Blatman, You’re in Bad Company

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A group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after an uprising in the Jewish quarter in 1943.
A group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after an uprising in the Jewish quarter in 1943.Credit: AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Yin and yang. Prof. Daniel Blatman could not have chosen a more miserable simile for describing the way Poles related to Jews during the Holocaust.

The historian (wearing his Chinese philosophy expert hat?) wrote in Haaretz on February 8 that the rescue and the killing of Jews were “two intertwining phenomena” that could not be disentangled from one another. Thus, he explained, the reality was too complex to allow a distinction between “anti-Semitic denouncers of Jews” and “moral saviors of Jews.”

Really, Prof. Blatman? Can you not distinguish between Jozef Ulma, who hid Jews in his barn out of pure humanistic sentiments and was murdered along with his family after being caught by the Germans, and Piotr Binczycki, who burst into another farm where a Jewish family was hiding, shot the wife immediately and tortured her children and before shooting them as well? True harmony. Have we mentioned yin and yang?

One can debate endlessly in newspaper articles about conditions, circumstances and contexts. One can find explanations for any human behavior – financial stress, traditional antisemitism, German incitement. There is no end to the excuses. However, when one does what historians Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking did, one finds that arguments of “complexity,” serving as cover for Blatman, are more suitable for theoretical discussions in a philosophy class rather than for real life situations.

The two historians lost a libel case against them, based on testimony they published in their book “Dalej jest noc” (“Night without End,”) about a Polish man who saved some Jews while handing over others. The bottom line is that the Jews who were murdered by their Polish compatriots did not care that perhaps in some cases and in other circumstances those same Poles also saved other Jews.

When you delve into the details, whether by going to the locations in question or by perusing the archives, the academic arguments presented by Blatman and his colleagues regarding the ultra-national right in Poland pale beside the mountain of evidence exposed by Grabowski and Engelking, which shows the extent of the murder of Jews committed by Poles, including by neighbors, colleagues and friends and in places and times where no Germans were present.

Blatman goes even further, echoing the hollow comparison so beloved by the Polish right wing today, equating Jewish and Polish victims. “In this story there is a single murderous victimizer and two groups of victims,” writes Blatman, lumping together Jews who hid in the forests after escaping the death camps and Poles who handed them over to the Germans in exchange for a sack of flour.

The injustice committed by Blatman is two-fold. First of all, he insults the memory of the 7,112 Polish righteous Gentiles who risked their lives, sometimes sacrificing them, in order to save Jews. They were a drop in the ocean, and did what they did in contrast to prevailing norms.

Blatman isn’t just damaging an 80-year-old historical memory. He is harming his colleagues, who are victims of an intimidation and delegitimization campaign that is being waged these days, sometimes taking on antisemitic tones, a campaign led and financed by the Polish government and its branches (in the media, research institutions and non-governmental organizations).

Children in the death camp Auschwitz, an image taken from a video filmed by Soviet soldiers, 1945. Credit:

The politicization of history has a clear objective: to intimidate historians, journalists and others who are researching the Holocaust and writing about it, lest they deal with unsavory subjects unpleasant to one’s ears or eyes. A reminder for those who’ve forgotten: Only under international pressure did the Polish government rescind its decision to send anyone claiming that Polish people were involved in war crimes to prison for three years.

Blatman is not in good company. His mumbled support for his colleagues, under the defiant banner “Grabowski is not the Polish Dreyfuss,” was insincere and forced, laced with words such as “but” and “however.”

This is not what true solidarity with other historians looks like. They had to make their way to court, targets of threats and expressions of hate and vilification, only because they are studying one of the darkest moments of Polish history. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the Historical Society of Israel, the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich all lined up in unqualified support of the two historians. The Warsaw Ghetto Museum, a government organized in which Blatman serves as chief historian, was the last to do so.

This is not surprising, since by definition it is meant to “speak of the mutual love between the two nations... the solidarity, fraternity, historical truth,” as claimed by Poland’s Culture Minister Piotr Glinski three years ago.

All that remains is to wonder how Blatman repeatedly makes reckless comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany while at the same time straining and twisting in an effort to burnish the conscience of people who assisted the Nazis in their work.

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