Polish Government’s Campaign to Control Holocaust Research Set to Continue, Warns Jan Grabowski, Historian at Center of Major Libel Trial

Prof. Jan Grabowski speaks to YIVO’s ‘Holocaust Scholarship on Trial’ online seminar, Feb. 16, 2021. Image: Screenshot.

The historian at the center of a precedent-setting, Holocaust-related libel case in Poland warned on Tuesday that next year’s commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the deportation of more than 250,000 Warsaw Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp could be compromised by the country’s nationalist government.

“In 2022, we will have the 80th anniversary of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto — let’s see whether the Polish government can resist the temptation to use this occasion to celebrate Polish virtue,” Prof. Jan Grabowski told The Algemeiner in an extensive telephone interview.

“If it was to become a joyful festival for nationalists to celebrate how ‘we helped our neighbors,’ that would be a catastrophe from a historical perspective,” said Grabowski, a specialist on Polish-Jewish relations during the Nazi occupation who teaches at the University of Ottawa in Canada.

Together with his colleague, the Polish scholar Dr. Barbara Engelking, Grabowski was ordered by a court in Warsaw on Feb. 9 to apologize to the plaintiff, who brought her case to court under legislation passed by the Polish parliament in 2018 that subjects historians and others who research Polish civilian collusion with the Nazi occupation to civil libel suits.

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February 16, 2021 3:47 pm

The law has served as the central instrument of a broader campaign by Poland’s conservative nationalist government to depict Poles solely as victims of the Nazis who saved their Jewish neighbors whenever they were able to do so — a version of World War II history that Grabowski described as “mythology.”

At issue in the libel case was a brief passage in Engelking and Grabowski’s 1,600 page volume “Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties in Occupied Poland” that dealt with Edward Malinowski, the mayor of the town of Malinowo in north-eastern Poland, who was alleged to have assisted in the capture and killing by the Germans of 22 Jews hiding in a nearby forest. The passage was based on the testimony of a Jewish woman who survived the war and knowingly gave false evidence in Malinowski’s defense when he was tried and acquitted by a Communist court in 1950 on charges of collaboration.

Malinowski’s niece, 81-year-old Filomena Leszczynska, accused Engelking and Grabowski of publishing false accusations against her uncle, insisting that he was a hero who had saved Jews. The court’s decision in her favor means that Engelking and Grabowski have to furnish Leszczynska with a written apology for supposedly presenting “inaccurate information” about her uncle and for “violating his honor.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Grabowksi spoke about the libel case at an online seminar organized by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. An audience of more than 700 heard Grabowski tell the event’s host, the writer Masha Gessen, that he and Engelking had been compelled to “confront the entire might of the Polish state and the Polish media, who decided that we were guilty a long time ago.”

In particular, Grabowski pointed to the role of Poland’s government-run Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) — whose name was incorporated into the title of the 2018 legislation targeting historical research into civilian collaboration —  in aggressively pushing the notion of Poles as victims who rescued Jews en masse from the ravages of the Germans.

“The IPN is weaponized to the tune of 120 million dollars per year to run the official historical narrative,” Grabowski told the YIVO event.

In his later conversation with The Algemeiner, Grabowski further scorned the IPN’s pretensions to academic credibility.

“I refuse to identify as ‘historians’ those people employed by the IPN as ‘historians,’” Grabowski said. “For me, a historian is someone who identifies an area of interest, and then struggles with the rest of us for funding in peer-reviewed competition. But what you have here are large number of state employees to do the state’s bidding.”

Asked how Poland’s IPN differed from Yad Vashem — Israel’s state-run memorial to the Holocaust which also engages in historical research — Grabowski was adamant that there was no comparison to begin with.

“Yad Vashem is not a blind tool in the hands of the State of Israel — it is an institution of a democratic state, and that is the difference,” Grabowski said. He emphasized that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been strongly criticized by scholars at Yad Vashem for his own comments on Poland’s Holocaust record on more than one occasion.

Grabowski and Engleking are now awaiting the outcome of their appeal against the Feb. 9 decision. Should the appeal fail, that would effectively mean, according to Grabowski, “an end to independent research of the Holocaust and many other parts of Polish history that run contrary to the official myths and legends espoused by the Polish state.”

Younger Polish scholars of the Holocaust would be especially vulnerable to such pressure, Grabowski observed, to the point that many would deem it prudent to direct future research into other areas.

“We humanists are fragile creatures who depend on grants,” he said. “If the state controls 90 or 95 percent of grant activities, then anything that smacks of an attack on national mythology will not be funded. And I’m afraid that’s just the beginning: older, more established scholars will practice self-censorship or just steer clear of these topics. PhD researchers will sail in different directions.”

Amid this gloomy prognosis for historical scholarship is the broader question of the Polish state’s role when it comes to the international commemoration of the Holocaust, along with efforts to educate future generations about the extermination of six million Jews and several million members of other groups by the Third Reich.

“I would treat the Polish authorities as one would treat a dishonest trading partner,” Grabowski candidly answered, when asked how outside governments and organizations should approach the Polish government when it comes to Holocaust memorial days, school visits to concentration camps and other Holocaust sites, conferences, exhibitions and myriad similar projects that involve the country.

“You watch that person’s hands very closely,” Grabowski said. “You cannot avoid trading with them, but you have to be careful.”

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