History, Human Rights, Radical extremism, xenofobia

Poland’s Current Memory Politics Are Rewriting History

Jun 2 2021

By Mikhal Dekel* – Boston Review 

Not all research is at stake, however, only work that reveals the role of ethnic Poles in the persecution of Poland’s Jews.

By This year, for the first time in history, an individual used Poland’s “Holocaust Law” to sue in a civil court. This was also the first time that the law, which forbids blaming the Polish nation for the crimes of the Holocaust, was used against academics—two Polish Holocaust historians, Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking. Grabowski and Engelking are co-editors of Dalej jest noc: losy ?ydów w wybranych powiatach okupowanej Polski (Night Without End: The Fates of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland), a 1600-page, two-volume micro-history of wartime Poland that was published in 2018. The book has 3,500 footnotes, one of which is at issue in the case.

The judge ruled that “ascribing to Poles the crimes of the Holocaust committed by the III Reich can be construed as hurtful and striking at the feeling of identity and national pride.”

On February 9, 2021, a District Court in Warsaw convicted Grabowski and Engelking of “violating the honor” of Edward Malinowski, a Polish man who had served as mayor of a village in Poland during WWII. The plaintiff in the case is Malinowski’s niece Filomena Leszczy?sk, who is backed by the government-funded Polish League Against Defamation. Engelking’s footnote describes a testimony against Malinowski, given to the Spielberg Holocaust Testimonial Archive in the United States, where a Jewish woman, Estera Siemiatycka, stated that he had “robbed” her, and was involved in denouncing other Jews to the Nazis.

The eighty-two-year-old Leszczy?ska believes, contrary to the footnote, that her uncle helped Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland, citing the fact that Siemiatycka testified years earlier that he had helped her survive. This testimony was given at a trial waged against Malinowski by the People’s Republic of Poland in 1950. In the immediate postwar period, many such trials were conducted against suspected Nazi collaborators. In that earlier trial, Grabowski shows, the local community intimidated witnesses and came together in order to defend Malinowski, one of their own. It was under those circumstances that Estera Siemiatycka first testified in defense of the mayor.

Yet the District Court judge ruled in Leszczy?ska’s favor, ordering the historians to issue her a public apology. In a thirty-six-page justification issued on March 30, the court set a broader precedent. Grabowski described that the judge ruled that “ascribing to Poles the crimes of the Holocaust committed by the III Reich can be construed as hurtful and striking at the feeling of identity and national pride.” “To blame Poles for the Holocaust, for the killing of the Jews and for seizing their property,” Grabowski summarizes the judge adding, is “completely untrue and hurtful, [and] can impact one’s feeling of national identity, destroying the justified, facts-based conviction that Poland was the victim of war operations conducted and initiated by the Germans.”

Most of the Jews that were murdered in the Holocaust died at the hands of the Nazis on Polish soil. Many archives and witnesses are still in Poland. Though the historians are appealing the verdict to Poland’s higher Court of Appeals, if the guilty verdict is upheld, Holocaust scholars will have immense difficultly conducting research in Polish archives and publishing their findings in Poland. The verdict will scare off witnesses and deter publishers fearful of lawsuits and organized social media campaigns, events already occurring both in and outside of Poland today. Grabowski fears that a guilty verdict in the supreme court will be the final nail in the coffin for Holocaust research in Poland.

Grabowski fears that a guilty verdict in the supreme court will be the final nail in the coffin for Holocaust research in Poland.

But it is not all of Holocaust research that is at stake in this lawsuit. In fact, research of Nazi crimes against Polish Jews has not stopped, and research of Nazi crimes against non-Jewish Polish citizens is at an all-time high today under Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice-led government. What is at stake; what is really on trial; what is being defunded, silenced, and fought against with all the soft power artillery that the Polish government possesses is any research, film, book, or work of art that reveals the role of ethnic Poles in the persecution, extermination, and dispossession of Poland’s Jews.

What is occurring now, Grabowski wrote me from Warsaw several days before his and Engelking’s verdict, “isn’t about people having different opinions. I am talking about a state, a large and powerful state, set out to destroy independent historians, trying to re-write the history of six million dead people.”

Since its electoral victory in 2015, Prawo i Sprawiedliwo?? (PiS), Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, now in its second term, has engaged in an extensive campaign to bury evidence of Christian Poles’ complicity in the Holocaust. It has done so both by fighting against works such as Night without End and by promoting an alternative narrative of “good Poles,” foregrounding those who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination. The party rewards research and popular culture that centers the role of ethnic Poles in aiding Poland’s Jews during the war.

