I beg to move,
That this House has considered Polish anti-defamation law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gapes. I am pleased that the Backbench Business Committee has given time to this sensitive and difficult subject. I was going to raise it in the general debate on anti-Semitism in the Chamber on 17 April, but unfortunately I was not called, and I felt the issue needed a full airing.
This debate takes place in the context of the fact that the Polish President signed the Bill into law while also referring it to the Polish constitutional tribunal for review. I am pleased that the Polish prosecutor general has issued a legal opinion stating that in part the law is unconstitutional, and I look forward to the tribunal’s ruling, which should come any day now.
It is only appropriate to start this debate by paying tribute to the thousands of Poles who helped the Jews during the second world war and fought alongside allied soldiers in the Polish free army. The righteous among the nations are a group of non-Jewish people who have been recognised for their great sacrifices and bravery in helping Jewish people during the holocaust. The title is awarded by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, and Poles constitute the largest national group of the righteous, with 6,706 people listed. We must remember that the punishment awaiting those who provided any kind of help to Jews was death for them and their entire family. At liberation, around 50,000 Jewish survivors were on Polish soil. It is estimated that about 30,000 to 35,000 Jews, only about 10% of Poland’s Jews, survived, and around 1% of all Polish Jewry was saved with the help of Poles and thanks to the devotion of the righteous among the nations.
I will start by paying tribute to a few of those Poles listed at Yad Vashem. First, I pay tribute to Jan and Anna Puchalski and their children, Irena, Krystyna and Sabina. They were a poor Polish family with five children, living in a tiny house. Jan supported his family on his small salary from working in a tobacco factory. On 13 February 1943, a Jewish family of four, who sometimes stayed in the area during the summer, and two other people turned up at their door, having escaped a Nazi raid on the ghetto. Despite their lack of resources, the Puchalskis hid five Jews in a shelter under their floorboards for 17 months.
Secondly, I pay tribute to Jan and Antonina Żabiński. In the 1930s, the Warsaw zoo was one of the largest in Europe. When the war broke out, part of the zoo was bombed and many of the animals were taken to Germany. The zoo’s director, Dr Jan Żabiński, was allowed to visit the ghettoes because he was an employee of the Warsaw municipality. Using the excuse that he was going to tend some trees in a small public garden in the ghetto, he visited his Jewish friends to offer them help. As the situation worsened, he offered them shelter in his zoo. Around a dozen Jews lived in the couple’s home, with others staying in former animal enclosures around the park. He also helped them to get documentation and find accommodation elsewhere. The couple’s story was turned into a film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, just last year.
Thirdly, I pay tribute to Leopold and Magdalena Socha. Leopold Socha was a sewer maintenance worker in Lwów. When the Nazis occupied Poland, Leopold witnessed the suffering of the Jewish people and decided he was going to try to rescue at least 20 Jews from the ghetto. He enlisted the help of his co-worker Stefan Wróblewski. Together, they hid 21 Jewish people in the sewers. Initially the Jews paid Socha and Wróblewski, but as they ran out of money, Socha and his wife provided for them. They stayed in terrible conditions in the sewers for 13 months. Sadly, only 10 of the group survived until the liberation of Lwów. Leopold also saved the life of my great-uncle, Yehuda Mildiner. I pay tribute to Leopold and the 6,706 righteous who did so much for families like mine.
Poland was the only occupied country to set up a committee to aid Jews, Żegota, which provided food, shelter, medical care, money and false documents to Jews. Most of Żegota’s funds came directly from the Polish Government in exile here in Britain. In particular, the children’s section of Żegota, led by Irena Sendler, saved 2,500 Jewish children with the co-operation of Polish families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary and Roman Catholic convents. Polish forces also gave exemplary service to the allied effort in the battle of Britain, the battle of the Atlantic, the north African campaign, particularly the battle of Tobruk, the Italian campaign, including the capture of the monastery hill at the battle of Monte Cassino, and the French campaign. We all have much to thank the people of Poland for, securing the freedoms we value today.
However, I return to the law passed on 26 January by the Polish Parliament and signed into law by the Polish President in early February. The fact that the President referred the law to the constitutional tribunal for review has not stopped the first case being brought. If nothing else, the nature of this case needs to make us stop and think about the nature of the law and its potentially far-reaching consequences, not just in Poland but globally.
The case was brought on 2 March 2018 against the Argentine newspaper Página/12 by the Polish League Against Defamation. The lawsuit focuses specifically on a photograph that accompanied an article about the 1941 massacre of Jews in the Polish village of Jedwabne. The Polish League Against Defamation claims that Página/12 was being “manipulative”, as the image is of four Polish anti-communist fighters in 1950, while the article is about the 1941 pogrom while Poland was under Nazi occupation, and that by linking the two events the publication was
“harming…the reputation of Polish soldiers”,
and trying to make Poland appear anti-Semitic. Página/12 has changed the photo of the partisans to that of a monument in Jedwabne vandalised with a drawing of a swastika, a proportionate response to what was clearly an error by the newspaper.
The lawsuit was brought by the right-wing nationalist Polish League Against Defamation, an independent organization formed out of the Patriotic Society Foundation. Although the article was published in December, before the law took effect, and may not be admissible, it clearly shows the dangers the law could pose. The Argentine Government agree, stating:
“No law can limit, condemn or prevent freedom of expression or limit research”.
Even more concerning is the reaction of the Polish Government. The deputy Justice Minister expressed his hope that the Página/12 case would go to court, saying:
“If the court decides the complaint is admissible—and it should do so—then there will be a court case.”
In 2012, Barack Obama used the phrase “Polish death camp” during a Medal of Freedom ceremony for Jan Karski. He was clearly referring to a Nazi death camp in Poland, and the White House press secretary clarified that he had misspoken after Donald Tusk, then the Polish Prime Minister, complained about his use of the phrase. Will President Obama now face a lawsuit under the law? There is a much bigger picture here. When laws are passed that are regressive in nature, they have a wider societal effect than just the intended function of the law. When section 28 was passed in this country, it created a new wave of acceptability around homophobia.
My fears have already been realised, as can be seen from the actions of thousands of individuals against the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. The staff were subjected to a wave of, in their own words,
“hate, fake news and manipulations”.
The brother of Piotr Cywiński, the museum’s director, posted on Facebook criticising the
“50 days of incessant hatred”
targeted at his brother. He said:
“For 12 long years he’s worked in one of the most terrible places in the world, in an office with a view of gallows and a crematorium. Dozens of articles on dodgy websites, hundreds of Twitter accounts, thousands of similar tweets, profanities, memes, threats, slanders, denunciations. It’s enough to make you sick.”
All this came after the law was passed.
