Holocaust Death Camps Law Sparks Diplomatic Row and Fury in Israel

Survivors and guests walk past the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz, during the ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2018. Kacper Pempel/Reuters

A diplomatic dispute is brewing between Israel and Poland, as Warsaw is looking to criminalize a phrase that links the country with the extermination of Jews during the Second World War.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the charge d'affaires for Poland's embassy in Israel, Piotr Kozlowski, in response to a bill that seeks to outlaw the phrase "Polish death camps." Polish lawmakers in the lower house of parliament backed the bill on Friday, a day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

A statement from the ministry said that Kozlowski was asked for "clarification" about the bill, following objection to it by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his cabinet.

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"Israel's opposition to the wording of the bill was expressed to him," the ministry statement, issued on Sunday, said. "The timing of the bill—the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day—was particularly surprising and unfortunate."

Netanyahu told the Jerusalem Post that Israel's ambassador to Poland, Anna Azaria, has informed Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Israel's position on the matter but that he planned to do the same himself as well.

The argument behind the legislation making its way through Polish parliament is that, although concentration camps were set up on Polish soil after Germany occupied its eastern neighbor in 1939, they were the fault of the Nazi regime in Berlin. The draft to halt the use of the phrase "Polish death camps" in reference to Auschwitz and other camps like it could introduce fines and jail terms, if it becomes law. The Israeli government has warned that this risks airbrushing involvement of Poles in the Holocaust.

The Israeli Education and Diaspora Minister, Naftali Bennett, accused Poland's parliament, where the ruling right-wing party enjoys a majority, of a "shameful disregard of the truth." According to him, this went beyond the "historic fact that Germans initiated, planned and built the work and death camps in Poland."

"It is a historic fact that many Poles aided in the murder of Jews, handed them in, abused them, and even killed Jews during and after the Holocaust," Bennett said, urging that the facts of the war "must be taught to the next generation."

Morawiecki addressed the backlash on social media, writing in English that Auschwitz was symbolic of how "evil ideologies can lead to hell on earth." However, he noted that indicative of who instigated the concentration camp's existence were the facts that "Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase," referring to the sinister sign above the camp's entrance.

The law is yet to pass Poland's upper house of parliament and if it were to do that only the president's decision to refuse to sign it would stop it from becoming law.