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When Writing History Becomes a Crime

Historians Jan Grabowski and Jonathan Brent review the Polish government’s justification for the laws under which it convicted Dr. Grabowski and Dr. Barbara Engelking of libel for their scholarship

Jonathan Brent
Jan Grabowski
February 26, 2021

A factual refutation of several, but not all, of the most glaring false assertions to be found in “Why Poland Is Trying to Control Holocaust Memory,” by Stanisław Żaryn, is in order. Żaryn, as spokesperson for the Polish Minister-Coordinator of the Intelligence and Security Services, represents the political interests of the Polish state, not the interests of scholarship.

Professor Grabowski, with professor Barbara Engelking, has recently been put on trial in Poland for allegedly “disseminating false information” about a Pole during World War II. The judge found that he and Engelking must apologize to the relative of the man they have been accused of slandering. Were this an isolated case, it might be understood differently than what in fact it is: part of a much wider effort of the Polish government and active elements of Polish society to silence the legitimate work of Holocaust scholarship in favor of protecting the supposed interests of the Polish state for which the narrative of Polish innocence during the Holocaust plays an important role. The present case must be seen as part of that larger effort.

In Poland, the controversy over Polish participation in the Holocaust was sparked by the work of Jan Tomasz Gross over a decade ago and continues to dominate mainstream Polish discourse. Scholars and institutions devoted to critical thinking and the historical truth of the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations have come under increasing harassment by the government anxious about defending the narrative of Polish victimhood and innocence, even while conceding, as Żaryn does, that terrible acts were performed by some. The vast majority of Poles, according to this narrative, did everything possible to protect and save the Jewish population.

The so-called facts cited by Żaryn are not part of a free intellectual or scholarly debate. They are not the product of historical research but, as Żaryn himself makes clear, reflect the needs of a political reality in which Poland finds itself. They are one of the political weapons used by the Polish state in asserting the power of a self-justifying official state narrative.

Below is our response to some of the most egregious inaccuracies of Żaryn’s text.

We are very reluctant to enter into a polemic with Żaryn because the article, written by the spokesperson for the minister of Polish Secret Services, is so deeply flawed, that a trained historian, or a scholar of the Holocaust is at a loss where to start. Let’s start then at the beginning, following the sequence of factual errors and basic faults of analysis which succeed one another. In the second paragraph Żaryn writes: “Both [Yad Vashem tweets] suggest that the extermination of Jews took place ‘in Poland,’ which is utterly contradictory to historical facts. Even more unfortunately, they highlight a serious problem Poland faces—the existence and an ongoing, complex smear campaign targeting the country and its people.”

In the world of Polish nationalism, each time the word “Poland” appears in the context of the Holocaust, it must be preceded by the adjective “occupied.” Yithzak Arad’s seminal book on the Holocaust is titled Holocaust in the Soviet Union. No serious scholar would contest this title (none, as far as we know, did). The demand that it be changed to “Holocaust in Occupied Soviet Union” is on the face of it ridiculous. The Holocaust happened usually in the areas which were under German occupation. The fact that the extermination of European Jews occurred in Poland is not an error, it is a simple description of a geographic area. Trying to find ulterior and nefarious motives is a sign of Żaryn’s (or rather the Polish government’s) malaise. Grabowski is currently working (with a group of other scholars of the Holocaust) on a book with the working title: Holocaust in Poland, which will unquestionably provoke from Żaryn an equally nervous—and equally absurd—reaction.

In the next paragraph Żaryn states that: “the Poles were the first nation the Germans had selected for extermination in the Auschwitz death camp.” No, Żaryn is again wrong. Poles, as a nation, were never slated for death in the Auschwitz death camp. Poles were sent (starting in 1940) to Auschwitz concentration camp, not to the death camp. The death camp opened up later, in 1942, and it was the Jews who were slated for death in the gas chambers, not the Poles. Trying to confuse these two issues has been at the center of the Polish historical propaganda for decades.

Further: “During the war the Germans hated both the Poles and the Jews. Hence, there is no reason why the Poles should accept or condone false accusations of complicity in the Holocaust.” We fail to see the logic in this statement. Why should German feelings for Poles and Jews in any way determine Poles’ attitudes to their evaluation of the historical evidence? The fact that the Germans hated the Poles, or treated them with contempt, had no bearing whatsoever on the Poles’ treatment or mistreatment of the Jews.

Repeating another old tired cliché used by the Polish nationalists, Żaryn writes: “The number of Poles who sold their souls to the enemy was marginal. The Polish Underground State hunted them down and executed them. There was no mercy for those who took the side of the German aggressor. And that is another reason why Poland rejects any claims suggesting it was implicated in the Holocaust.” Once more Żaryn confuses two fundamentally important issues. Indeed, the Polish resistance actively and resolutely punished “those who took side of the German aggressor.” The problem was that those who murdered and denounced the Jews were not at all seen as German lackeys! They were often seen as members of the patriotic community who simply wanted to see a Poland cleansed of the Jews. After the war, when they had (on rare occasions) to face the court the murderers of Jews received massive and warm support from their own communities. Blackmailers, the notorious “szmalcownicy,” who contributed to the deaths of uncounted thousands of Polish Jews, remained practically unpunished. The Polish Underground State—invoked by Żaryn—paid no attention to the szmalcownicy (with very few exceptions, which one can count on fingers of two hands) as long as they stayed away from the activities of the Polish resistance.

Żaryn continues: “The majority of Poles adopted a passive attitude to what the Germans brought upon the Jews.” Again, Żaryn is wrong. The Holocaust happened in Poland (“occupied Poland”—as Żaryn would have it). The physical extermination of millions of European Jews (including 3,000,000 Polish Jews) occurred right in the middle of Polish communities. The horrifying, brutal, and bloody liquidations of the ghettos occurred right in the middle of Polish towns and villages. Very few people could display a “passive attitude” when their neighbors were killed in the streets, or dragged away to death trains. Masses of Poles took part in these liquidations. Masses went looking for Jewish property, combed the ghettos looking for Jewish hideouts, or continued to look for the hidden Jews during the long weeks, months, and years that followed. These cannot be seen as merely “indifferent.”

Żaryn writes: “it is indisputable that among the Poles there were many more ‘righteous’ people than traitors.” Really? Postwar Jewish testimonies and much recent research reveals the scale of complicity of large segments of the Polish society in the Jewish catastrophe.

Jonathan Brent, the executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, teaches at Bard College. He is the author of Inside the Stalin Archives and Stalin’s Last Crime.

Jan Grabowski is a professor in the department of History at the University of Ottawa, Canada.

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