On April 10, Poland’s consulate in New York announced the cancellation of the Polish-Jewish Dialogue’s annual awards dinner, where the historian Ewa Kurek was scheduled to receive an honor named after Jan Karski, an army officer who risked his life to tell the world about the horrors of Auschwitz and who later became one of Poland’s leading diplomats and elder statesmen. Right-wing non-Jewish participants in the group, which has around 60 members, had nominated Kurek for the award. The Dialogue’s Jews were led to believe that Kurek was a mainstream historian lauded for her extensive use of Jewish sources, and were apparently unfamiliar with her scholarly work and unaware of her actual beliefs.
Kurek has argued that the Jews lie about Polish conduct during WWII in order to smear Poland and hide their own people’s duplicity. She’s alleged that Jews forged a separate peace with the Nazis during the occupation of Poland and had happily confined themselves to ghettos for generations before the Germans showed up. She’s accused Poland’s urbanized and assimilated Jews of being Nazi collaborators during the Holocaust, and drawn pointed and creepily essentialist contrasts between the Jewish and Polish national characters. The award for Kurek was a briefly successful power play among hardline nationalist diasporans in the Dialogue. But Kurek turned out to be too much of an extremist for the Consulate, which was hosting the Karski dinner on its premises but nixed the event once complaints about the recognition for her poured in. Kurek’s award was withdrawn the day after the cancellation was announced, but not before the Polish-Jewish Dialogue had a plaque made for her.
That’s not where Ewa Kurek’s adventures in America ended. In Boston, on April 11, at an event at the Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish sponsored by the eastern Massachusetts chapter of the Polish American Congress and the Kluby Gazety Polskiej of Boston, Kurek spun noxious arguments about alleged Jewish complicity in the Holocaust. On April 14, she gave a speech at a conference to commemorate the Smolensk plane crash—the 2010 disaster that killed Poland’s president and other dignitaries—which was held at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, a center of right-wing Polish diaspora activity in the United States. The event had a number of other far-right participants and sponsors, and also drew Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, who stopped by for approximately 15 minutes according to his Capitol Hill office.
Even more jarring is Kurek’s appearance, on April 18, in the downstairs church at the St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Academy in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn—A writer credibly accused of twisting the historical record of the Holocaust to inflame divisions between Poles and Jews gave a talk in a borough where perhaps as many as one in four residents are Jewish. All three of Kurek’s speeches were in Polish.
“What is particularly alarming,” Mark Weitzman, Director of Government Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a former chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial said of Kurek’s U.S. speeches, “is the fact that professional anti-Semites and Holocaust distorters are finding audiences and mining U.S. communities for support.”
Kurek’s trip around the northeast came at a sensitive moment for relations between Poland and the Jewish world. Earlier this year, a law criminalizing claims of Polish responsibility for the Holocaust sparked a diplomatic confrontation between Poland and Israel while ripping open one of the deepest wounds in both Polish and Jewish history. Kurek’s tour of America shows that the fight over the historical memory of the Holocaust in Poland is taking on a noxious character even in the U.S. As Havi Dreifuss, a historian of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe at Tel Aviv University and Yad Vashem put it, “Kurek is using the Holocaust and using Jewish history and Polish history in order to spread hate.” For a week in April, she was doing that right here in the United States.
Kurek’s highest-profile talk was at the Smolensk commemoration in Doylestown on April 14. A flyer for the event indicates that it was co-sponsored by a number of Polish diaspora groups, including the local chapter of the Polish American Congress, the Coalition of Polish Americans, and the Slavic Federal Credit Union. One notable co-sponsor included the Perth Amboy, New Jersey-based Friends of Radio Maryja, which supports a far-right Polish radio station that the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism called “one of Europe’s most blatantly anti-Semitic media venues,” and whose anti-Semitism is so plentiful that the outlet has en entire dedicated page on the Anti-Defamation League’s website. Friends of Radio Marijya is also a member of the Smolensk Disaster Commemoration Committee, the group most directly responsible for organizing the Doylestown event. The Committee also includes the Gazeta Polska clubs of New Jersey, New York City, and Philadelphia.
