Poland Makes Big U-Turn on Holocaust Death Camps Law

Poland is watering down its controversial ban on phrases that link it with complicity in the Holocaust and Nazi concentration camps following an international outcry.

The bill, which carried a criminal punishment of up to three years for phrases connecting the Polish nation or state to Nazi war crimes during the Holocaust, had majority backing in Polish parliament last year and President Andrzej Duda signed it into law in February.

This caused an immediate backlash in Israel, where officials said it set a dangerous precedent and could result in Holocaust survivors going to jail for wartime testimonies. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the law prompted concern that accounts of Polish pogroms against Ukrainians could become outlawed. Duda submitted the law to a tribunal, putting it on hold.

Related: Poland mourns the invasion that its neighbor Russia keeps forgetting

In a step that Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said did not constitute "backing down," Poland's lower house of parliament quickly passed a new version of the law that removed the threat of jail sentences, public broadcaster Polskie Radio reported. Offenses authorities perceived as defamatory toward Poland's role in World War II will become civil, not criminal, under the new bill.

06_27_Mateusz Morawiecki
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks during a press conference at the Visegrad Group (V4) summit in Budapest, Hungary, on June 21. Poland is watering down its controversial ban on phrases that link it with complicity in the Holocaust and Nazi concentration camps following an international outcry. Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images

Morawiecki, whose conservative Law and Justice party dominates Polish parliament, said the global outcry had motivated the review of the law but said there was silver lining in the outrage.

"On the one hand the awareness about historical truth has grown in the world, on the other hand, Poland was hit with a wave of disdain and hatred," he said. "All foreign politicians with whom I have met admit that there were never any 'Polish death camps.'"

The phrase—sometimes used to denote the location of concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau—concerned Polish officials, who believe it created the impression that Poland and not Nazi Germany, once deported and executed millions of Jews there. Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland sparked World War II and like other invaded countries with large Jewish populations, it also became the site of some of the most infamous concentration camps.

Arguing that Poles and Jews were victims of the Holocaust, Morawiecki stressed he believed the Polish state was not to blame, tweeting in January: "Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase," referring to the sinister German sign above the camp's entrance that means "Work sets you free."

The defense was not convincing for the Israeli government. Israeli Education and Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett accused Polish lawmakers of a "shameful disregard of the truth." Bennet acknowledged that it is a "historic fact that Germans initiated, planned and built the work and death camps in Poland," however the culpability did not end there.

"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, stressing that the true story of the war "must be taught to the next generation."

The Polish senate will soon vote on the amended version of the law and in the likely event it passes, the draft will be only a presidential signature away from coming into force.