February 01, 2018
Survivors and guests at the former Nazi German concentration camp Auschwitz, during the ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the camp’s liberation and International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day, in Poland on Jan 27, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS
WARSAW (AFP) – Polish senators on Thursday (Feb 1) passed a controversial Holocaust Bill, which was designed to defend the country’s image abroad but has instead sparked a diplomatic row with Israel.
The Upper House of Parliament voted 57-23, with two abstentions, to approve the Bill, which sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish or accuses Poland of complicity with the Third Reich’s crimes.
Israel had called for the Bill to be dropped, seeing one of its provisions as an attempt to deny Polish involvement in Nazi Germany’s extermination of Jews and fearing that it would curb free speech.
Poland was attacked and occupied by Nazi Germany in World War II, losing six million of its citizens including three million of its Jews, who numbered 3.2 million before the conflict.
But the country’s governing nationalists, who came to power in 2015, have sought to push back against suggestions of Polish complicity in the Nazis’ campaign to eradicate Jews.
Helping Jews, even offering them a glass of water, was punishable by death in occupied Poland.
More than 6,700 Poles – outnumbering any other nationality – have been honoured as “Righteous Among the Nations”, a title given to non-Jews who stood up to the Nazis, by Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.
Yad Vashem said it opposes the Polish bill, as it “is liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust”.
But it added that to refer to the extermination camps the Nazis built in Poland as Polish is “a historical misrepresentation”.
American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris urged Polish leaders “to withdraw the legislation and focus on education, not criminalisation, about inaccurate and harmful speech”.
The United States State Department on Wednesday (Jan 31) said the Bill could undermine free speech.
“The history of the Holocaust is painful and complex. We understand that phrases such as ‘Polish death camps’ are inaccurate, misleading, and hurtful,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement issued on Wednesday.
It added: “We are concerned, however, that if enacted this draft legislation could undermine free speech and academic discourse. We all must be careful not to inhibit discussion and commentary on the Holocaust.
“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.”
Separately in Austria, the government said on Wednesday (Jan 31) that it plans to dissolve one of the country’s controversial nationalist fraternities after it emerged that it had printed song texts celebrating the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities.
The lyrics in the book produced in 1997 by the Germania zu Wiener Neustadt organisation included “Step on the gas… we can make it to seven million”, media reports said.
Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust during World War II, many of them in gas chambers.
Other songs in the book, which only became public last week, praised the Waffen SS and Nazi paratroopers behind war crimes committed in Greece.
The scandal took on a political dimension because until recently the fraternity’s vice-chairman was Udo Landbauer, a candidate for the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) in local elections in Lower Austria state last Sunday.
It also put Chancellor Sebastian Kurz under pressure since he had formed a coalition at federal level in December with the anti-immigration, Islamaphobic FPOe.
Several leading members of the FPOe – a party created by former Nazis in the 1950s – belong to student fraternities, many of which believe in reunifying Austria into a “Greater Germany”.
The FPOe says the fraternities are harmless, with its leader Heinz-Christian Strache saying on Friday that “anti-Semitism, totalitarianism (and) racism are the opposite of fraternity thinking”.
The affair has also embarrassed the centre-left Social Democrats (SPOe) after it emerged that a party member – one of four people under investigation by prosecutors – had illustrated the song book.
The unnamed man, since expelled by the party, said on Wednesday that his drawings had nothing to do with the verse about gas chambers and that the song in question was meant as a “joke”.
“The pictures show scenes of students, drinking beer or celebrating. There are also soldiers because there are corresponding songs in the book,” the 70-year-old fraternity member told local media.
“But what this is not is a Nazi songbook… This stupid verse was discovered at some point and blacked out, about 20 years ago. Basically the song is a joke song… It was never sung.”