Protesters have also been targeting the museum’s guides. They claim that the guides are trained to promote “foreign narratives” and that only Polish people should be allowed to work as museum guides. Videos of protesters, including convicted anti-Semite and local politician Piotr Rybak, harassing guides during the tours have been posted online. In March, the home of an Italian guide was vandalised with graffiti on his door that said “Poland for the Poles” and graffiti equating the Star of David with a Nazi swastika, with “Auschwitz for Poland guides!” daubed on an adjoining wall. To think it is acceptable to abuse those working to keep alive the memory of one of humanity’s most horrific death factories—a machine of genocide operated by Nazis—is, to me, beyond comprehension.
After my letter to the Foreign Secretary and after applying for the debate, I have not been immune from such abuse, giving me first-hand experience. As well as posting abuse on Twitter and in the comments sections of websites, people have taken to emailing my parliamentary email address. I will read one example. I apologise in advance for its language and its anti-Semitism, which is some of the worst I have ever seen. I want to be very clear that I am quoting; these are not my words. It says:
“You Talmudic piece of shit…Fuck off—leave Poland alone. Keep your Talmudic noses out of Polish affairs, Satan’s Brood. The Synagogue of Satan will go down in flames”.
Another email had pages and pages of graphically anti-Semitic images. On Twitter, I received this comment:
“People like you are the very reason we have the need for this legislation. Jewish Amnesia Syndrome is back. Denying there were Jewish perpetrators is after all denying one Holocaust Narrative.”
“Of course this guy is not antisemitic”—
I thank them for that—
“he is a Jew and takes a profit from his MP status for lobbying against Poland and support the state of Israel which obviously needs new financial sources”.
“Sobel is a member of the lobby. A liar, fake news spreading provocateur insulting 6 Million Polish victims murdered by Nazi Germany”.
One account now suspended by Twitter sent me 10 tweets accusing me of being in a worldwide conspiracy and on George Soros’s payroll, and saying that I should be banned from Poland, as well as including a homophobic insult.
If the Polish Government’s intention is for the law to minimise the false reporting of the holocaust and minimise anti-Semitic feeling, the exact opposite has been the result. I am sure that, as I speak, people are taking to their keyboards to send me more hate. I will not be able to press refresh on my Twitter account today, as it will just be filled with abuse.
I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman has received those comments. Unfortunately, all Members suffer vile abuse on Twitter, as I am sure he will recognise. There are crackpots in every society. Has he managed to speak to the Polish ambassador, or to visit Poland during the course of this year, to get a first-hand account of the situation on the ground there? A lot of misinformation on this subject is coming out of the country.
I intend to visit Poland later in the year, but I have not managed to yet. The Polish ambassador invited me for a meeting, but I did not arrive into London until quite late yesterday, so I responded that I will meet him after the debate. I have not been able to meet him, but I intend to. I understand that there are lots of different views, but I think the evidence is quite clear that the passing of this law has given an acceptability to things that were not acceptable before. It is about the consequences of the law and the atmosphere that it has created. People of Polish-Jewish descent and people from Poland have told me about their fears as a result of the law.
To conclude, I thank the Minister for Europe and the Americas for his letter, dated 8 May, in which he stated that the issue has been raised by the Foreign Secretary with his Polish counterpart at two meetings. He referred the issue to Eric Pickles, as the UK’s special envoy on the holocaust. Although I welcome Sir Eric Pickles’s involvement, I think this is a matter for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to take up, rather than leaving it to a special envoy with a limited role. I ask the Minister and the Foreign Secretary to take the matter up with the EU through all the meetings and institutions that they and their colleagues will attend, including the Council of Ministers, and to report back to the House on the results of those discussions.
I know that a number of Members are members of the Council of Europe, and I know that this issue has been raised there. I hope that they keep looking at ways to engage with Polish colleagues and gain support for the law to be dropped.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I rise as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Poland and as the first ever Polish-born British Member of Parliament.
The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) alluded to the terrible suffering of Polish people who helped their Jewish neighbours and friends. I will start by giving a very personal account of what happened to my family. Jan Kawczynski, the brother of my grandfather, knew, as has been alluded to, that Poland was the only country in occupied Europe where helping Jewish people carried the death penalty, but he took that risk anyway. For those of us here who are fathers, I argue that it takes an exceptional man to put at risk the lives of his daughter and his wife. He took that risk, and he hid various Jewish friends and neighbours on his estate in western Poland.
He was coming back home to his farm one day when his neighbour stopped him and said not to go back because he would be walking back to his death. The Germans had realised something was afoot and had surrounded the farm. He said he had to go back because his daughter and wife were there. When he went back, the Germans first made him take off his officer’s boots. They then made him dig a grave, informing him that they would shoot his daughter and his wife, and then they made him watch as they shot his 12-year-old daughter and then his wife. Then they shot him.
I have never spoken about that in the House, although I have been a Member for 13 years, but a lot of emotion has already been expressed in the debate, and I hope hon. Members will realise from what I have said just how strongly I feel about this situation. I am grateful and pleased that I can pay tribute to Jan Kawczynski for the sacrifices that he made to do the right thing—to help his Jewish friends and neighbours.
Last year, I went to the zoo that the hon. Member for Leeds North West mentioned for an award ceremony at which my family was recognised for helping Jewish families. That ceremony was organised by a very good friend of mine, Mr Jonny Daniels, who runs a foundations called From the Depths, which is partly financed and supported by the British Government and which seeks to bring together Jewish and Polish communities in the modern era.
However, although my family have been recognised, we are typical of so many different Polish families who suffered as a result of helping their Jewish friends and neighbours. In actual fact, I have to say that the Polish underground resistance actually punished Poles who committed crimes against Jews. Of course, as has been said, Poland has the most members of the righteous among the nations for all the suffering that they went through in helping their Jewish friends and neighbours, as was recognised by the state of Israel.
Poland has great concern about the international media’s lack of care as to what happened in world war two. Poland was invaded in 1939 and brutalised by its German occupiers; 6 million people were slaughtered. Warsaw, the city of my birth, was completely destroyed, with 98% of the city flattened in 1944 by Adolf Hitler’s forces as punishment after the Warsaw uprising.
The United Kingdom suffered greatly during the second world war, and we made terrible sacrifices as well, but Poland uniquely suffered the abject brutality of the German invasion. Tensions and emotions still run high as a result of what happened at that time. Of course, being trapped behind the iron curtain after the second world war with an illegitimate Communist regime who tried to distort history through school rooms did not allow Polish society to discuss and debate these issues properly.
