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the actual perpetrators thereof, shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years,” a translation of a key paragraph of the bill reads.
The legislation sparked outrage in Israel, with some lawmakers accusing the Polish government of outright Holocaust denial as the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Saturday.
The dispute has elicited bitter recriminations on both sides. Some Israelis have accused the mostly Catholic Poles of being driven by anti-Semitism and of trying to deny the Holocaust. Poles believe that they are being defamed by being linked to German crimes of which they were one of the largest group of victims.
Israel, along with several international Holocaust organizations and many critics in Poland, argues that the law could have a chilling effect on debating history, harming freedom of expression and leading to a whitewashing of Poland’s wartime history.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pilloried the law as “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history, and the denial of the Holocaust.”
Amid the dispute some Polish commentators, including in government-controlled media, have made strong anti-Jewish remarks.
In one instance, the head of a state-run channel suggested referring to Auschwitz as a “Jewish death camp,” in response to an outcry over use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the Nazi killing site in German-occupied Poland.