In early June, Reduta Dobrego Imienia – Polska Liga Przeciwko Zniesławieniom (Redoubt of the Good Name – Polish Anti-Defamation League) sent out letters to several universities and scientific publications, criticizing Professor Jan Grabowski. In response, not only Polish, but also foreign historians came up to defend him. The University of Ottawa explicitly criticized Reduta for doing so. We meet with Professor Grabowski to discuss whether research into the history of the Holocaust is threatened, how it should be carried out, and whether Reduta’s position on the subject changes anything.
How did you react to the Reduta’s statement? Did it come as a surprise or did you anticipate protest?
No, I did not expect it. After all, I am a historian, unknown to the general public. Once I have recovered, I thought that if a company of this kind is trying to destroy me, I’m clearly doing something right. This means that what I am writing hits the right point. If Reduta’s goal was to discredit the “good name of Poland” among humanists around the world, they did a good job. In the international academic world, no one would ever think that it was possible to attack a scholar in such a way, that something like this could even happen at all. For this reason, the response was very firm.
Did you know any of the people who signed Reduta’s letter?
I am relieved to say that I did not know anyone. What’s more, my colleagues specializing in the history of the Holocaust did not know anyone either. My mother, a professor of chemistry, was astonished to recognize one or two chemists who up to that point had never been known as specialists in the history of the Holocaust. Evidently they must have done some rapid research on the history of the Holocaust lately and therefore possessed appropriate knowledge to denounce a professor specializing in this narrow field of knowledge. If Polish technicians, engineers or chemists show such great interest in the Holocaust, we should be very pleased. All jokes aside the whole thing is a grim farce in the eyes of my colleagues from the West.
Reduta’s letter met with a response from Polish and international scientific circles.
In the West, people who were not involved with Polish-Jewish issues had no idea what it was all about.
Have they not encountered such protests against scholars before?
In Poland, as a result of the influx of historical triumphalism and ultra-patriotic narrative, people have lost their sense of what is and is not appropriate to say. I am afraid that the history of the Holocaust in Poland is now being besieged. This is unacceptable The history of the Holocaust is a part of the history of the world, not just Poland. The repercussions are going to be very serious and they will persist as long as attempts to falsify this history continue.
How is it falsified in Poland?
For me, the most painful element of falsifying the history of the Holocaust is what I call de-Judaization of the Holocaust, in other words, to use the phrase used by supporters of Roman Dmowski, who is so popular today – “de-Jewization.” In Poland, this process has been under way for a long time, not at all as a result of the last two years. This is an attempt to make the Holocaust a national myth. In order to make it palatable for the majority of Polish society, whose sympathy for the Jewish nation is rather moderate, it is necessary for Jews to be eliminated from this discourse to some extent. This is the purpose of, among other things, the continuous and unceasing glorification of the Righteous. For years now, I have been saying that the Righteous can be praised in the context of the situation in which they acted and not in taking them out of that context.
On the other hand, concentration camps are also being de-Polonized. I am not talking about the campaign against using the phrase “Polish camps” because I believe that it really needs to be dealt with, but one can do it in a rational and irrational way.
How can we properly protest against using the phrase “Polish camps”?
Everything that is exaggerated reveals our lack of self-confidence, our complexes, and proves that there is an underlying problem somewhere. In this case, the problem is that Polish historians and Polish society still have not managed to process the Holocaust. Underlying all that is a fear that there are Poles are going to be accused that they were complicit in the Holocaust. It is certainly impossible to fight effectively against the phrase “Polish camps” by attempting to enforce – as Dr. Cywiński from Auschwitz does – the replacement of the name “Bełżec” by “Belzek”, “Sobibór” – “Sobibor” and “Płaszów” – with “Plaschow”. I am not even going to comment on this. Instead of a desperate dance around the names, it would be worthwhile to try to learn about one’s own history honestly and consistently, to promote research by independent historians and bravely explore the most difficult issues of the history of relations between Jews and Poles. And there is plenty of work to be done in that area.