In recent years the government has built memorials and museums commemorating “Nazi and Soviet atrocities.” It has simultaneously held ceremonies, distributed medals, and erected memorials to Poles whom it says helped Jews. Several years ago the government opened the Ulma Family museum in Markowa, which commemorates “all Poles who risked their lives to help their fellow Jewish citizens facing the Holocaust.” The government is also set to open a “Warsaw Ghetto Museum” in 2023, which will celebrate, in the words of Polish Culture Minister Piotr Gli?ski, “the mutual love between the two nations [Jews and Poles] that spent eight hundred years. . . on Polish land. Of the solidarity, fraternity, and historical truth, too, in all its aspects.” Beyond these new museums and memorials, though, the government has also instituted a new official holiday—the National Remembrance Day for Poles Who Saved Jews During WWII—observed on the day that Nazi forces murdered the Polish Ulma family who hid Jews in Markowa and were denounced.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has engaged in an extensive campaign to bury evidence of Christian Poles complicity in the Holocaust.

These new museums, holidays, ceremonies, and commemorations create a specific public atmosphere that paints the average Polish person during the Nazi occupation as an unequivocal victim and, at times, even a hero. The overwhelming discrepancy between this historical picture of heroism and victimhood as opposed to survivor testimonies has fueled both Leszczy?ska’s legal battle to reclaim her uncle’s honor and the resistance to Grabowski and Engelking’s research. 

To be sure, this kind of violent pushback is not new. Polish nationalists have long been enraged by films and books that have contradicted the “good Poles” narrative—such as Claude Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah (1985), Jan Gross’s Neighbors (2000), W?adys?aw Pasikowski’s Aftermath (2012), and Grabowski’s earlier book Hunt for the Jews (2011). Still, the apparatus that the PiS is now building to publicly and explicitly inculcate its narrative of innocence is unprecedented in Polish history.  

I caught a glimpse of the abovementioned artists’ experience when I published my book Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey in 2019. The book tells the story of my Jewish father and hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Christian Polish citizens who were deported to Soviet gulags during WWII and later continued to Iran, India, and Palestine. It also tells my story, as I traveled to Poland, Russia, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere to dig into archives, engage in conversations, and study the relationships between the Christian and Jewish Polish refugees on that journey. In a New York Times review of the book, the reviewer’s concluding mention of my encounter with people he described as “‘philosemitic’ Poles who equate Polish and Jewish suffering in a vision of a ‘shared’ history” was enough to launch an army of angry Polish nationalists into my Twitter feed. It was then that I fearfully reached out to Grabowski, who calmed my nerves.

Since the beginning of the trial, the tide of anti-Semitic messages on Grabowski’s Twitter feed has swollen exponentially. His father, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, compares the current national mood in Poland to that of the 1930s; his ninety-year-old mother, a Christian Pole, fears she will be attacked if she walks down the streets of Warsaw with her son. Masha Gessen, who wrote about Grabowski and Engelking’s trial for the New Yorker, has been bombarded by “a barrage of hate mail, including death threats,” as she described it in Gazeta Wyborcza. Gessen used an unfortunate phrase about the Polish government’s “effort to exonerate Poland—both ethnic Poles and the Polish state—of the death of three million Jews in the country during the Nazi occupation”. I publish this article knowing I will likely receive similar messages.

Poland is not the only post-communist country where the Holocaust remains a hot and contested topic even seventy-five years after its end. In Hungary the Holocaust museum “House of Fates” is under fire for downplaying the role of Hungarian fascists in the extermination of Jews. In Lithuania a much commemorated “national hero” widely celebrated for fighting communism, Jonas Noreika, has recently been outed by his granddaughter, Silvia Foti, as a former Nazi who facilitated the extermination of thousands of Lithuanian Jews. (Foti is now the target of endless threats.) The Ukraine, Russia, and Romania are part of the same story. In these countries Nazi Germany is portrayed as the sole perpetrator of the Holocaust, the crimes of which are often equated to Communist crimes against the countries’ local, non-Jewish populations. Often, “Communists” means “Jews,” which implies an equivocation between “Jewish” and “non-Jewish” crimes. Poland, in fact, is probably the best of these countries when it comes to Holocaust research and historical reckoning; it still has independent newspapers, publishing houses, and researchers, such as Grabowski, Engelking, and others.

The recognition of responsibility for Jewish deaths helped pave the way for Poland’s entrance into the European Union in 2004.

Many of these independent researchers began publishing their work in the immediate aftermath of Communism’s fall in 1989. It was an exciting time to be an intellectual in Poland. Archives opened. A new generation of doctoral students emerged. These young doctoral students were the first generation of scholars trained in post-Communist Poland and the first to re-examine Poland’s wartime history. Among them were Grabowski and Engelking—the generation that followed them included Dariusz Libionka, Alina Skibi?ska , El?bieta Janicka, Tomasz ?ukowski, and others who today loosely form “the New Polish School of Holocaust Research,” a recently coined umbrella-term for scholars publishing independent research that critiques and challenges the government’s narrative.

