Statement by the President of the Republic of Poland on the amendment of the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance
UPDATE: On Tuesday evening, the President's spokesman, Krzysztof Lapinski, confirmed that the head of state had put his signature to the bill.
See also: President signed the amendment of the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance As promised, the President will now refer the new legislation to the Constitutional Tribunal, for an assessment of whether it puts undue restrictions on freedom of speech.
The Constitution provides the President with an opportunity to make the so-called follow-up application to the Constitutional Tribunal for examine the agreement of the act with the Constitution. The said application may be lodged by the President at any time in respect of any applicable act as well as any international agreement or decree. The application does not affect the applicability of the legal act it covers. Only the Constitutional Tribunal may cancel the applicability of its provisions provided that it states that the said provisions are against the Constitution.
Statement by the President of the Republic of Poland on the amendment of the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance:
Good afternoon, a very warm welcome to you!
As we all know, the adoption of the amendment of the Act on the Institute in the Polish Parliament has provoked an animated discussion, spanning not only the public and political circles in Poland but also the international fora, primarily the relations between Poland and Israel, but also the relations between Poles and Jews world-wide, and Polish-American relations. The amendment ushers in a new crime into the Polish legal system which consists in distortion of historical truth or an equivalent crime, tantamount to such a defamation. As I have just noted, this issue gives rise to an avid debate.
As it is always the case, the bill has been presented to me, as President of the Republic of Poland. As provided for by the Constitution, the President is the last stage in the legislative track in Poland, before the bill is published as an act of law. Therefore, it is incumbent on me, as President, to decide on the course that the bill will take further on.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is not a recent act of law, something that would be recently presented: just one week ago or one month ago. More than a year ago, during my state visit to Israel, I was discussing its provisions and was enquired about them both during our political talks and by journalists. In this connection, one particular aspect featured importantly: an expectation was voiced that the act and its provisions should in no way impede artistic and scientific activities.
As you know, Ladies and Gentlemen, the final wording of Art.55a contains a clear and explicit exclusion of such activities related to artistic and scientific pursuits. By the same token, the expectation that was expressed by Jewish milieus, was taken on board by the legislator; by the MPs who were drafting the bill.
What is the significance of the proposed act? It touches on an issue that is extremely painful and very delicate. It has to do with World War 2, with martyrology, primarily of the Polish nation; it relates to what we, Poles, meaning “our ancestors, grandparents and great grandparents”, went through in the course of World War 2, how many of our relatives lost their lives in the aftermath of war, killed by German Nazis or by other invaders who attacked Poland. This is a question of great import for us.
Let us recall: almost 6 million of our citizens lost their lives in World War 2. I reiterate most emphatically “citizens of Poland” and among them, there were approximately 3 million Polish citizens of Jewish nationality. Indeed, it was the case: the German Nazi annihilation industry focused its efforts on the destruction of the Jewish nation, to exterminate people of Jewish nationality.
Since Poland was the first country to be attacked: it was the place where World War 2 broke out, principally Poland as a country was under occupation almost from the outset of war. Let me remind you that Poland’s territories were practically torn apart: by Nazi Germany from the one side, and by the Soviet Union from the other, the latter assaulting Poland on September 17, 1939, and seizing part of our lands, on the strength of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Bearing this in mind, and I must stress this point most emphatically, in geographical sense, the Polish state was virtually non-existent, there were Polish lands of which the Polish state had been once made up. The Polish government was formed in exile, we had a government in London, but there was no government as such operational in Poland, nor were there institutions of the Polish state. Instead, there was only the Polish Underground State, there was the Home Army, the structures which were in the making. What for? In order to fight for the restoration of Polish statehood, to defend Polish citizen best they could, to vigorously fight with Nazi Germany; to struggle to liberate Poland, to bring Poland back on the map of the world, so that we could live again in a free state, the way our forefathers had done from 1918 to 1939.
Ladies and Gentlemen, those years back then when Poland was under Nazi occupation, form one of the darkest chapters in our history. There is no doubt about it. It is true, undoubtedly, that on our soil, German Nazi built extermination camps, concentration camps, the best known and most infamous of them being Auschwitz-Birkenau, where we annually observe the Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. It is true that of all nations, people of Jewish nationality paid the highest toll of lives. As I have just noted: the German annihilation programme was primarily targeting people of Jewish nationality.
But at the same time, also millions of Poles perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau and in other concentration camps, perished during persecutions and put before firing squads in the streets of Polish cities, were killed standing up in arms against Germans in various partisan formations, finally were tortured into death in Pawiak and in other sites where Germans launched their annihilation industry, also targeting the Polish nation, also targeting the ethnic Roma community; with whole numbers of Russians also being killed in concentration camps. But in total: millions of Poles lost their lives.
Those days have inflicted an immense pain on the Jewish nation, and on the contemporary state of Israel. There is probably no single Jewish family living in Europe back then that would not lose a relative or a friend. And, as you realize, it would also happen that out of the whole family, only one person would survive, all others being murdered. Therefore, for Jews this is a matter of great import, delicate and stirring. I, as a Pole, have also an experience of being raised among the stories of World War 2 and the days of annihilation. Death took its toll on my family as well: my grandfather’s brother was murdered by the Germans. And from my earliest childhood, as far as my memory can go back, the accounts of Jews murdered in the war were always told in my family, we all know their history.
As I was saying: this history is most painfully felt by the Jewish nation, by many people who nowadays live in Israel and who lost their nearest and dearest in World War 2. I have my utmost respect for this grief and this profound memory, and you will appreciate that forging good relations between Poland and Israel, between people of Jewish nationality and of Polish one respectively is something that I have at heart. We used to live here on this soil for one thousand years in a shared state, in the Commonwealth, which Jews called “Polin”, as it is beautifully documented in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. And this is a grand shared history that was most dramatically interrupted by Nazi Germany.
Against the backdrop of the amended act, voices were raised in Israel, in the United States and in other places suggesting that it might lead to the denial of historical truth, to its distortion, eventually making people liable for telling the truth, and this under the pretences they have distorted it.
Let me make it fully clear: in my view, Article 55a, and its initial part in particular, does not give rise to such doings. It provides clearly that only a person who publicly and in defiance of facts will profess certain views will be punishable by criminal law.
Given that there have been and there still persist doubts, I myself, as President, I am inclined to clear them out and to have them resolved. This is, I believe, something that ought to be done out of respect for the memory and sensitivities of those bereaved. Also, out of respect for the feelings of the Survivors, whose accounts make up a momentous reminder to the entire world: so that this unspeakable drama and unprecedented cruelty, as exemplified by the Holocaust, and the annihilation of Jews, and of other nations, should never recur.
To make sure it does not happen again, we must remember and talk about that experience. It must be alive not only in the memory of Poles and Jews but also in the memory of the world. And to make this experience alive, testimonies of the Survivors are essential, the people who were eye-witnesses of those events, who stand as great witnesses of history. Thank God, many of them are still alive, are among us and they can give their testimonies. What is important: it is not my intention to provoke any doubts as to whether one can give freely one’s testimony, without fearing criminal liability in Poland, under Polish law.
At the same time, it is for me also essential to make sure that we as Poles, as the Polish state and the Polish nation should not be defamed and charged with complicity in the Holocaust. In the first place, some people say, much to my regret and grief, shared by most of the Polish people, that the Poles as a nation had their hand in the Holocaust, and in a systematic institutionalised way. Nothing of that kind! The historic truth is that there was no systematic institutionalised participation among Poles. This is something we know fully well.
Back then there was no Poland, the institutions of the Polish state were non-existent, therefore they could not possibly collude. As I have just noted: there was the Polish Underground State, there was the Home Army, the underground army, which was not only not complicit in the Holocaust but did all it could to prevent it. The Council to Aid Jews, „Żegota” was formed at the level of the Delegation for Poland to assist Polish citizens of Jewish nationality to escape annihilation.
These are proud and grand chapters written by personages such as Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Irena Sendler who worked to rescue Jewish children. Also, by Jan Karski who was entrusted with a great mission to document and report to the Allies on the situation in Poland, and primarily on the extermination of Jews, the mission which was formulated by the Polish Government in Exile. And also, the daring mission of Rittmeister Pilecki sent to Auschwitz, at the risk of his own life, who voluntarily got there to the extermination camp to gather evidence about what was going on there and to report on them to the Government in Exile and to the Allied Governments.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is precisely the institutional side of it. Looking from that angle, one can say that the reverse is true: not only Poland and Poles were not complicit in extermination effort; institutionally we were opposing it, trying to help and to save our fellow citizens of Jewish nationality. These are historical facts, Ladies and Gentlemen.
