NEW YORK—For people on Polish soil, within a few months, it may become illegal to use the phrase “Polish death camps” to refer to the death camps German Nazis operated in Poland during World War II. The punishment for anyone who says these forbidden words—except for artists and academics—will be a fine or, in more severe cases, up to three years in prison.
The new law, backed by the ruling Law and Justice party, was supported by a majority of 279 over 460 deputies in the lower house of the parliament, the Sejm, on Friday. It must now get approval from the senate and the president.
This is just the latest chapter of a long-standing controversy sparked by many Polish officials and organizations, which consider the use of the term “Polish death camps” as misleading. Linking Auschwitz and the other death camps with Poland, many believe, may lead to the mistaken belief that the Poles had some sort of involvement in the Nazi camps. Still, many use the phrase because these camps were located in Poland.
“So far the Polish state has not been able to effectively fight these types of insults to the Polish nation,” said deputy justice minister Patryk Jaki, Radio Poland reported. “Non-governmental organisations indicate that every other day the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ is used around the world … In other words, German Nazi crimes are attributed to Poles.”
According to the minister’s statement, it seems that the main target of the law is the foreign media. But foreign news organizations would be hardly subjected to this bill.
Some criticize the law for harming freedom of expression and not allowing public debates on history. This ruling, they fear, might silence discussions on some Poles’ support for the Nazis during the Holocaust. While more than 6,000 Poles were estimated to have saved Jews during the war, many others denounced Jews to the Nazis or took part in pogroms.
One of the most notable people to be criticized for saying “Polish death camps” was US president Barack Obama, who used the phrase in 2012 during a speech in Poland, causing a diplomatic crisis.
Photo: “Auschwitz-Birkenau” by Chany Crystal. Licensed under Creative Commons (2008).