Academic Freedom Under Threat as Experts Punished for Admitting Polish Complicity with Nazis
The assault by the Polish government on Holocaust researchers who write or lecture about Polish collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust offers a sobering view of how easily academic freedom and the right to free speech can be trampled even in a (purported) democracy.
The erosion of these civic freedoms in Poland is the work of the country’s ruling Law and Justice party who came to power in 2015 on a right-wing nationalist platform extolling national pride and patriotism.
The country’s President Duda was elected in part on the basis of his campaign promise to take action against those who “falsely accuse the Poles of participating in the Holocaust.”
Over the past 8 years, he and Prime Minister Morawiecki have tightened the government’s control over the courts, the media, and domestic rights groups. Criticized for steadily eroding democracy in Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party began using “slander against the Polish state” as a rallying cry to stoke patriotic fervor and boost the party’s ratings.
In 2018, a new “Holocaust law,” criminalizing the mention of “Polish death camps” and any mention of Polish collaboration with the Nazis, was passed by the Polish parliament.
Critics have slammed the law as an intolerable form of censorship that seeks to whitewash a wartime history riddled with countless incidents of Polish cruelty and betrayal of the Jews. But the government rejects this history, insisting that Poles who collaborated with the Nazis were “isolated criminals” from the margins of society, and did not reflect rank and file Poles.
Instead, the Polish people have been cast as blameless victims of the Nazis who never succumbed to the enemy and heroically shielded their Jewish neighbors.
“The Poles were the greatest allies of the Jews,” Education Minister Czarnek recently declared, “and if it had not been for the Poles, many more Jews would have died.”
This shocking statement drew ridicule. 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland on the eve of the September 1, 1939, German invasion. Only one percent were alive at the war’s end.
Recent years have seen the intensification of attempts to repress historians and journalists who deviate from the government’s revamped narrative and dare to discuss Polish complicity in the extermination of Polish Jewry. Laws have been passed to defund the institutions that employ these scholars and letters have been sent to university administrations demanding they be fired for “purveying lies.”
Defamation lawsuits and other forms of harassment have been mounted against these individuals and courts tried to make it a crime to “rob Polish people of their national pride” by “maligning” the generation of the Holocaust.
“I will not finance any research work that seeks to slander the good name of the Polish state,” Education Minister Czarnek announced at a meeting with a delegation from the European Parliament in Warsaw in mid-May. “I will not finance an institute that maintains the kind of people who insult Poles.”
‘Pogrom’ in Warsaw
An appalling example of the revved up campaign to silence dissenters was recently on full display. Prominent Holocaust scholar Prof. Jan Grabowski of the University of Ottawa, Canada, began his lecture about “The Polish Problem with the History of the Holocaust” at the German Historical Institute there.
A few minutes into the lecture, Grzegorz Braun, a right-wing member of the Polish Parliament with a record of making anti-Semitic statements stormed the speaker’s podium, yelling “Enough!” He grabbed the microphone and smashed it, knocked over loudspeakers, yanked cables and threw a computer to the floor, yelling “Stop this propaganda! The lecture is over!”
Much of this wild outburst was caught on cell phones by members of the audience and later circulated online. Despite being booed by audience members and called a “disgrace,” a “fascist” and a “Russian doormat,” Braun refused to budge.
When the police arrived at the scene, the hooligan invoked his parliamentary privilege and refused to leave the building. “I am defending the Polish nation against a provoked attack on historical pride,” he told the police officers. Braun left the Institute only after the police called off the lecture and asked the audience to leave.
Gloating to his followers who were demonstrating outside that he had shut down the lecture, Braun announced that he disrupted the event to defend Poland’s good name against Grabowski’s “historical propaganda,” the JTA reported.
Supporters chanted Braun’s name and shouted insults at guests leaving the lecture, reported the Gazeta Wyborcza, a Polish daily. Afterwards, Grabowski told the newspaper that “nothing like this has ever happened to me. I felt like I was in Poland in the 1930s.”
