Facing Death Threats for Highlighting Poland's Role in Holocaust, Historians Come to Scholar's Defense

The Polish League Against Defamation says that Jan Grabowski's scholarship 'falsifies' Poland's history for saying Poles were 'complicit in extermination of Jews'

Holocaust historian Jan Grabowski gives a speech at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust research center, during a ceremony in which he was awarded for his scholarship, in Jerusalem, Israel. Dec. 8, 2014.
Holocaust historian Jan Grabowski gives a speech at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust research center, during a ceremony in which he was awarded for his scholarship, in Jerusalem, Israel. Dec. 8, 2014 Isaac Harari/AP

Dozens of international historians have come to the defense of a Holocaust scholar who is accused of slandering Poland's reputation with research that focuses on the participation of some Poles in the killing of Jews during World War II.

The Polish League Against Defamation says that Jan Grabowski's scholarship "falsifies the history of Poland, proclaiming the thesis that Poles are complicit in the extermination of Jews." The group made its claim in a public statement earlier this month signed by dozens of Polish academics.

Since then Grabowski, who is based at the University of Ottawa in Canada, has received several death threats, leading to security patrols in his department. The son of a Holocaust survivor, Grabowski describes the campaign against him as a "very brutal, vicious, and personal attack."

Dozens of international historians of modern European history came to his defense with an open statement Monday in which they also described the campaign against him an "attack" and defended his scholarship, which they say "holds to the highest standards of academic research."

They said the Polish group is putting forth a "distorted and whitewashed version of the history of Poland during the Holocaust era."

Grabowski was awarded the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research for his book "Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland," which documents the involvement of Poles in finding and killing Jews during the German occupation of Poland during World War II.

The subject touches a raw nerve for many in Poland, who prefer to see their nation as blameless during an era when the Germans subjected the nation to atrocities and terror. During the war about 5.5 million Polish citizens were killed, 3 million of them Jews.

Those protesting Grabowski's research have been encouraged by a nationalist government that seeks to focus exclusively on the heroic aspects of Polish behavior at that time, including the Poles who risked their own lives to save Jews.

The group accuses Grabowski of ignoring the Poles who saved Jews and of exaggerating the number of Poles complicit in killing Jews.

"During World War II, due to the demoralizing circumstances and German actions, it is true that vile-acting individuals could be found among Poles and Jews alike (especially in the ghettos). Yet, we should remember that the objective of the Germans was also to 'eradicate the Polish nation' and 'completely destroy Poland,'" the group wrote.

Grabowski's defenders say they see the campaign against him as "an attack on academic freedom and integrity."

Among more than 180 scholars to sign the statement in Grabowski's defense are prominent historians based in the United States, Israel, Poland, and elsewhere. They include Yitzhak Arad, former director of Yad Vashem; Omer Bartov, at Brown University; Christopher Browning, emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina; and Deborah Lipstadt at Emory University.