Photo Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Instytut Pamieci Narodowej
Soldiers and civilians entertained by a Jewish man being forced to cut the beard of a fellow Jew in Tomaszow Mazowiecki outside Lodz.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Wednesday announced he was going to change the law that threatened scholars and other individuals who normally seek protection for their freedom of expression with a prison sentence for suggesting that Poles and the Polish nation aided and abetted the Germans in their annihilation of Jews during WW2.

In what is broadly known as the “Polish death camp” controversy, in February 2018 Polish President Andrzej Duda signed into law an amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, criminalizing statements that ascribe collective responsibility in Holocaust-related crimes to the Polish nation. It was commonly understood that the amended law would criminalize the use of the expressions “Polish death camp” and “Polish concentration camp.”

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Israeli officials and Jewish American organizations have criticized the new law, calling it as an attempt to restrict discussion of anti-Semitism in Poland and of the culpability of the Poles in the Holocaust. Auschwitz survivor Freda Wineman reflected the views of the vast majority of Israelis when she told The Jerusalem Post at the time: “After all these years, they want to have the blame removed, as if they didn’t have anything to do with it, they want to whitewash it in their favor.”

Now PM Morawiecki says he asked Poland’s lower house to remove the prison penalty from the law, and lawmakers on Wednesday morning began a debate on the changes.

“We retreated from the criminal provisions,” a spokesman for the PM stated, suggesting this penalty diverted attention from the legislation’s core effort to alter the way the world views the behavior of Poles during the war.

The original 1998 Institute of National Remembrance Act already specifically criminalized “public denial, against the facts, of Nazi crimes, communist crimes, and other offenses constituting crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, committed against persons of Polish nationality or against Polish citizens of other nationalities, between 1 September 1939 and 31 July 1990,” punishing such denial with a fine or imprisonment for up to 3 years.

The amendment signed into law in February 2018 criminalized public statements that ascribe to the Polish nation collective responsibility in Holocaust-related crimes, crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, or war crimes, or “grossly reduce the responsibility of the actual perpetrators.” Exempted from such penalties were scholarly studies, discussions of history, and artistic works.

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