A new low just occurred in Poland with the prosecution of historians Prof. Barbara Engelking and Prof. Jan Grabowski. In early 2018, the Polish government sought to amend the Polish law to allow imprisonment of up to three years for anyone found guilty of making statements “against the facts” (partial or in full) regarding responsibility of the Polish nation and/or the Polish people for crimes committed in occupied Poland during World War II. In the wake of international pressure, the amendment that was ultimately passed was different: It omitted the part about statements “against the facts” as a pretext for prosecution; it permitted and even encouraged the filing of civil (and not criminal) lawsuits; and it made Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance bound by law “to protect the good name of Poland.”
The fruits of this change – which, unfortunately, was celebrated by a Polish-Israeli joint declaration in July 2018, and which my colleagues and I from Yad Vashem opposed – we are seeing now: The prosecution of leading historians who edited a groundbreaking study on the fate of Jews who in some cases tried to find refuge from the murderous German policy within the local population of Poland. This research thoroughly undermines the historical narrative that the Polish government is trying to impose, which essentially goes as follows: During World War II, the Polish nation lost 6 million people, half of them Jews. Despite the terrible German oppression, the Polish nation sought to aid the persecuted Jews and very few Poles harmed them. Any attempt to claim otherwise is an expression of “anti-Polishness.”
However, the historic record and decades of research paint a different picture: Apart from some exceptions, Polish society did not view the persecuted Jews as brethren sharing the same fate. In fact, despite Poland’s heroic struggle against Nazi Germany, one aspect of the occupier’s policy – the persecution and murder of Jews – garnered surprising support. While it’s true that the vast majority of Jews were murdered by the Germans, too many also perished due to direct and indirect involvement of Poles.
Polish “Righteous Among the Nations” who aided Jews without expecting any reward were forced to hide their noble deeds from those around them; in some cases, when “paid rescuers” (people who saved Jews for money) saw that the financial and social profit for turning in Jews exceeded the payment received from Jews for their assistance, these “saviors” betrayed the Jews they were hiding, causing their deaths. In many cases, these killings was especially violent, and included physical and sexual abuse.
This complex reality is nothing new to historians, including Prof. Daniel Blatman, who rightly calls himself an “expert on the history of the Holocaust.” But precisely because of Blatman’s expertise, the questions about his recently published opinion pieces are particularly serious: How can an Israeli scholar provide support for the twisted narrative propounded by the right-wing conservative Polish regime? When Blatman writes that there was “a single murderous victimizer and two groups of victims” (“Poland Is Not Conducting a New Dreyfus Trial,” Haaretz, February 8), he not only blurs the fact that as part of the draconic occupation of Poland, only Jews were doomed to death in a completely systematic way. He also obscures the understanding, backed up by research, that for the Jewish victims, some of the Poles were actually the perpetrators.
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When Blatman talks about “an anti-Polish obsession” by Haaretz reporter Ofer Aderet (“An Exercise in Historic Cherry-picking,” Haaretz, February 18), he not only lends validity to a baseless concept propounded by Polish nationalism, he also strengthens the Reduta Dobrego Imienia (Polish League Against Defamation) that was behind the libel suit against the historians. And when this learned historian asserts that in history, there are question marks, while scoffing at the in-depth research by Engelking and Grabowski, he is essentially casting doubt on their professional integrity.
What’s worse, the adoption of the Law and Justice party’s rhetoric was accompanied by totally false information. For example, as Aderet wrote, and contrary to what Blatman claimed, Grabowski was indeed forced to come to Poland to stand trial and was not sitting safely at home in Canada; and Engelking never apologized for the inaccuracy over which the two were sued.
Though Blatman tried to explain in his articles that his position is based upon a view of a complex reality, he essentially placed himself (once again) on the side of Polish official bodies that have been enlisted to attack the scholars and to advance a distorted historical narrative. The “professional” seal of approval for this camp comes from partisan researchers who are employed by government institutions and who, until now, never published anything of note about the Holocaust of Polish Jews or about Polish-Jewish relations. Arrayed against them are members of a wide international scientific community: professional organizations, research institutes, public figures in Poland and elsewhere – including the Historical Society of Israel, the American Historical Association, Yad Vashem, the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, the National Museum of Poland, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and the Polish Academy of Sciences. All have strongly protested the delegitimization and intimidation campaign being pursued by the Polish government, of which Blatman has become a part. Blatman has the right to choose his new friends and his professional circles. Nor is there any prohibition against being an opportunist. But it should be remembered that such conduct exacts a heavy price from dedicated colleagues, from professional integrity and from Holocaust research.
The writer is a history professor at Tel Aviv University and the director of the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem.