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Poland Likely To Criminalize Claims Of Holocaust Complicity


In Poland, a controversial bill is awaiting the president's signature. It makes it illegal to claim that Poland was complicit in the Nazi atrocities committed on Polish soil during World War II. The Nazis established some of the most notorious death camps of the Holocaust there, including Auschwitz. Adam Easton of the BBC is on the line with us now from Poland's capital, Warsaw. Thanks for being with us.

ADAM EASTON: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: What specifically prompted this bill?

EASTON: Poles have a very tragic history of the Second World War. They were invaded not by one but by two brutal dictatorships, the Nazis and the Soviet Union. The Nazis set up the death camps, including Auschwitz, and many Poles died in those camps. In fact, between 5 and 6 million Polish citizens were killed during the war - 3 million of them Polish Jews. So when Poles hear the phrase, for example, Polish death camps, as President Obama said in a speech in 2012, they naturally get very upset by this insinuation that somehow the Poles were co-responsible for the Nazi crimes. And that's the motivation for this legislation.

MARTIN: So had this been brewing for a while, or was there a specific incident? Why now after all these years?

EASTON: This has been going on for years, and it still happens with rather depressing frequency that's in the international media, this sort of - this type of statement. Polish death camp or Polish concentration camp appears on sort of monthly basis.

MARTIN: If this bill is signed, it will be illegal for someone in Poland to describe the government there as responsible in any way for the Holocaust. What does that mean for free speech in Poland?

EASTON: What the bill actually states is that anyone who publicly and against the facts accuses the Polish nation or state of co-responsibility or responsibility for Nazi crimes, Third Reich crimes, could face up to three years in prison for that. What does that mean? Well, what does Polish state and what does Polish nation mean? The Polish state didn't exist under the Nazi occupation. What the bill does explicitly state - that is does not apply to academics researching history. It doesn't apply to artists either. However, what if you're a schoolteacher talking about the Holocaust? What if you're a Holocaust survivor who's saying - talking about what you experienced during the war? And if you talk about Poles who took part in heinous crimes, how does that apply to you? What if you're talking about it just on the bus?

MARTIN: Right.

EASTON: How does this apply to people? And this is the major concern both in the U.S. with the U.S. State Department and with Israel, which has been very, very tough in its opposition to this bill because they say it's basically an attempt to deny the historical truth.

MARTIN: Is that going to make the relationship increasingly difficult, Poland's relationship with Israel?

EASTON: Poland's relationship with Israel for many years has been very good. It counts Israel as an ally, as it does the United States. And frequently, Poland votes in favor of sort of international resolutions with the Israelis. However, this has taken the Polish government by complete surprise. They thought they'd actually negotiated the wording of this legislation with the Israelis and got it agreed upon. But they're flabbergasted, in their own words, about the Israeli response to this. So this is the - this is a dispute that is escalating, getting hotter by the day. And it's difficult to see how it's going to be resolved unless there's some sort of gesture. And in fact, I've just been speaking to a government MP here. He said that there needs to be some sort of gesture from Israel to try and reach an agreement here.

MARTIN: BBC correspondent Adam Easton in Warsaw, Poland, this morning, thanks so much.

EASTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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