‘This Is Unprecedented’: Leading Holocaust Experts Weigh in on Polish State’s Campaign to Rewrite History of World War II
The ongoing controversy centered on the Polish president’s approval this month of legislation that shuts down Holocaust-era restitution claims should be understood as part of a long-running campaign by the Polish state to rewrite the history of World War II as a narrative of Polish victimhood, a group of leading historians gathered by The Algemeiner concluded during an extensive panel discussion.
The four scholars have all published extensively on the Holocaust in Poland. Over 90 percent of that country’s Jewish population were exterminated, accounting for nearly half of the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide. All of the scholars have countered the revisionist historical campaign waged by the current nationalist government in Poland, often facing legal challenges and obstacles along the way.
In a discussion that focused on the historical aspects of the recent collapse in relations between Israel, Poland and top Jewish organizations in the wake of the restitution legislation, every participant stressed that the real purpose of the recent reform to the Code of Administrative Procedure — as well as the 2018 IPN Act, which allows for civil prosecutions of historians who research the phenomenon of Polish collusion with the Nazis — was to help transform the Holocaust from a Jewish trauma into a Polish one.
The success of that narrative, they observed, depends in large part on excluding from historical inquiry the topic of the collusion between elements of the population in Poland, a country with a long history of antisemitic agitation, with the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
As a result of this campaign, the historians pointed out, many ordinary Poles believe that Auschwitz, where 1.1 million Jews were exterminated, is “primarily a place of Polish suffering.” And at the same time as it asserts that Jewish restitution claims are unjust and baseless, the Polish government continues to demand hundreds of billions of dollars in compensation from Germany.
The historians who participated in The Algemeiner’s panel, organized under the auspices of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, were:
Elzbieta Janicka, a research scholar at the Polish Academy of Sciences and the co-author most recently of “Philo-Semitic Violence: Poland’s Jewish Past in New Polish Narratives.”
Jan Grabowski, Professor of History at the University of Ottawa, and the author of the award-winning study, “Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland.”
Jan Gross, Emeritus Professor of History at Princeton University, and the author of the pathbreaking work “Neighbors,” a study of the July 1941 pogrom of Jews at the hands of Poles in the town of Jedwabne.
Irena Gross, research scholar at Princeton University and Professor at the Institute of Slavic Studies, Polish Academy of Science, and the editor most recently of “Poland and Polin: New Interpretations in Polish-Jewish Studies.”
A lengthy and impassioned discussion has been condensed by the editors for clarity and brevity. The discussion was organized thematically.
- On the recent legislation closing off Holocaust restitution
The Algemeiner: From your perspective as historians, how significant is the passage of this legislation?
Irena Gross: This is not the first law and it won’t be the last law that is directed — at least for internal consumption — against Jews.
Elzbieta Janicka: If not for this Jewish component, it would never have triggered such a debate. In addition, I don’t think that the issue of restitution for the property of non-Jews is the same as with the Jews. In the former case, these were people who were expropriated by the authorities, but the Jews were murdered with a degree of collusion from the local population. Among the non-Jewish populations, there were ethnic Ukrainians, ethnic Germans, as well as Poles who were expropriated, but their claims would never provoke the kind of controversy that you have around Jewish claims.
Jan Gross: There is a pattern that we see every time the history of the Holocaust and the complicity of part of the local population is raised. There is the pushback one hears from the right-wing nationalists, that the Jews are trying to seize property. This is presented as the expropriation of the Poles and it becomes a major scandal. At the same time, the Polish government is demanding restitution from the Germans for damages incurred during the Nazi occupation, which they estimate at $850 billion. When this issue is brought up, you hear that the number of Poles killed was six million — that number is not a coincidence. However, the real number is under five million, and that is when we include the three million Polish Jews murdered in the Holocaust. So the potential scandal which is on the verge of unfolding is when the Jewish community, which rightly considers itself to have been robbed, learns that the Polish regime intends to request compensation from Germany for Jewish property that was destroyed during the war.
- On the current Polish government’s role as custodian of historic Holocaust sites
The Algemeiner: Earlier this month, the Polish Deputy Foreign Minister, Pawel Jablonski, claimed that “educational trips from Israel to Poland do not take place in a proper manner, and are conducted in a way that hatred of Poland sometimes seeps into the minds of young people.” He then promised to “review” future such visits. How concerned should we be that this government is the custodian of Holocaust sites?
Irena Gross: We have new narratives. We have hundreds of museums dedicated to the War that have been built in the last five years. The state has made an enormous investment in producing a new map of the War showing who fought whom, who was the hero and who was the enemy. You know, it’s amazing. It is an astonishing thing. It is unprecedented.
Jan Grabowski: Irena is absolutely right, we are witnessing something really without precedent, given the resources that the Polish state is pouring into the battle for historical memory. There has been a longstanding effort to rewrite the history of the Holocaust in order to create this pleasant, feel-good narrative. Practically all the stops have been pulled out in order to complete that mission. Now, the problem is that this kind of narrative sells well. You can see this quite easily in the image of the concentration camps that now prevails. The current polls show that well over half of the Polish population has been convinced that Auschwitz was primarily a place of Polish suffering. A few weeks ago, during the conflict over the restitution legislation, I said on social media, “please, remember that the extermination camps were not built for Poles, they were built for Jews.” This statement resulted in my being reported to the prosecutor’s office by these so-called “patriotic elements.” Alongside this is the fact that the institutions of the Polish state are singing the same tune.
Elzbieta Janicka: The Poles don’t visit the camp sites in large numbers. Concentration camps and extermination camps are not such a huge problem because the perpetrators in this case were Germans.
Jan Gross: This [state] campaign against the phrase “Polish concentration camps” is a foil for saying, “Poland has received a bad rap for its attitude towards the Jews during the war.” We all know that there were no “Polish” camps. But what this campaign intends for us to conclude is that, essentially, Poles should be exempt from any kind of consideration of responsibility.
Jan Grabowski: Eleven years ago, when I ventured my estimate of 200,000 Jewish victims who died either at the hands of Poles or with Polish complicity, it triggered a very violent reaction, not only among the authorities, but also among scholars with whom I worked for a long time. This is a similar problem to that experienced by Jan Gross, when he was writing about [the July 1941 massacre of more than 300 Jews by some of their Polish neighbors in] Jedwabne. It was a shock, but it was somehow explained away as a unique event that had nothing to do with the rest of Poland. What I and my research colleagues have tried to show is that, actually, the liquidations of the ghettos were not conducted in a social void. They were conducted with the full complicity, knowledge and participation of various segments of Polish society. The idea that Jedwabne became an everyday reality in 1942 and 1943, is something that is absolutely unacceptable to Polish society.
- On Polish state-sponsored institutions engaged in the rewriting of history
The Algemeiner: Has the state-sponsored Institute for National Remembrance (IPN) become the dominant institution for the study of history in Poland?
Irena Gross: The IPN is very well-funded, but it’s not the only one. There is also the Pilecki Institute (named for the Polish resistance leader Witold Pilecki, the institute’s focus is on the “historical experience of Polish citizens in the 20th century”) which is expanding into the United States. These are bodies that are research institutions, educational institutions, with publishing houses, fellowship grants, and so on. So there is a whole entire structure, and I’m sorry to say that it’s based, though sometimes indirectly, on European Union (EU) money. It is very, very well funded. It’s an unprecedented effort.
Jan Grabowski: You have the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, they have a huge number of people working on the same file. And then you have the so called “gongos” — government-funded NGOs — which work along the same lines.
Elzbieta Janicka: There is also the marginalization of existing institutions with credibility. The budget of the IPN — which in 2020 was $109 million — is three times that of the Polish Academy of Sciences.