Opinion

Poland's Militant Nationalists Are Targeting Holocaust Scholars, With Help From an Israeli Historian

Nationalist Poland's 'official history' of the Holocaust is based on the myth of Polish national innocence - and the state and its proxies have mobilized a brutal, relentless attack on independent scholars who challenge their lies

Several thousand far right demonstrators protest against the US Senate's 447 bill that supports the restitution of Jewish property abandoned after the Holocaust. Warsaw, Poland. May 11, 2019
AFP

Daniel Blatman is a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a frequent contributor to Haaretz. Late last year he accepted an offer from the Polish authorities to be the chief historian of the museum of the Warsaw Ghetto, currently in the its early planning stages, in Warsaw.

The new institution and its chief historian have already generated numerous controversies, not least for its framing as a museum of "Polish-Jewish love" by Poland’s minister of culture.

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Several months ago, I decided I wouldn't react any more to Blatman’s outbursts in Haaretz, which were, in equal measures, a testimony of ill will and ignorance. But his recent op-ed, "The Holocaust’s Evasive History in Both Poland and Israel," is a vicious and outrageous attack on independent Holocaust research in Poland, and on a small group of scholars besieged by Poland's nationalistic authorities. I felt obliged to respond.

Warsaw residents lay daffodils, which have become the symbol of remembrance of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the German Nazis, at a ghetto memorial site during anniversary observances in Warsaw, Poland. April 19, 2019
Czarek Sokolowski,AP

Blatman is wrong from the outset. He begins: "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." There was no debate over these two volumes of which - full disclosure - I am a co-author and co-editor.

Rather, there was a vicious, relentless, slanderous and brutal attack by various institutions of the Polish state and its proxies on independent scholars of the Holocaust.

Our small group of researchers, members and friends of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, became the target of a hate campaign against academics the likes of which have not been seen in Poland since the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968. There was no pretense of debate, but rather a series of attacks launched by the Institute of National Remembrance.

In Poland’s history battles, the IPN is the official watchdog of the state-approved historical narrative. It is a form of state-funded "history police" armed with sweeping prosecutorial powers which found itself at the center of the recent scandal regarding the Polish Holocaust Law.

Under the current Polish government, the IPN has become one of the most important forces that the ruling nationalists have mobilized to defend their historical myths. And by far the most fundamental fallacy is the myth of "national innocence" during the Holocaust.

The Institute of National Remembrance cannot and should not be mistaken for an academic institution. It is a branch of the Polish government responsible for enforcing the historical narrative approved by the state. Its employees are not academics in pursuit of truth, but agents of the state executing policies dictated by their employer. 

Incidentally, the "Museum of Polish-Jewish Love" quite recently signed an accord of cooperation with the IPN. During the signing ceremony, the museum's director praised the past accomplishments of the IPN and declared that the museum would learn from the Institute how to construct its historical narrative. This information should help place Prof Blatman’s statements in their proper context: the context of militant nationalism, which dictates the terms of reference for historians in today's Poland. 

The opening shots in the "debate" mentioned by Blatman were fired by the IPN, whose employees produced several reports extremely critical of our scholarship. All these reports (masquerading as reviews) shared one characteristic - the glaring incompetence of their authors, none of whom had any standing in the community of scholars of the Holocaust.

The next phase of the "debate" soon followed - this time on state-controlled TV and radio. Channel 1 of Polish national TV plastered our faces over the evening news, explaining to millions of viewers that we were "slanderers of the good name of the Polish nation" and "falsifiers of history." Prof Blatman’s "debate" then moved to the internet, and to the national daily and weekly press  - all very sympathetic to the government.

Of course, not even one of the nine authors of the studies included in our two-volume publication was invited to dispute these outrageous lies in the state-controlled media.

But let us turn again to Prof. Blatman who, from his perch in Jerusalem, has more insights to share: "Studying the volumes," he writes, "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."

No, Prof. Blatman, historians have found nothing of the sort. The person who accused one of our authors of substituting "Polish police" for "Jewish police" is Dr. Piotr Gontarczyk, an employee of the IPN, who has no credentials as a historian of the Holocaust. In fact, Gontarczyk, who remains deservedly unknown abroad, is well-known in Poland as a champion of hard right-wing causes.

In this case, Gontarczyk's allegations have been exposed piece by piece for what they are: lies, misquotes and a display of outrageous ignorance. The rebuttal, written by Dagmara Swałtek-Niewiska, was published on our website as well as in the main opposition daily Gazeta Wyborcza. For Blatman to lend currency to Gontarczyk’s lies is beyond shameful.

But the Hebrew University professor and chief historian of the museum of “Polish-Jewish Love” is not quite done yet: "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," he writes.

This particular pearl of wisdom is taken from a report produced by T. Domanski, another IPN employee devoid of any credentials in Holocaust history, who attacks our scholarship quoting anti-Semitic propaganda flyers! Domanski’s unsophisticated attack, too, was refuted point by point in a series of texts which Blatman could have examined on our website.

Shame on you, Prof. Blatman. For a university professor to lend credibility to the lies and distortions of the agents of the Polish nationalists and portray them to Israeli and foreign readers as legitimate is simply appalling.

It takes a fool to take Poland's Institute of National Remembrance reports at face value, and it takes a coward to take part in a campaign of hate sniping at independent Polish researchers from behind the back of the institutions of the Polish state.

As for Professor Blatman, in lieu of conclusion, I will allow myself to quote the last verse of "Exegi monumentum," a poem by Alexander Pushkin. It seems oddly pertinent:

"Obey thy God, and never mind, O Muse,/the laurels or the stings: make it thy rule/to be unstirred by praise as by abuse,/and do not argue with the fool."

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"