- - Sunday, February 18, 2018

WARSAW — When Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a bill into law last week that would make attributing Nazi war crimes to Poland an offense punishable by up to three years in prison, the accusations of revisionist history rang in Israel and capitals around the world.

But many Polish citizens believe it’s past time that the world adjust its rhetoric. They say no one should be allowed to refer to Nazi extermination camps housed in Poland during the nation’s occupation by Germany during World War II as “Polish death camps,” a term they feel muddies historical fact and tarnishes the nation’s reputation.

It’s a debate that reveals a wider rift. Many Poles feel their turn toward patriotism, nationalism and a defense of traditional social values is being unfairly portrayed by many in Western Europe and the U.S.

“The phrase ‘Polish death camps’ needs special regulations with criminal sanctions,” said Mariusz Przadak, 38, a bar owner in Warsaw. “This law is in line with the ruling party’s politics but also pleases most Poles who want to hear what a great, wise and noble nation we were and still are.”

Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party vowed to create special regulations over speech that associates Poland with the horrors of the Holocaust when it came to power in 2015. But it had delayed such a move until parliament approved a bill on the matter Jan. 26 — on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The international backlash that followed was swift, not least from Israel, which argued that the legislation glosses over Poles’ role in the Holocaust, as well as the deep roots of anti-Semitism that they say still run through this largely homogenous, Catholic nation. The move only widens a rift between a number of conservative Central European governments, including Hungary and the Czech Republic, and the EU’s traditional leading powers in Western Europe, analyst Alexander Brotman wrote in a piece posted Friday by GlobalRiskInsights.com.

“The Law and Justice Party is unlikely to win over any hearts and minds in Brussels with this piece of legislation, which once again places Poland firmly on Europe’s periphery, with greater exposure to and influence from Moscow and Euroskeptic forces in the region,” Mr. Brotman wrote.

But in Poland, the move has been greeted warmly by many who believe phrases like “Polish death camps” mislead people into thinking that it was the Poles themselves — not the occupying German Nazis — who set up and operated such notorious sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, where an estimated 1.1 million people perished during the war more than seven decades ago.

“In my opinion, the regulation should have been made 30 years ago,” said Tomasz Jarosz, 44, the owner of a private information technology firm in Warsaw. “It defends historical truth.”

Despite the backing of the government, the issue remains divisive. A recent poll indicated that 32 percent of Poles hold negative opinions of the legislation, compared with 40 percent who support it.

That’s because the nuanced debate surrounding the legislation is rooted in historical trauma, said Pawel Machcewicz, a professor of political history at the Institute for Political Studies in Warsaw.

“History matters a lot in Poland, and the Second World War was the most painful and tragic period for the Poles,” he said. “Almost every family suffered from Nazi, Soviet or Ukrainian terror. So this is still a very vivid memory that’s been passed down through generations.”

After Jews, ethnic Poles were the Nazis’ largest group of victims during the war. Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance estimates that Nazis killed 2.7 million as they expanded Germany’s easternmost borders. The institute also estimates that almost 3 million ethnically Polish Jews were killed during the war.


Still, over the past two decades, Mr. Machcewicz said, information has resurfaced that has forced Poles to re-evaluate their collective belief that they were purely victims of the war.

Beginning in 2000, the public began having difficult conversations about Poland’s role in the Holocaust after an expose was published about the mass killings of Jews in the town of Jedwabne in 1941. Some 40 local people, together with Nazi forces, locked the town’s Jewish population in a barn and set it ablaze, killing 340.

“But soon it was discovered that there were many places like this,” said Mr. Machcewicz. “It was confronting the most painful and, to a great extent, unexpected issues of our history.”

The Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw estimates that as many as 200,000 Jews died at the hands of Poles, or because Poles identified them as Jewish to the Nazis, during the war.

But those revelations about such sensitive issues of Polish history also triggered a defensive shift toward glorifying positive elements of Polish history, said Mr. Machcewicz — and opened the door for politicians to use it for their own benefit.

“This current situation in Poland, this sensitivity, is on the one hand something genuine, something grass roots, resulting from this very sensitive, emotional background,” he said. “But on the other hand, it has been exploited and promoted politically by the Law and Justice Party.”

The party, which has clashed with European Union leaders in Brussels over issues such as immigration, press freedom and judicial reform, has said the law is meant to defend Polish history against slander. But many fear the party will use the legislation to silence dissenters and gloss over history.

“I regard penalizing people who talk about Polish camps as harmful, not for Poland on the international stage, but for an honest dialogue about historical interpretation in Poland,” said Franciszek Plociennik, 29, who works at a museum in Warsaw. “I am afraid of other steps that may affect historical education by modifying history in order to glorify the Poles.”

Members of the Law and Justice Party have said the law could be extended to such works as the expose about the pogrom in Jedwabne, said Mr. Machcewicz, a clear indication that this debate is no longer just about the phrase “Polish death camps.”

“This isn’t about the so-called ‘Polish death camps,’” he said. “This is much more broadly against this historical and public reflection which discusses these very painful parts of Polish history about how Poles dealt with the Jews during the war.”

Supporters of the legislation don’t deny those intentions.

“The amendment is a very important movement in the fight for preserving Poland’s good reputation,” said Lukasz Rynkowski, 30, of Warsaw. “What will decide if it works is whether they apply other, soft measures. … Time will tell if this happens.”

Austin Davis reported from Berlin.

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