John Czop, the treasurer of the Smolensk Committee and the director of policy planning for the national-level Polish American Congress, said that Kurek discussed a “Hasidic Jewish poet” during her talk who supposedly “claimed that the Polish state had nothing to do with the mass murder of Polish Jewry.” The assertion of official Polish blamelessness for the Holocaust was “the gist of Kurek’s remarks,” Czop said. Czop specified that the Committee “never wrote a check to Ewa Kurek” for her appearance. “She has a lot of wealthy friends in the United States,” he added.
Kurek appeared on a panel with Marek Jan Chodakiewcz of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for World Politics, who argued that Poland bore little responsibility for the 1968 anti-Semitic purges that resulted in the expulsion of many of the country’s remaining Jews. “Chodakiewcz delivered a lecture on March 1968 in Poland about how the accusation of anti-Semitism leveled at the Polish nation and the Polish people was manufactured and was a creation of Soviet propaganda. The Kremlin wanted to purge the Polish Communist Party of one faction and put the other faction into power,” Czop recalled of Chodakiewcz’s talk. In a Polish-language article earlier this year, Chokadiewcz fretted that the purges would likely be viewed through the prism of Polish anti-Semitism during their upcoming 50th anniversary, and claimed that it was trans-national communists and not Poles who brought about the expulsions.
When reached for comment by email, Chodakiewcz clarified that his speech covered “Soviet policy toward Israel before and after the stunning Jewish victory in 1967. I argued that virtually EVERY major policy was imposed by Moscow and/or vetted by it. I showed how the Six Day War triggered an anti-Jewish propaganda offensive first in the Soviet press. And I explained how the purge in 1968 started at the top: Polish ethnic and other Communists targeted the Communists of Jewish origin, and then the operation spread down, impacting regular folks.”
Kurek was not the only participant in the Smolensk commemoration with a history of problematic statements about Jews. In 2002, Antoni Macierewicz, a former defense minister who headed a parliamentary inquiry into the Smolensk disaster, told Radio Maryja that he thought the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, while possibly fake, might still be an accurate reflection of reality. Jan Zaryn, who was also listed as attending the event, is a far-right parliamentarian who introduced a resolution denying most Polish responsibility for the 1968 purges, and has called for the prosecution of the Princeton Holocaust historian Jan Tomasz Gross.
There were more mainstream figures in attendance too. Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick made a brief appearance, although his Washington office claimed that he did not stick around for the panel discussions and was not familiar with Kurek, Zaryn, or Friends of Radio Maryja. Czop said that a representative from the Polish Consulate in New York was in attendance as well, and the Consulate confirmed to Tablet that vice consul Mateusz Gmura went to the event.
Weitzman said he worried that Fitzpatrick may have “passively legitimized the event,” even if the congressman didn’t know anything about Kurek or the conference’s other participants. “If someone appears on a platform with David Duke or Richard Spencer or Louis Farrakhan, they have to accept responsibility for that,” Weitzman said, adding that he considers Kurek to be roughly analogous to them.
In Czop’s view, Kurek is a serious historian whose work is methodologically rigorous. “She’s done careful research in resources in Israel and in Poland, so she needs to be taken seriously,” he said.
Chodakiewcz defended Kurek’s scholarship, even though he said he didn’t agree with all of it. “[F]or a very long time her scholarship was admired,” he wrote. “She did solid work on rescue during the Holocaust, in particular in convents and monasteries.”
According to Kurek’s online CV, she has presented papers at Princeton and at a 1988 conference at Yad Vashem. Czop said that the first time he saw Kurek speak was at Columbia University in 2007, in a talk introducing the arguments from her book Jewish-Polish Relations 1939-1945: Beyond the Limits of Solidarity. In the speech, Czop recalled, Kurek argued that “Polish Jewry tried to get an autonomy arrangement from Nazi Germany similar to the autonomy arrangement that they had been trying to work out with the Polish state.” According to Czop, Kurek claimed that “at least until the invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941…Nazi policy towards Polish Jewry was essentially one of having them govern themselves in their own ghettos.”
This is an odd definition of self-governance—but it was offered at an event held at an Ivy League institution, by an author of nine books with a PhD from the Catholic University of Lublin. Kurek studied under the late Polish foreign minister and Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, and the forward to her 1992 book Your Life Is Worth Mine: How Polish Nuns Saved Hundreds of Jewish Children in German-Occupied Poland, 1939-1945, was written by none other than Jan Karski (Last month, Karski’s literary executor strongly objected to Kurek being given the Dialogue’s award).