I hope that the BBC picks up on this point again, because I have a thick file of my correspondence with the BBC—the British Broadcasting Corporation—in relation to my numerous complaints to it about its misrepresentation of the situation in Poland during the second world war. I have to say that the BBC, which sells itself as a paragon of virtue and enlightened journalism, and with all the resources that it gets from the British taxpayer, should know better. I have counted many occasions when the BBC has referred to “Polish death camps”. Think to yourselves for a moment how you would feel as a Pole about a reference to something as a “Polish death camp”. There is no such thing as a Polish death camp. They were concentration camps set up by Germans in German-occupied Poland; they were run by Germans, maintained by Germans and initiated by Germans. Let us get that straight. However, despite my numerous requests to the BBC to show a little sensitivity and understanding on this issue, it continues to refer to those things as “Polish death camps”.
The narrative has moved on and there are constant references to Nazis doing these things. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and I have just returned from Minsk; we were part of a parliamentary delegation to Belarus. Of course Belarus, as we found out in the course of our visit, suffered enormously from similar types of brutality against Jewish people by the occupying German forces. I had the honour and pleasure of going round the museum of the second world war in Minsk with the hon. Gentleman, and we saw at first hand evidence of the appalling brutality and death meted out to Jews in Belarus by German forces. The guide repeatedly referred to Nazis, as if this was some sort of third entity descended from outer space—some unknown factor of people. They were German soldiers under the instruction of the German Government, the German dictator.
Germans invaded and persecuted Poles and Jews and killed millions. I want to say also that, as the Polish Prime Minister said very eloquently, “Arbeit macht frei” is not a Polish expression. Let us remember those sinister words at the entrance to the death camps: “Arbeit macht frei”. It still sends a chill down my spine when I read out those words, as I am sure it does to everybody in the Chamber. When I hear the words “Arbeit macht frei”, I think of the suffering and misery that those poor defenceless people went through. But “Arbeit macht frei”, as everybody here knows, is a German phrase.
We need to work together. I say to the hon. Member for Leeds North West that I have every sympathy for him. As I listened to him, the emotion and sincerity with which he spoke impressed me greatly. The all-party parliamentary group on Poland has a visit to Poland coming up in July. It will involve nine Members of Parliament. I very much hope that the hon. Member for Leeds North West might join us on that group. We are making a three-day visit to Poland, where we will be meeting Ministers and many others—media outlets and all sorts of civil society organisations. I very much hope that he will join us on that and that he will take the time to meet members of the Polish diaspora in the United Kingdom with me. One million Poles now live in this country. We have many events for the Polish community here in the House of Commons. Despite the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, I very much hope that he will give them the opportunity of giving their side of this very sad story.
I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak, but let me make just a couple of additional points. Paragraph 3 of article 55a of the law under discussion specifically ensures that scientific publication or research and artistic activity are exempt from the legislation. The law is not designed to protect individuals who were involved in crimes against Jews. As I have said, it is designed to ensure that Poland’s reputation is protected and to recognise the suffering of Poles who helped Jewish friends. That is very important to remember.
The Polish Prime Minister, Mr Morawiecki, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have met on several occasions to discuss this issue, and a commission has been established to discuss how the two countries can go forward to ensure that it is resolved amicably and satisfactorily for both sides.
The hon. Gentleman has talked about forthcoming meetings. Does he agree that there needs to be clarity and certainty about what happened in the past and that what is currently happening in terms of anti-Semitic behaviour across the globe but particularly in western Europe needs to be highlighted? We need to get more information so that people can eliminate the perceptions and the paranoia that sometimes exist when talking about both Israel and Jewish activity; others seem to want to believe that there is a worldwide conspiracy, and the reality and the truth must be brought to bear on that perception.
Absolutely. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. There is a huge lack of information about what happened during the second world war. I saw yesterday some shocking figures about young people in the United States of America: many of them do not even know what the holocaust was. That is extraordinary when we consider that in my grandparents’ generation, millions of people were killed under fascism—purely because of their religion or background. In that sense, this debate is very important, and it is important that we continue to have these debates, because we have to keep re-educating the next generation on the barbarity and brutality of what happened and, of course, warning them—teaching them the lessons of what happened before. We must never allow a situation to occur in which people are discriminated against because of their religion or background—but we see it happening again. We see the rise of anti-Semitism in certain countries, which is breathtaking. We see the rise of far-right parties in certain European countries. I believe that in Austria now, a rabidly right-wing party is part of the coalition. That is extraordinary. One would have thought that Austria, of all countries, would have recognised and remembered the appalling difficulties created by voting for excessively right-wing people.
The law that we are discussing has been referred to the constitutional tribunal by the President of Poland, as the hon. Member for Leeds North West said, and we look forward to the outcome of that.
I am very proud to be the first ever Polish-born British Member of Parliament. Our bilateral relations with Poland are getting better and better. It is an incredibly important NATO partner of ours, and in the post-Brexit world we need to utilise and harness the million Poles living in our country to improve understanding between our two countries, increase trade and increase bilateral co-operation. I very much look forward to working with the hon. Member for Leeds North West in the coming weeks and months to ensure that he and his colleagues get a first-hand opportunity to engage with our Polish friends and allies on this very difficult subject.
Politicians nowadays are often accused of being bland, anonymous, anodyne figures. It is on an occasion such as this that we realise that we have here, in our Parliament, people with a unique range of references, sources, backgrounds and histories. I deeply respect the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and his background, his family connection and his blood tie. However, the speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) was quite simply one of the most impressive that I have heard in Westminster Hall. He spoke from the heart; he spoke with absolute passion and with truth; and no one who heard him could be unmoved by his comments. Regrettably, having said that, I have to come to a conclusion that is completely opposite to the one that he has reached.
The Act submitted to the Sejm on 26 January 2018 was not intended, nor can it be seen, as an act of anti-Semitism. It is an Act specifically to address a concern that is viscerally agonising for the Polish people—the constant repetition of that inaccurate, brutal, cruel phrase “Polish death camps” or “Polish extermination camps”. That was the reason for the legislation. The fact that it has been referred to the constitutional committee suggests to me that it might have been, in certain circumstances, appropriate for us to have delayed this debate.
Having listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West, however, I entirely understand why he felt it necessary to bring this matter to the House even while that process is in play. I also have no doubt that I speak for every person inside and outside this Chamber in expressing our deepest sympathy to him for the foul, vile, scatological filth that he has suffered. Sadly, it is not unique, but there certainly seems to be a particular strand and trend, which is deeply regrettable. I would not say that this is indicative of attitudes in Poland. Of course there are Polish anti-Semites—no one could pretend otherwise—but to say that these comments are somehow reflective of all Poles, and that this issue is about the Polish League Against Defamation or various other groups, is to give them more strength and power than they actually deserve.
