Jonathan Brent speaks with Polish scholar Elżbieta Janicka about the campaign to absolve occupied Poland for its role in the Holocaust and blame Jews for their own slaughter
“Can somebody please explain this to me? Polish protesters in Federal Plaza [New York City],” Sandi Bachom, a documentary filmmaker asked on Instagram, on March 31, 2019. The same may well have been asked in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Hartford, and “in several places around the world,” where similar protests were held by a multitude of loosely affiliated Polish American organizations, including the Committee to Protect the Katyn Monument and Other Historical Objects (New Jersey); the Polish American Strategic Initiative Związek Żołnierzy Narodowych Sił Zbrojnych (Chicago); the Polish Heritage Council of North America Inc. (New York); and the Polish American Congress of Southern California (California). The question posed by Bachom in New York, which could have been about any of the demonstrations that took place that day, was more pointed than simple curiosity: These were not routine political gatherings but demonstrations aimed at rewriting the history of the Holocaust that featured open displays of anti-Semitism in major American cities.
Ostensibly, the protests were directed against Senate Bill 447, the so-called Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (Just) Act, signed into law by President Trump in May 2018, which provides congressional oversight over restitution of Jewish property stolen in the Holocaust. In New York, however, it was evident that the protest was aimed as much against Jews and Jewish suffering in the Holocaust as against the new law itself. Anti-Semitic posters, anti-Semitic gestures and anti-Semitic slogans went hand in hand with a defense of the dignity and honor of Poland. As the artist Molly Crabapple, who witnessed the protest in Foley Square and chronicled it on her Twitter account, told Tablet, it seemed “ridiculous to use anti-Semitic slogans to counter the accusation of anti-Semitism.”
For many Poles, however, Polish national identity is intimately tied to the narrative of Polish victimhood in World War II and its aftermath. Efforts to qualify or question this narrative are often met with furious rejection and counteraccusations. The organizations responsible for the protests on March 31 who appeared to be animated by these narratives of Polish identity, also suggest a larger network behind them that both affirms and informs the coordinated efforts to expunge the historical record of Polish participation in the Holocaust. The protesters seek thereby to ensure that Poland remains an unblemished victim of both Nazi and Soviet aggression, the “Christ of Nations.”
Demonstrating the Jews’ culpability in their own slaughter and providing the pseudohistorical basis for Polish anti-Semitism are two key elements of the strategy for preserving this narrative. Texts written by Jews are taken out of context and then cited as evidence to indict Jewish leadership in the Holocaust, the behavior of the so-called Jewish police, and the tragic choiceless choices often made by parents facing extermination. A pamphlet listing such works was given out at the March 31 demonstration, apparently meant to show that even Jewish writers have concluded the Jews are at fault for their own fate. The list includes Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is described as telling the truth about “the disgrace of Jewish elites,” but paradoxically it also cites Hermann (sic) Kruk’s The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania, which tells the tragic and heroic story of the Vilna Ghetto. Page 1 of the pamphlet contains the header: “Jewish Testimony saying the truth about themselves and Poles”; and at the bottom of Page 4 are the words: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. John 8:31-32.”
More difficult to expose is the by now widespread accusation of Żydokomuna—Jew-Communism, a pernicious conspiracy theory also known by the name Judeo-Bolshevism—that has in effect taken over where the blood libel left off. Anti-Bolshevik Whites in the Ukraine exploited this trope in an attempt to rally the Ukrainian population to their side after the 1917 Russian Revolution, and it was picked up by other groups, including the Nazis: Who kills a Bolshevik kills a Jew and who kills a Jew kills a Bolshevik. Perhaps this explains why the Committee to Protect the Katyn Monument and Other Historical Objects in New Jersey helped organize the March 31 proceedings. The Katyn Forest Massacre of some 20,000 Polish officers was carried out by the Soviets in 1940 on orders drawn up by Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet state security apparatus, and signed by Stalin, but it has been blamed on Jews and has helped fuel the anti-Semitic narrative in occupied Poland on the eve of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and continues to do so to the present day.
All this suggests that muddled up with anti-Semitism, fully evident in the tangled world of internet websites and Twitter accounts, is a desire for social and historical legitimacy. Stark hatred and prejudice is dangerous but when disguised as positions taken after a fair and critical examination of the facts it is far more dangerous. Such is Żydokomuna today and the monstrous use of Jewish texts to prove Jewish responsibility for the Holocaust.
The same assault on critical thinking and historical research was on full display at the conference of Polish scholars of the Holocaust that took place in Paris this past February. As the Polish literary historian and conference participant, Elżbieta Janicka, explains below, French scholars organized this conference with the aim of recognizing a new phenomenon, “The New Polish School of Holocaust Scholarship.” It was directly attacked by Polish anti-Semites operating in France with much the same determination and fervor as was Galileo’s assertion that the earth revolved around the sun.
As with the rally in Foley Square, it received little coverage in the world press though it produced much local outrage and protests from Polish, French, and American institutions. Such attacks on scholarship have for the most part remained of isolated concern—a purely academic matter. They are not. The nexus of racist demagoguery and pseudoscience has a long and terrible history and must be understood as an attack on fundamental principles of a free society and democracy. And what seems marginal, in the age of the internet can take center stage in a minute; what seems 8,000 miles away can be at our front door tomorrow.
The following is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation between Jonathan Brent, executive director of New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and Elżbieta Janicka, a literary historian working at the Institute of Slavic Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences (ISS PAS) about the ongoing attacks on Holocaust research and historical memory.
Brent: Before we talk about the Paris events, are you shocked by Polish anti-Semitic demonstrations in the U.S.?