This is evident in the microcosm of Prime Minister Szydło’s speeches in Auschwitz. I will ignore the much-quoted words of the Prime Minister about Auschwitz as a symbol of the need to ensure security for one’s citizens. As a Holocaust historian, it concerns me to a lesser extent. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, was able to make an eight-minute speech on the territory of the former German-Fascist-Teutonic concentration camp and not even mention the word “Holocaust.” She made a reference to Jews twice. First she said that Poles and Jews died in the camp, and later that Poles were helping Jews. These were the only two times that the nasty “J” word was used. We learned from the Prime Minister that Poland was the only country where there was a death penalty for helping Jews – and that is simply not true.
Finally, the Prime Minister said that Poland lost 6 million of its citizens. This is already a narrative from the communist era textbook – the Jews were killed not because they were Polish citizens, but because they were Jews.
Politicians like to talk about the Righteous regardless of their views. When the ban on ritual slaughter was debated in Poland, I approached Robert Biedron, serving as an MP at the time. He replied that the slaughter needs to be reduced, but after all we have the most trees in Yad Vashem.
He really said that?
Yes, he actually wrote it.
This is yet another attempt to boost national egos by exploiting the unfortunate group of people who challenged the rampant anti-Semitism in Polish society and, as such, it cannot be accepted.
The person who provokes most protests is Professor Jan Tomasz Gross….
…. fortunately for me.
I am convinced that more people read Gross’s books or even know about their existence than all publications released by the Center for Holocaust Research. What is the difference?
Times have changed. Now people who are taking such a brutal and harsh action against me, against historians from the Centre, feel the wind in their sails. It is evident that they are backed by the presence of the Polish state. Today, the founders of Reduta are active in the structures of the state, I think one of them is a deputy minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while another advises the Minister of Culture. The narrative of defending the good name is one of the pillars of the diplomatic work of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Does it work?
Of course it does not work. But it is not about foreign countries, but about the internal market alone, about consolidating their own electorate. The worst thing, from their point of view, is that this piece of Polish history is not under their control, and that here every attempt to distort history and use for propaganda purposes will be stigmatized by historians from other countries. Hence the rage.
How, then, should we approach research on the history of the Holocaust in Poland now?
Be twice as consistent, twice as firm. As long as it is possible, of course. What the other side seeks is not a scientific debate, but a mythologisation of the national past. As historians, we have to write what really happened. Reduta’s recent action against me and my colleagues from the Centre for Holocaust Research is an attempt to attack the freedom of research. This is how it was received in the West.
What are you working on now?
It is a collective work by nine researchers. Polish “national” elements have frequently raised accusations that Holocaust researchers, including myself, draw far-reaching conclusions on the basis of too slim research base. It mainly concerned my work, in which I examined one county in southeastern Poland.
So in the coming months we are going to release a book that has about 1200 pages long, the result of many years of work that will present the fate of Jews in 9 counties (poviats) of occupied Poland. This time it is going to cover vast areas. It is an attempt to trace the trajectory of the individual fates of thousands of Jews and their interaction with Poles and Germans during the subsequent phases of the Holocaust from 1939, with particular emphasis on 1942 and later years. I have been responsible for the Węgrów county. There is also information about Sokołów, which is important to you.
My colleagues have written texts about Biłgoraj, Dębica, Miechów, Nowy Targ, Bochnia, Bielsko Podlaska, Złoczów and Łuków. We were able to compare our results and finally talk about figures. It was very important to me. The volume includes specific, detailed data. And so, in my case, the area near Węgrów was a very painful study. What is evident is, for example, that the nearby death camp in Treblinka had a very distinctly toxic effect on the whole area, that the camp radiated on human attitudes and behavior.
Do you mean the golden harvest?
I mean everything. One railway line ran through Sokołów from Siedlce to Małkinia, and another one from Warsaw ran through Tłuszcz and Łochów. In this triangle, huge numbers of Jews escaped from trains and met with one or another type of reception.
What was it most often?
The other type. Each area had different tragedies and horrors. In the end, however, we know that between 1.5 and 2 percent of Jews survived in hiding. It is going to be a book that will somehow resume scholarly debates to some extent, but will undoubtedly also provoke aggression on the part of people who are not concerned with history, but with propagating national myths.