This process was not sought by the Polish Government or the Sejm. It was a reaction to a circumstance that seemed to be gathering in pressure and strength. Many are concerned, as my hon. Friend implied, that this legitimises and opens the door to anti-Semitism. In Poland, however, exactly the opposite applied. It was felt that the constant reference to Polish death camps opened the door to something even worse—revisionism, an attack on Polish history and an assault on the contributions that the Poles made.
Let us never forget that there was no Polish Pétain or Quisling. If we want to see the Poles in the second world war, we need to look to General Bór-Komorowski, the people who fought with the Warsaw rising and the people in the Government in exile who introduced the death penalty for confiscating, stealing or abusing Jewish people or their property. There was no anti-Semitism in the structural sense. Of course there were, inevitably, such individuals. I have them in my constituency, Mr Gapes, and I am sure you have them in yours.
The Polish Government introduced this legislation as a response to a gathering storm throughout the world. I am disappointed that the reaction of the current Israeli Government has been unusual in its strength. The Israeli ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari, was involved right from the beginning in these discussions with the Government in Poland, the Sejm and the committee that structured and drafted this.
Article 55a, paragraph 3 was specifically introduced into the legislation to avoid any accusation that this legislation would close down debate, because there were some people who felt that this legislation, unamended, would not allow scientific analysis. It is said that only the future is certain; the past is always changing. Well, we are not afraid of the past. This amendment was brought in specifically to exclude not just scientific and academic research, but artistic research, to avoid any accusation that this matter was being closed down. We have to respect and understand that.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham mentioned the discussions that took place between the two Prime Ministers, Mateusz Morawiecki and Benjamin Netanyahu. I think that is a positive sign. We see too much, in this place and on this planet, of people striking postures, beating their chest and issuing absurd Twitter comments in the middle of the night. I mention no names and I point no fingers—even if it was with a very little hand. There are those people, however, who think that we need to discuss and debate these issues. The two Prime Ministers are the appropriate people.
The hon. Gentleman is, as usual, making an eloquent speech. At all these award ceremonies where Poles are recognised for helping Jews—certainly at the one I attended—the Polish Prime Minister, Mr Morawiecki, is present, as is the head of the Law and Justice party, Prezes Kaczyński. They want to send a strong message about the strength of feeling among the Polish state about reconciliation and harmony between Poles and Jews.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who speaks with authority on these matters. He and I have stood together at the Katyn memorial. We have spoken at many of these occasions. We have been at RAF Northolt on the day on which, every year, we recognise the heroic contribution of the 303 Squadron—the most successful fighter squadron in the Royal Air Force—when the bonds between our two countries were forged in blood. He knows, as I know, the depth of the contribution that the Polish people have made. I am not Polish. I do not have a drop of Polish blood. I lack that honour. When I hear this expression about Polish death camps, however, I feel for Poland and I weep for the Polish people.
Look at what is happening nowadays in Warszawa and Kraków. There is a holocaust memorial museum and the complete rebuilding of the ghetto, where there are Jewish restaurants and a whole Jewish quarter. In fact, they do not use the word ghetto any more, which is probably just as well. South of Kraków, at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the air falls still. In the forest there is no birdsong. Something so terrible happened there that the weight of history still presses down on those people who approach it. Something has sucked the energy out of the air. Visitors pass beneath that awful sign, which the hon. Gentleman referred to.
I hope that no one in the world thinks for a second that this was anything other than the planned, industrial and mechanised extermination of a people by the Nazis—not by the Poles. There may have been some Ukrainians who worked in the death camps. We know that. The legislation that went through in January specifically refers to the Ukrainian actions in this particular area. That is not to imply, however, even for a passing second, that the Polish people were complicit in, supportive of, involved in or responsible for that appalling crime—that spreading stain of agony that still disfigures our history, and that marks and shapes our future as it so brutalised our past.
I accept some of what my hon. Friend is saying. Does he agree that, while it certainly untrue that the Nazi extermination camps were in any way Polish death camps, there are still graphic examples of Polish complicity in the atrocities that took place against Jewish people in Poland at that time?
I acknowledge the expertise of my hon. Friend, but I would need to see the evidence for what she says. I would also need to understand and be educated as to the realities of life under occupation—the second occupation, because Poland was occupied twice—and what it must have been like in those days. I am not aware of Polish complicity in Auschwitz-Birkenau, but I will not say that I know everything about the subject and I am more than happy to speak to my colleague. I do know for certain that to try to tar the whole of the Polish nation with the brush of anti-Semitism on the basis of a few lunatics, a few foul anti-Semites and some obscene Twitter users is unfair, wrong, painful and hurtful to the Polish people.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham referred to Polish heroism. We do not have enough time—there would not be enough time in Parliament—to list all the Polish heroes: Poniatowski, Dąbrowski, Kościuszko, Piłsudski and on and on. We know about Polish courage. I would like to bring the Chamber to a place that you know, Mr Gapes, as does the hon. Gentleman: the village of Cassino, south of Rome, which was occupied for the whole of the second world war up until 1944 by German Panzer battalions and airborne troops. It was finally captured by the Poles. There, in the shadow of the monastery of Monte Cassino, which has been referred to, there is a Polish cemetery.
All the allies, including those from Ireland, Australia, South Africa and so many other countries who fought there—even a Maori regiment from New Zealand—have their cemetery. There is something exceptional and special about the Polish cemetery. I am referring not to the grave of General Anders at the front, but to the grave markers. There are three types of grave markers in the Polish cemetery of Monte Cassino. There is the Suppedaneum cross, which is the sign of the Serbian or Russian Orthodox Church. There is the ordinary cross, which we Roman Catholics simply see as the cross. The third grave marker is the star of David. A section of the Polish war memorial—the Polish cemetery—at Monte Cassino is proudly and unashamedly dedicated to the Jewish soldiers who fought with General Anders, who fought from the camps in Siberia, who walked across Iran, who fought in El Alamein, in Libya and in the invasion of Sicily and who fought their way up the spine of Italy. Although those Jewish soldiers were cruelly betrayed by the allies—forgive me for saying so—after their huge contribution, and there was not to be a free Poland in 1945, the army recognised, cherished and valued the contribution of the Jewish soldiers who fought with them.
Would those Jewish soldiers have fought with an anti-Semitic army? Would they have fought with General Anders if they had felt that there was a strand of anti-Semitism running through the army? Sometimes silent witness is more powerful than the vocal and the verbal. To see those stars of David in the Polish cemetery tells me that Poland protected, defended and respected its Jewish population, and it will continue to do so.
