Poland’s Senate on Thursday approved a highly criticised draft law penalising those who implicate Poland in the Holocaust.
The move drew a sharp rebuke from both Israel and the United States, who joined a growing chorus of critics who say the bill is a gross distortion of World War II history.
The bill passed in the upper house of the parliament with a 57 to 23 vote, with two abstaining. It must be signed by the chief executive before entering into law, something Polish President Andrzej Duda has indicated he will do.
“We have the right to defend historical truth,” Duda was quoted as saying when coming out in defence of the new legislation.
The US State Department urged Poland on Wednesday to re-evaluate the law, expressing concern that Warsaw’s relations with Washington and Tel Aviv would suffer if the law came into force.
Under the proposed legislation, violators would face three years in prison for using the term “Polish death camps”. Scientific and historical research into World War II would not be restricted under the law.
World War II is an almost sacred topic in Poland, where the average population believes the country was the victim of atrocities committed by both Germany and the Soviet Union. One-fifth of the Polish population perished during the and many Poles still refuse to accept the historical record that their fellow countrymen took part or aided in the Nazi’s war crimes, including the murder of millions of Jews.
Before the war, Poland was home to 3.2 million Jews. After the joint German-Soviet invasion of 1939, the Nazis built huge death camps – including Auschwitz and Treblinka – on Polish soil. In the ensuing years, the Nazis killed 90 percent of Poland’s Jews and murdered most of the Jewish population in Eastern Europe.
Poland has for years rejected the use of the term “Polish death camps” in the media, arguing that it suggested the Polish state was at least partly responsible for the camps.
The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, a socially conservative grouping with a staunchly Catholic, right-wing nationalist agenda, reignited the debate as part of a campaign to fuel patriotism since sweeping into power in 2015.
Critics of the new law, including the US State Department and the Israeli government, fear it will infringe on free speech and stymie debate about Poland’s 20th-century history. “One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” said a statement from Netanyahu last week.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned Poland’s charge d‘affaires on Sunday to object to the bill.