Some observers said they could hear in Braun’s vandalism and destruction of property echoes of what not long ago would have erupted into a vicious pogrom.
“Since there are no longer any communities of recognizable Jews in Poland, the assault on Jan Grabowski is the symbolic equivalent of a pogrom,” one journalist commented. “Braun’s attack broke the psychological barrier limiting public anti-Semitic actions in Poland.”
International reaction condemned Braun’s ugly behavior that disgraced not only his party but local authorities for capitulating to it.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum expressed its alarm “at the growing trend of attacks on Holocaust scholarship in Poland, which started with threats to historian Barbara Engelking, spread to include her defenders, and recently escalated into a violent assault on historian Jan Grabowski.”
“This assault is not only a hateful act of violence against an individual but also an abhorrent affront to the history of the Holocaust and the principles of academic freedom and open civil discourse,” a Jerusalem Post editorial asserted. “This incident highlights the ever-deteriorating intimidating atmosphere faced by Holocaust scholars in Poland.”
Hounded by Right-wing Extremists
A distinguished professor at the University of Ottawa whose father was a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor, Jan Grabowski is the author of several books about Polish complicity with the Nazis in the genocide of Polish Jewry, and has been a vocal critic of Poland’s efforts to stifle discussion of the Holocaust there.
His writings on the Holocaust in Poland have sparked death threats and an angry backlash from influential Polish officials. Not content to denounce him in Poland, some have maligned him to the University of Ottawa, where he has taught history for almost 25 years.
In two letters, the Polish Anti-Defamation League accused the historian of lying and fabricating historical evidence. “He falsifies the history of Poland, proclaiming the thesis that Poles are complicit in the extermination of Jews,” the authors wrote.
In an interview with a Canadian paper, Grabowski said some of the League’s founders are now either ranking members of Poland’s government or senior advisers to its ministers. “Their actions are aligned with the Polish state, which makes it all the more appalling,” he said of the group’s campaign.
In a display of solidarity with the historian, more than 180 international Holocaust scholars came to his defense in a letter penned to the chancellor of the University of Ottawa defending Grabowski as a scholar of “impeccable personal and professional integrity.”
The letter said the Polish group slamming Grabowski is putting forth a “distorted and whitewashed version of the history of Poland during the Holocaust.”
Sued For Defamation of Nazi Informant
After it became illegal in 2018 in Poland to accuse the country of complicity with Nazi crimes, Grabowski’s book, Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in German-Occupied Poland, co-edited with Barbara Engelking, landed them both in court in a lawsuit instigated by the same Polish Anti-Defamation League that tried to have Grabowski kicked out of his job.
The two academics were convicted of defamation and ordered to apologize to an 81 year-old niece of a wartime mayor, Edward Malinski, whom the authors, drawing on eyewitness testimony, assert was a Nazi informer who betrayed the hiding place of 22 Jews. The group was subsequently massacred. While the guilty verdict against the two historians was eventually appealed and overturned, the case put a spotlight on how the Polish government has attempted to rewrite the country’s history, Grabowski said. Since then, government-owned news and television stations continue to attack Grabowski, Engelking and other historians and academics who refuse to abandon what they know to be true about Polish complicity.
“Independent historians and educators, myself included, have become targets of vicious hate campaigns in state-owned and state-controlled media,” Grabowski said in an interview. “We are reaching a new level of violence against academics, reminiscent of the pre-Holocaust years. I feel as if I’ve been transported back to the 1930s.”
Undeterred, Grabowski says he will continue his research and writing. “There is a saying among Holocaust scholars: ‘I did not choose to study the Holocaust; it chose me.’ When you do the history of the Holocaust, it’s a commitment,” he added. “I have an obligation to the dead.”