To her critics, Kurek’s credentials are part of what makes her such an alarming figure. She is an expert in the very historical record she’s accused of twisting: Because she gives consideration to Jewish sources, has had multiple books translated into English, and displays a bland professorial evenness during her public appearances, a typical listener might not be able to detect any bad faith lurking behind her words. She is maybe the only legitimate Holocaust scholar to have become an alleged Holocaust revisionist or distorter during a later phase of her career. When asked for potential precedents, David Silberklang, the editor-in-chief of Yad Vashem Studies and a leading expert on the Holocaust in Poland, could only think of the British Holocaust denier David Irving, who lacked Kurek’s extensive formal credentials and was never taken seriously as an academic historian.
Your Life Is Worth Mine, the book for which she is still best known, recounted Polish nuns’ efforts to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. Experts have noted some odd methodological choices in the book, which is based almost entirely on the memoirs of the nuns themselves and might have overestimated the extent to which Polish orders protected Jewish children during the war. “Outside of Poland the book was not considered to be top-notch scholarship,” said Silberklang. Yet to certain ears—and to people who wouldn’t necessarily know better—Kurek does not sound like an ideological extremist, but a fair-minded scholar who bases her work on historical evidence that Poland’s Jews themselves left behind.
“When you hear what was published by her and in her name in the last few weeks or months, you can see that the problem is not that she doesn’t know the history—she knows the historical facts. But she is distorting them,” said Dreifuss.
Katka Reszke, a Polish-born writer, artist, and Jewish educator who attended Kurek’s April 11 talk in Boston, said that Kurek has a favorite rhetorical trick: She’ll quote a contemporaneous`Jewish source, like a diary or a letter, as if it is the final word on a given topic and without providing any context that would complicate the historical narrative she is trying to construct. This tactic enables her to use Jews’ own words to confirm a hardline Polish nationalist narrative of the Holocaust, while also making Kurek herself appear broad-minded and evidentially rigorous. “She does this great job of quoting the sources that she wants to quote while not quoting other sources,” said Reszke. “But as a historian who has clearly read a lot about this, she’s obviously also read the stuff she doesn’t want to quote.”
Silberklang had a similarly unsparing verdict on Kurek’s work. “She doesn’t deny that Nazi Germany wanted to kill the Jews and that Jews were killed. She’s not a Holocaust denier in that sense,” he said. “But she distorts things so radically and so egregiously that she’s basically in the realm of Holocaust denial, or at least extreme distortion.”
Based on her April 18 speech in Greenpoint, which is partially available on YouTube, this is a defensible statement. According to Zygmunt Staszewski, a member of the Polish-Jewish dialogue who helped nominate Kurek for the Jan Karski prize, the Brooklyn talk was planned by Witold Rosowski, a journalist and activist known in Polish diaspora circles for his staunch right-wing views. Rosowski moderated the question-and-answer period at the Greenpoint talk and sat at a front table during her speech. When reached by email, Rosowski said he “helped to ensure the location for Dr. Ewa Kurek’s lecture in Greenpoint.” He said the talk was organized by “just a few people” and wasn’t sponsored by any organization.
During the Greenpoint event, Kurek made the incendiary claim that Poland’s urbanized and assimilated Jews took advantage of the Nazi occupation in order to help exterminate the country’s Hasidic population, whom Poland’s more educated Jews hated. “A few assimilated Jews survived the war: Some doctors or lawyers who during the war were most often members of the Jewish police and murdered Hasidim,” she said. The “enlightened elite” of Polish Jewry—most of whom survived the conflict because of their willingness to work with the Nazis, according to Kurek—had decided that “the rabble must perish.”
Kurek drifted into similarly odd territory when discussing the communist period during her Greenpoint speech, making liberal use of the phrase “żydokomuna”—a loaded term that vaguely translates to “Judeo-communism”—while claiming that much of the Jewish population in Poland today is descended from Jews who arrived with the Red Army at the tail-end of WWII.
