Poland moves to make it illegal to say ‘Polish death camps’


Poland has preliminarily approved a law making it a jailable offense to use the phrase “Polish death camps” for sites run by Nazi Germany in Poland during WWII. The distinction is real but very difficult to enforce.

Prime Minister Beata Szydlo’s cabinet approved the draft legislation on Tuesday. The bill is now expected to pass through parliament, where the Law and Justice (PiS) has majorities and is to be signed into law by an acquiescent president, Andrzej Duda.

“The new provisions penalize these insulting terms, which undermine Poland’s reputation,” a government statement said.

The bill had been under discussion for several months and originally foresaw a prison term of up to five years. The version approved on Tuesday was toned down, but could still see those found guilty facing up to three years behind bars.

Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said the three-year prison terms would be reserved for those “who intentionally slander Poland’s good name by using terms like ‘Polish death camps’ or ‘Polish concentration camps.'” Those who use such language unintentionally will face lesser punishments, including fines.

Redrawing discursive lines

The PiS government, which came to power in late 2015 promising to renationalize not only chunks of the domestic economy, but also to recalibrate many of the ways in which Poles think, talk and learn about their own history, has said the move is part of a wider strategy of reinstilling a stronger sense of national pride.

Poland, which was home to about 3 million Jews before the war, was a major site of the Holocaust, but not its perpetrator. Along with several million Jews from across occupied Europe, many non-Jewish Poles also died at the hands of the Nazis in and out of the camps.

Many Catholic Poles feel their story is rarely heard

“Poles’ blood boils when they read, including in the German media, that there were ‘Polish death camps,'” Ziobro – the driving force behind the legislation – told reporters on Tuesday.

Although successive governments, of varying ideological hues and ilks, have complained about the tendency among some foreign observers and media to deploy language implying Poland was somehow responsible for the Holocaust, the new government is breaking new ground in criminalizing the issue.

Word matters

The use of these terms was first described in 2005 as insulting by then-foreign minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, who said that – intentionally or unintentionally – it shifted responsibility for the design, planning, construction and operation of the camps from the German to the Polish people.

One common explanation for the use of the phrase “Polish death camp” is that the infamous Nazi death camps – including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Chelmno, Belzec, and Sobibor – were in Poland that was occupied at the time.

In 2012 Zbigniew Osewski, the grandson of a Stutthof camp prisoner near Gdansk, sued Axel Springer for calling Majdanek a “former Polish concentration camp” in an article in November 2008 published in the German newspaper “Die Welt.”

In May 2012 US President Barack Obama referred to “a Polish death camp” while posthumously awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a gentile who secreted news of the genocide of the Jews in Poland out of the country to the Allies in London during the war.

After complaints from Poles, including then-Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, a representative of the Obama administration said the president had “misspoken” and “was referring to Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland.”

In 2013, Karol Tendera – a former prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the secretary of the association of former prisoners of German concentration camps – sued German television network ZDF, demanding a formal apology and 50,000 zlotys (about 12,000 euros) to be donated to charity for the use of the term “Polish concentration camps.”

PiS and Poland’s new politics of history

Poland has only had the opportunity to publicly evaluate its experiences of the Second World War and other periods of history since the demise of the communist regime in 1989. The process has been often painful and always heavily contested, with the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) at the forefront of research and debate. Poland is now in the vanguard of the so-called “new European commemorative politics” led initially by Germany, and PiS appears to want to lead that process.

The party has been vociferous in its attempts to redraw certain discursive boundaries. It has attacked the WWII Museum in Gdansk as being insufficiently focused on Poland’s role in the war, for example.

It has also sought to undermine iconic Solidarity leader Lech Walesa’s credibility by reiterating claims he cooperated with the communist secret services, and has attacked Jan Gross, a US historian of Polish-Jewish heritage, over claims he made to “Die Welt” that Poles killed more Jews in the war than they did Germans.

Grossly unfair?

The PiS government has discussed stripping Gross of his Order of Merit and some fear the legislation’s intention is to derail historical inquiry within Poland into Polish behavior toward Jews.

Gross is a PiS bête noire, asking difficult questions of Polish-Jewish relations, often running counter to traditional Polish self-perceptions. Above all, he has asked Poles whether it is possible to be simultaneously a victim and a victimizer.

‘Neighbors,’ his book about the murder of Jews by Poles in the summer of 1941 at Jedwabne, a small town northeast of Warsaw, opened a heated discussion at the turn of the century that became an important trigger in the process of changing Polish Holocaust historiography.


While many Poles support the new legislation – feeling it differs little from laws on the books in other countries, including Germany, that make Holocaust denial a crime – many also say the government will be powerless to punish people outside of Poland, those most likely to use such phrasing.

One way of doing it

According to the AFP news agency, the Auschwitz Museum has launched a “text corrector” application for Microsoft Word and Apple text editors which helps writers to avoid referring to Nazi German death camps as “Polish.”

jbh/kl (AP, AFP)



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