This legislation is a reaction to misinformation. It does not in any way open a door to anti-Semitism. I profoundly hope that the constitutional tribunal will clarify the situation. Whatever happens, every one of us is better informed and possibly emotionally stirred by the extraordinary, unique and priceless contribution of my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West.
We can learn a lot from cemeteries. When I visited eastern Poland with a Jewish family to look at their historical roots there, we visited the Jewish cemetery. It was not in a particularly good state—I do not think anybody had visited it for many decades—but what struck me was how big it was, because the village had been largely Jewish.
I had research done into that family’s history, and I got photographs that showed the village. They raise the question about what happened to the properties. Three million Poles were murdered, which means 3 million properties disappeared, plus the communal buildings such as the synagogues. What happened to them? We can learn a lot from looking at cemeteries about what happened and who did or did not do what at any time.
There are plenty of people living in that village, but none of them are Jewish. That is not a surprise. There were 3 million Jewish Poles; there are now under 1,000. It is a thriving rural village, like many others in Poland, with a Jewish graveyard. People live in the same village, on the same streets, sometimes in the same properties, and certainly on the same land.
History can be interpreted in different ways. Let us be quite clear: this law has not come from nowhere, so those who have been protesting about it, such as Netanyahu, should have opened their mouths when the first such law was brought in by Hungary in 2010. That law criminalised the wrong interpretation of history and came with a three-year maximum prison sentence.
As Hungary attempted to legally define its history in 2010, Lithuania did too. Its law was more generous, with only two years imprisonment, but at the same time, Lithuania attempted to arrest two women over the age of 90: Fania Brantsovsky and Rachel Margolis. Most people, including me, would describe them as war heroes. They fought with the resistance in the Lithuanian forest. They undoubtedly killed people, but they were fighting alongside the Soviets, who came in and eventually liberated that country as part of the war effort. In 2010, Lithuania attempted to arrest those two war heroes for being war criminals. They were fighting for the resistance—it is unambiguous; there is no argument about what happened—but they went from war heroes to war criminals, and Lithuania attempted to jail them.
In 2014, Latvia brought in a law that came with five years in prison. In different ways, Ukraine and Estonia brought in criminal laws in advance of Poland, so this legislation has not come from nowhere. In Austria, there are people who attempt to describe Mauthausen as a Polish camp. Actually, I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound): it is very rare to hear the Nazi death camps in Poland described as Polish, just like it is very rare to hear death camps elsewhere described as anything other than death camps by their names, but it happens and it has happened for a period of time. Why were those camps there? They were where the Jewish population was.
There were differences in Ukraine. Ukrainians took the jobs and murdered the people. That did not happen in Poland. They did not recruit Poles to do that. They did in Lithuania. They did not bother with the camps. The Lithuanians took Jewish people out into the forest and shot them to save time and money. They did not need the Germans to do it. But who were the Nazis in all that? Who were the Nazis in Lithuania? Who were the nationalists? Who was on the side of Lithuania?
Starting with a conference in Hungary in 2008, with the European Parliament as a conduit, a group of politicians has co-ordinated and drawn together other nationalist politicians, including from Poland, to rewrite history. That is what has been going on. The example of Lithuania, and the rest of the Baltic states, is the simplest one, and in essence it says, “We weren’t fighting for anyone, other than fighting the Communists. There was a double genocide”—that term was created at the 2008 conference. “The Nazis and the communists are equally bad. The communists controlled our country and did many evil things under Stalin and beyond.” That is true; that is factually the case.
I was the first person to leave Poland with a Solidarność badge in 1980—that is a different story, which I will leave for now—so I am very aware of what the Soviets and the communists did in eastern Europe, but the problem is putting together those two genocides and describing them as if they were equal and comparable. There is an academic in Latvia who has taken it further and brought in blood libel as well. The logic goes, “My grandfather did nothing wrong, because my grandfather was a patriot. He was not supporting the Nazis. He was fighting the communists. By the way, who speaks Russian? The communists. Who speaks Russian in our country? The Jews speak Russian. Rachel Margolis speaks Russian.”
Therefore, it is possible to distort history so quickly and so easily—rewrite your own history and the history for every country, including our country and our role, as the country that failed to take in Jewish migrants in the ’30s and, indeed, after the war in the ’40s. This country turned them away. We can all rewrite our history, sanitise our role in things and glorify what we were good at—the little bits. “Oh, we had the Kindertransport here. Weren’t we brilliant?” We let a few Jews slip in. What about the rest?
Well, that is what is going on in Poland—an attempt to rewrite history—and we should not accept that. Yes, it is true that the Poles did not run those camps—that is a fact—unlike in some neighbouring countries; but we can also look at the language. I keep reading and hearing about the 3 million Jews in Poland—the 3 million Poles; the 3 million of our citizens who were Jewish, who were murdered and lost everything. It is not a surprise that there is not much of an eyewitness record there compared with anywhere else, because few survived. It is harder for the dead to be eyewitnesses.
I will end on this. When I look at what is going on now, I take the Albert Camus view of the world—to see the world through the eye of football. In Poland at the moment, if someone goes to see a football match in Łódź—once a massive Jewish community; now no Jews live in Łódź—what is the insult used in the Łódź derby? “Jew”. From one Łódź team to the other Łódź team, for both sets of fans their term of insult is “Jew”. And what happens in Kraków when Cracovia play Wisła? Do the tourists there go on the nice, sanitised route to Auschwitz-Birkenau? My advice to anyone going there is to go on the suburban route. If they do, I will tell them what they will see on every station: Wisła Kraków graffiti saying “Jews Out”.
Albert Camus was obviously a great goalkeeper, and I understand my hon. Friend’s analogy. However, I am sure that he has seen Spurs play at home as many times as I have, so he will know the insult that is used against Tottenham Hotspur players. Does he agree that that sort of language—that sort of foul anti-Semitism—should be a matter for criminal law and prosecution? It should not be perceived as indicative of a nation or even a group of football supporters.
Of course it should be a matter for criminal law—it is in many countries—but my point is not that Poland is any worse than any other country, but that anti-Semitism remains and this law plays to that sentiment. That is the danger of the law.
I will end with a recent quotation from a radio reporter in Poland, Marcin Wolski of TVP2. What did he describe? He said, “Let’s rename the death camps. They’re not ‘Polish death camps’, they’re ‘Jewish death camps’.” He said that on Polish radio recently—because the Sonderkommando ran the death camps, we should therefore rename them “Jewish death camps”. Bring in this kind of law and that kind of racism and anti-Semitism is unleashed. But this is not something that started in Poland; it started elsewhere in eastern Europe. People have been too silent about it—about trying to use the law to rewrite history. The law is not the way to rewrite history.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel). He has raised a very important issue at a very apt time, and I agree with what he has said.
