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Poland Has Backtracked On Its Controversial "Holocaust Law"

The law, which criminalized blaming Poland in any way for the Holocaust, caused an international outcry when it was first passed.

Last updated on June 27, 2018, at 5:16 a.m. ET

Posted on June 27, 2018, at 5:13 a.m. ET

Brzezinka, or Birkenau, Nazi death camp near Oswieciem, Poland.
Matthias Schrader / AP

Brzezinka, or Birkenau, Nazi death camp near Oswieciem, Poland.

Poland's Parliament has voted to revise legislation that caused an international outcry by making it a crime to blame the Polish nation for the Holocaust.

While the legislation is not being entirely repealed, under the revised law, criminal penalties, including possible prison sentences, will be removed.

"This law very much shook the world's consciousness," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said during a Wednesday morning session of Parliament, as he called on lawmakers to amend the law. "Good name and the truth are as important as security."

The original law allowed for jail time for up to three years for those who suggested Poland, which was occupied during World War II, had any responsibility for the estimated 3 million Jews killed in the country during the war.

The amended law will now be narrowly enforced by giving the country's Institute for National Remembrance the ability to fine those it believes misrepresent Polish history.

The Holocaust legislation seriously damaged relations with two of Poland's closest allies, Israel and the United States, when it was first voted on just before Holocaust Remembrance Day in January. The US reportedly blacklisted Poland's top leaders from meeting with President Donald Trump as long as the law is in place, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to fight the bill as "an attempt to rewrite history." Organizations of historians also called the legislation a threat to academic freedom.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, during a visit to the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews During WWII, in Markowa, Poland, in February this year.
Alik Keplicz / AP

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, during a visit to the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews During WWII, in Markowa, Poland, in February this year.

Polish President Andrzej Duda had initially attempted to quell the outcry by saying the law would not be enforced until Poland's Constitutional Tribunal had reviewed it. But the Justice Ministry caused confusion by sending conflicting signals over whether offenses would be prosecuted under the law, and a foundation close to the ruling party attempted to force the issue by bringing lawsuits for alleged violations.

The legislation was primarily intended to stamp out description of camps like Auschwitz, which were built by Nazi forces on occupied Polish territory, as "Polish death camps," which many Poles see as an attempt to blame their country for war crimes committed by Nazi Germany. But the legislation that was enacted in February was broadly written to also punish suggesting Poland was responsible for "other crimes against peace and humanity, or war crimes."

Six million people — half of them Jews — are estimated to have died in Poland during World War II, when the state was occupied throughout by German and Soviet forces. Jewish groups and free speech advocates were worried that the law could be used to silence any discussion of Poles' participation in genocide or homegrown anti-Semitism that began before the war. A wave of pogroms swept Poland as the Nazis marched West across the country, though many Poles risked their own lives to help Jews escape Nazi forces.

The bill reflected a continued nationalist wave that helped bring the ruling Law and Justice Party, known as PiS, to power in 2015. Previous Polish leaders had made gestures of reconciliation like apologizing for one of the most infamous massacres of Jews during the war, which PiS blasted as facilitating a "pedagogy of shame" intended to embarrass Poland.

It's not immediately clear what caused PiS's leaders to suddenly move to revise the legislation on Wednesday. The Constitutional Tribunal still has not ruled on the legislation, and the proposal surprised even the Institute for National Remembrance, the agency officially charged with uncovering the truth of Poland's history during World War II and the communist regime that followed.

The vote also comes as Poland is fighting European Union efforts to sanction it for unrelated measures EU leaders say violate safeguards to ensure the rule of law.

It remains to be seen whether watering down the Holocaust legislation will be enough to satisfy the government's critics and foreign governments. The US and Israeli governments did not immediately release public statements on the legislation or respond to questions from BuzzFeed News.

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