In January 2018, the Polish parliament passed a law that imposed prison terms of up to three years of anyone who claimed Poles had any responsibility for or complicity in crimes committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
The law was intended to silence historians, and indeed, it has created a chilling atmosphere within academia and beyond.
My research focuses on the relations between Polish Jews and the surrounding non-Jewish population.
In my case, the Polish government (acting directly or through proxies) has decided to use civil litigation. I have been sued for libel and Polish organizations have requested my removal from my position as professor of history at the University of Ottawa.
More recently, I have been questioned by Poland’s Internal Security Agency and the country’s justice minister has expressed outrage about my work.
These are just some of the legal and extra-legal challenges related to writing the history of the Holocaust in Poland today.
Read more: Poland is trying to rewrite history with this controversial new holocaust law
History and nationalism
The notion of wartime complicity by segments of Polish society in the Holocaust has long been considered a taboo subject.
In 2015, the far-right Law and Justice party came to power in Poland. Defending the good name of the nation has become one of the focal elements of its political platform and a sure way to consolidate its electoral base.
As a result, independent historians and educators, myself included, have become targets of vicious hate campaigns in state-owned and state-controlled media.
There is a saying among scholars of the Holocaust: “I did not choose to study the Holocaust, it chose me.”
Trained as a historian of the 17th and 18th centuries, I came to the study of the Holocaust rather unexpectedly, at the turn of the century, while on a trip to Warsaw visiting my ailing father, a Holocaust survivor.
With some time on my hands, I did what most historians do: I went to the local archives. That’s when I stumbled upon thousands of files of the German courts from occupied Warsaw.
What made me curious was the fact that hundreds of files concerned Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. I found out that the Germans prosecuted them for the breaches of various Nazi regulations: Refusing to wear prescribed armbands with the star of David, for leaving the ghetto without permission, for violating curfews, for buying and smuggling food from the “Aryan” side to the ghetto or for “slandering the good name of the German nation” — which usually meant telling jokes about the occupation.
The Holocaust’s ‘bystanders’
The eminent scholar on the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg, divided the human scenery of the Holocaust into three categories: perpetrators, victims and bystanders. Over the years, we have learned much about the Holocaust’s German perpetrators and Jewish victims, but much less about the ill-defined last category.
Who were the bystanders? Were they people who knew nothing about the ongoing Jewish catastrophe? Or people who were conscious of the event but who chose indifference?
Poland was an epicentre of the Holocaust. It was a place where the Nazis built death camps, and where most of the Jewish population was murdered. In my research, I found that it was simply impossible — I saw that very clearly — for people to remain distant or aloof from the genocide.
Not all the Jewish ghettos (and there were hundreds of ghettos in Poland) were isolated from the outside world. Most of the ghettos were either open (no walls), or with flimsy fences that did not prevent contact between the Jews and other Poles.
Then, in 1942, the liquidation actions began. The Germans, together with local helpers, rounded up the Jews and drove Jewish families towards the nearest railway station, where they were placed on death trains destined for the death camps of Treblinka, Bełżec, Sobibór and Auschwitz.
All of this happened in plain view of the surrounding non-Jewish population. Once the masses of Jews had been deported to their deaths, the emptied ghettos became the sites of massive robbery. Tens of thousands of houses, apartments and furniture were all for the taking.
That is when uncounted thousands of Jews who chose to hide in ingenious hideouts under and inside their houses were detected, pulled out and delivered into the hands of the Germans for immediate execution.
Some Jews fled the ghettos altogether, seeking shelter in the forests, most often, with locals who offered assistance either for a fee or for altruistic reasons.
During this last, final stage of the Holocaust — one which the Germans called Judenjagd or “hunt for the Jews” — the hidden Jews, from the German standpoint, became largely invisible. During this last phase (which continued until the end of the war), it was often one’s non-Jewish neighbours who decided who lived and who died.
It was my research into this stage of the Holocaust that led me to believe that being a bystander in Eastern Europe and, most of all, in Poland, was simply impossible. The whole idea of “bystanding” needed to be re-examined, questioned and perhaps even dismissed.
My research generated discussion among historians but, at the same time, in Poland, it also raised ire and anger among nationalists.
Night Without End
It was within such a political context that Night Without End, a book that I co-wrote and co-edited, was published in 2018. The two-volume, 1,600-page study is a specialized inquiry into the fates of Jews in selected areas of wartime Poland. We looked at the Jewish struggle for survival and German genocidal policies.
We also tried to understand the attitudes of the surrounding Polish society to the Jewish catastrophe. The results were grim: the results of many years of research pointed to the fact that at least two-thirds of Jews who went into hiding had either been murdered or betrayed to the Nazis by their Polish neighbours.
The reaction of the authorities was swift and furious. My co-author and I have been denounced in the press. An unprecedented campaign of hate, followed by civil lawsuits and criminal accusations, ensued.
Attacks on historians and on history itself go hand in hand with attacks on other vital parts of open and democratic society. The defence of history and the struggle to preserve our right to know what has happened are among the foundations of the democratic system.
“Who controls past, controls the future,” George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four. His words have never rang more true.