Merkel dodges question on Poland's new Holocaust law

Adviser to Polish president Andrzej Duda criticises Israel’s opposition to new law

Railway tracks leading to the main gates at Auschwitz II-Birkenau,   built in March 1942 by the Nazis at the village of Brzezinka in Poland. File photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Railway tracks leading to the main gates at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, built in March 1942 by the Nazis at the village of Brzezinka in Poland. File photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

 

German chancellor Angela Merkel declined to comment on Saturday on a Polish law that imposes jail terms for suggesting the country was complicit in the Holocaust, saying she did not want to wade into Poland’s internal affairs.

The law would impose prison sentences of up to three years for using the phrase “Polish death camps” and for suggesting “publicly and against the facts” that the Polish nation or state was complicit in Nazi Germany’s crimes.

“Without directly interfering in the legislation in Poland, I would like to say the following very clearly as German chancellor: We as Germans are responsible for what happened during the Holocaust, the Shoah, under National Socialism [Nazism],” Ms Merkel said in her weekly video podcast.

She was responding to a question from a student who had asked whether the new Polish law curbs freedom of expression.

Signed into law

Israel and the United States criticised President Andrzej Duda for signing the bill into law this week. Israel says the law will curb free speech, criminalise basic historical facts and stop any discussion of the role some Poles played in Nazi crimes.

A Polish government spokeswoman welcomed Ms Merkel’s remarks, the PAP news agency reported. Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki will hold talks with Ms Merkel in Berlin next week.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has clashed with the European Union and human rights groups on a range of issues since taking power in late 2015. It says the law is needed to ensure that Poles are recognised as victims, not perpetrators, of Nazi aggression in the second World War.

More than 3 million of the 3.2 million Jews who lived in pre-war Poland were murdered by the Nazis, accounting for about half of all Jews killed in the Holocaust.

Jews from across the Continent were sent to be killed at death camps built and operated by Germans in occupied Poland – home to Europe’s biggest Jewish community at the time.

Meanwhile, an adviser to Poland’s president has criticised Israel’s opposition to the new law.

The Israeli reaction stemmed from a “feeling of shame at the passivity of the Jews during the Holocaust”, said the adviser, Prof Andrzej Zybertowicz.

Israel’s reaction to the new law was anti-Polish, and showed it was clearly fighting to keep the monopoly on the Holocaust, he said.

“The ‘religion’ of the Holocaust has become a symbolic shield for that country, which is used by Israel to create for itself a special position in many places in the world. A shield which is meant to protect Israel against any criticism,” said the Nicolaus Copernicus University sociology professor.

Anti-Semitism

His remarks follow open expressions of anti-Semitism that surfaced online and in some government-controlled media when Israeli officials objected to the Bill form of the law.

In Israel, home to Holocaust scholars and families of survivors with roots in Poland, some fear the Polish speech law will allow the government to whitewash the role some individual Poles had in the deaths of the occupied country’s Jews. The law allows for prison terms of up to three years.

Mr Duda signed the law on Tuesday but asked the country’s constitutional court to review it, in a nod to the critics.

Poland’s government went into exile abroad when German forces took over in 1939, while an underground army at home resisted the Nazis.

Poles made up the largest group of victims at the Nazi-run camps, although there were cases of Poles who identified Jews to the Germans or killed them directly. – Reuters/Press Association