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June 27, 2018 4:32 pm

Analyst: Changes Make Polish Holocaust Law ‘Less of a Defeat’; Jewish Groups Hail Move

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

The entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

An Israeli commentator said on Wednesday the changes to the Polish “Holocaust Law” criminalizing discussion of Poland’s complicity in the murder of Jews during World War II made the law’s enactment “less of a defeat,” while Jewish groups hailed the decision as a victory for historical memory and free speech.

The latest changes, which came in the wake of widespread condemnation of the law, dropped all criminal penalties from the bill, effectively rendering it inoperative.

Manfred Gerstenfeld, the Austrian-born former chairman of the Steering Committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who founded the center’s Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism program, said he did not consider the changes a victory, but rather “less of a defeat.”

“This whole law was a distorting law,” he told The Algemeiner. “The issue is a basic issue of memory and history. The Poles were right that the memory of the war was moving into directions which were not amenable to them and which were untrue. These were not ‘Polish death camps.’ On that point, they were right. On the fact that the Poles have participated in a huge way in the murder of Jews, they are wrong. And this history, even though it was discovered and established by a Polish-Jewish historian called Szymon Datner 50 years ago, was not known until a North American historian Jan Grabowski dug up the facts, and that happened in this century.”

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Datner and Grabowski, he said, established unequivocally that individual Poles massacred 200,000 Jews during the Holocaust.

“Poland was an exceptionally antisemitic country before the war,” he noted. “That is also the reason why the Germans put up these extermination camps in Poland.”

Gerstenfeld believes that the public outcry over the law may have prompted the changes.

“There is no doubt that this whole affair has damaged Poland to a large extent,” he said, and ironically, as a result of the controversy “all kinds of facts” about Polish complicity that were once “issues for the academic community, have now become issues for the community at large. That hasn’t done the Poles any good.”

In addition, Poland’s international situation may have played a role.

“The Poles are in trouble,” Gerstenfeld stated, “because they want good relations with the United States and the United States is a country that is extremely open for freedom of information, freedom of speech — that put the Poles in a negative position. The Poles are also under pressure from Brussels for all kinds of other things such as the refugee issue. On top of that, they want normal relations with Israel and we want normal relations with them.”

Israel was particularly strident in regard to the law, with politicians and media figures from across the spectrum condemning it.

Even with the changes, Gerstenfeld said, the law should not have existed in the first place. As a result, “I don’t see it as such a great victory. It is far less bad than it was.”

Major Jewish groups were more enthusiastic about the Polish concessions.

European Jewish Congress President Dr. Moshe Kantor said, “We welcome this development, especially the decriminalizing aspect of the law. This is the first step in a process of greater understanding that places the truth, historical understanding and academic inquiry over politics and populism.”

World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder said in a statement, “The World Jewish Congress is pleased that the Polish government has recognized the untenable nature of its new Holocaust law, and that it is now taking the appropriate steps to amend one of the most problematic and dangerous clauses and remove the criminal penalties imposed by the law.”

Lauder called the law “an undeniable obfuscation of history” that “undermines democracy. The law as it stands now stifles any real discussion of the extent to which local Poles were complicit in the annihilation of their Jewish neighbors during the German occupation. It sets a dangerous precedent and is contrary to the values Poland has worked to uphold and promote.”

“Poles are understandably upset when Nazi German annihilation and concentration camps are referred to as ‘Polish’ simply due to their location on German-occupied Polish soil,” he added, “but it was an egregious mistake to criminalize those who do so, within the framework of a law that in its essence threatens Poland’s good name and international standing.”

“Education, dialogue, and objective research, not criminalization, are the key to understanding history,” Lauder said.

The American Jewish Committee also welcomed the changes in the law, with CEO David Harris saying, “As long-time friends of Poland, correcting this counterproductive measure is an important step to restore confidence and advance ties among Poland, the Jewish world, and the United States.”

“The tremendous advances in Poland’s relations with American Jews, with Jews in Poland and around the world, and in which AJC proudly played a major role, suffered damaging setbacks in the wake of the bill regrettably adopted in February,” Harris continued. “Repairing those relations remains of utmost importance.”

The Anti-Defamation League also weighed in on the issue, with CEO and National Director Jonathan A. Greenblatt saying, “This step is a long overdue effort by the Polish prime minister and parliament to step back from the precipice of implementing this reckless law on speech about the Holocaust as it is currently written. We urge the upper chamber of Poland’s parliament to urgently follow suit, and then for Polish President Duda to swiftly sign the updated legislation into law.”

“While we would prefer for Poland’s counterproductive recent law on Holocaust speech to be stricken from the books entirely,” he added, “we recognize that today’s proposed changes to it would resolve much of this dispute, have less of a chilling effect on historical dialogue, and help mend relations between Poland, its alliance partners, and the international Jewish community.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a press conference in Tel Aviv, “I am pleased that the Polish government, the Parliament, the Senate and the president of Poland decided today to completely rescind parts of the recently legislated law that caused cause uproar and distress in Israel and in the international community.”

“I met with Polish Prime Minister [Mateusz] Morawiecki about this,” he added. “We discussed it over the phone and we established task forces that worked together. I wish to thank the Israeli task force, Adv. Joseph Ciechanover and Prof. Jacob Nagel who engaged in this mission fully, together with the Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Yuval Rotem and the staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who are here. I also thank the historian Prof. Dina Porat from Yad Vashem for accompanying the work.”

“We reached an agreed-upon joint statement between Israel and Poland, which I will read in English simultaneously with the prime minister of Poland,” Netanyahu announced.

“Our ties with Poland are very important and are based on trust,” the prime minister went on to say. “Israel and Poland share the responsibility of upholding the memory of the Holocaust. It is clear to all that the Holocaust was an unprecedented crime which was perpetrated by Nazi Germany against the Jewish nation, including the Jews of Poland. The Polish government has expressed understanding of the significance of the Holocaust as the most tragic chapter in the history of the Jewish people.”

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