Polish Historian: Entering Dialogue With Poland on Holocaust Bill Is 'The Last Thing' Israel Should Do

Visiting Israel, Prof. Jan Grabowski says anti-Semitic sentiment in Poland reminiscent of dark years, new Polish narrative false and distorted

Prof. Jan Grabowski, a Polish historian in Tel Aviv, February 19, 2018.
Ofer Aderet

Polish historian Jan Grabowski, who specializes in Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust, recommended Monday that the Israeli government refrain from entering any dialogue with the present Polish government about changes to the controversial Holocaust law.

At a press conference in Tel Aviv at the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, Grabowski said, “The last thing that should be done is entering into any kind of a dialogue with these people,” adding that “given the current level of expressed anti-Semitism I don’t think that any official meetings on this topic should take place.”

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He said Poland should conduct a comprehensive internal discussion before being able to conduct a dialogue with Israel on the subject. “This is a Polish problem which they have to solve between different parts of Polish society,” he said.

Grabowski added that despite Poland’s membership in the European Union, it is led by “a nationalist and undemocratic” government whose laws can be compared to legislation in Turkey or even in Iran.

Regarding the new law, which threatens imprisonment for anyone who accuses Poland or the Polish people as a whole of involvement in the Holocaust, Grabowski said it is designed to placate the ruling party’s voters, and is “very popular” among them.

At the press conference he presented a clipping from a newspaper published in Warsaw in 1936, which reported the imprisonment of a Jewish woman who insulted Polish “national honor,” and said the new Polish law is reminiscent of dark periods in Polish history.

Grabowski expressed a fear that the law will have a chilling effect on Polish academics and writers. “If you’re a student of history or a journalist, are you really going to want to dig into these issues if you’re going to lose your work, your grant or your possibility of promotion?” he said.

Grabowski rejected all the components of the present official Polish narrative, which compares the Polish and Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, presents Poland as a clear-cut victim of the Nazis and claims that Polish collaboration with the Nazi crimes was a marginal and individual phenomenon. History books attest that all these claims are false, he said.

“The assumption that the extermination occurred in outer space, that the Holocaust happened without Polish society becoming aware of this unfortunate event, is simply absolutely false. The mass murder of Polish Jews was not abstract. It happened inside the space of the Polish nation, so this is why you cannot pretend that this is only a German-Jewish affair. There are no Polish bystanders in the Holocaust.”

When asked if it can be said that the “Polish nation” was a partner to the Nazi crimes, Grabowski said, “We can talk about the complicity of segments of Polish society in the extermination of the Jews of Poland. The question is how widely we want to interpret this term, but we are talking about a widespread phenomenon which has not been discussed in depth. And regardless of what current nationalist authorities in Poland want to do, it’s our obligation and duty to study it.”

To demonstrate the distortion in the official Polish view, Grabowski said that when speaking about Poles who saved Jews, the government hastens to present it as though “the Polish nation saved Jews,” but when speaking of Poles who killed Jews, the government calls it an “individual crime.” He noted, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Regarding the Polish government’s claim that Poles who collaborated with the Nazis were “criminals” from the margins of society, Grabowski said: “Individuals were sometimes criminals but very often solid citizens. Once they finish robbing and murdering the Jews they became citizens in good standing once again, with their families ... and without anyone reproaching them for their misdeeds from the time of the war ...” These people saw harming Jews as a patriotic activity, said Grabowski.