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By rewriting history, the Polish government distorts the Holocaust


In January 2018, the Polish parliament passed a law allowing prison sentences of up to three years to be imposed on anyone who says Poles had any responsibility or complicity in Nazi crimes during the Holocaust.

On February 15, author Jan Grabowski discusses his Holocaust research in a live event co-hosted by The Conversation/La Conversation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

The law, which aims to silence historians, has created a tense climate in academia and elsewhere.

I direct my research on relations between Polish Jews and the local non-Jewish population.

The Polish government has decided (directly or by proxy) to bring civil charges against me. I have been sued for defamationand Polish organizations demanded that I be removed from my position as professor of history at the University of Ottawa.

More recently, I was interviewed by theHomeland Security Agency of Poland, and the the country’s justice minister expressed outrage with regard to my work.

These are just some of the current legal and extra-legal issues related to writing the history of the Holocaust in Poland.

A statue of a man carrying a child with other children behind him
A memorial to Janusz Korczak, who died in the gas chamber of the Treblinka death camp in 1942, together with the children of the Jewish orphanage he ran in the Warsaw ghetto.
(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

History and Nationalism

The idea that sections of Polish society were complicit in the Holocaust during the war has long been a taboo subject.

The far-right party Law and Justice came to power in Poland in 2015. The defense of nation’s reputation is one of the central elements of its political program and a sure way to consolidate its electoral base.

Independent historians and teachers, of which I am a parthave become the target of virulent hate campaigns in state and state-controlled media.

Holocaust historians have the saying, “I didn’t choose to study the Holocaust, the Holocaust chose me.” »

After training in the history of the 17e and XVIIIe centuries, I turned to the study of the Holocaust in an unexpected way, at the beginning of the XXe century, when I went to Warsaw at the bedside of my father, a Holocaust survivorwho was ill.

Having some free time, I did what most historians do: I went to the local archives. It was there that I came across thousands of German court records from the time of the occupation of Warsaw.

What aroused my curiosity was that there were hundreds of files concerning Jews from Warsaw ghetto. I discovered that the Germans were prosecuting them for breaking various Nazi regulations: refusing to wear the armband with Star of Davidleaving the ghetto without permission, violating curfew, buying and smuggling food from the side “Aryan” to the ghetto or “defamation of the German nation” – which usually meant telling jokes about the occupation.

Flowers next to a grave with a Star of David
Monument in Wojsławice, Poland, in memory of the 60 Jews executed in the city during the Holocaust.
(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Witnesses to the Holocaust

Raul Hilberg, a prominent Holocaust historian, has divided the human landscape of the Holocaust into three categories: executors, victims and witnesses. Over the years, we have learned a great deal about German executioners and Jewish Holocaust victims, but much less about the last category, which remains poorly defined.

Who were the witnesses? Were these people who knew nothing of the tragedy that the Jews were going through? Or of people who, knowing what was happening, had chosen indifference?

Poland was an epicenter of the Holocaust. The Nazis built death camps there and it is in this country that the most of the Jewish population was murdered. In the course of my research, I found, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was impossible for people to stay away from the genocide, without being aware of it.

These are not all Jewish ghettos (there were hundreds in Poland) who were isolated from the outside world. Most were either open (without walls) or had weak fences that did not prevent contact between Jews and other Poles.

In 1942, liquidation operations began. The Germans, with the help of locals, rounded up the Jewish families and drove them to the nearest station, where they boarded the death trains to the extermination camps of Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and Auschwitz.

All this happens in full view of the non-Jewish population of the neighborhood. Once Jews were deported en masse to their deaths, the empty ghettos became the scene of large-scale robberies. Tens of thousands of houses, apartments and furniture were now easy to loot.

It was then that thousands of Jews, who had taken refuge in hiding places under and inside their houses, were discovered, taken out and delivered to the Germans to be immediately executed.

Jews fled the ghettos and took refuge in the forests, most often thanks to locals who offered to help them, either for payment or for altruistic reasons.

During this last stage of the Holocaust – which the Germans called Juden jagdou “hunt for the Jews” – the Jews in hiding became largely invisible to the eyes of the Germans. During this last phase (which continued until the end of the war), it was often the non-Jewish neighbors who determined who would live and who would die.

My research on this phase of the Holocaust led me to believe that it was impossible to be a mere passive witness in Eastern Europe and, especially, in Poland. The very notion of a passive witness is something to be re-evaluated, questioned, even rejected.

My research has given rise to discussions among historians and, in Poland, it has raised the wrath of nationalists.

An endless night

Red and black book cover with the words: Endless Night, the fate of the Jews in German-occupied Poland
Night Without Endby Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking.
(Indiana University Press)

It is in such a political context that Night Without End (An endless night a book that I co-wrote and co-edited, was published in 2018. This two-volume study, totaling 1,600 pages, is an investigation into the fate of Jews in parts of Poland during wartime. We studied the Jewish struggle for survival and German genocidal policies.

We also tried to understand the attitude of Polish society towards the Jewish tragedy. The conclusions are grim: the results of many years of research indicate that at least two-thirds of the Jews in hiding were either murdered or handed over to the Nazis by their Polish neighbors.

The reaction of the authorities was prompt and virulent. The co-author of the book and I have been denounced in the press. What ensued was an unprecedented campaign of hate, followed by civil lawsuits and criminal charges.

Attacks on historians and history itself are usually accompanied by attacks on other essential elements of an open and democratic society. The defense of history and the fight to preserve the right to know what happened are part of the foundations of a democratic regime.

“Whoever has control of the past has control of the future,” wrote George Orwell in 1984. His words have never sounded so true.

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