This is a time of great concern, because there is an increase in both holocaust denial and anti-Semitism right across Europe. Given that background, it is extremely concerning that legislation has been passed in a European country that could be seen as trying to stifle debate, discussion and research about the holocaust.
It is certainly true that Nazi death camps—Nazi camps of extermination—are not Polish death camps. That is clear; that is unambiguous. However, the legislation about which we are very concerned goes much wider than that and could make it illegal to discuss any Polish association with the extermination of Polish Jews. That extermination and persecution took place not only in those Nazi death camps—those Nazi camps of extermination. It also took place within Polish communities in civil society, and it is extremely wrong to try to shut down debate and knowledge about those activities.
The hon. Lady says that this law is not the right way for the Polish Government to tackle this issue. However, when we bear in mind that I have been writing to the BBC for over seven years to ask it to be more sensitive about this issue, and the BBC continues to refer to “Polish death camps”, what is her advice to the Polish Government and other organisations that worry about the intransigence and lack of sensitivity of the BBC?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern and that of others about a description of Nazi extermination camps as “Polish death camps”—an erroneous description—but the answer to that is not to try to shut down discussion about the holocaust and its depravities.
The relationship between Jewish Poles and the wider Polish community is indeed very complex. At Yad Vashem, which I visited in Jerusalem only last week, 6,700 Polish people are recognised as righteous among the nations. They were Polish non-Jews who supported Jews in those terrible times, on many occasions risking their own lives. They are rightly recognised and honoured there.
However, there is also a lot more in that complex history to be recognised—for example, the massacre at Jedwabne in 1941, when all but six of the town’s Jewish inhabitants were set upon by their non-Jewish neighbours and burnt alive in a barn. That was truly horrendous, and it was not an isolated occurrence. Before the Nazi extermination began, the Jewish communities in Poland were very strong. They were majorities in significant areas of Poland, yet today there is hardly a Jew left. I have heard first-hand testimony from a relation of mine, who has now passed away but who was born and brought up in Kraków, about the shock and horror at their non-Jewish neighbours, who they had regarded as friends, turning against them in those terrible times. So the relationship is complex and the full history needs to be known.
It should be a matter of great concern that Yad Vashem itself, the Holocaust Educational Trust and some Polish historians have registered great concern about the potential impact of this legislation shutting down debate and research about what happened in Poland during the holocaust.
I bow to my hon. Friend’s experience and the depth of her knowledge of this issue. However, I have already made the point, as I believe the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has, that paragraph 3 of article 55a of the new law specifically and explicitly allows discussion of this matter within all scientific papers, artistic papers and academic papers. That measure was specifically and explicitly placed there to avoid any remote possibility that there would be an accusation that anyone was seeking to shut down debate. It is there in black and white.
I have listened to my hon. Friend’s comments with interest, but what he says is not borne out in what is happening. Indeed, since the legislation was introduced, the Polish Education Minister has denied the massacre of Jedwabne, and there have been efforts to strip the Polish-American historian, Jan Tomasz Gross, of his order of merit and even to prosecute him for his comments about Polish involvement in the persecution of Jews in Poland.
The situation is very troubling. I am pleased that discussions about what happens now are taking place within Poland, and outside, and I hope that common sense and justice prevail and that the legislation is either withdrawn or severely amended, so that there can be no shutting down of legitimate discussion about the horrors of the holocaust. The people of Poland deserve no less.
Mr Gapes, it is a privilege to be able to contribute to the debate. I cannot go as far as to say it is a pleasure, because it is a difficult debate to take part in and to listen to. The testimonies we have heard will, I hope, continue to be heard in hundreds of years’ time because there is a story here that we cannot afford to forget.
I commend the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) on securing the debate and on his contribution, and also the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who followed him. It strikes me that we have two people here whose family histories bear remarkable similarities and yet who have used their personal stories to come to completely different conclusions about how we should address what is clearly a serious concern for those in Poland and for many other people. That might be something we should point to—that it is possible for people, with great sincerity and integrity, to come to opposing views about something and be able to air those views such that they disagree without having to get disagreeable. That is too often lacking.
We should also bear in mind that we have heard stories about people—only about a tiny fraction of such people—who did what they believed to be right, knowing that it would cost them their lives. How often in this place does a whole system try to get people to do what it hopes might be politically advantageous to their careers, regardless of what they, in conscience, believe to be right? A clear example has been set by some of the stories we have heard today. It does no harm for Members of Parliament occasionally to look in the mirror and ask ourselves whether we would risk not our lives but our popularity within our party to stand up and speak and vote for what is right.
An earlier speaker said that there was not time in the debate to do justice to the part that the people of Poland and their then Government played in standing against the evil of Nazism. I do not think that the war would have turned out as it did had it not been for the contribution of those people. The truth about many of the things that happen in war gets distorted at the time and continues to be distorted afterwards. We have heard examples of how the Soviet regime tried, and continues to try, to rewrite history completely. I cannot imagine there ever being a time when we will discover that Poland did not play the part it is given credit for. I cannot imagine that the historians will ever find evidence to suggest other than that millions of people in Poland ran horrendous risks and suffered the horrific fate they did to protect friends and neighbours at a time when many other European countries were turning in on themselves. Poland stood against the holocaust at a time when, shamefully, few other countries in occupied Europe, and even in non-occupied Europe, were prepared to do so. I see that as an accepted historical fact and I cannot imagine a time ever coming when it is challenged.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. I want to get on the record something with which I hope he agrees. Poland welcomed more than 3 million Jews to live there before the outbreak of war, and the two communities co-operated and got on very well. I am proud of how the Poles accepted so many outsiders into their country and of the harmonious society they created. It was the travesty of war that created the problems.
I am grateful for that intervention. Clearly, I cannot speak with the hon. Gentleman’s authority about the detailed history of Poland, but I certainly look at it from a common-sense point of view. Surely the Jewish population in Poland was so big because Jews were comfortable there and felt that they would be treated better than in many other countries in Europe.
I find offensive any suggestion that the Polish Government, either directly or indirectly, collaborated with the Nazis, and I well understand why the people of Poland today find such suggestions greatly offensive. However, I am not convinced that criminalising the actions of a newspaper or a television programme is the right way to deal with that offence. That is where the nub lies. I think we must accept that Polish citizens will have collaborated in crimes against humanity—a tiny minority of the Polish population—as, if the full facts were known, there would no doubt have been Scots who collaborated, just as there were Scots who risked their lives to help. People of all nationalities committed acts of great courage, and people of all nationalities will have collaborated in acts of great evil. If we lose sight of that, we do a disservice to all those who risked and lost their lives.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman’s flow. Holocaust denial is a crime in many parts of the world. Does he suggest that we should repeal all legislation on holocaust denial?
