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Poland Is Not Conducting a New Dreyfus Trial

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Prof. Jan Grabowski. He  published ground-breaking research on the relations between Polish society.
Prof. Jan Grabowski. Not a Polish Dreyfus. Credit: From Jan Grabowskis archive

Readers who have been following the stories written by Haaretz correspondent Ofer Aderet on the research of historian Jan Grabowski (Haaretz, , and , 2021) could reach the conclusion that Poland is now conducting a trial that resembles the famous Dreyfus trial that took place in France at the end of the 19th century.

Prof. , a Polish historian who lives in Canada today and teaches at Ottawa University, and whose Jewish father fought in the Warsaw Revolt in 1944, has published ground-breaking research on the relations between Polish society and the Jews during the period of the Nazi occupation, and on Polish participation in the murder of Jews.

As a result, he has been vilified by the right-wing media and . Now he is also , in which one article describes how the “village elder”  of a town called Malinowo in the Bielsk Podlaski region near Bialystok  denounced Jews to the Germans, who murdered them. Those bringing the lawsuit against Grabowski claim that the mayor hid Jews and saved their lives. The verdict in his trial is due to be handed down on Tuesday.

But the picture is much more complex. The book “Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland” is an impressive volume of research that was published in 2018. Its editors, Grabowski and Polish historian Barbara Engelking, are being sued for libel by a niece of Edward Malinowski – the mayor of Malinowo. The court’s ruling will undoubtedly spark a major public controversy inside and outside Poland.

Rudolf Israel Kastner. His trial became a legal, historic and public milestone.Credit: AP

The Historical Society of Israel published a statement supporting the freedom of historical research and expressed concern over the lawsuit brought against Polish historians for their scientific work. The statement says that moving an academic discussion into the court system harms the freedom of research, and impugns the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and the academic knowledge that has been amassed about the Holocaust period.

For its part, Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center has also expressed concern about the trial in Poland against the two historians. Other institutions (POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute) have also bravely asserted that freedom of historical research in Poland must be preserved.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance stated in an opinion to the court that the Polish government is obligated to abide by such principles by virtue of its membership in that intergovernmental organization.

Putting historians on trial because of their research is an appalling and unacceptable thing to do, and is particularly deplorable in a democratic country where three million of its citizens were murdered in the Holocaust.

But the legal situation in this instance is more complicated. It cannot be said that the state is not involved in these legal proceedings. The Polish League Against Defamation, which is supported by government funding, pushed for this trial, publicly and financially. Other nationalist groups that have a clear interest in the case also got involved.

To date, no official voice from the Polish government has been heard regarding this matter. At the same time, it is not the Polish state that is suing Grabowski and Engelking for inaccurate (or not) things that were written about the denouncing or saving of Jews: This is a civil lawsuit, a libel suit, which the government has no legal ability to prevent a citizen from pursuing in court.

This is not the first case in which a libel suit about something that happened in the Holocaust has become a very important focus of historic debate. One should recall the libel charges brought by then-Israeli Attorney General Haim Cohn against a journalist and Holocaust survivor named Malchiel Gruenwald for things he wrote in 1952 about the actions of Rudolf Israel Kastner in Hungary in 1944. That trial became a legal, historic and public milestone in terms of the insights it yielded about the period and its problems.

The Polish government cannot try scholars who write about Poles’ participation in murdering Jews in a criminal court, but it also cannot prevent citizens who feel a historian has besmirched their family’s reputation from doing so in a civil suit.

Louis Garrel, left, as Alfred Dreyfus in Roman Polanski's "An Officer and a Spy." Credit: Gaumont

However, the historical question behind this trial is more complex. The issue of the participation of rural Poles in saving Jews, on the one hand, and denouncing them to the Germans or killing them themselves, on the other, touches on one of the most sensitive nerves in the history of Jewish-Polish relations during the Holocaust.

On March 13, 1943, the SS and police commander in Warsaw sent a secret memo to the heads of the civil administration in occupied Poland with instructions about how to search for and kill Jews who had managed to flee to and hide in the rural provinces. He ordered that immediate action be taken, urging that these Jews must be located and eliminated. Aware of the shortage of German manpower to carry out this mission, he ordered that the Blue Police (a Polish force established by the Germans to aid in maintaining order, which also took part in the expulsion and murder of Jews) and the general Polish populace be enlisted for the task.

How is a cautious historian to understand the instruction to eliminate Jews hiding in villages? Which parameters should be taken into account before forming an unequivocal opinion about the Poles’ collaboration in the Jewish genocide, and asserting (as per Haaretz’s Aderet) that an anti-Semitic campaign is being waged against an innocent historian who is writing about this? Or asserting that such things never happened and that all Poles were constantly engaged in saving Jews – as government spokespeople and nationalist circles in Poland claim?

The different forms of Polish assistance to Jews and also of the ways they harmed Jews are part of a broad spectrum of human behaviors that existed alongside each other. The danger for research and historical memory lies in the way these narratives treat academic facts with the objective of shaping the collective memory in one direction or another.