‘Hunt For the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland’
“We know [from German records] that close to 10 percent of Jews fled the Polish ghettos before they were liquidated in 1942 and 1943 – which means about 250,000 Jews tried to survive in hiding,” noted Grabowski in an interview. “But only a mere 35,000 managed to stay alive to the end of the war. Barely one percent survived. What happened to the rest?”
Grabowski’s books, Night Without End and Hunt for the Jews pose answers this question. They demonstrate how the Germans’ genocidal goals were impossible without the collaboration of Poles.
First, Polish neighbors could identify Jews in a way Germans could not, and could more easily discover their hiding places. There is no doubt, the historian writes, based on years of research in Polish and German archives, that the great majority of Jews in hiding—more than two thirds—perished at the hands of Poles who betrayed them.
“They were denounced or simply seized, bound and turned over to the nearest station of the Polish police or to the Germans where they met their death.”
Secondly, Poles voluntarily chose to kill Jews, Grabowski says. A system of Jew-hunting was orchestrated by the Germans to ferret out Jews in hiding. The ranks of the “hunters” were filled with Poles who, in exchange for turning over Jews, received payment in the form of vodka, sugar, potatoes, oil – along with clothing and other personal items looted from the victims.
Together, Grabowski maintains, these hunters created a dragnet that made it almost impossible for Jews in hiding to escape detection. In Nowy Targ county, for example, Polish village guards, not the Germans, scoured the woods for Jews. Polish volunteer firefighters hunted Jews. In Lukow county, Poles betrayed Jews for a bag of sugar.
Historians debate how many Poles aided the Nazi death machine, with estimates ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. According to Engelking and Grabowski, “Sizable parts of Polish populations participated in liquidation actions and later, during the period between 1942 and 1945, contributed directly or indirectly to the death of thousands of Jews who were seeking refuge among them.”
For Jews, flight was its own form of torture as there were so few places to find refuge. The book documents how Jewish escapees from the Siemiatycze ghetto returned, unable to find anywhere to hide. The few that reached the forest lasted two weeks.
Either discovery by the Germans or Poles ended in their murder, or hunger. Illness and despair forced some to surrender to the police, who mowed them down in the Jewish cemetery.
The killing went on in all parts of the town, at all hours of the night and day.
Impossible To Be A Bystander
“In my research, I found that it was simply impossible for people to remain distant or aloof from the genocide,” noted Grabowski in a lecture.
“Most of the Jewish ghettos were either open, or surrounded with flimsy fences that did not prevent contact between the Jews and other Poles. So the local population was well aware of the killings and persecutions in the ghettoes.”
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, Belzec, Sobibor and Auschwitz.”
“All of this happened in plain view of the surrounding non-Jewish population,” the historian pointed out. “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.
The book details personal accounts from a handful of survivors such as Shraga Feivel Bielovski who heard Maniek Karbowski, his “friend” and neighbor, offer to bring an axe to break down the door of the house in which he was hiding. Bielovski heard Poles laugh as Jews were rounded up.
“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,” said Grabowski. “Bystanders ended up being either facilitators [for the Germans] or beneficiaries. The whole idea of “bystanding” during the Holocaust needs to be re-examined, questioned and perhaps even dismissed.”
Historian Sets Record Straight as Polish Officials Seethe
Polish historian Barbara Engelking, the director of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw, drew the wrath of the ruling Polish government party after saying on TVN24, on the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, that “Jews were unbelievably disappointed with Poles during the war.”
She said that “very few” Poles helped Jews and noted that there was “widespread blackmailing” of Jews by Poles.
“The Poles had the possibility of becoming the allies of the Jews and one could hope that they would behave differently, that they would not take advantage of the situation to such an extent and that there would be no widespread blackmail,” Engelking said, adding that Poles today are exaggerating the help they gave to Jews during the war.
Her remarks infuriated Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki who declared that Engelking’s “scandalous opinions” have “nothing to do with reliable historical knowledge.” Another member of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, joined the chorus of critics and said he would call for the historian to be prosecuted “for insulting the Polish nation.”
