Polish historian ‘sounding alarm’ in Israel about Holocaust distortion

The Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski has long been known in his field of Holocaust studies, but has come into the spotlight in recent years as Poland has become increasingly hostile to those who write about the Holocaust. Polish collaborators with the Nazis.

“I was trained as an archival historian. I’ve spent my entire life searching archives, writing, researching, teaching, but for the past six years, I’ve been put in the position of someone who has to give interviews and fight with the force of vicious nationalism mixed with anti-Semitism, ”Grabowski. said this week.

Grabowski won the Yad Vashem International Book Prize in 2014 for his book Hunting the Jews: Treason and Murder in German-occupied Poland, which details how the Poles helped the Nazis hunt down Jews who had escaped from liquidated ghettos in Poland. His later books dealt with topics such as the collaboration of the Polish police with the Nazis and a book on the fate of the Jews in nine counties of German-occupied Poland, including the Polish collaboration with the Nazis.

Since Poland passed a law in 2018 penalizing those who attribute responsibility for the Holocaust to Poland or the Polish people, Grabowski has been the subject of multiple lawsuits from Poles over the content of his books.

German soldiers are seen marching in Warsaw after the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 (credit: FLICKR).

In fact, Grabowski was recently “reported to authorities for writing that the death camps were built for Jews, not Poles,” by a government-funded Institute to Combat Antipolonism, he said.

“Every time I give an interview or a public lecture, I have to turn every word in my mind because I know that my lectures are being scrutinized, and if I miss something, I say one more word or say that Polish society was complicit. in the Holocaust, then I’m in court. If I say ‘certain segments of Polish society were complicit in the Holocaust’, then I am free, “he said.

Grabowski will be in Israel next week for a conference marking 60 years of the Mordechai Anielevich Monument in Givat Haviva, where he will speak on the status of the Holocaust scholarship in Poland.

“My message to Holocaust scholars is that we have been debating until the cows come home about the future of Holocaust research and the testimony of Jewish survivors; I will show them that the future is very bleak, ”he said.

During his trial earlier this year, in which he was sued by the niece of a Polish villager mentioned for handing over Jews to Germans in Grabowski’s book, Grabowski said he heard “all kinds of attacks and denial of the validity of the testimony of the Holocaust.

“Over the generations of survivors, these things will increase,” he warned. “We cannot be complacent… This is what is happening, not only in Poland, but in different regimes that want to write new stories for themselves, using new and very old approaches. Lithuania, Ukraine too … I come with a big bell and try to sound the alarm. “

Grabowski said the trend in Poland started in 2015, when the Nationalist Law and Justice Party came to power in Poland and “began to legislate for themselves the history they would like to see.”

The Nazis deported more than three million Polish Jews to concentration camps, and approximately 98% of the Jewish population of Nazi-occupied Poland was wiped out. Grabowski’s investigation indicated that the Poles could be linked to the deaths of more than 200,000 Jews, not including the victims of the Polish Blue Police.

Today, in Poland, there is “a broad front of denial of the facts,” said the historian. “People don’t want to hear about bad things. That is why they swallow these beautiful myths that the authorities instill ”.

“The message that people get here, and then repeat it, is that, for example, in Polish society during the war everyone helped Jews, millions were concerned about how to help a Jew. That is the official line of the party that is constantly repeated. Of course, it is a lot of nonsense to say that the Poles were massively helping the Jews from daytime until dusk, ”Grabowski said.

“The Holocaust is only discussed in Poland in terms of the Poles helping the Jews. It is a national obsession, “he added.

Yad Vashem has recognized more than 7,000 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations, which means that they saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust.

Other messages that Grabowski said are often heard in Polish discourse are that “Jews are ungrateful for such help, Jews are complicit and collaborated in their own disappearance … Jews betrayed Poles under Soviet occupation or collaborated with the Soviets, so if something happened to them, well, they shouldn’t have been so hostile to Poland. “

The historian argued that the Auschwitz Memorial is “part of the Polish national narrative”.

When Grabowski recently wrote that death camps were built to kill Jews, not primarily Poles, the Auschwitz Memorial posted on social media that most of the Poles who were killed in Auschwitz died in gas chambers.

“In Poland, everyone repeats it, that the Poles were dying in gas chambers,” he said. “Some poles in gas chambers may have died, but that is not why they were in Auschwitz. The entire narrative here is geared towards the appropriation of Auschwitz as a Polish place of suffering. More than 50% of Poles believe that Auschwitz was primarily a place of ethnic Polish suffering. “

“All this kind of Holocaust envy is very sad. It is part of the politics of Polish history, an attempt to confuse and obscure the Holocaust and appropriate it, ”Grabowski added.

Grabowski, a professor at the University of Ottawa, said that very few Polish historians have rejected these messages and policies because they are concerned about using their works.

“When I, for example, try to assess the number of Jews who were killed or denounced by the Poles, I am practically the lone voice. Even among the people who work closely with me, there is an anxiety not to venture into this territory. It is no coincidence that the critical voices of historians have been raised from the outside, ”he said.

Grabowski said he is very encouraged by the efforts of historians around the world to investigate the Holocaust in Poland, as long as the Polish authorities continue to allow them access to the archives.

“I have not seen attempts to prevent students from accessing the files, which is good. However, it could change, ”he said.

The attempt to control how the Holocaust story is told is, “in a broader perspective, part of an authoritarian drive to dismantle civil society,” Grabowski posited. “The nationalists in power simply cannot cope with any kind of independent source of information. There are attacks on the judiciary, journalists and historians and, unfortunately for me and my colleagues, Holocaust historians are part of the vanguard. “

As for Israel’s push, led by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, against Polish attempts to distort the history of the Holocaust, Grabowski said it is the right thing to do, but unlikely to be effective.

“Let’s not fool ourselves; nobody in Poland really cares about Israel’s position at all … Israel can turn upside down and it won’t matter, what matters is Washington, ”he said.

Polish Holocaust Law in 2018 changed from including criminal charges to only allowing civil lawsuits due to pressure from the Trump administration.

“With these people in power in Poland, they are like thugs, they react well to a firm attitude. Trying to play well with them is a waste of time, ”Grabowski said.


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