As Allies Wrangle, Tillerson Says New Polish Holocaust Law ‘Adversely Affects Freedom of Speech’

By Patrick Goodenough | February 6, 2018 | 6:03 PM EST

The entrance to the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz, near Oswiecim in Poland. Almost one million Jews were murdered at the camp, along with tens of thousands of other victims, including Poles, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war. (Screen capture: YouTube)

( – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday expressed dismay at a decision by Polish President Andrzej Duda to sign controversial legislation criminalizing references to Poles’ complicity in the Holocaust.

“Enactment of this law adversely affects freedom of speech and academic inquiry,” he said.

The issue has raised tensions in particular between Poland and another key U.S. ally, Israel, and the Trump administration has warned of the implications for the Poland-U.S. relationship as well.

Duda said in a televised address Tuesday he will sign the legislation adopted in recent weeks by both houses of the Polish parliament, but will also refer it to the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, to decide whether the new law “unjustifiably” restricts free speech.

The Israeli foreign ministry said in response it hoped “changes and corrections” to the legislation would be agreed upon.

Polish President Andrzej Duda in a televised address on February 6, 2018 said he would sign the controversial bill but also refer it to the country’s Constitutional Tribunal. (Screen capture: Polish presidency)

Poles have long been troubled by the use of terminology such as “Polish death camps” to refer to Nazi camps located on Polish soil during World War II, when Adolf Hitler’s regime systematically murdered six million Jews.

The new law provides for prison terms for anyone convicted of accusing Poland of being complicit in the Holocaust.

“The United States reaffirms that terms like ‘Polish death camps’ are painful and misleading,” Tillerson said.

“Such historical inaccuracies affect Poland, our strong ally, and must be combatted in ways that protect fundamental freedoms. We believe that open debate, scholarship, and education are the best means of countering misleading speech.”

Many of the Nazis’ millions of victims were killed in concentration and extermination camps built in several countries. Those where most of the murders took place – Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno and Belzec – were located in Nazi-occupied Poland.

More than three million Polish Jews perished in the Holocaust.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington estimates that the Nazis killed a further 1.9 million non-Jewish Poles, including “Catholic priests, intellectuals, teachers, and political leaders.”

Many Poles have long been sensitive about their country being associated with the Nazi camps, often through careless terminology.

When President Obama in 2012 used the term “Polish death camp” while posthumously honoring Polish World War II resistance fighter Jan Karski with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he sparked outrage in Poland.

In a subsequent letter to his Polish counterpart, Obama said he regretted the error.

“In referring to a ‘Polish death camp’ rather than ‘a Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland’ I inadvertently used a phrase that has caused many Poles anguish over the years and that Poland has rightly campaigned to eliminate from discourse around the world,” he wrote.

Women survivors in a prisoner barracks shortly after Soviet forces liberated the Auschwitz camp in Poland in 1945. (Photo: USHMM/National Archives and Records Administration)

‘No legislation will change the past’

Critics of the law do not dispute that the Nazis were responsible for the camps and the mass extermination of Jews, but argue that the law seeks to stifle debate and discussion about the treatment of Jews by Poles during the war.

“The blood of Polish Jews cries from the ground, and no law will silence it,” Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement this week, after the Polish government canceled a scheduled visit to the country.

Bennett charged that although the death camps in Poland were built and operated by the Nazis, more than 200,000 Jews were killed in Poland during and after the Holocaust with the collusion or active participation of Poles.

“Only a few thousand people – ‘righteous among the nations,’ risked themselves to save Jews,” he said.

“The government of Poland has chosen to escape this truth,” he said. “No legislation will change the past.”

Earlier, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert voiced concern about the effect of the legislation on Poland’s relationships, including those with Israel and the U.S.

“The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies benefit only our rivals,” she said. “We encourage Poland to reevaluate the legislation in light of its potential impact on the principle of free speech and on our ability to be effective partners.”

The rail head at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) in Poland. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Both the USHMM in Washington and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem weighed in on the controversy.

The USHMM expressed concern that the law will “chill a free and open dialogue addressing Poland’s history during the Holocaust, including in Polish schools and universities as well as in the media. An accurate understanding of Holocaust history requires an unfettered exchange of ideas in classrooms and among the public.”

“There is no doubt that the term ‘Polish death camps’ is a historical misrepresentation,” said Yad Vashem in a statement.

“However, restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people’s direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion.”

The expression used by Bennett, “righteous among the nations” is a term given to non-Jews who through a range of actions helped Jews to escape from the Nazis during the Holocaust – often risking their own lives or safety in the process.

Yad Vashem honors more than 26,500 such individuals, including 6,706 from Poland  – more than from any other single country.


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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow