Poland's President signs off on highly controversial Holocaust law

Poland's President signs off on highly controversial Holocaust law

Poland's President signs off on highly controversial Holocaust law

Updated 7 February 2018, 16:40 AEDT

Anyone who accuses "the Polish nation" of complicity in the Holocaust could be imprisoned for up to three years under a new law.

The phrase "Polish death camp" has long upset and infuriated many people in Poland.

It's an inaccurate term most often used by uninformed tourists, journalists or politicians in relation to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious former Nazi concentration camp which lies in southern Poland.

According to the country's ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party, the term can't be explained away as an innocent geographical indicator but is instead an implication that Poland, not just Hitler's German Third Reich, is in some way to blame for the Holocaust.

"It's wrong. People use this term every week internationally. They rewrite history," Government MP Arkadiusz Mularczyk said.

"We need to protect the reputation of the Polish nation into the future and that's why we have [made] this law."

But the new Holocaust law approved overnight by President Andrzej Duda makes no reference to any "Polish death camp".

Although the term will be outlawed, the law is much broader and makes it illegal to accuse "the Polish nation" of complicity in the Holocaust or other atrocities committed during Nazi occupation — anyone who does can be fined or imprisoned for up to three years.

There is an exemption for scholars but there are fears it may hinder research into the way some individual Poles helped Germans find Jews.

Others claim it will make it illegal for Holocaust survivors to give evidence that incriminates Polish citizens in war crimes.

But the biggest fear among some academics is that it will whitewash one of the darkest periods of Polish history and eventually prevent any examination of the facts that don't fit the Government's preferred narrative.

"The Government ... wants to show Poles to be heroic," Edyta Gawron from the Krakow Jewish Community Centre said.

"But we need to look at the whole picture of this.

"I think the Government is surprised by the international reaction but I would say that any rational politician could have expected it."

In the face of opposition from Israel and the United States, Mr Duda has made a concession.

He's asked the country's Constitutional Tribunal to determine whether the law breaches free-speech protections.

But many in Poland are sceptical that will lead to many changes.

Since coming to power, the Government has sought to assert its influence over the judiciary in a manner that has been fairly widely condemned.

The European Union has even started a process that could see Poland face punishment for the changes.

Andrzej Kacorzyk from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum said any discussion to do with the former concentration camp was always "challenging" and often "complex".

Indeed it seems the law has in some way forced many Poles to again reflect on their complex relationships with the past.

Most of the law's backers see it partly as an important way of highlighting to the world how much Poland suffered during World War II and the years that followed — they feel that pain has never been truly understood by the international community.

Critics though believe this is the nationalist government's most blatant attempt to stir up patriotic sentiment to reshape the way the country thinks about its history.

They argue that may make it easier for the ruling party to impose its vision on the future.