Absolutely not. I was coming on to that. One of the first steps towards being prepared to allow a repeat of the holocaust is to deny that it ever happened. We also must be careful about denying that it could have happened in other places. I take issue with the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham on one point. He repeatedly referred to the crimes and actions of Germany. It is a fact that Nazism was born and developed in Germany, but the holocaust was not a battle of nationalities; it was about an ideology of sheer evil that was able to spread across Europe so quickly because it had its proponents in many more countries than we might like to think. It was certainly born and brought up in Germany, but it could have been a child of almost any nation in Europe and, it must be said, it could have happened in the United Kingdom. There were periods in the United Kingdom’s past when anti-Semitism had become so virulent that it would have been possible, if the right group of people had got together, for Nazism or something very like it to take hold. When I talk about the dangers of holocaust denial, I am talking not simply about the denial of a clear historical fact but about the denial of a clear acceptance that it could have happened in other places as well. That is why it can happen again—it has already happened again on a smaller scale—and it will continue to happen if we are not prepared to speak out and act against it.
I am aware of the time pressure and I want to leave time for the winding up. The hon. Member for Leeds North West also deserves a bit of time. I get the point that academics cannot be prosecuted but, as has been pointed out, a law of this nature not only opens a door to legal action in the courts but can sometimes be seen to legitimise actions that no one would want to see legitimised. I do not see where the line could be drawn between an academic publishing something in a journal and a newspaper reporting on that publication. At what point would the law come into play?
However difficult some parts of any nation’s history might be, we must be prepared to face up to the bad parts as well as the good. I have to accept that Glasgow—the city close to which I grew up and which I consider almost a second home—was built on the slave trade. I am not proud of that. I am proud of Glasgow, but I cannot be proud of the part that the city, and Scotland, played in the slave trade. I cannot be proud that the great ancient university town of St Andrews has monuments built into the pavements to show where devout Scottish Christians burned other devout Scottish Christians to death because they were the wrong kind of devout Christian for the time. Those things are parts of our history that we have to face up to, and the more we are willing to face up to the evils that have been done in all our countries and communities, the more we can hopefully ensure that they become much less likely to be repeated.
I have spoken before about Fife’s enormous debt of gratitude to our Polish community. Scotland and the United Kingdom owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the people of Poland not only for what they did during the war, but for what they have done since. We owe Poland an enormous debt of remorse for what we did to them after the war, when we handed Poland over to Stalin, and we should never forget that either.
There is a serious issue that has to be addressed. I simply do not think it is right to clamp down on one of the most precious freedoms we have—the freedom of the press to report things as they see them, and sometimes the freedom of the press to print things that we find offensive. That freedom needs to be protected. It can never be correct or acceptable to accuse Poland of collaboration with the holocaust, but I do not think the law as it is currently framed in Poland or in other European countries is the correct way to go about it. I hope that the Polish Government can be persuaded that there are other ways to prevent their new good name from being besmirched. At the end of the day, if idiots accuse someone of ridiculous things that did not happen, that someone should ignore the idiots and listen to the vast majority.
It is a pleasure as always to serve under your stewardship, Mr Gapes, particularly given your great knowledge of foreign affairs and your former chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) for securing this debate, which has been an emotional and personal one. I think he wanted to have it elsewhere, but because he was not able to do that, he brought it here. He secured the debate because of his personal history and his family’s history. It has particularly focused on the law that has been introduced. That is a serious issue, and we have to think about how it will proceed. A number of Members have raised different views of the law.
In April 2016, the Polish Government approved a new Bill allowing for terms of up to three years’ imprisonment for anyone using phrases such as “Polish death camps” when referring to Auschwitz and other camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during world war two. That in itself is correct. Those were Nazi war camps. They were extermination camps. They were the most hideous form of genocide in the second world war. It is right to condemn that and it is not right to implicate Poland in that—that point I understand. The law goes further, however, and allows the state to give people a three-year sentence for talking about Polish camps and debating Poland’s role. That is the sticking point. How will that law be interpreted and used by different people to stifle debate?
That debate has great significance and it needs to happen, particularly given where we are at the moment. The debate is being used by the far right in Poland. In 2017, more than 60,000 nationalists took part in a march in Warsaw to mark Poland’s independence day. Slogans included, “White Europe of brotherly nations”, “Pure Poland, white Poland” and “Refugees out”. That is what we are concerned about. It is not in any way about the form of the Polish nation or the people of Poland, who worked terrifically well during the second world war and after. The Polish community served valiantly in Birmingham in support of the Spitfire pilots and as mechanics. We commend the heroic acts of the Polish people, as the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) said. He spoke about his great-uncle, Jan Kawczynski, who made a huge sacrifice and ultimately paid the ultimate price.
I apologise for intervening—I realise time is short—but my hon. Friend raised an important point. He referred to slogans used by some far-right groups. Surely he would recognise that the shambling, stumbling, mono-browed knuckle-draggers of the far right of this country do not speak for our nation. They exhibit these foul, ghastly slogans, but we do not judge this country by those people. Let us please not judge Poland by a few of these unpleasant lunatics.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. To clarify, I was not saying that such people represent Poland as a nation. I went further to clarify the role of the Polish people against the Nazis and the actions they took. In that sense, I fully agree with him. The rally was also attended by Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League, who is in prison at the moment. Roberto Fiore from Italy also attended. Those people tend to gather at these things. The real issue is how we deal with that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) made the key point that there were 3.3 million Jewish people living in Poland who had property and assets. Most of the descendants of those Polish Jews now live in the United Kingdom. Clarification is still needed about the property that was originally taken by the Nazis and then nationalised by the Communist Government that followed. That issue has to be addressed if we are to address all the issues post-Nazi occupation. The law that the Polish Government have passed does not recognise the heritage of those people who live in the United Kingdom in relation to their families’ assets and properties. In that respect, a resolution calling for restitution has been passed by 46 other nations and endorsed by the US and the European Parliament. That is important, because that resolution confirms the history of the Jewish people in Poland.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about reparations and dealing with property rights, but will he recognise that the key stumbling block to all this is the fact that Germany has not yet paid war reparations? My friend in the Polish Parliament, Mr Mularczyk, is heading a taskforce to look at the feasibility of Poland claiming war reparations against Germany. Some estimates put the cost of the destruction at more than £900 billion, and yet Germany has still not paid a penny.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about German responsibility for reparations, but before we get to the issue of any payments there has to be recognition of the lands that were taken away from people and the communities that lived there. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said, those places are now empty with no Jews living there. That is their hereditary right.
