Thursday, November 09, 2023

Professor Jan Grabowski on historians' responsibilities

Went last night to the Yorkminster Park lecture series here in Toronto, to hear Jan Grabowski, a University of Ottawa historian, talk about state-sponsored Holocaust distortion in Poland. He spoke via an internet link from Warsaw.

I was a little disappointed not to have him in the room with us but pleased to learn he could live and work in Warsaw. I had known that he and other scholars of Polish history had recently faced trial for causing "offense to the national dignity" in scholarly works that took note of instances of Polish complicity with the Nazi Holocaust. Details in this 2021 Masha Gessen article in New Yorker -- possibly paywalled.) 

Given the Polish laws to control historical speech, I had imagined that Professor Grabowski would not be able to live in Poland at all (even though in the end the case against him was unsuccessful). So after he spoke, I asked how safe he was to research and write and speak in Poland.

He said little about how safe or unsafe he actually was.  He spoke instead about the duty of historians to do their work and affirm the truth, no matter what the state and its supporters might do or threaten to do. I found it quite impressive. You can hear my question and his reply here near the end of the video at about 1.01.30.

In response to the second part of my question -- whether the results of the recent national elections in Poland might change the situation he described -- he did not give a lot of cause for hope. Effectively, the belief that Poles generally tried to protect Jews, and that ethnic Poles suffered more than Jews did during the Second World War, is very widely held in Poland. And defending "the national dignity," he says, has been about the only policy on which the new victorious democrats have usually voted in lockstep with the (probably) outgoing nationalists. 


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