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April 28, 2023 12:10 pm

Top Israeli Holocaust Scholar Defends Targeted Polish Historian Over TV Claim That Poles ‘Failed’ Jews

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avatar by Ben Cohen

A crowd in Warsaw pays tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 on its eightieth anniversary. Photo: Reuters/Attila Husejnow

A prominent scholar at Israel’s national memorial to the Holocaust has risen to the defense of the Polish historian at the center of a controversial television interview on the Nazi genocide that has resulted in a formal investigation led by Poland’s broadcasting regulator.

In a letter to Barbara Engelking, director of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, that was widely reported by Polish media outlets on Friday, Prof. Dan Michman of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem condemned the “unrestrained and baseless attacks” against her following an interview on Wednesday last week with broadcaster TVN. Engelking argued that “Jews were unbelievably disappointed with Poles during the war” and that “Poles simply failed.” She accused Poland today of frequently “falsifying history” in discussions of World War II.

Over the last decade, Poland’s right-wing nationalist government has used a combination of legislation and informational campaigns to quash evidence of Polish collaboration with the Nazi occupying authorities during the war. Under Poland’s criminal code as well as legislation passed by the country’s parliament in 2018, anyone who examines the issue of local collusion with the Nazis can face a civil libel trial.

The letter from Michman — director of Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research — was signed by several other Holocaust scholars. “The balanced and well-thought-out approach and willingness to tackle a difficult and disturbing subject contributed to admiration and respect for Prof. Engelking among colleagues from all over the world,” the letter stated.

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It went on to assert that the “ideologically driven attacks on Prof. Engelking are in fact attacks on all open-minded people who are looking for an explanation of how the Holocaust could have happened in the first place, in order to explore the painful aspects of human history in the most balanced way possible.”

Michman closed the letter with an appeal to the Polish authorities to “let the darkness pass and the openness once known to Polish researchers return.”

In her TVN interview, Engelking charged that Polish “falsification” of history was especially pronounced when it came to claims about the assistance afforded to the country’s Jews.

“Jews in the ghetto were self-sufficient to a large extent, and would have been even more so if it were not for the [Polish] blackmailers,” she said.

“People who decided to help Jews really were heroes but there were very few of them,” she continued, adding: “There was a reluctance on the Aryan side [i.e. among non-Jews outside the ghetto]. There was no atmosphere conducive to hiding Jews.”

Engelking’s comments generated a predictably furious response from Polish leaders, with Prime Minister Mateusz Marowiecki tweeting that her “scandalous words that have nothing to do with reliable historical knowledge” alongside a photo of a memorial plaque honoring Poles who aided persecuted Jews. Marowiecki also criticized Yad Vashem for allegedly underestimating the number of Polish “Righteous Among the Nations,” claiming that it was higher than the 7,000 officially recorded.

On Friday, Maciej Świrski, the head of the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT), a state regulator, announced that he was initiating proceedings against TVN over Engelking’s interview, the website Notes from Poland reported.

“In Poland, everyone can, using freedom of speech, say any nonsense and lies,” Świrski said in a statement. “[But] the job of journalists is to react to lies because the press law requires them to provide reliable information. If the guest on a program is lying, the journalist must tell viewers that it is a lie.”

A former head of the “Polish League Against Defamation,” Świrski initiated legal proceedings two years ago against Engelking and fellow historian Prof. Jan Grabowski over claims they made concerning a village elder accused of murdering Jews. The historians were ordered to apologize for their claims in a Feb. 2021 court ruling which was successfully overturned through an appeal in August that year.



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