Opinion

Challenge Poland's Attempts to Whitewash Its WWII anti-Jewish Hostility

The powerful machinery of the Polish state is now re-writing the history of Jewish-Polish relations during the war to emphasize Polish martyrdom at the expense of the suffering of its Jewish citizens.

Visitors at the main gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau, January 25, 1995.
Reinhard Krause, Reuters

It is with trepidation and concern that I read an article (“What Poland’s New Holocaust Bill Gets Right and What it Gets Very Wrong”) by Daniel Blatman, professor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  

Professor Blatman, who should know better, decided to express his partial approval for the new law which has been recently been adopted by the Polish government. The new law stipulates, among many other things, prison terms for those who “slander the Polish nation ascribing to it the crimes committed by the Third Reich”.  

Prof. Blatman explains that the law is part of a pushback against the last 20 years of Polish scholarship on the Holocaust: "Ever since historian Jan Tomasz Gross detailed the murder of the Jews in the town of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors, Holocaust research in Poland is primarily the study of the hostile, often lethal relationship of the Poles to their Jewish neighbors during the years of the German occupation”.  

The historians in question - according to the good professor from Jerusalem - “lost sight of the large picture to some degree”. Enough of quotes. Professor Blatman’s knowledge of historical research being currently done in Polish, in Poland, seems to be as incomplete as it is misinformed.  

Had Prof. Blatman taken a moment from his busy schedule to actually inquire into the state of historical Holocaust-related writing in Poland, he would have seen that the scene is (and has been for years) completely dominated by feel-good narrative which stresses the noble deeds of Poles recognized as Righteous Among the Nations and help provided by the Polish nation to its suffering Jewish co-citizens.  

The small group of historians who - according to Blatman - justify and explain the ridiculous measures taken by the nationalist Polish government - can be no match for the powerful machinery of the Polish state which is now re-writing the history of Jewish-Polish relations during the war. 

The results of these policies are spectacular: according to the recent polls (conducted in 2015) a stunning 47 percent of Polish respondents think that Auschwitz was, most of all, a place of Polish martyrdom, and 61 percent are convinced that Polish suffering at the time of the Shoah was at least equal, or greater than, that of the Jews. 

No, Prof. Blatman, Polish historical writing has definitely not been dominated, as you suggest, by those interested in “hostile, often lethal relationship of the Poles to their Jewish neighbors during the years of the German occupation” - quite the opposite.  

Instead of trying to understand and to justify the outrageous “historical policy” of the Polish government, Prof. Blatman should do what historians are supposed to do: to gather evidence, before speaking out. 

Jan Grabowski is Professor of History at the University of Ottawa and Senior Invitational Scholar at the Advanced Holocaust Studies Center at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He received the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research for his book Judenjagd.