An Exercise in Historic Cherry-picking

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Holocaust survivors walk below the gate with its inscription "Work sets you free" at former death camp Auschwitz to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2020.
Holocaust survivors walk below the gate with its inscription "Work sets you free" at former death camp Auschwitz to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation in Oswiecim, Poland, JanuaCredit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP
Daniel Blatman
Daniel Blatman

In his monumental 1932 novel “Journey to the End of the Night,” the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline wrote that the truly most important things happen undercover. “There is no doubt of this. We know nothing about a person’s real story.”

Ofer Aderet, Haaretz’s history correspondent, thinks he is capable of explaining to us, uninformed readers, the true story of a man, even a difficult and complex story such as the one that took place in Nazi-occupied Poland. Aderet claims that I’m not an expert in Chinese philosophy after I wrote that the murder and saving of Jews in Poland are two intertwined phenomena that characterized the reality created by the German occupation. Indeed, I’m no expert in Chinese philosophy, but I am one on the history of the Holocaust.

They say that behind every journalist lies a frustrated author. It appears that behind the history correspondent there is a frustrated historian. Aderet is not a historian, but he’s expected not to betray his profession as a journalist and to present his readers with a full picture of the facts, the data, opinions and approaches. Instead, he chose to engage in cherry-picking, to write as a journalist presenting only the facts that are compatible with his thesis.

Aderet goes even further: He thinks he can explain life itself to us. “Arguments of ‘complexity,’ serving as cover for Blatman, are more suitable for theoretical discussions in a philosophy class rather than for real life situations,” he writes. Aderet will explain life in a different way than I do, without “but,” “yet” and “nevertheless.” But what can one do, Aderet, history deals with a wide spectrum of human activities and lives. It is written with many question marks and very few exclamation points.

In order to explain to us the correct way of understanding what happened in Poland during the German occupation, Aderet recruits the case of the Ulma family, from the village of Markowa, located in the Rzeszow district in southeastern Poland. The family hid Jews and was denounced to the Germans by their Polish neighbors. On March 24, 1944, Jozef Ulma, his pregnant wife Wiktoria and their six children were executed by German gendarmes, along with the eight Jews they had given refuge to since 1942.

The Ulmas were recognized as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem. They also became national heroes in Poland, as representatives of its national spirit in the ultra-nationalist and tendentious narrative now prevailing in that country. But this story is incomplete. A few kilometers from Markowa, in another village, lie the bodies of 18 Jews who were robbed and tortured by Poles before being handed over to the German police, who executed them. How are we to understand these two cases?

Aderet, guided by his anti-Polish obsession, refuses to understand what most Holocaust researchers understand. There is a causal connection between these harsh cases. One can’t understand the saving of Jews without understanding what ties it to their denunciation. In the social landscape of Poland under Nazi rule, there was a particularly violent pattern of behavior among Polish farmers. This occurred alongside extreme violence towards Poles who saved Jews, especially in rural areas where the Germans were conducting violent campaigns designed to achieve calm.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and memorial in Jerusalem. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Despite Aderet’s insistence on remaining captive to the conception of Jews as exclusive victims, there were two groups of victims. If Aderet read more research on this topic (after all, he’s the history correspondent, isn’t he?) he would also find the testimony of Yehuda Ehrlich, who was saved by a farmer close to Markowa.

Ehrlich related how farmers went into a terrible existential panic in the face of the campaign of oppression waged by the Germans, to the point that they murdered Jews hiding in their villages, out of fear of German reprisals. This included Jews whom they themselves had taken in and hidden for two years. Why then? Why did they betray them? How did they turn from saviors to murderers?

In 1944, the area was subject to harsh German terror, not specifically directed against Jews but more at the Polish resistance. There’s the rub. When we research a reality of terror, violence and fear, we’re obliged, we researchers of the past, to remain humble, not assuming that we can understand what the “true” story of a person is. Fear of German terror was imprinted in the minds of the rural population, and the dynamics of fear drove it to horrific human behavior. Is that the only explanation? Obviously not. But it’s an important one which cannot be ignored.

However, cherry-picker Aderet does not make do with a selective representation of history. He accuses me of harming historical memory and harming my professional colleagues, historians Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski, who had been “dragged” into court, being ordered subsequently to apologize for tarnishing the name of the woman who had filed a petition against them, after they wrote that her uncle had denounced Jews to the Germans in an eastern Polish village.

This is cheap demagoguery, Aderet. Grabowski was not “dragged” into any court and continued to reside securely in his home in Canada. Engelking, an excellent researcher, sensitive and conscientious, said even before the trial that there may have been a mistake in the article which led to the petition, and she apologized.

If Aderet had wanted to enlarge the picture for the benefit of his readers, he should have told them that in the past, his persecuted idol Grabowski had been “inaccurate” about testimony he provided in his research, which dealt with wrongs inflicted on Jews by Poles. This reached a point at which fellows of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, headed by Engelking, dissociated themselves from him, which led to an open rift between he and them. That’s important information, Aderet, is it not? Unless you choose to pick cherries.

Blatman echoes what the Polish right likes to hear and is not in good company, determines Aderet. As supportive evidence he uses my current role at the Warsaw Ghetto Museum, now being built. He forgets (or deliberately ignores) that on many occasions I have spoken out against steps taken by the Polish government, steps that gravely impact democracy in Poland.

Polish policemen, Krakow, Poland, 1941.Credit: Iffland / Bundesarchiv

He fails, like a novice journalist, by not checking facts properly. Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Shudrich, who expressed worthy and dignified support for the two historians, and whom Aderet brings as a shining example, is also the chairman of the board of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum. With him are other worthy trustees such as Colette Avital, the chairperson of the Center Organization of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, Abraham Foxman, former head of the Anti-Defamation League, and Marian Turski, a Holocaust survivor and head of a public committee of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

With them there is a group of Jews and Poles, survivors and Righteous Gentiles, clergymen, educators and activists for the commemoration of the legacy of the Holocaust in Poland. The team working on establishing the museum includes researchers from Poland and Israel, most of them talented young people, along with experienced professors. The society is an excellent one, Aderet, and I’m honored to belong to it.

Aderet hasn’t bothered to question, examine or ask me for material, or to read the detailed plan we’ve set up for the museum’s permanent exhibition. He’s not interested in the fact that there is a Jewish community in Poland, albeit a small one, that holds the museum dear regardless of the party currently in power there. This community lives in Warsaw, Cracow and Wroclaw, not in Jerusalem. The museum is firstly this community’s museum. Their story has legitimacy and it must be respected, even if Aderet thinks it best if they’d adopt a different one, which better suits “life itself,” to his understanding.

When arguments end, slander is invoked. “(Blatman) strains and twists in an effort to burnish the conscience of people who assisted the Nazis in their work.” One can only feel sadness that a journalist in a respected newspaper behaves like a propagandist in a well-known Israeli freebie, distributed on street corners and train stations.

Prof. Blatman is a historian of the Holocaust at Hebrew university, and chief historian at the Warsaw Ghetto Museum in Poland.

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