Historian Jan Grabowski in Israel to ‘ring the alarm’ about Holocaust distortion

'All this kind of Holocaust envy is so sad. It’s part of the Polish history policy, an attempt to confuse and obfuscate the Holocaust and appropriate it,' Grabowski said.

 Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski predicts a bleak future for holocaust research. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski predicts a bleak future for holocaust research.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski has long been well-known in his field of Holocaust studies, but he was thrust into the spotlight in recent years, as Poland has become increasingly hostile to those who write about Polish collaborators with the Nazis.

“I am trained as an archival historian,” Grabowski said this week. “I spent my whole life digging in archives, writing, researching, teaching, but over the last six years, I have been put into the position of someone who has to give interviews and struggle with the force of vicious nationalism mixed with antisemitism.”

Grabowski won the Yad Vashem International Book Prize in 2014 for his book Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, which detailed how Poles helped Nazis hunt down Jews who had escaped the liquidated ghettos in Poland. His subsequent books were about topics like the Polish Police collaboration with the Nazis, and a book on the fate of Jews in nine counties in German-occupied Poland, including Polish collaboration with the Nazis.

Since Poland passed a law in 2018 penalizing those who attribute responsibility for the Holocaust to Poland or the Polish people, Grabowski has been the target of multiple lawsuits by Poles over the content of his books.

Grabowski said he was recently “reported to the authorities for having written that extermination camps were built for Jews, not Poles,” by a government-funded Institute to Combat Anti-Polonism.

“Every time I give an interview or a public lecture, I have to turn every word over in my mind because I know my lectures are being scrutinized, and if I let something slip, say one word too much, or say Polish society was complicit in the Holocaust, then I am in court,” he said. “If I say ‘certain segments of Polish society were complicit in the Holocaust,’ then I am home free.”

Grabowski will be in Israel next week for a conference marking 60 years of the Mordechai Anielewicz Memorial in Givat Haviva, where he is set to speak about the state of Holocaust scholarship in Poland.

“My message for Holocaust scholars is that we have been debating until the cows come home about the future of Holocaust research and Jewish survivor testimony,” he said. “I will show them the future is very bleak.”

During his trial earlier this year in which he was sued by the niece of a Polish villager mentioned in his book as having given Jews over to the Germans, Grabowski said he heard “all kinds of attacks and denial of the validity of Holocaust testimony.

“With passing generations of survivors these things will increase,” he warned. “We cannot be complacent... This is what’s going on, not only in Poland, but in different regimes that want to write new histories for themselves, using new and very old approaches. Lithuania, Ukraine, too... I am coming with a big bell and trying to ring the alarm.”

Grabowski said the trend in Poland began in 2015, when the nationalist Law and Justice Party came to power in Poland and “started to legislate themselves the history they would like to see.”

The Nazis deported over three million Polish Jews to concentration camps, and about 98% of the Jewish population of Nazi-occupied Poland was wiped out. Grabowski’s research indicated that Poles could be tied to the deaths of over 200,000 Jews, not including victims of the Polish Blue Police.

Today in Poland, the historian said, there is “a broad front of denial of facts. People don’t want to hear about bad things. That’s why they swallow these nice myths pumped by the authorities. The message people receive here, and then repeat it, is that, for instance, in Polish society during the war everyone helped the Jews, millions were preoccupied with how to help a Jew. That is the official party line repeated constantly. It’s of course a lot of nonsense to say that Poles were massively helping Jews from daylight to dusk. The Holocaust is only discussed in Poland in terms of Poles helping the Jews. It’s a national obsession.”

Over 7,000 Poles have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, meaning that they saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust.

Other messages Grabowski said are often heard in the Polish discourse are that “Jews are ungrateful for that help, Jews are complicit and collaborated in their own demise... Jews betrayed the Poles under Soviet occupation or collaborated with the Soviets, so if something happened to them, well, they shouldn’t have been so hostile to Poland.”

The historian argued that the Auschwitz Memorial is “part of the Polish national narrative.”

When Grabowski recently wrote that extermination camps were constructed to kill Jews, not primarily Poles, the Auschwitz Memorial posted on social media that the majority of Poles who were killed in Auschwitz died in gas chambers.

“In Poland, everyone repeats it, that Poles were dying in gas chambers,” he said.  “There might have been some Poles killed in gas chambers, but that’s not why they were in Auschwitz. The whole narrative here is geared toward the appropriation of Auschwitz as a Polish site of suffering. Over 50% of Poles believe Auschwitz was primarily a site of Polish ethnic suffering. All this kind of Holocaust envy is so sad. It’s part of the Polish history policy, an attempt to confuse and obfuscate the Holocaust and appropriate it.”

 German soldiers are seen marching in Warsaw following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. (credit: FLICKR) German soldiers are seen marching in Warsaw following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. (credit: FLICKR)
A professor at the University of Ottawa, Grabowski said very few Polish historians have pushed back against these messages and policies, because they are worried about using their jobs.

“When I, for instance, try to evaluate the number of Jews who were either killed or denounced by the Poles, I am practically the lonely voice,” he said. “Even among people closely working with me, there is anxiety not to venture into this territory. It is not by accident that the critical voices of historians have been raised from abroad.”

Grabowski said he finds the efforts of historians from around the world to research the Holocaust in Poland to be very encouraging, as long as the Polish authorities continue to allow them to access archives.

“I haven’t seen attempts to block students from accessing files, which is good,” he said. “It might change, though.”

The attempt to control how the story of the Holocaust is told is, “in a broader perspective, part of an authoritarian drive to dismantle civil society,” Grabowski posited. “The nationalists in power are simply unable to cope with any kind of independent sources of information. There are attacks on the judiciary, journalists and historians, and unfortunately for me and my colleagues, Holocaust historians are part of cutting edge.”

As for Israel’s push led by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid against Polish attempts to distort the history of the Holocaust, Grabowski said it is the right thing to do, but it is unlikely to be effective.

“Let’s not delude ourselves: no one in Poland really cares about Israel’s stand on anything,” he said. “Israel can stand on its head and it won’t matter. What matters is Washington.”

The Polish Holocaust Law in 2018 was changed from including criminal charges to only allowing for civil suits because of pressure from the Trump administration.

“With these people in power in Poland, they’re like bullies, they react well to a firm attitude,” said Grabowski. “Trying to play nice with them is a waste of time.”