By Jan Grabowski
In January 2018, the Polish parliament passed a law that imposed prison terms of up to three years of anyone who claimed Poles had any responsibility for or complicity in crimes committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
The law was intended to silence historians, and indeed, it has created a chilling atmosphere within academia and beyond.
My research focuses on the relations between Polish Jews and the surrounding non-Jewish population.
In my case, the Polish government (acting directly or through proxies) has decided to use civil litigation. I have been sued for libel and Polish organizations have requested my removal from my position as professor of history at the University of Ottawa.
More recently, I have been questioned by Poland’s Internal Security Agency and the country’s justice minister has expressed outrage about my work.
These are just some of the legal and extra-legal challenges related to writing the history of the Holocaust in Poland today.
History and nationalism
The notion of wartime complicity by segments of Polish society in the Holocaust has long been considered a taboo subject.
In 2015, the far-right Law and Justice party came to power in Poland. Defending the good name of the nation has become one of the focal elements of its political platform and a sure way to consolidate its electoral base.
As a result, independent historians and educators, myself included, have become targets of vicious hate campaigns in state-owned and state-controlled media.
There is a saying among scholars of the Holocaust: “I did not choose to study the Holocaust, it chose me.”
Trained as a historian of the 17th and 18th centuries, I came to the study of the Holocaust rather unexpectedly, at the turn of the century, while on a trip to Warsaw visiting my ailing father, a Holocaust survivor.
With some time on my hands, I did what most historians do: I went to the local archives. That’s when I stumbled upon thousands of files of the German courts from occupied Warsaw.
What made me curious was the fact that hundreds of files concerned Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. I found out that the Germans prosecuted them for the breaches of various Nazi regulations: Refusing to wear prescribed armbands with the star of David, for leaving the ghetto without permission, for violating curfews, for buying and smuggling food from the “Aryan” side to the ghetto or for “slandering the good name of the German nation” — which usually meant telling jokes about the occupation.
The Holocaust’s ‘bystanders’
The eminent scholar on the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg, divided the human scenery of the Holocaust into three categories: perpetrators, victims and bystanders. Over the years, we have learned much about the Holocaust’s German perpetrators and Jewish victims, but much less about the ill-defined last category.
Who were the bystanders? Were they people who knew nothing about the ongoing Jewish catastrophe? Or people who were conscious of the event but who chose indifference?
Poland was an epicentre of the Holocaust. It was a place where the Nazis built death camps, and where most of the Jewish population was murdered. In my research, I found that it was simply impossible — I saw that very clearly — for people to remain distant or aloof from the genocide.
Not all the Jewish ghettos (and there were hundreds of ghettos in Poland) were isolated from the outside world. Most of the ghettos were either open (no walls), or with flimsy fences that did not prevent contact between the Jews and other Poles.
Then, in 1942, the liquidation actions began. The Germans, together with local helpers, rounded up the Jews and drove Jewish families towards the nearest railway station, where they were placed on death trains destined for the death camps of Treblinka, Bełżec, Sobibór and Auschwitz.
All of this happened in plain view of the surrounding non-Jewish population. Once the masses of Jews had been deported to their deaths, the emptied ghettos became the sites of massive robbery. Tens of thousands of houses, apartments and furniture were all for the taking.
That is when uncounted thousands of Jews who chose to hide in ingenious hideouts under and inside their houses were detected, pulled out and delivered into the hands of the Germans for immediate execution.
Some Jews fled the ghettos altogether, seeking shelter in the forests, most often, with locals who offered assistance either for a fee or for altruistic reasons.
During this last, final stage of the Holocaust — one which the Germans called Judenjagd or “hunt for the Jews” — the hidden Jews, from the German standpoint, became largely invisible. During this last phase (which continued until the end of the war), it was often one’s non-Jewish neighbours who decided who lived and who died.
It was my research into this stage of the Holocaust that led me to believe that being a bystander in Eastern Europe and, most of all, in Poland, was simply impossible. The whole idea of “bystanding” needed to be re-examined, questioned and perhaps even dismissed.