Yet these first generations also included those who today comprise the intellectual bedrock of the Polish conservative right—such as historian Magdalena Gawin, who currently serves as Poland’s Deputy Minister of Culture, the sociologist Dariusz Gawin, deputy director of the Warsaw Uprising Museum, the philosopher Marek Cichocki, and others.

While this first generation of graduate students joined universities and research centers as faculty members, Polish-American Princeton historian Jan Gross published his book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Neighbors brought to light new information about a massacre of Jews in Jedwabne in 1941, exposing that the Jewish community was not killed by German perpetrators, as was previously believed, but by the community’s Polish neighbors. In the wake of the book’s publishing, in 2001 the Polish president Aleksander Kwa?niewski traveled to Jedwabne and apologized “as a citizen and as the president of the Republic of Poland. . . in the name of those Poles whose conscience is shattered by that crime.” That apology, the recognition of responsibility for Jewish deaths, helped pave the way for Poland’s entrance into the European Union in 2004. It also seemed to signal a new age for Holocaust researchers.

“After the publication of Gross’s book—that was the best period for those of us researching Poland under German occupation; we felt free and assumed a new age had come,” Dr. El?bieta Janicka of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences told me in 2019. But the backlash came quickly. In 2005 the PiS won its first electoral victory, in part, Janicka says, because the party promised to restore Poland’s honor after being humiliated in Jedwabne.

“In truth, the rush to cement the narrative of the ‘good Poles’ in occupied Poland long predates the PiS,” Janicka continued:

Immediately after the Kielce pogrom [the July 4, 1946 murder of 42 Polish Jews who after the war had returned to Kielce], Tygodnik Powszechny, a liberal Catholic weekly, called on Poles to testify that they helped Jews, and every milieu rushed to say they helped. This was and is a crucial element of Poland’s self-identity. If Poles were accomplices, Poland cannot claim the identity of a victim nation, a nation crucified.

In 1985 Claude Lanzmann’s landmark documentary Shoah featured ordinary Poles who lived near the death camp Treblinka and appeared not only cognizant of, but gleeful about the Jewish genocide. In his 2009 memoir, The Patagonian Hare, Lanzmann describes the “truckloads of calumny” and incessant rage that was unleashed on him by Polish nationalists, as well as the “heavy artillery” the Polish lobby had used to undercut the film. “Compared to their firepower, the Jewish lobby was barely capable of a skirmish,” he writes. 

“With Jedwabne they could no longer do that. The evidence presented in Neighbors, collected and confirmed by Polish historians, could not be washed away,” Janicka says.

Polish nationalists have long been enraged by films and books that have contradicted the “good Poles” narrative.

Instead of fighting Jedwabne, the government began promoting historical narratives of Polish goodness and heroism. Four years after the publication of Neighbors, it opened the Warsaw Rising Museum (as distinct from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising), which celebrates the Armia Krajowa, the Polish “Home Army,” which fought against the Nazi occupation. The museum tells the story of Polish heroism through displays of weapons, uniforms, recordings, songs, photos, oral testimonies, life size posters of Polish soldiers, enactments of wartime scenes, and a 3D video of Warsaw before and after the uprising, which occurred in 1944.

In this way the pendulum of historical memory in Poland has swung in a dialectic that alternates between recognition and occlusion. In 2011 then-President Bronis?aw Komorowski traveled again to Jedwabne. Four years later, when the PiS was re-elected, President Andrzej Duda criticized Komorowski. PiS Education Minister Anna Zalewska has referred to the fact that Christian Poles burnt Jedwabne Jews in a barn as “a matter of opinion.” The PiS has instituted a formal “historical politics” (“polityka historyczna”), which includes the “Holocaust law” used to sue Grabowski and Engelking.

Today Poland has dedicated an arm of the state—Instytut Pami?ci Narodowej (IPN), or the Institute for National Remembrance—to investigating “crimes committed from 8 November 1917, throughout the Second World War and the communist period, to 31 July 1990.” The IPN receives annual funding of 420 million PLN—approximately 112 million U.S. dollars and five times as much as the Polish Academy of Sciences. Though the IPN, which was formed in 1998, has been criticized in the past by independent historians, under the PiS the IPN’s mission has become even more explicitly nationalistic. It aims to educate citizens about “the enormity. . . of losses. . . suffered by the Polish Nation during the Second World War and after it ended”; to preserve “the patriotic traditions of the Polish Nation’s struggles with its occupants, Nazis and communists”; and to celebrate “triumphant moments in the history of Poland and the Polish nation.”