On 12 March my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), the shadow Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, wrote to the Secretary of State to ask a significant question: what action have the Government taken to press for the restoration of property seized by the Nazis in Poland? To date, he has not replied. Perhaps the Minister will pass on the message about the significance of that question when dealing with the issue as a whole. The Government just saying things does not help; action speaks much louder than words. It is important for them to start dealing with the issue.
We must do something and move forward in addressing matters, but time is short, so again I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West for securing the debate. It is a crucial issue of the law and what is allowed. This is not about the people of Poland—it has nothing to do with them—but about how the issue can be used, and how further persecution of the Jewish community will be allowed to continue if we do not look at it properly.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) on securing 90 minutes in Westminster Hall to debate this important issue. Who cannot be touched by the moving way in which he made his case? In fact, we have heard a range of incredibly moving speeches and oratory from colleagues, and I am privileged to have been able to represent the UK Government on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas. He sends his apologies as he is involved in other ministerial duties. I will set out the UK Government’s views on the issue. We have heard different descriptions of the historical background. In the interests of time, I will take it as read that all Members here are aware of the timeline of Poland’s anti-defamation law, and I will set out the Government’s response.
The Government understand how painful any false attribution of Poland’s culpability in Nazi crimes may be, whether explicit or implicit. As we have heard from various hon. Members, some of the most infamous sites associated with the holocaust were located in what is now Polish territory. Many of us have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau with the Holocaust Educational Trust, a programme that we have recently expanded to include UK university campuses. As we have heard many times in this debate, it is a matter of historical fact that, of the more than 3 million Polish Jews living in Poland in 1939, fewer than 400,000 were still alive in 1945. It is also well known that many Polish citizens risked their lives to save them and the nearly 2 million non-Jewish victims of the Nazis. We have heard very moving personal testimony today. I particularly want to put on the record our recognition of the heroism shown by the great-uncle of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). That act of heroism has now been recorded for all time in Hansard.
We heard other very moving speeches from the hon. Members for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), for Bassetlaw (John Mann), for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood). It is clear that the horror and pain of the holocaust are still deeply felt in Poland and around the world more than 70 years on. That is why the desire to reject any misleading attribution of Nazi crimes to the Polish nation or state is entirely understandable.
However, as the UK Government have made clear in our private discussions with our Polish partners, we believe there are risks to criminalising any aspect of free speech, because it is through debate and analysis that we enhance our understanding of any issue. Rather than risk closing down debate, our preferred approach is to preserve the collective memory of the holocaust and to use that knowledge to learn the lessons of history. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made that clear in his discussions with the Polish Foreign Minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, in February and March this year. Our officials in London and diplomats in the British embassy in Warsaw have delivered the same message to Polish Government officials.
The UK’s special envoy for post-holocaust issues, Sir Eric Pickles—soon to be Lord Pickles—has made numerous visits to Poland over the past year to discuss concerns about the revision of history. We understand how the anti-defamation law could be seen as an attempt to redefine the past. Lord Pickles has made it clear in his meetings with Polish Government officials and with representatives of the Jewish community that responsibility for the holocaust rests with the Nazis, and that those responsible, regardless of their nationality, should be held accountable.
It is testament to the historical and enduring relationship between the UK and Poland that we have been able to speak frankly with our Polish colleagues about the anti-defamation law. We will never forget the role played by the Polish armed forces in our own fight against Nazi tyranny in the second world war. We have heard how Polish and British soldiers fought alongside each other throughout the war. Today the enormous contribution of the Polish diaspora community to our economy and society is abundantly clear. It is the driving force behind the deepening relationship between our two countries in business, science and culture, and it is the driving force behind the growth in trade, which reached some £15 billion last year.
We face many more challenges in the future, including some that could threaten the liberty and security of our citizens in the UK and Poland. That is why it is so important that we encourage future generations to study and to remember the horrors of the holocaust. We must use the painful lessons of the past to teach us to avoid repeating the same tragedies in future. That is why we work hard to keep the holocaust firmly on the global agenda. Future generations will not learn those lessons if we stifle debate today. That is why freedom of speech is so important. We will continue to make that argument with our friends and partners in Europe and the wider world. We will continue to encourage them to embrace open debate, not fear it, so that the lessons of history are remembered from generation to generation.
I thank everybody for their contributions to today’s difficult debate. It is a testament to our Parliament that we can have such a debate in an open way. I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and particularly his family for all the things that they did for Jews in Poland during the war. I am happy to speak to the BBC about its use of language, which is important. We should refer to the camps as Nazi extermination or Nazi death camps. I will see whether I can come to Poland with the hon. Gentleman and the all-party group in July. I take issue with his referring to Polish Jews before the war as “guests”. I do not feel like I am a guest in this country. I do not think my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) see themselves as guests. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham sees himself as a guest. We are not guests; we are citizens. Jews who lived in Poland before the war should be viewed as part of the Polish nation, not as guests of the Polish nation.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) for his kind words. He is always very kind to me, but he probably needs to look a little more into the issue, particularly the involvement of individual Poles in the holocaust. Barbara Engelking, founder and director of the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research, has written a book, “Such a Beautiful Sunny Day”, about this. She is also the chair of the International Auschwitz Council, but she said recently that there had been an attempt to remove her as chair. The Deputy Prime Minister of Poland went to Israel this week and said that the composition of the International Auschwitz Council should be guided by “Polish sensitivity”, which I interpret as an attack on Barbara Engelking and I am very concerned about it. I hope that the Foreign Office can also look at raising that as an issue in its discussions.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who, in his typical style, raised a wide range of issues related to the holocaust and anti-Semitism. As the chair of the APPG, he highlighted all the similar laws across Europe. I considered doing that, but time did not allow, so I am grateful to him for raising that. We need to tackle such matters right across Europe. There is, I am afraid to say, a contagion that is spreading.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside has given me much support in these areas. I was not aware of her own personal family history and how that memory will be affected by the anti-defamation law. I thank her for her support. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr. I did not intend to raise war reparations as an issue. On a personal level, I am not seeking war reparations from the Polish Government. I am concerned, however, that the letter of 13 March that the shadow Foreign Secretary sent has not had a response. I will pass on a copy of the letter I received from the Minister for Europe, which was helpful but needs to go further.
The Minister of State, Department for International Development, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) is subbing for the Minister for Europe and the Americas. I thank her and him for the letter and for raising the issue of criminality of debate. We need to raise it at every opportunity in every European institution. I hope that the Foreign Office will redouble its efforts so that we can apply pressure and also talk to other EU member states, some of whom I am sure have similar concerns about this issue. We must impress on the Polish Government the effect that the law is having not only within their own country but globally.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Polish anti-defamation law.
House of Commons Hansard
05 June 2018