My research generated discussion among historians but, at the same time, in Poland, it also raised ire and anger among nationalists.
Night Without End
It was within such a political context that Night Without End, a book that I co-wrote and co-edited, was published in 2018. The two-volume, 1,600-page study is a specialized inquiry into the fates of Jews in selected areas of wartime Poland. We looked at the Jewish struggle for survival and German genocidal policies.
We also tried to understand the attitudes of the surrounding Polish society to the Jewish catastrophe. The results were grim: the results of many years of research pointed to the fact that at least two-thirds of Jews who went into hiding had either been murdered or betrayed to the Nazis by their Polish neighbours.
The reaction of the authorities was swift and furious. My co-author and I have been denounced in the press. An unprecedented campaign of hate, followed by civil lawsuits and criminal accusations, ensued.
Attacks on historians and on history itself go hand in hand with attacks on other vital parts of open and democratic society. The defence of history and the struggle to preserve our right to know what has happened are among the foundations of the democratic system.
“Who controls past, controls the future,” George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four. His words have never rang more true.
Jan Grabowski is a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
Ray W. says
One of the most difficult books I ever undertook to read was The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto: 1941-1944.
The Jewish community had a secret printing press during their isolation and privations. Periodically, copies of the editions were collected, bundled and buried. Other handwritten accounts were also preserved and later found. Long after the war ended, a survivor returned to the ghetto and dug up the hidden materials. Originally, the accounts were published in Polish. Eventually, an English translation was published. It contains an account of everyday life within the ghetto. How many rail cars of potatoes or carrots were delivered that day. How many people volunteered to leave the camp for rumored better conditions in work camps. The discovery in a warehouse of a few barrels of mineral oil, with the expectation that the oil would be put to good use lubricating sewing machines, woodworking, leatherworking, or metalworking tools, so that craftsman could repair or manufacture whatever items the Germans brought to the ghetto for repair or whatever was needed, in hopes that food would keep coming. Children digging up buried scraps of peelings when food ran short and the resulting sicknesses. The arrival of a noted musician from Prague among a trainload of arrivees from the Czech Republic and the schedule of his performances in the community centers. Accounts of suicides by walking onto a forbidden overpass out of the ghetto in full sight of the Nazi guards. The monthly account of births, deaths, arrivals and departures and the ever-dwindling overall population. Nazi officers holding Jewish leaders accountable for violations, by beating rabbis. History records that over 200,000 Jews lived in or passed through the ghetto before the final emptying of the entire population.
I would read a dozen pages, 25 pages, or three pages, then have to stop for a day, a week, to absorb the trauma of a people who knew they were being starved, shot, separated from families, denied medicine, and their fading hopes as rumor piled onto rumor.
I only heard my father say this once late one evening during a trial and just after an interview of a potential witness who cried as he described the abuse of being slapped and shoved by one of the investigators during a lengthy witness interrogation. My father loudly growled that he didn’t climb into a B-24 to kill Germans so that we could have a Nazi government here. The next day, during cross-examination of the allegedly violent investigator, my father asked about the good cop/bad cop scene. The investigator sneered that that was a movie caricature of interviews, which never happened in the investigation. The next investigator, when asked the same set of questions, said that the first investigator was the “bad cop” during the lengthy interview; he described the interview as including verbally loud and physically intimidating and aggressive questioning, but he denied seeing any actual slapping and shoving.
The city of Lodz was renamed to Litzmannstadt. German Jews deported to Litzmannstadt didn’t know where were they going.
Ray W. says
Thank you, Jerzy.
Deborah Coffey says
Half my family are Jews, many of them victims of the Holocaust so, I am not unsympathetic. BUT, I will not take you at your word until I do my own research and then, I’ll read your book. It’s a hell of a time to come out swinging as a historian and author and putting your “personal persecution” on display when we see the open arms and hearts in Poland today, welcoming over 1,500,000 Ukrainian refugees.
“It’s a hell of a time to come out swinging as a historian and author and putting your ‘personal persecution’ on display”? Do you consider yourself to be an appropriate judge and jury of who (or which particular group) can/should be considered “legitmate victims” and who can/should not be considered as such? That doesn’t sound much like much of a “progressive” attitude to me.
I am sure everybody and every group has its own story to tell. I dare say, you won’t find many Jews of Polish descent who couldn’t help provide you with some family narrative to aid you in your above-mentioned educational process.
It should be mentioned, it isn’t like there aren’t things still happening in Poland to this day that aren’t somewhat concerning when it comes to the subject of Anti Semitism.
Deborah Coffey says
I don’t question the history. Her article isn’t about that. It’s about being persecuted for telling the history. And, I have a Master’s Degree, so I don’t need education from Polish Jews. I got it every night of my life at the dinner table growing up.
What Else Is New says
Of course Jan Grabowski writes the truth. We have long read of bystanders in Nazi occupied zones of Europe exposing neighbors who were Jewish and what horror ensued. It is a profoundly emotional experience to walk on undulating path after path among stone after stone at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. My eight-year-old granddaughter remarked, “I know those small flat stones are for the children who died.”
[email protected] says
Grabowski accuses only ethnic Poles, living in the hell of German Nazi occupation. Timothy Snyder describes the hell in Bloodlands.
Donald Tusk is one who has had the ethical stature to claim at least the pogrom of Jedwabne as the result of what Polish citizens did do Polish citizens.
Are you aware who controlled Jedwabne at that time? The German police did. Schaper was there.
Talk to Donald Tusk.
Read part of the story. Sad murderous history. As a student many years ago, we were taught the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, which is very sad. Often wonder how did they get that number. It is interesting they taught us that in this country thousands of miles from Poland, but they never taught us how many African Americans were lynched by the hating white people. On this soil that was soaked by the blood of thousands of African Americans we were taught very little to nothing about my people being murdered in the masses by the hating white people. The irony is the prisoner of war Nazis from Europe were treated better than the African Americans that were born here.
Thank you for raising this. I also have been threatened by nationalist or misrepresented by volkshistorians of Poland by exploring the possibility of an emerging clerical fascist regime. My work is not done, and i have more questions than answers, but it is certainly concerning that Poland, a country where many LGBT people were murdered (often wearing other triangles than pink, as noticed by Joanna Ostrowska) now has a president who said LGBT people are not people, but an ideology instead. That in context of the Holocaust and how it treats it as a politcal issue.
@Not a Lot to like — l’chaim.
I’ll keep reading these:
Haaretz | Israel News
Aljazeera Breaking News
@In paradise there will be no typos
Strange Fruit. What a coincidence. Written by a Jewish male, performed by a Black Woman, Billie Holiday. They represent two groups of people that went through pure hell. Germany and Christian white lily USA. Christian and white lily yeah right. Demonic and satanic USA more likely. Founded on Christian Values no, founded on demonic satanic murderous lynching raping values YES.
Sounds like your Governor DeSatan.
Ron Desantis is pushing for a book ban and forced lobotomies on those smarmy, hoary-handed Polish scholars
who persist in telling tall tales of the fictional Jewish Shoa. He implored the Polish Workers Party to harness
the Dunning-Kruger effect to its full potential!
You do know of the Dunning-Kruger effect, don’t you? It’s all around you!
It’s destroying the USA bit by bit! Proof positive: Donald Trump was elected to the presidency of ‘Merica
and a bigoted bullshit artist named “Desantis” showed up as Floriduh’s governor!
About 50% of Americans are hugging the Dunning-Kruger curve (no, it’s not on the Daytona Speedway).
It gets idiots elected—voters that are ignorant of their ignorance.
Who knew that DeSantis’ reach extended out to Poland? This is the same guy who has nocturnal emissions
dreaming about his idol, Joseph Goebbels.
Will wonders ever cease?
“Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”
Haim Feldberg says
I’m sure Zion Ron would have a thing or two to say about this
Never forget the six billion
Rabbi Tsvi Feldstien says
Never forget the six billion
Unfortunately, the academic credibility and personal integrity of Jan Grabowski vel Abrahamer are undeniably lacking. The following are two examples.
In the first, Grabowski told “The Times of Israel” reporter Amanda Borschel-Dan that Poles killed 200,000 Jews and cited historian Szymon Datner’s “Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute No. 75 (1970)” as his source. Datner actually stated the following: “I estimated the number of surviving Jews – chiefly thanks to assistance provided by the Polish population – at approximately 100,000. It may be similarly estimated that another 100,000 Jewish victims were captured by the occupying authorities and murdered.” The Times of Israel” published Grabowski’s falsehood on 8 February 2018.
In the second, the 18 March 2017 issue of “Haaretz” published the following statement by Grabowski: “Emanuel Ringelblum, the founder of the Oneg Shabbat, the underground archive of the Warsaw Ghetto – estimated the number of Jewish victims of Polish policemen alone in the “hundreds of thousands.” However, Ringelblum did not make that accusation and instead cited the “uniformed police”, the largest component of which was the Jewish Ghetto Police. Moreover, Ringelblum makes it clear it was the Jewish Ghetto Police that – first and foremost – played the key role in the “resettlement operations.”
Grabowski distorts the truth about Raul Hilberg. Hilberg wrote his work “Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945”, which was published in 1992; however, it was Yehuda Bauer who said in 1974 that the triad of “perpetrators-victims-bystanders” should be used to describe people involved in the Holocaust. The term “bystanders” was reserved for the Poles. Any mention that the Polish nationals were also victims during WWII was denied. Bauer met with over 30 historians in a closed meeting in the Israeli embassy in London and instructed them accordingly. By contrast, Raul Hilberg in his book criticized overall Jewish passivity in the face of Nazi slaughter as follows: “In the Jewish councils, no pamphlets were composed and no arguments were made to show that any German action was hurtful and morally wrong. No ill will was expressed to the Germans. No threats were made to the life of any German. No rumors were started that the Allied powers would retaliate for the destruction of the Jews.” (p. 178). Hilberg and Hannah Arendt both criticized Jewish passivity and asked why they didn’t instead make the Germans do their own dirty work.
As for Grabowski’s book “Night Without End”, he conveniently omits the fact that Poles were forced to be actively involved in the German-established village security system. With the commencement of Operation Reinhard in the spring of 1942, the Germans required village heads to apprehend Jews escaping ghettos, camps, and trains and to deliver them to the local German gendarmerie or Blue Police post. Village heads were forced to sign monthly oaths of responsibility for the presence of Jews in areas under their jurisdiction. Polish villagers were forced to participate in searches for shirking Polish laborers, escaped soviet POWs, and not only for fugitive Jews. Village heads were kept under regular surveillance by German authorities and punishment for noncompliance was death. German terror was a daily reality experienced by Polish villagers, and not some kind of vague abstraction. The challenge of communal self-preservation lay in satisfying a minimum of German demands with a minimal sacrifice on the part of the village. It was a rare village that could boast of not having a single one of its inhabitants deported to Germany for forced labor. German terror touched almost every Polish village.
As for Grabowski’s complaint about being sued for libel, it was his “Night Without End” co-author Barbara Engelking who conducted sloppy research and falsely named a Polish man as the denouncer of a Polish Jewish woman. In fact, he aided her in hiding from the Germans. The suit was filed by the elderly daughter of the falsely named Polish man.
There are many more distortions in the article, which are not worth the effort to invalidate for the simple reason that Grabowski vel Abrahamer has repeatedly confirmed his unholy relationship with the truth.
Mark Mazur says
I would be glad if Poland were policing history.
It would mean that the government isn’t totally inept (considering the opposition is even more inept).