By Masha Gessen March 26, 2021
Scholars face defamation suits, and potential criminal charges, in the Polish government’s effort to exonerate the nation of any role in the murders of three million Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Two Polish historians of the Holocaust, Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking, are fighting a court ruling that pronounced them guilty of defaming a long-deceased Polish village official. Grabowski and Engelking are the editors of “Dalej Jest Noc. Losy Żydów w Wybranych Powiatach Okupowanej Polski” (“Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland”). It was published in 2018, to significant academic acclaim and surprisingly brisk sales for a two-volume, seventeen-hundred-page scholarly title. One chapter, written by Engelking, mentioned Edward Malinowski, the prewar mayor of a small village called Malinowo. According to testimony uncovered by Engelking, Malinowski led the Nazis to Jews who were hiding in the forest outside the village; twenty-two people were killed. Last month, a Warsaw district court found that this passage of “Night Without End” defamed Malinowski, and ordered Grabowski and Engelking to apologize in print. Grabowski and Engelking have appealed the ruling.
The two historians’ legal troubles stem from the Polish government’s ongoing effort to exonerate Poland of any role in the deaths of three million Jews in Poland during the Nazi occupation. When facts get in the way of this revisionist effort, historians pay the price. In 2016, Polish authorities began investigating the Polish-American historian Jan Tomasz Gross, the author of the groundbreaking book “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland.” He was accused of insulting the Polish people for his observation that Poles killed more Jews than Germans during the Second World War. The case dragged on for three years, with Gross subjected to hours of police interrogations; the government also threatened to strip Gross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, a state honor he had received in 1996. (The state dropped the investigation after Gross retired from his job at Princeton.) Over 2019 and 2020, Dariusz Stola, the head of Warsaw’s acclaimed museum of Polish Jewry, found himself slowly squeezed out of his job, again by the Polish government.
Malinowski’s story offers an ideal case study in the Polish memory wars. For about seventy years, he was seen, according to official records, as a savior of Jews. He had been instrumental in the deportation of a young woman from his village to Germany. Away from the people who knew she was Jewish, the woman became just another Pole; this meant that she was a forced laborer, but it also meant that she lived. In postwar Poland, the woman testified that Malinowski saved her life. Much later, the woman immigrated to Sweden, where many Polish Jews landed following the Polish government’s anti-Semitic purges of 1968; there, she recorded new, fuller testimony, about Malinowski’s role in the death of the twenty-two Jews. The human mind, whether individual or collective, struggles with such contradictory stories as Malinowski’s. This struggle is at the center of Poland’s current political predicament.
Like other contemporary autocratic movements, Poland’s Law and Justice Party, which has been in power since 2015, promises to restore society to a lost self-understanding—to bring back an old and comforting story of Poland as “noble victim,” as Grabowski put it when I interviewed him in February. (We spoke at an event organized by Bard College, where I teach, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.) In this story, Poland has always suffered at the hands of its bigger, stronger neighbors—Russia and Germany. All of its troubles and conflicts are external. During the Second World War, ethnic Poles resisted the German occupation in a variety of ways, such as by hiding their Jewish neighbors from the Germans. This is history as Polish schools teach it, and as state-dominated media reiterates it. At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, a grove honors “the righteous”: gentiles who rescued Jews. Poles of all ages know that, of the tens of thousands of trees planted there, about a quarter—the largest number for any single nationality—honor Polish people.
The other part of that story is that half of the European Jews murdered in the Holocaust were killed in what had been Poland before the war; a Jew in Poland had a 1.5-per-cent chance of survival. Not all the killing was carried out, or even compelled, by the German occupiers. Gross’s book “Neighbors” documents the murder of sixteen hundred Jews by their Polish neighbors: the killing of one half of a village by the other. Grabowski’s research has burrowed deeper into the role of Polish collaborators. In his 2011 book, “Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland,” he looked at the fate of Jews who had escaped ghettos or death camps, becoming, as he put it in conversation with me, “invisible” to the Germans. Yet most of these Jews died because Polish gentiles helped the Germans to find them. Grabowski documented the terror inflicted on Poles to compel them to give their Jewish neighbors up, but his research also made it clear that Polish gentiles who risked their lives to rescue Jews were an exception. In 2017, Grabowski published a small book, titled “The Polish Police: Collaboration in the Holocaust,” in which he drew a key connection between the structures of the pre-occupation Polish state—in this case, its police—and the Holocaust. The figure of Malinowski brought together both of these strands: he was a Pole who led Germans to Jews who were in hiding, and, as the mayor of the village, he represented a connection between the Polish state and Nazi atrocities.
