The First People Have Just Been Accused Of Violating Poland's New Holocaust Law

Poland’s justice minister and other lawmakers had tried to quiet international uproar about the law by promising it would not be immediately enforced, but an organization that helped pass the law is trying to take enforcement into its own hands.

A group influential in passing a new law in Poland that makes it a crime to attribute any blame to the country for the Holocaust said Friday that it had filed the first lawsuit seeking to enforce the legislation.

The case was filed by the Polish League Against Defamation (RDI) against the Argentine newspaper Pagina12 over a story published in December — more than two months before the law came into effect — about a incident in the town of Jedwabne in 1941 in which a group of Poles burned more than 300 Jews in a barn with the tacit approval of occupying Nazi soldiers. The RDI wants the paper to apologize for illustrating the story with a photograph taken after the war of a group of Polish fighters executed for opposing Poland’s new Communist government.

"Connecting these two things: information about killing the Jews in Jedwabne during the German occupation and depicting killed soldiers of the independence underground is a manipulation, an action against the Polish nation and damages the reputation of Polish soldiers," the RDI said on its website. "This is intentional abuse to consolidate in the readers Polish anti-Semitism."

Pagina12 did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The Holocaust law, which was passed last month, includes provisions for fines as well as up to three years in prison for anyone who attributes “responsibility or co-responsibility for the crimes perpetrated by the Third German Reich to the Polish nation or the Polish state," where many of the Nazi death camps were located. The law gives NGOs such as the RDI the ability to bring suit for violations of the law in addition to prosecutors.

There’s been some back-and-forth about when the law is to come into effect, and RDI’s suit appears designed to force it into effect. Lawmakers had proposed March 1 — the day before the suit was filed — but amid an international outcry Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said this week that the law would not be immediately enforced until the Constitutional Court reviews its legality. However, as soon as those remarks were reported in an Israeli newspaper, a spokesperson for Ziobro’s own ministry put out a statement suggesting the law would come into force on March 1.

The timing of the suit — coming just after Polish lawmakers met lawmakers in Israel in an attempt to put the key allies back on track — appears to be an attempt to scuttle efforts to downplay the law in order to quiet international furor.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accused Poland in January of “an attempt to rewrite history," and historians worry the law will silence discussions of the way some Poles contributed to atrocities during the war. But the international outcry has mystified many in Poland, where the law is perceived as an effort to have Poland recognized as a victim of World War II, during which it was invaded by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Six million people died in Poland during the war, three million of them Jews.

The ruling Law and Justice Party saw a bump in the polls after the law’s passage, and a desire to capture support at home helps explain why attempts to calm the crisis have been undermined at every turn. The most infamous incident came when Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki undermined himself by suggesting there were “Jewish perpetrators” of the Holocaust while he was trying to dispel concerns that the law would prevent anyone from talking about Polish citizens who contributed to atrocities.

Lawmakers had claimed to be surprised by the international outcry, but the outlet Gazeta Wyborcza reported this week that US diplomats had warned the foreign ministry against the law before the vote. However, there was an unusual delay in passing that message on to lawmakers.

And while the MPs were in Israel discussing ways to cooperate on historical research, a committee of the Polish Senate debated a resolution that implied the Soviet Union was to blame for a mass outpouring of anti-Semitism that caused thousands of Polish Jews to flee the country in 1968. This week a large group of historians protested a decision by the Polish government’s historical agency, the Institute of National Remembrance, to reassign a leading scholar of the Holocaust.

The group that brought the new lawsuit was founded by Maciej Świrski, who is close to the ruling party and now runs the Polish National Foundation, a quasi-public organization funded by state-owned corporations to promote Poland’s reputation abroad. In February, the Polish media reported that Morawiecki, the prime minister, wanted Świrski removed because of concerns he was mismanaging the Foundation’s annual budget of around $75 million.

Świrski was a key player in getting the Holocaust law passed. The Polish League Against Defamation collected tens of thousands of signatures in support of the legislation while he was the group’s leader, and disclosures from the Polish justice ministry suggest he was the only person formally consulted before the law was presented to parliament.

As Morawiecki and other lawmakers were trying to downplay the law’s significance in the days after its passage, the Polish National Foundation went on the offensive. It recorded a video defending the law, which was promoted with ads that appeared in right-wing outlets like Breitbart.

Świrski declined an interview request with BuzzFeed News, and several sources said they would not criticize him on the record because he is a powerful figure in his own right. But his running of the foundation has been controversial at home. In September, the foundation signed a $45,000 per month contract with a Washington PR firm called the White House Writers Group (WHWG), according to disclosures filed with the US government.

The contract has been questioned in the Polish media as part of a pattern of questionable spending on lobbying the public. The principal on the account, according to forms disclosing WHWG’s work for a Polish government entity to the US government, is Senior Director Anna Chodakiewicz Wellisz, who once published an article with Taki’s Magazine, which has been an important platform for many alt-right figures, including its former editor, Richard Spencer.

“I have no connections to alt-right circles, and I know nothing about them beyond what I read, including in publications such as yours,” Wellisz said in an email to BuzzFeed News. She also said there was no effort to target right-wing media to defend Polish policy in the US, “Our intent is to reach across the spectrum of opinion.”

But it’s not clear how the Polish National Foundation is using its Washington PR firm even as the US State Department has also condemned the Holocaust law. Wellisz said the firm was not involved in the video defending the law, and that the only ad buy it coordinated were ads on CNBC and Fox in December, when the organization aired a spot with priests, a rabbi, and an imam wishing Americans “happy holidays” on behalf of the Polish people.

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