Libionka: Inconvenient researchers are either eliminated or forced to change their minds

This year, the Center for Holocaust Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences did not receive any financial support from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage for its yearly journal “Holocaust”. We talk to dr Dariusz Libionka, editor-in-chief of the yearly journal “Zagłada Żydów” (English edition is titled “Holocaust”), about the consequences of this decision, as well as research and responses to the book “Beyond is the Night”.

This year, the journal “Holocaust” did not receive any financial support from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. What is going to happen now? Is this a major problem for the editorial team? Do you have an idea how to get the missing funds?

We are going to talk about it, we are going to think about it. When push comes to shove, we might appeal to the readers for help, although I’d rather not. After all, this is a scholarly journal. Perhaps we should look for a grant provider who would help us not just now, but in the years to come. This situation will, after all, repeat itself.

The Ministry of Culture and National Heritage covered only a part of the expenses, because we also receive funds from the Jewish Historical Institute Association, as well as from other sources. We hoped that after the appeal we would receive a subsidy. This was not the first time this has been the case.

In previous years the situation was similar, but eventually you did receive a grant following an appeal.

It is difficult, it is not pleasant, but we know where we live.

Where do we live?

In a strange country that is undergoing change. But we could talk about it for hours.

What was the reason for the Ministry’s decision? Have you received an explanation? What has gone wrong?

It seems to me that it is first and foremost about the fuss around the Center for Holocaust Research, provoked by the publication of the two volumes “Beyond Is the Night”. This book has been presented in a certain way that is in no way pertinent to its content. This book was bound to give rise to disputes, and that is a good thing. I have nothing against historical debates, but the fact is that we have been promoted overnight to…

… enemies of the homeland?

Mortal enemies. If a major historian writes on Twitter that the Polish state has only itself to blame because it finances its own enemies, it is saddening. I hope that it is because he misspoke on that occasion. It is sad that such a serious figure can position himself and us in such a way. It may vary, but such labelling is a problem.

Some of the Law and Justice electorate or party establishement wanted to oppose our actions. But after all, they promoted the book “Beyond is the Night” themselves. If it was said that it contains nothing but slander, ‘anti-Polish’ lies and manipulations, it is no wonder that people wanted to read it.

Then, observing the actions of Minister Gliński, it was probably his independent decision not to give us that grant. He decided to obstruct a journal published in his own faculty.

But have you not received any reasons for this decision?

There is only the score, which indicates that we’ve failed to meet the requirements of something called ”strategic evaluation”.

You don’t fit in with the Ministry’s strategy?

We don’t. But this is a scholarly journal, we are sent texts from various people, including young researchers from Poland and abroad, from various centers. Nobody controls them. Just as nobody controls renowned researchers.

We have founded this journal so that researchers who deal with this subject could have somewhere to publish, so that there could be an exchange of ideas with other countries. We offer a publication opportunity to young people for whom it is important. During the witch-hunt against the Centre the journal received collateral damage, because they were able to strike against it and show their dissatisfaction, demonstrating that their personal enemies would not bother them any more.

How have readers reacted to the lack of subsidies?

We’ve received words of support and offers of help from friends and strangers. People can see that this topic evokes emotions, these emotions are further fuelled, the academic community is divided and those who are inconvenient are being blocked. These inconvenient ones are either eliminated or forced to change their minds. Fortunately, there is no consensus on this. This is the case in many centres, but not all of them are openly rebellious. This is a broader problem of Polish memory.

Well, what about that memory? So many years have passed since the war, and we still can’ t talk about it openly – what wrongs were done, what wrongs the Poles did; that they were not just victims, but also sometimes some perpetrators?

These topics have always been taboo. There has always been a certain Polish raison d’être. These were not issues that should be analysed or introduced into scholarly discourse, let alone public debate. In the mid-1980s, Professor Jan Błoński stirred up a heated debate because he noticed something that others did wouldn’t or couldn’t notice. Also, Polish émigré authors wrote about Polish history defensively, lest they damage it.

Now the term ‘anti-Polish’ has reappeared, having first emerged in the 1960s. Some Jewish communities have a way of remembering what happened to them or their relatives in Poland. It has never been fully voiced. After 1989, there was inevitably more discussion about this. The case of Jedwabne came to light. After the archives were opened, it turned out that the whole history of Poles and Jews under the occupation should be actually rewritten from scratch.

The current government does not want to fill these gaps in history?

It is immature. It’s a simplification that we are exclusively writing about negative issues.

Not only that, but you are also addressing issues that others do not address at all.

But it is hard not to, since we examine certain phenomena comprehensively, analyse processes, attitudes of Poles, Jews, Germans, as well as the historical circumstances and social context. This cannot, of course, be eliminated.

Some write about the help that Poles provided to Jews, while others about negative issues. And you have to write about everything. That is obvious. You cannot exaggerate, you cannot generalise, you must be responsible. You have to describe everything. Inevitably, you tackle issues that have never been spoken about, that are not being taught, that are shocking. As historians, this is what we are taught in the first year of university, we make things objective. We are not looking for sensation. Our task is to reconstruct the past, which we cannot change.

After the publication of your book “Beyond is the Night”, a debate on the history of the Węgrów county took place there. Participants said that before the war Poles and Jews lived in harmony, multiculturalism was emphasised, and that is simply not true. Jewish trade was boycotted, for example…

It was like that everywhere. After all, Węgrów was not on the moon.

And yet history is being changed by someone, and the Institute of National Remembrance is going to publish a book by a local historian on that subject.

Everyone has the right to carry out their own research and to follow their own path. I do not know what qualifications the author has, but we can’t rule out the fact that he could see something that could be challenged in the account of Szraga Fajwel Bielawski, one of the Węgrów survivors, written many years after the events. The thing is, however, that the Institute of National Remembrance, local authorities and residents react to that with disturbing euphoria: they believe that it’s a chance to manifest their opposition, to show historians from the Center their place, and so on.

During this debate in Węgrów, someone said ‘they have declared a war on us’. It was about you.

That is, of course, complete nonsense. If they wanted to talk about history, they could invite Prof. Jan Grabowski. I do not just know whether such a debate could take place, or whether it is possible to stick to certain procedures with emotions running so high. Węgrów is unique in that respect because in other places that were the subject of research no such thing happened. I wrote about the Miechów county. I exchanged views with a historian who has been investigating the Home Army in this area for years. He attacked me during the presentation of the book, so I explained everything calmly to him and we arranged another meeting. I wrote about difficult matters, about the attitude of the underground forces towards Jews, I have investigated a dozen or so incidents when blood was spilled. This is not the case in Węgrów, because we don’t have full documentation of the Home Army.

As far as Węgrów is concerned, it depends on who wants to build a capital on it and what kind. It is easy to convince people that someone is attacking them, insulting them and presenting them in a false light.

Interview by Katarzyna Markusz



About the Author

Katarzyna Markusz
Journalist since 2001, dealing with the history and culture of Polish Jews, conducting research on the Jewish community in Sokołów Podlaski. Editor-in-Chief of Jewish.pl.