Poland's president signs controversial Holocaust bill into law

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda speaks at a press conference in Warsaw to announce that he will sign into law a controversial Holocaust bill which has sparked tensions with Israel, the US and Ukraine. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty)

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda speaks at a press conference in Warsaw to announce that he will sign into law a controversial Holocaust bill which has sparked tensions with Israel, the US and Ukraine. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty)

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda on Tuesday signed into law a controversial Holocaust bill intended to safeguard his country’s image abroad but which has instead sparked tensions with Israel, the US and Ukraine.

Duda also said he would send the law, which will come into force, to the Constitutional Tribunal to rule on whether it conforms with constitutional guarantees on freedom of speech.

The law sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who erroneously describes Nazi German death camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau as being Polish, simply due to their geographical location.

Israel, however, has expressed concern that the legislation could open the door to prosecuting Holocaust survivors for their testimony should it concern the involvement of individual Poles for allegedly killing or giving up Jews to the Germans.

“I have decided to sign the law but also to send it to the Constitutional Tribunal,” Duda told reporters in Warsaw.

He said that his decision “preserves the interests of Poland, our dignity and the historical truth” and also “takes into account the sensitivity of those for whom the question of historical memory of the Holocaust remains exceptionally important, especially those who have survived and who, as long as they can, should tell the world about this past and their experience”.

The legislation has triggered an unprecedented diplomatic row with Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared last week that “we have no tolerance for the distortion of the truth and rewriting history or denying the Holocaust”.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has described the tensions as a “temporary weakening of relations with Israel and the USA” but added that he hoped for an improvement soon after Poland “will explain our position”.

- ‘No doubt’ 

Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz insisted on Monday that Netanyahu’s criticism of the Polish legislation were “due to a misunderstanding”.

“I think it’s a problem of interpretation, of over-interpretation on the Israeli side,” Czaputowicz said, adding that Poland was open to backing a joint declaration with Israel clarifying the scope of the legislation or to amending it in the future.

“It isn’t the case that we are not open to the postulates of Israel, the United States and other countries,” he said.

The US State Department warned last week that the bill could have “repercussions” on “Poland’s strategic interests and relationships –- including with the United States and Israel”.

Israel’s Ambassador to Poland Anna Azari told the commercial Radio Zet station on Monday that after Poland’s Senate adopted the bill on Thursday she “had signals” she may be withdrawn but that “now I don’t know”.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said this weekend that “there is not the slightest doubt about who is responsible for the extermination camps, who made them work to kill millions of European Jews: namely the Germans”.

“It was our country that organised these mass murders and no one else. The existence of certain collaborators does not change anything,” Gabriel said.

“Poland can be certain that any distortion of history such as the notion of ‘Polish concentration camps’ will be clearly rejected and firmly condemned,” he added.

Ukraine has also protested against the law with President Petro Poroshenko protesting against “absolutely biased and categorically unacceptable” articles that allow for the prosecution of anyone denying the crimes of Ukrainian nationalists committed between 1925 and 1950.

© Agence France-Presse

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