Polish senator who doubted Holocaust gets top role

WARSAW Thu Oct 25, 2007 8:09am EDT

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WARSAW (Reuters) - A Polish senator who questioned the Nazi Holocaust has been given a top ceremonial role in parliament, drawing anger from the party that won Sunday's parliamentary election.

Senator Ryszard Bender was named by President Lech Kaczynski as "speaker senior", a post that will give him ceremonial duties at the re-opening of parliament on November 5. The president's office said Bender was named because he was the oldest senator.

Bender has said in the past that the Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz was "not a death camp, it was a labor camp". More than 1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed by German occupiers at the camp in southern Poland.

"Someone like this should not have any political functions," said Stefan Niesiolowski, a senior official of the centre-right Civic Platform, which defeated the ruling party of Kaczynski and his twin brother the prime minister in the election.

"We do not want to start with boycotts and fights, but this is a scandal," Niesiolowski told reporters.

Bender is an ultra-nationalist who entered the senate on the platform of the Kaczynskis' Law and Justice party. The president's office said Kaczynski had no choice but to name him as chairman for the first sitting of parliament.

"He is obliged to appoint the oldest senate member," a statement from the presidency said.

In 2000, Bender questioned whether the Nazis had gassed people at Auschwitz in remarks echoing those from far-right politicians and historians who deny the Holocaust.

"Auschwitz was not a death camp, it was a labor camp. Jews, Gypsies and others were annihilated there through hard labor. Actually, labor was not always hard and not always were they annihilated," he told right-wing Catholic Radio Marjya.

After an outcry followed the comments, Bender complained at the law banning denial of the Holocaust.

"Through the unfortunate law, Jewish fundamentalists seek to claim Auschwitz and Birkenau camps for their Holocaust, while those and other camps were the scene of the holocaust of Poles, too," he said.

Many of those killed at Auschwitz were gassed and burned. Most of them were women and children seen by the Nazis as unsuitable for hard work.

The president and Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski have good relations with Jewish groups and Israel, but the prime minister's former coalition included a far-right party that was often accused of xenophobia.

Poland had the biggest Jewish population in Europe until World War Two. Millions were killed in the Holocaust and many survivors fled anti-Semitic propaganda by the communists, leaving only a few thousand in the country.

Millions of other Poles were also killed in the war.

(additional reporting by Adam Jasser)

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