Opinion

Warsaw Ghetto Museum Historian: A Tale of History, Force and Narrow Horizons

Is it really such a great sin to take a more inclusive approach to studying the history of Nazi-occupied Poland?

Fragments of a plaque lie on the floor of a former hospital that is being transformed into a museum on the history of the Warsaw ghetto during the German occupation of Poland, in Warsaw, Poland, on Oct. 19, 2018.
AP Photo/Vanessa Gera

“I’ve been called a traitor many times in my life. I think I’m in wonderful company… History is full of people, men and women, who happened to be ahead of their time and were accused of treason by some of their contemporaries.” So Amos Oz, the Hebrew literary giant and one of the greatest intellectuals to ever walk among us, who died last week, told the BBC in a 2016 interview. I, whose deeds are dwarfed in comparison, wholeheartedly embrace this inspirational statement, which is a part of his tremendous public, intellectual and moral legacy.

The new Warsaw Ghetto Museum in Poland has seen a wave of vicious hatred, spilling forth like molten lava, unleashed upon all those who took part in its establishment. After making the complicated decision to accept a position as the project's chief historian, following a series of long, agonizing conversations with the museum administration, I received a torrent of accusations bordering on incitement. It's been some time since I've seen such vitriol in connection with a historical commemoration project.

Professors Havi Dreifuss and Shlomo Avineri from Israel, and three historians in Poland and Canada, essentially marked me as an ally of Satan. Their derogatory words, in Hebrew, English and Polish, include all kinds of accusations. They range from milder claims that I am blurring the history of the Holocaust and ignoring existing scholarship in the field, to more aggressive accusations that I am a Polish-appointed historian, a poster boy, a fig leave, a tool of Holocaust deniers. They have even implied that my ultimate goal is to turn the museum into an instrument of anti-Israel incitement.

A prominent Polish Holocaust historian also insinuated that the museum director and I, who both happen to be Jewish, are reviving the inglorious heritage of the “court Jew.” A little latent anti-Semitism in a debate over commemoration of the Holocaust never hurts.

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A casual listener to this nasty cacophony may be led to believe that the museum in question is like the one some Nazis dreamed of building in Prague, meant to glorify the triumph over the extinct race – not a museum dedicated to the largest and most important Jewish community in Europe that was annihilated in the Holocaust.

Let's start with the location. The Warsaw Ghetto Museum is situated in a building of great historical and architectural importance: The Hospital for Jewish Children (which, of course, also admitted Polish children). The structure was built in the late 19th century and miraculously survived the Nazi occupation and two uprisings in the city – the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the 1944 Polish National Uprising (which also included Jewish fighters).

The war and the uprisings left Warsaw in ruins. This building functioned as one of two hospitals in the ghetto. The dedicated team of doctors who worked there also conducted tremendously important research on morbidity and mortality in the ghetto.

In 1944, during the Polish uprising, the building served as a command center and a center for treating the wounded of one of the Polish underground units fighting against the Nazis in that area.

This special building sits in the heart of the New City of Warsaw, on a lot that was coveted by many real estate sharks in Poland and abroad. The building was slated for demolition to make way for offices and commercial buildings, which could have put millions into state coffers and the hands of business owners.

The building that will be the site of the 'Warsaw Ghetto Museum,' Warsaw, December 14, 2018.
Alik Keplicz,AP

But the Polish Culture Ministry decided to intervene. They said: This will not be the site of more skyscrapers, though they would bring in millions of zloty; instead it will be the site of a historic museum, in which the state must invest millions. And what could be more important and appropriate for this special building than a museum on the history of the Warsaw Ghetto?

This isn't the only element being ignored in the ugly political battle, which hides behind self-righteous arguments about how one Israeli historian and his team, which includes top-notch Polish and American historians, will distort the historical truth.

For two decades now, a small research institute devoted to the history of the Jewish Holocaust in Poland has been operating under the auspices of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. It has just three or four excellent scholars who often must wear the traitor’s badge Amos Oz described. Through their Sisyphean efforts they have upended Holocaust research in Poland and presented a new picture of the history of Polish Jewry in the Holocaust.

