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Never dead, not even past. Poland’s struggle with history

The libel trial against two prominent Polish Holocaust researchers could mean that litigation will replace debate concerning difficult parts of Poland’s history, writes Laurence Weinbaum in this op-ed for NEE.

February 19, 2021 - Laurence Weinbaum - Articles and Commentary

The Polish Academy of Science in Warsaw, which houses the Polish Center for Holocaust Research. Photo: Tilman2007 wikimedia.org

In both Jewish and Polish culture, remembrance is seen as a sacrosanct national and religious imperative. In William Faulkner’s Mississippi, the past is never dead; it’s not even past. The same is certainly true of Poland — especially regarding the war years, when under German occupation, the country became a charnel house for its Jewish inhabitants.

Ever since the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power, the development and promotion of an uplifting historical narrative has been one of Warsaw’s highest priorities. To that end, the Polish state has expended vast amounts of public money to convince people at home and abroad that the story of wartime Poland was one of almost unmitigated patriotism and righteousness in the face of unimaginable torment. The attempt has been so crass and so devoid of nuance that even the prolific British historian Norman Davies, author of the fittingly titled God’s Playground —and a staunch champion of Poland — has registered his indignation. Ironically, a very similar policy had been adopted in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Moscow is busy peddling its own “useful history ,” as the nonagenarian doyen of Holocaust scholarship Yehuda Bauer recently put it.

A watershed moment in the zealous pursuit of this policy was the enactment of an “anti-defamation” law in January 2018, essentially designed to squelch the suggestion that Polish society bore any responsibility for the destruction and despoliation of the Jews in its midst — and to criminalise those who dared to hint otherwise. Its authors took pains to justify the bill as an entirely legitimate reaction to the frequent references to Auschwitz as a Polish camp rather than a German one. Of course, however irksome, this misbranding has generally had more to do with carelessness and geography than any wilful attempt to slight Poles. Yet those who spearheaded the contentious legislation quickly discovered that instead of diverting attention from Polish culpability, it unleashed a wave of scrutiny not only about the period in question, but also the health of Poland’s hard-won democracy. Within months, its harshest provisions were walked back.

During the long years of communist censorship, the Jewish dimension to Poland’s calamitous plight under the German occupation became little more than a footnote to the general account. When it was raised, the story was crafted — sometimes carefully, often crudely — to suit the agenda of the moment. According to the legendary Radio Yerevan, the hardest thing to predict under communism was the past. Quite predictably, nothing was said at all about the Soviet occupation.

Since the collapse of “People’s Poland,” however, a determined band of iconoclastic Polish researchers has been trawling through archives that were once off limits. In no other post-communist country have scholars worked on the issue of native responses to the Holocaust with such tenacity and equanimity Bit by bit, they deconstructed the “kumbaya” story that had been propagated by both the communist regime and that of its ostensibly anti-communist successors. Apparently, whatever the differences in their pathology, they share a very similar view of history.

At the core of their narrative was the notion that Poles had, en masse, acted to aid their imperiled Jewish neighbors. Resistance to the Germans, it was insisted, was a near universal phenomenon, and collaboration an entirely marginal one. Unfortunately, if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Such was the case with the tangled history of Polish–Jewish relations, and it quickly became clear that this research was not for the faint of heart.

It was, of course, Nazi Germany that masterminded and implemented the destruction of Jews in Poland (and elsewhere in Europe). However, to carry out that that diabolical plan the German occupiers were able to count on the indifference and often on the approval of broad segments of the autochthonous population. Complicity, it turns out — whether on the part of coldhearted enablers, savage executioners or rapacious beneficiaries — was far more widespread than had been previously imagined. This was so on both the individual and institutional levels, whether involving neighbours, the so-called Blue Police, or the various local authorities left intact by the Germans. Alongside thousands of valorous rescuers who are today memorialised by Yad Vashem, many times that number saw in the desperate, existential plight of the Jews a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for El-Dorado-like self-enrichment, religious triumphalism, or the realisation of sadistic fantasies. In fact those who did risk their lives to save Jews feared betrayal by fellow Poles more than any happenstance discovery by the Germans, which makes their audacity all the more remarkable.

Yet, with each successive revelation, a spasm of vitriolic rage was unleashed against the researchers who, it was said, had defamed the nation. Sometimes, even in polite circles, among those who could not be suspected of antisemitism, there was disbelief and denial. Ten years ago, in an interview with an Israeli newspaper, Poland’s then-foreign minister, Oxford-educated Radołsaw Sikorski, insisted that “Nazi Germany carried out the Holocaust on our soil against our will, but in front of our eyes.” Others, however, faced these findings with genuine introspection and contrition. In 2001, after it became known that Poles had slaughtered their Jewish neighbours in a small town in northeast Poland, the Jesuit philosopher Stanisław Musiał suggested that Jedwabne should be seen as a metonym for the Holocaust, alongside Auschwitz.

The truth is that however horrible the occupation was, many Poles believed that there was at least one positive aspect of the German presence — that the Jews, who before the war had been seen as a bone in the throat, would finally be dislodged. Moreover, it would be done without ordinary folks even having to get their hands dirty in the process — or at least not very dirty. In the years leading up to the war, antisemitism in Poland intensified, just as it had in much of Europe, and the Polish government and much of Polish society saw the removal of the Jewish minority through mass emigration as one of the highest items on its agenda.

It is not surprising, therefore, that even the most cursory reading of the underground press reveals the extent to which society was rife with antisemitism and gratified that Poland would emerge from the war, Judenfrei. That partially explains why more than a few of those who so ferociously fought the Germans saw little or no contradiction between that struggle and the war against the Jews that was being waged in parallel., This situation was not unique to Poland, and in some occupied countries such as the Netherlands, a similar phenomenon has been identified.

In one of his earliest reports, in early 1940, the heroic Polish courier Jan Karski observed that the attitude of Polish society to the Jews was “ruthless, often without pity. A large part avails itself of the prerogatives that they have in the new situation …. To some extent this brings the Poles closer to the Germans.” Antisemitism, he contended, “is something akin to a narrow bridge upon which the Germans and a . . . large part of Polish society are finding agreement.”

As a seven-year-old child in the 1930s, Irena Szydłowska, the daughter of a wealthy mill owner in Konin, befriended a Jewish girl in school. The two became inseparable. The friendship continued even as the Jews were confined to the ghetto, and Szydłowska helped her soul sister’s family by delivering food to them. When the ghetto was liquidated, the Jewish girl disappeared, murdered by the Germans together with other Jews in the autumn of 1941. That horrific massacre in which the Jews were killed using a mixture of lime and water was described in a chilling 1945 testimony by Mieczysław Sękiewicz, a Pole forced to help dispose of the human remains. On the Sunday after the Jews had been deported, the then-sixteen-year-old Szydłowska and her family attended mass. The priest told the faithful that a terrible and tragic event had taken place, that thousands of people had been forced to leave their homes, but then went on to say that there was a positive side as well. The Jews themselves had been to blame, and what happened to them was punishment for having crucified Jesus. The Germans knew what they were doing, he declared, and at the end of the day, Poland would be cleansed of Jews. After the Germans had been chased out, Poland was still wracked by anti-Jewish violence, to which not a few survivors and returnees from Soviet exile fell victim.

In recent weeks, there have been several developments that underscore the ongoing assault on historical research in Poland. Pioneering Holocaust scholars Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski, accused of libel for a passage in a meticulously researched 1,700-page, two-volume opus, were called into court to defend themselves in what was ostensibly a civil lawsuit. The 81-year-old plaintiff is the niece of a village head who according to the testimony of a survivor rescued some Jews even while betraying others. There is little doubt that Filomena Leszczyńska was actually acting at the behest of a self-styled anti-defamation NGO that enjoys the political and financial backing of the state and that it is Polish officialdom that is the thinly disguised spiritus movens of the whole exercise — seeing it as a test case that could intimidate a new generation of scholars. On February 9th, the court ruled that the historians would have to publicly apologise for their characterisation of the man in question. The trial made headlines all over the world, and the defendants may at least derive some consolation in the fact that their Dalej jest noc has aroused intense curiosity among the Polish public and that an English edition will be released shortly. Certainly, no author could ever hope for advertising this good.

Lest there be any doubt as to the stance of the authorities, in the wake of the verdict, Poland’s justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, immediately tweeted: “This plucky lady [Madame Leszczyńska] stood up to the mendacious propaganda besmirching Poles.” According to Stanisław Żaryn, spokesperson for the Polish security service, the international media had used the case against Engelking and Grabowski “to slander Poland” and this was a dangerous phenomenon adversely affecting the nation’s security. The message is unmistakable. Henceforth, any researcher publishing unpleasant truths risks provoking the ire of the Polish state, and the veracity of historical truth is now to be decided through litigation, not debate among scholars.

Few today remember the case of Władysław Dering, who sued Leon Uris for libel in a London court in the early 1964. Based on an early book on the Holocaust by Joseph Tenenbaum, Uris had made an en passant reference to the ghastly forced sterilisations performed on Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz by the Polish physician who was a fellow inmate. Having found inaccuracies in the passage in question (the operations were no less horrifying than described, though far fewer in number), the jury ruled in favour of the plaintiff, awarding him a half-penny, the smallest coin in circulation, for the damages to his reputation. Of course, Dering’s legal action was not acting as a proxy of Her Majesty’s government, and the verdict was understood in the spirit in which it was intended — as comeuppance to the merciless man who had sued the celebrated American novelist.

In the meantime, the Polish anti-defamation law is being enforced on some level. Earlier this month, journalist Katarzyna Markusz was summoned by the police and questioned about how she had “offended the Polish nation”. Writing in the journal Krytyka Polityczna, she had dared to ask, “Will we live to see the day when the Polish authorities will admit that among the Poles, by and large, there was no sympathy for the Jews and that Polish participation in the Holocaust is a historical fact?”

One hopes that Poles will live to see that day. Whatever the sentiments of Poland’s fervent well-wishers, especially those deeply engaged with the place we called home for so many generations, that change can only come from within. This issue is not one of right or left, and it transcends the freedom to study the past without fear of government interference What is really at stake here is the future of the country’s political culture. To be sure, time is not on the side of the obfuscators, but for now, sadly, Poland continues to careen down the same perilous path. Recent milestones are the appointment of Tomasz Rzymkowski, whose antisemitic views are a matter of record, as the second most senior official in the ministry of education, and of Tomasz Greniuch, a former activist for the neo-Fascist ONR, as director of the Wrocław branch of the influential Institute of National Remembrance. Paradoxically, it is that institution, flush with state subsidies, that is charged with researching the crimes of the Nazi and communist regimes, and of late, rewriting history in compliance with the instructions of its sponsors.

More than 70 years after his death, George Orwell’s oft-cited adage “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” seems especially apt. And the searing words of the Polish-Jewish poet Henryk Grynberg have never resonated more powerfully:

If they shout us down to death …

there is no trace of crime

if they do it for no reason

there’s no motive

if they all do it

no one knows who has done it

Laurence Weinbaum is the chief editor of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs and co-author with Prof. Dariusz Libionka of Bohaterowie, hochsztaplerzy, opisywacze. Wokół Żydowskiego Związku Wojskowego [Heroes, Hucksters and Storytellers: On the Jewish Military Union (ŻZW)] published by the Polish Center for Holocaust Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences. In May 2008, the late President Lech Kaczyński decorated him with the Złoty Krzyż Zasługi for his ongoing contributions to Polish–Jewish dialogue.

In memoriam Jana Jagielskiego (1937-2021)
Przyjaciela, Przewodnika, Pedagoga, Pioniera

ochrony pamięci o polskich Żydach

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