On an individual, personal level, as you know, admittedly, there were ups and downs. Of all nations in the world, we can claim the highest number of Righteous Among the Nations. Polish citizens, Poles, have the biggest number of trees planted in the Yad Vashem Institute to commemorate their aid to Jews. And it was precisely Poland, equally occupied lands and the General Government, where assisting Jews was punishable with death penalty. Mind you, such penalty was not provided for by Germans in other countries: the Netherlands, France or other lands under German occupation. It was instituted in Poland.
Whoever aided people of Jewish nationality in Poland, was under death threat, and his or her family likewise. You know perfectly well that such penalties were enforced. The best documented and best-known instance of such an ordeal was the death of the Ulma family. The Ulma couple together with their children were slaughtered for offering shelter to their Jewish neighbours. You will appreciate that there were many similar cases all across occupied Poland.
Obviously, undeniably, there were also instances of gross baseness. There were shmaltzovniks, there was also fear. Next to baseness, where people were surrendered only to please the Germans and even to be awarded with some material benefit, there were simply instances of fear: lest Germans come, find Jews in the hiding and exterminate the whole family. None of us today, and especially none of the younger ones can possibly fathom it, imagine what it is like and what it means to fear for one’s life, when also your own family can be murdered any time.
But I wish to make this point again: there was no systematic complicity: either on the part of the Polish state, the state which was non-existent them, or on the part of any Polish institutions, in the German annihilation industry. There was no institutional collaboration between Poland and Germany. In many countries, there were government colluding with Nazi, in many countries German instituted puppet governments but this was not the case with Poland. Poland fought with Germany.
That being said, Ladies and Gentlemen, given the gravity of the case, given how painfully it features in the annals of our shared history, given how much discussion it has recently provoked, often stormy discussion imbued with greatest emotional reactions, we must understand that it stirs up a lot of emotions and will be stirring them. And it is good. The point in remembering that experience is to be moved, so that we can never see such situation again, so that we are alert to all instances of hatred, be it on ethnic or national grounds, the hatred which leads to the Holocaust. For it was hatred that brought the Holocaust about.
That is why I keep saying: there can be no room for any spark of hate, ill-will among nationalities, among ethnic groups, in Poland. And I insist on being extremely sensitive on this point. Condoning any manifestations of hatred on racial grounds in Poland, and anti-Semitism in particular, is out of question. We know all of us what anti-Semitism has led to and we all know it cannot recur, never in history.
Ladies and Gentlemen, also good name of Poland and of Polish people needs to be protected. This is a question of our sensitivity. For we also have the right to our own sensitivity. We also have the right to historic truth. And we also have the right to be judged based on facts and in truth.
That is why, as President of the Republic of Poland, I have taken the following decision, having viewed the existing situation and the provisions in question. I have made my decision to sign the bill into law. Therefore, provisions of Article 55a shall enter into force. But concurrently, and this is for me a point of particular sensitivity, bearing in mind the voices of defiance and objections, suggesting that it would no longer be possible to speak out the truth, suggesting that the Survivors would be now silenced, I decided to send this act of law to the Constitutional Tribunal in order to have the conformity of the two provisions examined by the Tribunal:
In the first place, regarding Article 54 which provides about freedom to profess one’s own views, something that has obvious bearing on freedom of speech. Is freedom of speech not unduly limited by the provision in question. And this is the first point. The second is for the Tribunal to examine the so-called specificity of the provisions.
The provisions entailed relate to criminal law. Therefore, they have a particular strength: on their basis, a court may pass a sentence. Therefore, such provisions must be specific. Each citizen deserves this clarity: having read a provision, one must be able to make out which kind of behaviour may be punishable, and which not. I would like the Constitutional Tribunal to rule whether the above provisions are line with Article 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland, and as President, I shall apply to the Constitutional Tribunal for such a ruling.
Ladies and Gentlemen, let me reiterate: I have decided to sign this bill into law but at the same time, thereupon, exercising the powers of President, I have decided to send it to the Constitutional Tribunal to have Article 55aexamined in terms of its conformity with the Constitution. This is my decision.
On the one hand, this measure will safeguard our Polish interests, and by that I have in mind securing our dignity, historic truth, so that we are judged in a fair manner worldwide, so that we are not slandered as a state and as a nation. But on the other hand, this measure will take on board as far as I can go back with my memory the sensitivity of the people for whom historic memory and the memory of the Holocaust is of vital importance, primarily the Survivors who should be able to relate to the world, as long as they can, what are their memories of those days and what they went through.