Similarly, in 2017, Deputy Minister of Culture Dr. Magdalena Gawin founded Instytut Pileckiego (IP), or the Pilecki Institute, which funds research, holds lectures and seminars, and seeks global collaborations around the study of “the Nazi and Soviet totalitarian regimes.” Grabowski reports that since the publication of his and Engelking’s book, the IPN and historians on its staff have produced sixteen reports on the text. Meanwhile, the Pilecki Institute has an ongoing project dedicated to combing its 3,500 footnotes to look for mistakes.

Under the banner “Called by Name,” the Pilecki Institute also locates and honors “persons of Polish nationality who were murdered for providing help to Jews and Poles during the German occupation.” Gawin’s great aunt Jadwiga D?ugoborska was among its first honorees, as she is said to have sheltered Jews in the town of Ostrów Mazowiecka in Northeast Poland.

In 2014, when I visited Poland to research my book, Gawin was my host. At that point she was still just a historian, not yet a politician. I went to Poland in part because she had invited me to a commemoration of her great aunt, who hailed from the same town as my Jewish father. D?ugoborska, Gawin told me when we traveled together to Ostrów, had been imprisoned and tortured inside a brewery that had belonged to my family for generations before the war. During the war it was turned into Gestapo headquarters.

Under the PiS the IPN’s mission has become even more explicitly nationalistic.

Gawin wished for Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and research center, to recognize D?ugoborska as a Righteous Among the Nations. Yad Vashem grants the honorific Righteous Among the Nations to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. It conducts an investigation of each application and requires as evidence “survivor testimony” or “other documentation” that supports it. The documentation Gawin had at the time—a prewar inn guest log that contained “Jewish sounding names” (“Ryczke, Rekant, Lewartowicz, and Szumowicz”) and the testimony of another great aunt—did not meet the required bar of evidence. She was trying to locate those her great aunt had helped save.

Today Jadwiga D?ugoborska has still not been recognized by Yad Vashem. Instead, in 2019, she and another woman, Lucyna Radziejowska, were honored by the Pilecki Institute. The Institute’s website describes them as “two heroic Polish women” who were “killed by the Germans for sheltering Jews.” It has also built memorial plaques for the two women in the front yard of Ostrów’s Tadeusz Ko?ciuszko Elementary School, which formerly housed my family’s brewery.

Looking beyond Jedwabne, there is ample evidence that contradicts the government’s narrative of solidarity and fraternity. “I saw little of it,” Polish-Jewish author Henryk Grynberg, who spent the war years in Warsaw passing as a Christian Pole, told me when we met in his home in Maryland over a decade ago. He continued:

I lived the war as both a Christian and a Jew, and I know what life was like for both these populations. We [Jews who were passing] did not need Christian Poles to help us. We needed them to not hurt us, because a Nazi could not identify us; we looked like Poles of our class. But if you look at the numbers, by the end of the war only few of us survived.

The function of the museums, monuments and institutes, then, is to separate the informers and perpetrators from the Polish story.

Yad Vashem estimates that 130,000 to 180,000 Polish Jews were killed by Christian Poles or denounced to the Germans and killed by the Nazis. Grabowski puts that number at 200,000. My own research on Polish Jews and Christians who were exiled together to the Soviet interior and Central Asia also revealed discrimination and even violence against the Jewish refugees. There were, however, glaring exceptions; Polish Christian officers in the in the Polish army in exile who supported Jewish students, teachers who shielded and protected Jewish children in Polish orphanages in Uzbekistan. Nearly 7,000 Polish citizens have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, more than citizens from any other nationality (Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe). Still, these comprise a minority of Christian Poles. The PiS’s unrelenting emphasis on Poles who rescued Jews (whether those cases have been substantiated or not), coupled with its offense against any evidence to the contrary, is creating a skewed historical narrative.

There were, of course, ethnic Poles who were murdered for hiding Jews; they, and all victims of the Nazi regime and its collaborators deserve commemoration. But it’s also true that those who informed on those murdered were ethnic Poles as well. The function of the museums, monuments and institutes, then, is to separate the informers and perpetrators from the Polish story. And the murkier this distinction, the harder the Polish government tries to inscribe it in public spaces both in Poland and abroad. A branch of the Ulma Museum is set to open in New York. The Pilecki Institute now has a branch in Berlin and New York. Meanwhile, historians such as Grabowski and Engelking are attacked as “foreign agents,” “falsifiers of Polish history,” or, in the recent words of an IPN advisory committee member, people “who hate our national community.”

The PiS memory policy is less about the Jewish genocide than about “our national community,” a reassertion, on a mass scale, of Polish heroism and honor.

The PiS memory policy is less about the Jewish genocide than about “our national community,” a reassertion, on a mass scale, of Polish heroism and honor. That isn’t in itself problematic: all countries honor their heroes, and all those who resist murderous oppressions deserve to be honored. But when that comes with suppression and a refashioning of a deeply painful and highly entangled past, that is where the problems begin. 

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*Mikhal Dekel is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Tehran Children is her third book.

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