No longer are the Poles portrayed as the Righteous Among Nations, as the Communist regime sought to portray them for many years, but as a people who, along with many rescuers, also included informants and collaborators who were complicit in the murder of thousands of Jews.

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The contribution made by the Center for Holocaust Study in Poland and its research partnership with Yad Vashem is priceless. One small group of courageous historians holding fast to its historic truth has stood up against a society that doesn’t like to deal honestly with the foul stains on its past. Just think about the reaction when the first studies appeared in Israel about the expulsion and dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948. That was the situation in Poland, and their research changed it.

But the researchers at the center in Warsaw locked onto the above historical outlook, turning it into a holy crusade with the mission of confronting Polish society with its past during the time of the Holocaust, the emphasis on Polish anti-Semitism and its deadly manifestations. They have partners in this approach outside of Poland too. In Israel, Havi Dreifuss is the most prominent representative of this scholarly trend.

These scholars neglected to examine the broader situation in occupied Poland, which was much more complex. In the broader story, there were not only Jews persecuted by Poles, and not only Jews saved by Poles, as others sought to emphasize. Poland was a big country with tens of millions of people who struggled to get by under the Nazi occupation. These people contended with terror, violence, expulsions, labor camps and prisons that ground them down. Many died at the hands of the same murderers who separated the Jews, imprisoned them in ghettos and finally sent them to Treblinka.

Two expert scholars of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, Christoph Dieckmann and Tomasz Frydel, recently pointed out a weakness in the research that has been present for many years: The almost complete absence of consideration for the existential fears of the non-Jewish population living under Nazi occupation.

Frydel examined cases in rural areas of southern Poland in which Polish peasants killed Jews they had been hiding in their homes. They did this after other Jews who’d left their hiding places and been caught by the Germans had informed on their rescuers and endangered their lives.

The Polish historian Marcin Zaremba proposed that instead of focusing only on the fears of the persecuted Jews, as the scholars of the Warsaw center do, one should try to understand the fears shared by all the ethnic groups that were living under Nazi terror. These approaches are brutally criticized by the scholars of the Warsaw Holocaust studies center.

Is it really such a great sin to look at the wider picture? To take a more inclusive approach to the study of Nazi-occupied Poland? Is it really so terrible to tell the history of the Warsaw Ghetto from the perspective of the entire occupied, tormented and devastated city where the ghetto existed? Is it so terrible to make note of this in a museum that stands in a building used both by Jews who died in the ghetto and by Poles who were killed in the heroic anti-Nazi uprising? In a building that, since the late 19th century, essentially symbolized Jewish-Polish coexistence in this city, with all its successes, hardships, problems and disappointments?

Beyond the issue of historical approach, there are, as always, aspects of the politics of power and funding. The brand new Warsaw Ghetto Museum, just like the long-established Center for Holocaust Studies in Warsaw – whose people tried to quash the new museum before it could get off the ground – relies on government funding.

Here is a new center built to include a museum and, in the future, a research institute and a pedagogical institute, which will present a different historical approach from the one that has dominated Holocaust research in Poland until now.

The Warsaw center scholars and their counterparts in Israel realize that their monopoly on the historical discourse and allocation of resources could be coming to an end. Granted, it's hard to reconcile the dialectical contradiction of accusing your opponents of collaborating with a nationalist government who's investing money in obscuring history while relying on those same government funds to operate comfortably. But then, this little moral dilemma can be buried under a few more hostile articles and attacks on the court historian of the nationalist Polish government.

Of course, there is no guarantee that we will succeed. It’s not easy to grapple with the countless difficulties that accompany such a big project, especially one that has been met with so much suspicion, hostility and aggression. We cannot rule out the possibility that political elements will one day sabotage the museum's work.

Perhaps we won’t be able to cope with all the hardships and we’ll be forced to retreat. But one thing we can certainly confront is the accusation of betrayal. Ultimately, if this museum does open its doors in 2023 as planned, on the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, we will proudly wear the badge of traitor.

Professor Blatman is a historian at the Hebrew University and the chief historian of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum

Daniel Blatman speaks in front of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial, Warsaw, December 23, 2018.
Alik Keplicz,AP