When a Historian Dares to Research Polish Holocaust Crimes

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Professor Jan Grabowski.
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The antisemitic smear campaign now being faced by Prof. Jan Grabowski, a Polish-Canadian historian of Jewish origin, who courageously researches crimes committed by Poles against Jews in the Holocaust, should shock everyone everywhere.

On the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, when International Holocaust Remembrance Day is being commemorated all over the world, we should pay attention to what is happening at this very moment in Poland – an independent country, not one under foreign occupation. Here are several updated examples of readers' reactions to articles published in Polis media, for the benefit of all the leaders who this week will declare “Never again.”

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“Jews attack Poland with the help of lies, slander and their fifth column in Poland”; “Grabowski, the Jew, brutally attacks Poland. How can one not be an antisemite?”; “Strip this liar of his citizenship!”; “What is Grabowski’s real name and why hasn’t he been punished?”; “Put them in cattle cars and ship them where they belong, to the East!”; “A Jew, sick with hatred of Poles, spits on the Polish nation and falsifies history as a Polish scholar. We pay him and he slanders us and defiles our nation.” 

Why is this respected historian – whose father, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, participated in the Warsaw uprising in 1944 – being attacked like this? What sin has he committed to cause them to dishonor him like this? The answer is no less shocking that their tone. Grabowski is now on trial in Poland, his homeland, from which he emigrated decades ago, after being accused in a defamation lawsuit of damaging the good name of the Polish nation. And why? Because in one paragraph on one of the 1,700 pages of a history book he co-edited, there is testimony from a Holocaust survivor that presents a complex picture: One Polish “village elder,” who rescued her and other Jews, robbed her and even denounced other Jews to the Germans.

It’s important to note that the book “Night Without End” is an important study that excels in its innovative methodology – microhistory, which focuses on small units of research, such as an event, community, individual or settlement, to derive more general historical insights. The two volumes make reference to a large number of archival sources, which attest to the seriousness and professionalism of its writers and editors. The book was published by the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, one of the most respected of the organizations researching the subject.

Can even historians be mistaken? Of course. Is there really a mistake in the paragraph being attacked by right-wing nationalists in Poland, who are acting with the backing and financial support of the government? It’s not at all certain. The plaintiff is the niece of that same village elder, and she is being assisted by the Polish League Against Defamation, a right-wing nationalist NGO. She claims that her uncle – in whose name she is avenging the honor of the entire nation – was a national hero who saved Jews, and she is relying on the testimony of a Holocaust survivor who is quoted in the book.

But this testimony was taken immediately after the war, when her rescuer was being tried on a charge of denouncing Jews, for which he was acquitted in the end. The book also brings in later testimony, in which the same Holocaust survivor claimed that she lied in her first testimony, and that her rescuer went out to the forest to reveal the hiding place of some 20 Jews, who were later murdered by the Germans.

Which version should we believe? That’s an issue which historians should be dealing with. This issue must not be decided in court, which lacks the tools and knowledge to examine complex historical issues of this kind, and which operates under the influence of the government, whose clear policy is to present Poland as a nation of rescuers of Jews.

Many have justly protested the infuriating “Holocaust law” passed in Poland in 2018, which threatened a prison sentence for anyone (with the exception of scholars and artists) attributing the Nazis’ crimes to the Polish people or to Poland. In the end the Polish government retreated, under international pressure, in return for a controversial “joint declaration” signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki. The declaration served as a seal of approval for the Polish nation, when it claimed that “numerous Poles” saved Jews, while the involvement of Poles in the persecution and murder of Jews was described as “a case of cruelty” perpetrated by “some people – regardless of their origin, religion or worldview.”

There is no need to discuss the problematic nature of that declaration again here. But now Poland is acting in contradiction to an article of that same declaration, which is designed to guarantee freedom of academic research of the Holocaust, “without any fear of legal obstacles,” and without being subject “to any legal charges for using the right to free speech and academic freedom with reference to the Holocaust.”

Although the Holocaust law was revoked, under Netanyahu’s nose the Poles are continuing to undermine academic freedom – with government sponsorship, funding and support, this time by using civil defamation lawsuits, which could be regarded as lawsuits for the purpose of silencing.

If the Polish court doesn’t reject the present lawsuit out of hand, it would constitute a harsh blow to freedom of academic research, which will undergo politicization and be kept in check and become subject to the government’s minions. Israel is the first one that should condemn this and act in the spirit of the call of President Reuven Rivlin: “Historical research should be left to historians” – and not to judges..

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