In order to properly understand the rescue of Jews in rural provinces alongside their being turned in and killed there, one must understand that these are two intertwining phenomena, yin and yang, that cannot be separated. The social dynamic in operation in these two contrasting situations has to do with the same apparatus of destruction that was sown by the German occupation.

The dichotomic approach that draws a solid line distinguishing between moral saviors of Jews and anti-Semitic denouncers of Jews and criminals is mistaken. Both belonged to the same social fabric, the same chaotic and violent environment created by the German occupier. The rules of the game in this murderous sphere were fashioned by the Germans.

Polish police officers during WWII. From the book “Na Posterunku," by Jan Grabowski

Because of this, it is no wonder that the very same person, Malinowski, the mayor of Malinowo, could perhaps save Jews in one instance – as Estera Drogicka testified that she was saved by him – and hand overJews who were hiding in the area to the Nazis in another instance, as that same survivor also testified.

During the German occupation, the mayors of towns and villages in the Polish provinces found themselves in an impossible predicament, similar in a way to what happened with the heads of the Judenrat in the ghettos. They were personally responsible for recruiting Polish laborers and sending them, often forcibly, to work in Germany, to collect food quotas for the Germany Army and to personally ensure that in the areas under their jurisdiction no Jews, escaped Soviet POWs or anyone else considered hostile to the Germans was hiding or roaming around.

It was the personal responsibility of the village mayor to report on or turn these people in to the Germans, and he would face severe punishment for failing to do so. To this end, he had the authority to recruit the Polish populace to help him. Many local leaders used their authority to do so, because of the constant threat that hung over them and local residents.

In many cases, Poles killed Jews on their own, after hiding them in their homes for some time, because they feard that Jews who left their village would be caught by the Germans or by the Polish police and would inform on the peasant who had hidden them, as happened sometimes.

In this way peasants, woodsmen, porters, animal traders and all kinds of ordinary citizens became participants in the mass hunt for Jews, which began in Poland in 1943 and continued until the Germans’ withdrawal from that country in 1945. Under such extreme circumstances, ordinary Poles, who had never hunted down other human beings before, became participants in the genocide committed by the Nazis.

This is an incomprehensible issue from a moral perspective – an aspect of history that is hard to accept, in which the motives for murder and violence were not just anti-Semitism or extremist nationalistic views. In this story there is a single murderous victimizer and two groups of victims, one of which is given preferential treatment by the victimizer, on condition that it help him annihilate the other.

The covers of the two-volume 'Dalej Jest Noc,' edited by Prof. Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski.Credit: Centrum Badan nad Zaglada Zydow

The complex intra-ethnic relations in rural Polish areas, the traditional anti-Semitism there, the temptation that presented itself to a poor and exhausted populace to lay its hands on Jewish property, and the German threat hovering over everything – all of these things must be kept in mind by the historian who studies what happened in this time and place.

The assertion that this discussion casts doubt on the credibility of survivors’ testimony is also baseless. Survivors’ testimonies are a record like any other and their accuracy must be carefully examined. Historians know that survivors who provided testimony a number of times after the Holocaust sometimes gave different versions of their story. This is understandable. Human memory can be elusive, insights and perspectives change over the years and the questions asked by those interviewing the survivor also change. Regarding the current libel suit, presumably Estera Drogicka is correct in both cases. The same person could have saved Jews and turned in other Jews.

Aderet would have done well not to conceal from his readers the problems in Grabowski’s research. For example, in the latter’s recent book about the Polish police and the Jews during the Nazi occupation, “On Duty: Participation of Blue and Criminal Police in the Destruction of the Jews,” he writes that it was the police that conducted searches for Jews in hiding – citing the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto as an example – and that handed them over to the Germans. There were more than a few cases in which this did indeed happen. But in this case, it was actually the Jewish Ghetto Police that did it. Errors of this type are also found in the book that is now the subject of the Polish court case. It often seems that the myriad testimonies discussed in Grabowski’s research were not always given due consideration by the historian before he drew conclusions from them.

Errors that cause Poles to be accused of atrocities against Jews when the picture is not at all clear have a very volatile impact that exceeds that of other errors that can occur in any historical research. Grabowski says the number of Jews who were murdered by Poles, or whom the Poles were responsible for killing (having turned them over to the Germans), is at least 200,000. He struggles to present credible documentation for this assertion, and of course the exact number will never be known.

Things have reached the point where excellent Polish historians who responsibly and cautiously study the history of Polish Jewry during the Holocaust are furious that Grabowski, from far off in Canada, is publishing problematic figures and articles while they, who live and work in Poland where their research puts them in a tricky public position, now find themselves at the front, receiving derogatory letters and threats from far-right organizations and nationalist politicians.

One thing is certain: The Polish court should decide that it has neither the authority nor the ability to rule on the matter that has now been brought before it. History will be the judge. However, it’s highly doubtful that historians will be able to make a clear determination on this issue. Human behavior in situations of total social and moral collapse cannot be divided into black and white. The relations between Jews and Poles during the Holocaust reside in this gray area.  

Prof. Daniel Blatman is a historian of the Holocaust period at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the chief historian of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum. 

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