Opinion

The Israeli Historian Under the Polish Government’s Thumb

In his role as the Warsaw Ghetto Museum’s chief historian, Daniel Blatman distorts the history of the Holocaust and takes on the role of court historian

Daniel Blatman, the newly appointed chief historian of the 'Warsaw Ghetto Museum', speaks during a press conference, in Warsaw, Poland, Dec. 14, 2018.
AP Photo/Alik Keplicz

Prof. Daniel Blatman rejects criticism of his decision to serve as the chief historian of Poland’s Warsaw Ghetto Museum, as described in a story by Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet earlier this month. In his own piece for Haaretz, Blatman used the tumultuous reaction to his decision to deflect the discussion from the main issue: his consent to help the Polish government distort the history of the Holocaust.

Poland’s Law and Justice party, which came to power at the end of 2015, has thoroughly transformed the shaping of memories in that country. In some respects, similar to what has happened in Hungary and other countries, Poland’s government is promoting a “policy of history-shaping” that devotes a special place to Jews and the Holocaust. It’s taking action to document, research and commemorate Jews who were murdered by the Germans.

But in the name of “preserving the good name of the Polish people,” the regime is aggressively countering any attempt to investigate the fate of Jews murdered in those years through the actions of Poles, whether through extortion, handing Jews over to the Germans, or killing them outright.

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In this spirit, the government is embracing the deeds of Poland’s Righteous Gentiles–  whose noble actions defied prevailing norms in Poland in those years – attributing them to the entire Polish nation. The government declares its support for independent research but in practice it assails Polish researchers who show interest in such pursuits, casting doubts on their academic integrity and supporting lawsuits against some of them. In this way it’s creating a threatening environment for researchers and their students.

Such conduct isn’t limited to the academic world. Despite Polish and international criticism, the ruling party has compelled the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk to adapt its exhibits to the “correct” narrative. The culture minister, Piotr Glinski, was behind this move. There was also a suggestion to merge this museum, which was about to open, with a new museum more in keeping with the government’s outlook.

Twisted narrative

It now seems that a new front has opened. Only five years ago, with Polish and international investment, a museum commemorating Jewish history in Poland was inaugurated in Warsaw. This museum displays the impressive tradition of Holocaust research in Poland, joining other institutions in Warsaw that explore the fate of the country’s Jews. In light of the trends in the current government, and based on experience, the announcement of a “new” Holocaust museum devoted to the Warsaw Ghetto is viewed as an attempt to damage existing institutions, and possibly also as an attempt to take over their archival treasures.

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Glinski’s demand that this new museum highlight the fraternity and solidarity between Jews and Poles over 800 years only makes clearer that this is another tool for the government to present a twisted narrative. This explains why historians who were approached by the museum, including myself, refused to take part. It was clear to us all that this was an attempt to receive a Jewish and international stamp of approval for a misleading narrative, while receiving help in the Polish government’s campaign against Polish researchers who weren’t obeying its dictates.

Blatman acceded to the Polish government’s wishes despite knowing the reality there well. His role as the museum’s chief historian amounts to a role as a court historian. What he has written shows that he’s fulfilling expectations.

Blatman argues, for example, that he’s the only one who will present the persecuted Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto as “citizens of Poland.” In this he validates the historical distortion fostered by the Polish government, which is happy to embrace dead Jews. Despite their formal citizenship status, Poland’s Jews during the Holocaust (and before it) were not perceived as part of the Polish nation – not by Poland’s government-in-exile, its Delegatura arm in occupied Poland, the Polish underground movements or wide swaths of Polish society.

Feelings of alienation and hostility toward Jews created a strange reality in occupied Poland, where it was possible to boldly fight the Nazi occupiers while being involved in the murder of Jews. Thus Righteous Gentiles who hid Jews had to conceal this from their neighbors, who often viewed such acts as a betrayal of Poland. None of this seems to concern Blatman, who intends to grant the regime his professional imprimatur in his efforts to turn Holocaust victims into posthumous “Polish citizens.”

Quid pro quo

More serious is Blatman’s misleading declaration that the Warsaw Ghetto Museum will be the only institution to present the fate of Poland’s Jews in a wider Polish context. In fact, the Holocaust gallery at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews already does this.

Alongside the story of life in the ghetto, the museum provides a description of the draconian reality under occupation. Researchers who helped design the gallery were accused by the government of being insensitive to the suffering of Poles. It was claimed that their focus on Jews came at the expense of the fate of Poles under Nazi occupation. Now comes a Jewish and Israeli historian giving a stamp of approval to this argument.

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Still, it seems that it’s not just that the Polish government is using Blatman. He is using the government. Finding a balance between dealing with the Holocaust and placing it in its historical and ideological contexts is the bread and butter of researchers of the Holocaust and institutions commemorating it. Racism, anti-Semitism and genocide are topics present in different ways at every institution that commemorates the Holocaust, including Yad Vashem.

According to Blatman, the Holocaust museum will exhibit, “while noting both the differences and the common elements,” the fate of Jews, Poles, Gypsies, Soviet war prisoners and others “who were murdered alongside Jews in the vast genocidal expanse that occupied Poland became.” The Warsaw Ghetto Museum thus won’t deal with the ghetto or the Holocaust, but with the genocide of various groups. In fact, the only reference to the Holocaust that’s acceptable to Blatman is its enlistment in drawing very specific lessons while providing a “universal and inclusive message about the Holocaust.”

It’s not only that in the name of a pseudo-liberal concept Blatman dismisses any other kind of message. It seems he believes there’s something wrong about dealing with Holocaust victims in depth.

How frustrating it must be for him to relate to the Holocaust in which victims were murdered for being Jewish, not for being Polish citizens. How convenient for him to be supported by the Polish government in not addressing this fact. Here we have two opposing forces willing to work together even at the cost of distorting history.

What about remembering the fate of Poland’s Jews during the Holocaust? What about the existing extensive and thorough research? What about our Polish colleagues who are bravely researching the Holocaust? And mainly, what about a historian’s professional integrity?

Prof. Havi Dreifuss heads Tel Aviv University’s Institute for the History of Polish Jewry and Yad Vashem’s Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland.