WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s prime minister sought to ease concerns Thursday over a law criminalizing some public comments about the Holocaust by invoking the horror both Poles and Jews experienced at the hands of Nazi Germany, saying it bound their countries in a joint pursuit of the truth.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki gave a televised address hours after Poland’s Senate passed the legislation, which already had strained the country’s relations with Israel and the United States.
Striking a conciliatory note, Morawiecki said that telling the truth about what happened in Nazi-occupied Poland during the Holocaust is a task Poland and Israel share.
Poland will “never curb the freedom of the Holocaust debate,” he said. “We owe that to all those who experienced it.”
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The bill proposed by Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice party calls for fines and prison sentences of up to three years for purposely trying to attribute the crimes Nazi Germany carried out during the nearly six-year occupation to the Polish nation as a whole.
The lower house of Poland’s parliament approved the legislation last week. To become law, it still requires approval from President Andrzej Duda, who has said he supports it.
While the bill exempts artistic and scholarly work, it has raised concerns that the Polish state itself will decide what the facts of its wartime history are and which statements it finds objectionable enough to prosecute. Israeli officials have expressed outrage, while the United States asked Polish lawmakers to reconsider.
Polish Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki suggested that Israel had been consulted on the bill and voiced no objections. Many in Israel have characterized the proposed law as an attempt to whitewash the role some Poles played in the killing of Jews during World War II.
Israel “opposes categorically” the vote by Poland’s senators, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.
“Israel views with utmost gravity any attempt to challenge historical truth,” the ministry said in a statement. “No law will change the facts.”
A group of Israeli lawmakers introduced a bill on Thursday that would toughen Israel’s Holocaust denial regulations to make “denying or minimizing the involvement of the Nazi helpers and collaborators” a crime.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish rights group headquartered in Los Angeles, accused Poland’s conservative government of trying to suppress the “widespread participation of individual Poles in the persecution and murder of Jews during the Holocaust.”
Poland’s government has argued that it is fighting against the use of phrases like “Polish death camps” to refer to the camps Nazi Germany operated on Polish soil and where Poles were killed along with Jews and others.
Poland was among the countries hardest-hit by Nazi Germany, losing some six million citizens, half of them Jews.
The government also has expressed hope that adoption of the law will not affect Poland’s strategic partnership with the United States.
Before the Senate’s vote, the U.S. asked Poland to rethink the proposed legislation saying it could “undermine free speech and academic discourse” and affect Poland’s ties with the U.S. and Israel.
The prime ministers of Israel and Poland agreed on Sunday to try to resolve the argument by establishing working groups to discuss the Holocaust history issue. It remains unclear what effect the discussions might have on the bill being enacted in its current form.
Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, issued a statement saying it was “most unfortunate” that Poland was proceeding with a law “liable to blur historical truths.”
Ilan Ben Zion and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.