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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Poland agrees to review Holocaust bill over Israeli concerns

The legislation has caused a diplomatic row between the two countries

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, 28 January 2018.  EPA/TSAFRIR ABAYOV / POOL
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, 28 January 2018. EPA/TSAFRIR ABAYOV / POOL

Poland's president on Sunday promised to review a new bill regarding the Holocaust and the definition of Nazi death camps, after the measure sparked a diplomatic row with Israel.

Poland's right wing dominated parliament on Friday adopted legislation that sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as being Polish.

The measure, intended to apply to both Poles and foreigners, must still pass the Polish Senate before being signed by President Andrzej Duda.

In a statement on Sunday, Mr Duda said he would present his "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 bill includes an article that applies a fine or a jail term to anyone who ascribes "responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for crimes committed by the German Third Reich - or other crimes against humanity, peace and war crimes".

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Israel's ambassador to Poland Anna Azari told the Polish PAP news agency that Israel 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.

Mrs Azari said that while Israel's government rejects the legislation, it also "understands" who built death camps like Auschwitz and that it was "not the Poles".

A top aide of Mr Duda's is due to meet with Mrs Azari on Monday in Warsaw.

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

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

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

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

The Israeli foreign ministry said the timing of the legislation, which was adopted by parliament the day before Holocaust Memorial Day, was "particularly surprising and regrettable".

Mr Duda earlier appeared to address Israel's concerns by saying that "everyone whose personal memory or historical research speaks the truth about the crimes and shameful behaviour that occurred in the past with the participation of Poles has full right to this truth".

Polish officials routinely request corrections when global media or politicians describe as "Polish" the former death camps such as Auschwitz set up by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, said it opposed the new legislation, but also noted there was "no doubt that the term 'Polish death camps' is a historical misrepresentation".

"However, restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the direct or indirect complicity of Polish people with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion," it said.

Pre-war Poland was a Jewish heartland, with a centuries-old community numbering some 3.2 million, around 10 per cent of the country's population.

When the country was occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II, it lost 6 million of its citizens - including three million Jews in the Holocaust.

Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki reacted via Twitter on Sunday with a metaphor referring to the fate of his country's Jewish and non-Jewish citizens during the war.

"A gang of professional thugs enters a two-family house. They kill the first family almost entirely. They kill the parents of the second, torturing the kids. They loot and raze the house. Could one, in good conscience, say that the second family is guilty for the murder of the first?," he asked.

After attending Saturday's ceremonies in Auschwitz to mark the 73rd anniversary of its liberation Mr Morawiecki, a trained historian, also remarked that "Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase".

He was referring to the words on the Nazi camp's infamous wrought-iron gate that mean "Work makes you free" in German.