Upping the ante almost comically, the government’s broadcasting regulator announced it would conduct legal proceedings against TVN, which is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery, over the Engelking interview because “if the guest on a program is lying, the journalist must tell viewers that it is a lie.”
Engelking has received the support of over 1,000 academics and various research institutions in Poland and Israel, standing up for academic freedom and defending her right to bring legitimate research to the public’s attention.
The Polish education minister, in apparent retaliation, announced he would investigate the scholars who had signed a letter supporting Engelking, and made good on his threats. The institution that employs her, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, did not receive the usual government subsidy at the end of last month, reported TVN24.
“This is an attempt to censor free academic research,” Andrzej Rychard, the director of the Institute, told TVN24. “It starts with research on the Holocaust of the Jews, but can expand to many different topics: refugees, migration, gender.”
“Poland’s academic freedom is under threat as scholars risk having their funding cut and being publicly shamed if their work does not align with the government’s beliefs,” affirmed Euro News. “The issue of Polish conduct during WWII, in a country that relies so heavily on its victimhood narrative, could be a major talking point as it approaches elections later this year.”
Rare Diary Documents War Atrocities by Local Inhabitants
Grabowski said his goal in Hunt for the Jews and Night Without End was to track the overall day-to-day role of Poles in persecuting and murdering Jews in the Holocaust, and the scope of those crimes.
Burying himself in the Holocaust archives in a small town in southern Poland, he came across all-but-forgotten documents that enabled him to reconstruct what happened to the Jews who had frantically sought to hide from the Nazi roundups.
One of these documents is a diary left behind by Stanislaw Zeminski, a teacher from the town of Lukow in eastern Poland who perished in 1943 in the Majdanek death camp. Retrieved from a garbage heap and eventually deposited with the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, the diary documents war atrocities the writer witnessed.
Zeminski wrote that “the orgy of murders” in Lukow was not only the work of the Germans and their Ukrainian and Latvian helpers. “It was clear that Polish policemen would take part in the slaughter (they are like animals), but it turned out that normal Poles took part as well,” he wrote.
“Local Poles were actively involved in pulling out Jews from the bunkers in the ghetto,” Zeminski wrote in his diary, quoted in Grabowski’s book. “They dragged them from hiding places in houses, caught them in the fields, in the meadows. The shots are still ringing, but the hyenas already set their sights on Jewish riches… The dead bodies are still warm, but people are already writing letters to local officials, asking for Jewish houses, Jewish stores, workshops or parcels of land.”
From court documentation created by hundreds of trials conducted by the postwar communist regime in Poland, Grabowski uncovered scores of narratives that painted a shocking expose of the manner in which Poles betrayed and murdered Jews in staggering numbers.
“They were realizing their own dream of a Jew-free Poland,” Grabowski said.
Asked in an interview why he has immersed himself in a field that has sparked so much hostility from his Polish countrymen, Grabowski said his work has a very personal dimension.
“My father is Jewish…He survived the war by posing as a Christian. But several members of my family were murdered. One of my grandfather’s brothers was murdered one year after the war by Poles, who simply did not like to see a Jew returning to Poland.”
The Crime and the Silence
Night Without End and Hunt for the Jews follows the publication of two other books authored by Polish historians that detail horrific but little known atrocities perpetrated by local Poles against their Jewish neighbors.
One of these books is the electrifying Neighbors by Jan Gross (2000) that tells the story of July 1941 massacre in Yadobna (Jedwabne). In this ghastly act, an entire village was slaughtered. 1600 Jews were axed, stoned and burned alive in a barn by their Polish neighbors.
In 2004, the Polish journalist Anna Bikont published The Crime and the Silence which contains interviews with eyewitnesses, murderers and survivors of the Yadobna pogrom described in Neighbors, corroborating Gross’s account down to minute details.