The government’s position is that any statement that connects the Polish state to Nazi murder is unpatriotic and defamatory. Even before the current memory wars commenced, the previous, pro-European Polish government objected to the use of the word “Polish” in connection with concentration and extermination camps; in 2012, the White House apologized after President Barack Obama referred to a “Polish death camp.” In 2018, the government passed a law making it a criminal offense to ascribe blame for Nazi atrocities to Poles or Poland. (Polish intellectuals often refer to this as the Gross Law, linking it to Gross’s book “Neighbors” and his other research.) The government also supports an extensive revisionist effort, which includes the lavishly funded Institute of National Remembrance, tasked with forging a history of Poland as a perennially victimized nation, and the Good Name Redoubt/Polish League Against Defamation, a non-governmental foundation closely allied with the Law and Justice Party. “The machinery of the Polish state is engaged in the suppression of independent research,” Grabowski told me. State-employed researchers have been “looking at each and every footnote to see if we made a mistake” in “Night Without End,” he said. The book has more than thirty-five hundred footnotes.
The Good Name Redoubt conscripted Malinowski’s ailing niece, Filomena Leszczyńska, who is eighty-one, to bring the lawsuit. Leszczyńska demanded a published apology and a hundred thousand zlotys (about twenty-seven thousand dollars) in compensation for the alleged libel of her uncle. The Warsaw court sided with Leszczyńska, but it didn’t award her any damages. (This defamation-by-proxy approach has odd parallels in Russia. At the same time as Grabowski and Engelking faced trial in Warsaw, the opposition politician Alexey Navalny was in a Moscow court, charged with insulting a veteran of the Second World War; the veteran is alive, but the lawsuit was brought by his nephew. In the Siberian city of Tomsk, a man who has been researching the circumstances of his great-grandfather’s execution during Stalin’s Great Terror has been accused of defamation, by the son of a deceased executioner.) If a person whose name has supposedly been tarnished is long dead, the notion of defamation may seem absurd as a legal matter. But it represents the core of the memory wars: the current generation feels implicated in the crimes of its forebears, precisely because the ruling parties’ politics in both countries are the politics of the past.
The Polish philosopher Andrzej Leder, who is also a psychotherapist, has written about Polish society’s failure to grapple with the enormous changes it underwent in the twentieth century. “Polish society after World War Two and Stalinism was a post-revolutionary society,” Leder told me over Zoom from Warsaw. “It had been very structured, and that was completely annihilated.” Before the war, Jews had formed majorities or large minorities in many small and medium-sized cities; after the war’s end, ethnic Poles moved into their houses and took over their small businesses. Many members of the prewar social and political élites either had been killed or remained in exile, and new people took their places in the state bureaucracy. The postwar division of Europe redrew borders, leaving many people who had lived in what was now Soviet territory displaced inside a new, smaller Poland. Under Soviet occupation, which lasted from 1945 until 1989, property owners were stripped of their assets. Rural residents moved to cities in large numbers. In every way—physical, social, political—Poles were now in places that had been occupied by someone else.
This nagging awareness of having taken someone else’s place animates a fear that is peculiarly common in Poland seventy-five years after the end of the war: the fear of Jews, or their descendants, returning to reclaim their property. Unlike many other post-Communist countries, Poland has not adopted a comprehensive restitution policy. The spectre of the Jews coming back for their real estate, Leder told me, plays into the widespread stereotype of the “ungrateful Jew.” That, in turn, feeds into the more generalized anti-Semitism that goes hand in hand with anti-L.G.B.T. and, more broadly, anti-European sentiment that fortifies the nation’s sense of self and unity against the other.
Grabowski and Engelking’s work, and that of other Holocaust historians, draws such attention and such hostility because it threatens the foundational narrative of Polish society, its sense of historical and material legitimacy. In this way, the Polish memory wars are not dissimilar from the American ones. Donald Trump’s ridiculous 1776 Commission, created to fight the narrative threat of the 1619 Project, tapped into the deep fear that reckoning with American history involves the recognition that American wealth and social structures are built on enslavement and the genocide of indigenous people. Poles have similar incentives to hold on to the story of noble victimhood rather than examine their history. “To lose the idea of Poles as the best people in the world is really heartbreaking,” Leder said.
Grabowski has spent most of his professional life in Canada, where he is a professor at the University of Ottawa (though, during the pandemic, he has been in Warsaw, with his ninety-year-old mother). He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Montreal, where he wrote his dissertation on settler-indigenous relations in Montreal in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. “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.”
Recently, Grabowski found a letter that his father, a Holocaust survivor, had written in 1973, in an attempt to argue against then-prevailing myths about Polish aid to Jews during the Second World War. “My father’s letter from 1973 could have been published with my name signed under it in 2021,” Grabowski said. “Nothing has changed.”
Leder is more hopeful. He thinks that popular interest in Grabowski and Engelking’s work suggests a hunger for truth, and perhaps even a more complicated understanding of Polish history. It may be exactly what makes the ruling party nervous enough to bring such pressure to bear on historians.
This article has been updated to clarify the investigation of Jan Tomasz Gross. The subheading has been updated to include reference to the Nazi occupation of Poland, and to more accurately describe the potential legal threats to scholars.
Masha Gessen, a staff writer at The New Yorker*, is the author of eleven books, including “Surviving Autocracy” and “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017.