Rosowski does not believe Kurek is an anti-Semite. If anything, he wrote, she is “a philo-Semite since she presented a great interest in Jewish history, culture and faith in her life…There are very few people like her.” He said he was involved in organizing the Greenpoint speech because Kurek “is quite famous in Poland,” partly as a result of the controversies surrounding the country’s Holocaust law. “The alleged anti- Semitism of Dr. Kurek is probably coming from her telling the details of Ghetto in Lodz, where Chaim Rumkowski, as the Jewish commandant of the Ghetto, had a big role in sending Jews to German concentration camps,” Rososwki wrote. “She also stays firm, as have all Polish and Polish- Americans, defending the new law—stating that the death camps were German, built by Germans on the invaded and occupied territory of former Poland.”
As Rosowski suggests, many Poles resent being blamed for a German crime committed on their land. But Kurek’s recent career shows how legitimate grievances can spark much darker impulses. Reszke, the Polish-born author who attended Kurek’s speech at a church in Boston on April 11—the night of Yom HaShoah— explained that one of the eeriest things about the talk came from what she intuited about the other 50 or so people in the room, who might not have borne any specific ill will toward Jews and whose sense of hurt at slanders against the Polish people was sincerely felt. “The people that listen to her and that read her books don’t realize the manipulation behind it,” said Reszke. “They take it at face value and it perpetuates some feelings that they might have and also strengthens this idea that all Jews hate them.” At Kurek’s talk, Reszke said, she could see how seamlessly hatred could be repackaged into a normative worldview that people wouldn’t consciously question. “I think there’s danger in perpetuating anti-Semitism that doesn’t see itself as anti-Semitism,” she added, reflecting on the event. She left the talk wondering “how many decades or centuries” it would take to bridge the divisions on display.
Reszke recorded the entirety of Kurek’s speech, and took copious notes. Kurek returned to the idea that urbanized Jews had aided the Nazis in wiping out most of Poland’s Jewish population: “I’m telling you about the scale of Jewish collaboration in the murder of Jews. Collaboration in the murders and in the catching of Jews and in deporting them was overwhelming,” Kurek reportedly said—“she keeps reporting that it’s all in Jewish sources,” Reszke added.
“Who survived?” Kurek continued, according to Reszke. “Jewish policeman, doctors from the ghetto infirmaries who didn’t cure people but sent them to their death. Such beasts survived and these beasts created the little tale to obscure the truth about what really happened.” That “tale” refers to the widely accepted narrative about the Holocaust, which tends to assign some measure of guilt to societies that either aided in the purge of their Jews or did little to actually halt the carnage. “Most of the time it sounded like she was coming to the defense of the Germans more than the Poles,” Reszke observed. After all, “she’s speaking to a crowd that’s already convinced the Poles had nothing to do with any of the murders.”
Reszke did not necessarily plan on confronting Kurek. But she said she had come to her speech out of a sense of moral obligation, both to record Kurek’s statements and to challenge them if the opportunity arose. Toward the end of the talk, Kurek returned to another of her more controversial claims: The idea that Jews had chosen to live in the ghettos during WWII, which afforded protection from the chaos of wartime Poland. “As I was sitting there listening to this babble I kept saying to myself: Don’t say anything, don’t say anything, don’t speak, because it’s really not going to go down very well…In a way, I don’t remember making a conscious decisions to speak. I just heard myself talking.”
How, Reszke asked towards the end of the event amid an increasingly hostile crowd, does Kurek understand the fact that the Warsaw Ghetto was walled, with watchtowers to prevent people from leaving? Is that the sign of a happy and voluntary social arrangement? “I say: So you’re saying it was the Jewish community’s idea to build a wall around the Warsaw ghetto? She said yes. Then she called me a young, undereducated little person and the crowd applauded.”
Reszke approached Kurek when the talk ended. Kurek asked for her business card. Reszke then tried to give Kurek an idea of the damage she was doing to the already fragile relationship between Jews and Poles. “I told her that I’ve lived in the States for over ten years and I’ve actually been doing quite a lot of work in my writing and in my public speaking talking about Poland today and the Jewish community in Poland and how things aren’t as bad as a lot of people think, and how there’s renewal and there’s Jewish life there—and now it’s because of people like you that I have a problem.” According to Reszke, all Kurek could say in response was a sharp “goodbye.”
Tablet intern Theo Canter contributed reporting to this article.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.