Monument to a Polish Man Who Offered Water to Jews in Treblinka Sparks Controversy

The monument, erected near the Treblinka train station, is part of a trend by Polish authorities to distort history, Holocaust researcher says

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
The unveiling ceremony of the monument in memory of Maltese in Treblinka, last week.
The unveiling ceremony of the monument in memory of Maltese in Treblinka, last week.Credit: The Pilecki Institute
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

A new monument in Poland, a stone's throw away from the Treblinka death camp, has raised controversy among historians. It commemorates Jan Maletka, a young Polish man who is claimed to have been shot by German soldiers when he offered water to Jews who were brought to the camp by train. The monument was erected on Thursday, and unveiled in an official military ceremony in the Polish town of Treblinka.

Prof. Jan Grabowski, a Polish historian and Holocaust researcher who resides and teaches in Canada, had harsh criticism for the monument. In conversation with Haaretz – as well as on Facebook and in an article in the Polish media – he said that the monument is part of a trend by Polish authorities to distort history. According to Grabowski, the monument was put up to serve a fictitious narrative, which presents the Poles as having come to the aid of Jews in the Holocaust, in order to obscure the involvement of many more Poles who helped the Nazis.

“They erected a monument to celebrate Poles killed for rescuing the Jews in – of all places – the Treblinka railway station," Grabowski said. He added that scores of testimonies – Jewish and Polish alike – paint a different picture, in which Poles exploited the suffering of the Jews, selling them water but not giving it to them. "Diamonds, gold, money changed hands," he said. "Some of these Poles have been shot by the Ukrainians guarding the trains."

One such testimony was presented by Prof. Havi Dreifuss, an expert on the Holocaust of the Jews of Poland from Tel Aviv University and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. “The suffering of the Jews sent to the extermination camps was enormous, first and foremost because of the murderous conditions in which the Germans transported them,” she said. “The crowding, lack of sanitary conditions, thirst and suffocation were too great to bear, and many died in the train cars.”

Dreifuss quotes testimony that described what happened on August 20, 1942, the day when Jews of the Warsaw district were transported to Treblinka. Julia Biederman-Orzechowska, who watched the deportation, testified that the heat at that time was intolerable and that “Poles gave water for large [sums of] money.”

According to Grabowski, the authorities in Poland – in this case the official in charge of culture in the Polish government, Magdalena Gawin, and the Pilecki Institute – acted “scandalously” in installing the monument near the camp. “I’m in shock from the gall of those people who simply decided to write a new history of the Holocaust by themselves," he added. In an article published in the daily Gazeta Wyborcza, he wrote: “How easy it is for Poland to falsify stories and commemorate a handful of fair Poles who sacrificed their lives to help Jews, in a sea of Poles who persecuted, murdered and helped murder at least 200,000 Jews who escaped the camps and the ghettos.”

The Pilecki Institute, a Polish government body tasked with research and preservation of the history of Polish experiences in World War II and its aftermath, rejected the criticism. It claimed that the memorial was intended to commemorate a single person, rather than a group, and that the stone was not set up near the Treblinka death camp, but 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles) from it. The institute also said that the monument commemorates the Jewish victims of the camp as well.

Gawin, for her part, said that Grabowski was spreading "fake news." She said, “We never claimed that everyone helped [the Jews], this is a personal memorial.”

The monument is indeed dedicated to one person, but the Pilecki Institute website states that Maletka did not act alone and that the railway workers in the area, as a group, acted to help Jews. According to the Pilecki Institute, two of Maletka's friends were also involved in the story, but their names are not recorded in the monument, because they were not killed by the Nazis.

Maletka’s commemoration is part of an extensive initiative, led by the Pilecki Institute, to commemorate Poles who were killed because they helped Jews. In addition to his new memorial stone, Maletka's name and image were also displayed last week in the streets of Warsaw.

Although there is a consensus that any aid to the Jews during the Holocaust should be honored, historians like Grabowski doubt the authenticity of some of these stories. It is difficult to rely on the historical accuracy behind them, they add, because the entities promoting them have a political agenda, which is to defend the “good name” of the Polish nation – and not necessarily historical truth.

It is unclear which historical sources proved that Maletka offered Jews water out of compassion. Haaretz’s query to the Pilecki Institute on the subject has thus far received no response. Grabowski and other historians who are experts on the Holocaust in Poland are not familiar with this particular instance, although that does not necessarily mean it did not happen. Given that most of the Jews who would have witnessed the incident were certainly murdered immediately afterward, it is hard to find a basis for this story in independent sources.

The Pilecki Institute is relying on, among other things, the testimony of one of Maletka’s partners, Remigiusz Pawlowicz, who survived the war and told his daughter Barbara about the incident. Barbara, who was born in 1948, was filmed for a video distributed by the institute saying: “My father and Maletka offered water to Jews who were coming on the train to Treblinka.” She added that her father told her that at first the Germans were not bothered by this, but at some point they had had enough, and began shooting at them.

A distorted narrative of Jewish-Polish relations

Dr. Marcin Panecki of the Pilecki Institute said that Maletka and two of his friends, all in their 20s, were sent by the Germans to work on the railroad track near Treblinka. “They worked at the Treblinka station when suddenly they saw the transport of Jews, apparently from the Warsaw Ghetto, which came on August 20, 1942.” According to Panecki, at around 10 A.M. they were walking cautiously toward the transport carrying containers of water. German soldiers saw them and fired at them. Maletka was killed on the spot, and the two others managed to flee. Later they returned to the scene, and retrieved the body of their friend for burial. However, the grave did not survive the war and the location of Maletka’s grave is unknown.

Dreifuss presents a complex reality. “Could it be that there were Poles who tried to help Jews out of compassion? Was this the case with Maletka? I really don’t know,” she said, but added: “These publications by the Pilecki Institute, which is clearly associated with the Polish government, which is trying to promote a distorted narrative of the relations between Jews and Poles in the Holocaust, are partial and not clear enough.”

Grabowski has similar criticism: "I call it, 'Writing a new history of the Holocaust.' Quoting family members who heard something about a Pole – that he gave water to Jews. It's impossible to prove and impossible to disprove," he said.

In recent years, as part of the policy dictated by the current nationalist government of Poland, there are more and more initiatives to commemorate Poles who rescued Jews. Along with them, controversy is growing over the question of who has the authority to determine which Poles rescued Jews, and whether the authorities are using a handful of rescuers in an attempt to whitewash reality and obscure the involvement of other Poles in Nazi crimes.

This has included, among other projects, a museum and a monument built in the town of Markowa to Poles from the area who helped Jews in the Holocaust. It primarily commemorates the Ulma family – a Polish family who hid Jews in their home and were murdered for it by the Nazis. A state-sponsored memorial day has also been instituted to honor Poles who saved Jews in the Holocaust.

At another site, a church in the city of Torun, a monument with hundreds of names of Poles whom it is claimed saved Jews has been put up, although the list is not known to Yad Vashem. Stories have also come to light of Polish diplomats from Switzerland, who allegedly issued hundreds of false passports that saved the lives of Jews in the Holocaust. One of these individuals, Konstanty Rokicki, was subsequently recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, although Poland’s efforts to gain such recognition for his colleagues have thus far been unsuccessful.

Yad Vashem has recognized approximately 7,000 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations, but concedes that the real number of Poles who saved Jews at the risk of their own lives may be greater. Jan Maletka, who is commemorated at the new monument, was not recognized by Yad Vashem; but, if his story can be corroborated, he certainly may deserve this title.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: