Thursday, April 08, 2021

History of Poland, the Holocaust, and historians who write on that subject

No country suffered more than Poland in the Second World War or had more imposed on it, by Hitler's Germany and by Stalin's Soviet Union. And references to "Polish death camps," when what is meant are Nazi death camps on Polish soil, leave Poles justifiably offended.  

But the current government of Poland takes the position that Poles and Poland were only and exclusively victims in the war.  Any statement about collaboration by Polish citizens or officials in the murder of any of the three million Jews murdered on Polish soil during the war is considered by the Polish state as defamatory and subject to state prosecution. State historical agencies are now required to whitewash any hint of Polish complicity in actions against Jews during the war. Several historians have faced prosecution and other threats simply for recording incidents in which Polish citizens collaborated in murders and dispossessions.

Recently the New Yorker published a long feature on the travails of those who attempt to write accurate histories of these difficult matters. Much of it focusses on the historian Jan Grabowski who, with a colleague, has been found guilty of defaming a long-dead Polish official in a history book called Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland (so far published only in Polish). An appeal has been launched.

Night without End is one of several books Grabowski has written or co-written on the subject of the Holocaust in Poland, and during the pandemic he's been living in Poland. But as the article makes clear, he's actually a Canadianist, a University of Ottawa professor whose doctorate from the Universite de Montreal is about settler-indigenous relations in New France. Here's a line from Grabowski about his experience of Canadian historical practices, quoted by the terrific Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, who wrote the New Yorker article.
“I look at my colleagues,” he told me, “who are touching on the most, most horrible parts of Canadian history, which is the extermination of aboriginal people, the horrifying fate of aboriginal children under the Catholic Church’s guidance. These people, however, are not hunted down by the state. There is open debate,” he said. “You try to assess your heritage in the light of horrible things and wonderful things.”
I've noted Grabowski before, along with his Polish-American colleague, the noted historian of Poland Jan Gross, also targeted by the Polish authorities.  
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