Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s team warned Poland not to enact a law that would criminalize assertions of Poland’s complicity in the Holocaust.
“We all must be careful not to inhibit discussion and commentary on the Holocaust,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Wednesday. “We encourage Poland to re-evaluate the legislation in light of its potential impact on the principle of free speech and on our ability to be effective partners.”
Poland’s lower house of parliament passed the legislation Friday, as the NATO-member government maintained it was necessary for “preventing intentional defamation” of the nation. Polish lawmakers previously attempted to pass the bill in 2013, after then-President Barack Obama referred to a “Polish death camp” while honoring Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski.
“[T]he purpose of the amendment passed by the [lower house of the parliament] after two years of legislative work was to eliminate public and contrary-to fact conduct that attributes responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich to the Polish Nation or the Polish State,” the Polish Foreign Ministry said Friday. “Using expressions such as ‘Polish death camps’ was one manifestation of such conduct.”
Nauert acknowledged Obama’s remark, without naming him directly. “We understand that phrases such as ‘Polish death camps’ are inaccurate, misleading, and hurtful,” she said. “We are concerned, however, that if enacted this draft legislation could undermine free speech and academic discourse.”
Israeli officials condemned the legislation, which passed one day before the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and International Holocaust Remembrance Day. “We will under no circumstances accept any attempt to rewrite history,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday, per Reuters. “We will accept no limitation on truthful historical research.”
Polish officials countered by emphasizing that Auschwitz was established by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland. “Jews, Poles, and all victims should be guardians of the memory of all who were murdered by German Nazis,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted Saturday. “Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ is not a Polish phrase.”
Leading Holocaust historians agree on the impropriety of phrases such as “Polish death camps,” but note also that some of the Polish people committed atrocities during the war. “Polish individuals may have been responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Jews, but Polish state apparatuses were not integrated into the Nazi machine of genocide against the Jews, and, in that, Poland is actually an exception to many other countries in Nazi-occupied Europe,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Efraim Zuroff told the Times of Israel.
Nauert urged Polish officials to “re-evaluate the law” in light of Israeli and American critiques. “We believe open debate, scholarship, and education are the best means of countering inaccurate and hurtful speech,” she said. “We are also concerned about the repercussions this draft legislation, if enacted, could have on Poland’s strategic interests and relationships — including with the United States and Israel. The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies benefit only our rivals.”