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Poland's president vows 'careful' review of Holocaust bill after Israeli outcry

After visiting Auschwitz, Pope Francis will travel to Birkenau, the main extermination site, and be driven along tracks laid in 1944 to allow trains of prisoners to be transported right to the gas chambers
Janek Skarzynski (AFP/File)
Israel called passing of bill on International Holocaust Memorial Day 'surprising and unfortunate'

Poland's president said on Sunday he would carefully review a controversial new bill in the country's parliament that would slap prison terms of up to three years on anyone who says Poland has some responsibility for acts committed during the Holocaust.

After the law was harshly criticized by Israel's prime minister, president and other lawmakers, Poland's President Andrzej Duda said in a statement that he would present a "final evaluation of procedural legal provisions after the completion of parliament's work and a careful analysis of the final shape of the act."

The Israeli leader spoke with his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki on the phone Sunday evening and the agreed to "immediately open a dialogue" to reach an understanding of the legislation, Netanyahu's office said.

The call came hours after Israel summoned a top Polish diplomat to ask for clarification about the bill.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Poland of seeking to deny history with the bill.

"We have no tolerance for the distortion of truth and rewriting history or denying the Holocaust," he said earlier on Sunday.

The measure has passed Poland's lower house and is likely to be approved in the senate, but will need the president's signature to be passed into law.

After being called to a dressing down by Israel's foreign ministry, Warsaw’s deputy ambassador to Israel insisted earlier on Sunday that the controversial legislation was meant to “safeguard history.”

"The law's intent is by no means to whitewash history, but to safeguard it and the truth about the Holocaust, as well as to prevent its distortion," Deputy Polish Ambassador to Israel Piotr Kozłowski told the Israeli Ynet News website after a meeting at Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Yad Vashem Archives/AFP/File

Kozłowski’s summoning came as Israeli politicians expressed outrage over the bill, passed on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which prohibits the mention of “Polish death camps” or any insinuation that Poland played a supporting role in the atrocities committed by the Nazis during their attempt to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe during the Second World War.

Israel’s objections to the legislation were presented to Kozłowski during his 15-minute meeting with the Foreign Ministry’s Deputy Director General of the European division, Rodica Radian-Gordon, and the Director of the Department for Jewish Communities, Akiva Tor.

Israel warned that the bill would “not help further the exposure of historical truth, and may harm the freedom of research as well as prevent discussion of the historical message and legacy of World War II,” a statement from the ministry said.

It added that its passing on International Holocaust Memorial Day was particularly “surprising and unfortunate.”

“We expect the Polish government to change the wording of the law before its final adoption and conduct a meaningful dialogue with Israel on the subject,” it said.

Israel's ambassador to Poland Anna Azari told the Polish PAP news agency that Israel also believes the latter article could open the door to Holocaust survivors being prosecuted for their testimony should it concern the involvement of Poles in war crimes.

Netanyahu on Saturday evening slammed the legislation as “absurd”, and said that he had instructed Israel's envoy to Warsaw to meet the Polish prime minister to convey a "firm stand" against the law.

“History cannot be changed, and the Holocaust must not be denied," Netanyahu said.

Yad Vashem Archives/AFP/File

But Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki rebuffed criticism of the proposed law, saying that the terms “Auschwitz-Birkenau” and “Arbeit Macht Frei” are “not Polish.”

“Auschwitz is the most bitter lesson on how evil ideologies can lead to hell on earth,” Morawiecki said in a statement. “Jews, Poles, and all victims should be guardians of the memory of all who were murdered by German Nazis.”

“Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase.”

Nazi Germany established the main hubs of their extermination machine on Polish territory, including the largest concentration camp, Auschwitz, and the three primary extermination camps: Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and Chelmno.

Poland hosted pre-war Europe's largest Jewish population and there were thousands of reported incidents in which Jews were betrayed by non-Jewish Poles -- including former neighbors and friends -- and where local populations took part in Nazi-led actions to kill Jews.

There are also many witness accounts of non-Jewish Poles going to great lengths to help their Jewish compatriots, including many who were killed for doing so.

AFP contributed to this report.

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