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The Holocaust’s Evasive History in Both Poland and Israel

Daniel Blatman
Daniel Blatman
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Warsaw Ghetto
Warsaw GhettoCredit: Yad Vashem
Daniel Blatman
Daniel Blatman

For months now there has been an acrid debate over two volumes published by the Center for Holocaust Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences. “Dalej jest noc” (“Night Continues”) is the name of the project, a phrase taken from a 1942 poem by Czeslaw Milosz.

The two hefty volumes contain studies on provincial areas of occupied Poland and the fate of the Jews who barely escaped the deportations that condemned them to death and tried to survive thereafter, from 1942 to 1945, in Polish village society. In the introduction, the editors Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski, among the most important historians of the Holocaust in Poland, set forth important if partial conclusions for understanding the Shoah in that country.

The studies give an impressive picture of the initiatives by Jews to rescue one another. The Jews established mutual aid networks and passed along vital information about possibilities for hiding. The passive image that has clung to them is once again revealed as inaccurate. Moreover, the studies show that Jewish involvement in the rescue efforts increased the Poles’ responsiveness to helping the Jews.

Another conclusion of the studies is that the chance of being saved was almost entirely contingent on the society’s willingness to help a Jew. The neighbor, the acquaintance, the farmer were the narrow bridge between the Jew seeking a hiding place and the possibility of staying alive.

However, Jews seeking a refuge couldn’t overcome the obstacles of the closed village society, its social norms, the traditional anti-Semitic hostility and the fear of the Germans’ response. Grabowski and Engelking say we have to admire those who endangered themselves and hid Jews not only because they overcame their fear of the Germans but because they overcame the fear of facing their own closed community.

Their conclusion is harsh: Two out of three Jews who died in the areas that were studied were murdered due to Polish involvement. They were turned in to the Nazis and sometimes were killed by Poles themselves. The editors conclude that the Polish partnership in the murder of Jews was large. Their main explanation, as they define it, is anti-Semitism as a universal phenomenon. Indeed, the violence against the Jews did not end with the Germans’ departure; it continued even against the Holocaust survivors who returned after the war.


Studying the volumes, historians have found that in a number of the studies there was careless (some wrote slanted) treatment of the documentation. For example, in places where Jews in hiding were turned in by the Jewish police, it’s stated that it was the Polish police. In other places there was no in-depth examination of the phenomenon of Jews who were hidden by Poles, moved elsewhere, were captured by the Germans and under torture gave the names of the Poles who hid them, costing the Poles their lives.

And of course, the authors didn’t look at a number of areas in Poland where the picture was different. But this didn’t deter Engelking from saying, in an interview with the important journal Krytyka Polityczna, that she can understand why people were afraid to hide Jews and kicked them off their doorsteps, but she can’t understand that they turned in Jews to the Germans at their own initiative. Where does this evil come from, she wondered. How can it be explained?

Almost at the same time the two volumes came out, a study on the Warsaw Ghetto was published in Israel. Prof. Havi Dreifuss, a historian at Yad Vashem, published a 500-page book on a topic that has already been researched ad nauseam: the life of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto between the great deportation of 1942 and the uprising in 1943. It’s hard to find any revolutionary conclusions in the book, though the author provides an impressive range of documentation from Jewish sources that movingly describe what happened to the Jews who remained in the ghetto during its final months.

Yet, even in comparison to the conservative studies on the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, Dreifuss’ book is extreme in its callous ignoring of the Poles. You need a powerful searchlight to find any mention of a single Polish book or anything relating to what was happening in Poland.

It’s as if the history of the Warsaw Ghetto took place on another planet, not in the heart of an occupied and crushed Polish city hosting a population struggling for its very existence against harsh Nazi terror. This population ranged between schadenfreude because the Jews were disappearing from the Polish capital, to pain at the suffering of one's neighbors, who were being permanently banished from a city where they had been an integral element for generations. Some Poles felt this was their own disaster.

Integrative history

There’s a common denominator to the three volumes discussed here: the evasion of the challenge of broadening the scope of Holocaust research and anchoring it in an integrative history of the Nazi genocide and World War II. For about two generations now this kind of evasive history of the Holocaust has been written in Israel, and since 1990 in Poland as well.

The obsessive clinging to the anti-Semitism explanation is perhaps contributing to the discussion of the question of national identity in Poland; it’s serving those trying to advance a moralistic, pedagogic and purist discourse for the country’s painful past. In Israel it’s helping politicians endlessly decry a global anti-Semitic threat and justify support for all the injustices of the occupation.

It’s not the role of a Holocaust researcher to fertilize the ground of politicians’ cheap manipulations regarding the Nazis’ murdering of Jews, the way it’s happening in Israel. Nor should the Holocaust researcher become the priest in the confession box for a society dealing with a complex past with no easy explanations, as is happening in Poland.

After all, it’s not really possible to give a definitive psychological explanation for human evil. Instead, one must examine the Polish population’s attitude toward Jews in the broad context of the German occupation of Poland.

How did the policy of terror affect the behavior of that society? What mechanisms for preserving norms of morality and social solidarity were shattered by the Nazi terror, and why? And what was Polish society’s attitude toward other groups of victims persecuted and murdered alongside the Jews in rural areas, for example the Gypsies?

In short, there are many questions that would take Holocaust research out of the ideological ghetto of “uniqueness.” Exiting this ghetto would deepen our understanding of the Holocaust and enable an empathetic examination of the suffering of the other.

Holocaust research in Israel almost entirely ignores the need to understand it from the broad contexts of the Nazi terror toward other victims, not only Jews. But elsewhere around the world an important discussion is developing that challenges this thinking while examining whether it’s possible to talk about a single history of the Holocaust or whether one must explore local histories of persecution of Jews and others from a comparative perspective.

In Israel, though, the belief persists that the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policy in Luxembourg was identical to their policy in Ukraine, and that there’s no difference between the murder of Jews by anti-Semites in Romania and the murder of Jews by anti-Semites in Croatia. And every single one of these efforts, of course, is present in the propaganda of the BDS movement.

In this way, in Israel the Holocaust is becoming a closed Jewish story getting moldy, a story only of interest to the Jews who live there. This is happening instead of viewing the Holocaust as an event of universal significance, relevant to questions like tolerance, attitudes about refugees and minorities, and human rights, as is happening about the Holocaust in various places around the world.

Prof. Daniel Blatman is a historian of the Holocaust at Hebrew University and the chief historian at the Warsaw Ghetto Museum.

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