sierakowski24_Christopher Furlong_Getty Images_Auschwitz2 Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Jarosław Kaczyński’s Jewish Question

A new Polish law criminalizes blaming Poles for any wrongdoing against other nations. But the move only serves to highlight the fact that some Poles were complicit in crimes against Jews, while jeopardizing the country's relationship with its three most important allies: the US, Germany, and Ukraine.

WARSAW – The Polish government has provoked yet another international crisis, this time by adopting a law that is ostensibly meant to combat the phrase “Polish death camps.” The law targets a geographical shorthand, sometimes used abroad, for the extermination camps that the Nazis established on Polish territory during World War II. But there is more to the move than that.

When Poles talk about the Warsaw Ghetto, no one sees this as a problem. Similarly, virtually no one who uses the phrase “Polish death camps” – including former US President Barack Obama and former FBI Director James Comey  – does so out of ill will toward Poland. Such phrases can be found even in Polish schoolbooks, such as Zofia Nałkowska’s excellent book on the Holocaust, Medaliony. Nevertheless, many Poles believe that people abroad are misled by this phrase.

This is not the first time Polish politicians have spoken out against “Polish death camps,” and the issue’s appeal is not limited to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. Indeed, the issue was first taken up by former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski. But the new law does not mention death camps. It criminalizes blaming Poles for any wrongdoing against other nations. While the law includes exemptions for scholarly publications and artistic works, it applies to journalistic writing, posing a threat to open public debate.