Elżbieta Janicka: No, not at all. Being shocked is the consequence of having not fought anti-Semitism in Poland and is the price for accepting, instead, the story of Polin, the hospitable land where Jews and Jewish culture flourished until Hitler put an end to it–not to mention Stalin, as the story goes. This narrative has spared the dominant religion and culture, and the majority group together with its positions and behaviors. Violence and exclusion characterizing all relations of domination and submission disappeared from sight. Unfair trade, blackmailing, the business of so-called help and countless other forms of spoliation–the range of robbery during the Holocaust was cataclysmic and deprived Jews of the possibility of fighting for survival. In terms of society and economics the Holocaust was a revolution. Only in moral terms there was no revolution, just a continuum. But in the Polin narrative the Holocaust happens in a social void. There is nothing to take responsibility for. Quite the opposite. Jews have to take responsibility for what happened to them. They also have to show gratitude for the alleged 1,000 years of common history and the legendary help they received during the Holocaust. What do they display instead? This is what produces Polish anger. If one wants to change this mental and emotional pathology one is labeled with Żydokomuna (Jew-Communism). If one wants to talk about reality and openly address anti-Semitism in Poland one is labeled with anti-Polonism. This very pattern also could be seen in Paris.
Brent: The February 2019 conference in Paris on the subject of the role of Poles in the Holocaust of Polish Jews occasioned an exchange of letters between the ministers of science, public questions about the impending visit of the French president to Poland, and various judicial proceedings, all of which is quite unusual as a result of a scientific event. Who organized the conference?
EJ: The conference of “The New Polish School of Holocaust Research” took place at the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris on Feb. 21-22, 2019. It was organized by French scientific institutions: EHESS, National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Strasbourg University in cooperation with the Foundation for Holocaust Remembrance (Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah).
Brent: What were the aims of the conference?
E.J.: The aim was to acknowledge and discuss the new scholarship which appeared in Poland in the wake of Jan Gross’ book Neighbors (Polish edition in 2000) and the countrywide debate about the place and role of Poles in the Holocaust of Polish Jews set up by the German Nazi occupiers.
Brent: Perhaps you could say a bit about the aftermath of this debate.
E.J.: Since the so-called Jedwabne debate, a Center for Holocaust Research was created within the Polish Academy of Sciences and a great deal of work has been done examining Polish anti-Semitism and the Polish realities of the Holocaust.
The Paris conference was an opportunity to sum up the results of nearly 20 years of research beginning with careful reconstitution of the events of the Holocaust and continuing to a review of the methodological and terminological issues challenging our understanding of what happened and its consequences for present Polish society and culture. Among the questions addressed by participants were also the failure of education and the role of biased representations of the past in identity and historical politics of the Polish state after the accession of the country to the European Union in 2004. One paper investigated the impact of the Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, IPN) that serves the authorities as a tool of alternative historiography and propaganda.
Brent: Who were the participants?
E.J.: The organizers invited leading scholars, mainly from Poland but also from France. Jan Gross was there as well. He was asked to deliver a lecture at Collège de France, a higher education and research establishment associated with the greatest names in humanities and social sciences. Collège de France is a name known to every Polish child since it was there that Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), considered a national poet-prophet, gave a series of lectures that Polish children are supposed to know about. The message was clear. It was a demonstration of solidarity with Jan Gross which is much less absurd than it might appear at first sight. Three years ago Gross was disinvited by one of the departments of the Warsaw University and last year the Museum of History of Polish Jews in Warsaw refused to host the launch of his newest book. Inviting Gross to Collège de France was also an act of solidarity with Holocaust scholars working in Poland, an act of recognition of their work and a declaration of support to the very existence of the field which finds itself under a constantly growing pressure from Polish authorities. Jan Gross, while evoking his own trajectory as a historian, spoke also about another kind of pressure, the one of the dominant culture and community bonds.
Brent: Who were the protesters and what do you think they wished to accomplish?
E.J.: It was a group of Poles, not only but essentially women. They were assembled around a priest from the Polish Catholic Mission in Paris. We could hear from them old anti-Semitic remarks about Talmud or derogatory exclamations such as “Liars,” “Learn Polish before giving lessons to Poles” (to the scholars who did speak Polish). We also were harassed, surrounded and questioned outside the building. Some of us were treated to the word “kikes.” A pogrom atmosphere, as one of our colleagues observed. I also thought of the serial anti-Semitic violence that swept across Polish universities in the interwar period. At the beginning of the second day, EHESS released a firm condemnation of those practices and their racist and anti-Semitic character. To no effect. It was almost impossible to hold the sessions.
Brent: Were they organized from outside?
E.J.: From outside? No. They were spontaneously organized, I would say. I think they really believed that they saw “perfidious Yiddish-speaking Jews gathered around their prophet Gross”. Those words have been recorded and are available online. It is easy to downplay these aggressors using criteria of gender, age, class, level of education. But they didn’t constitute a detached, marginal phenomenon. The priest, awarded with a high state decoration by the Polish president, didn’t intervene, but by virtue of his very presence he clearly legitimized the actions of his parishioners. Among handouts they distributed there was straightforward, vulgar anti-Semitic propaganda but also a pseudoscientific booklet signed by the Institute of National Remembrance and marked with the white eagle, the symbol of Polish statehood. The representative of the IPN who strived and finally managed to seize the floor in no way distanced himself from the actions of the hate squad. The female representative of another Polish state institution devoted to equating Nazism with Communism remained silent. Both were sent to Paris by their institutions without being invited by the organizers as if they couldn’t read our works in Polish and listen to us on the ground. Here there was a continuum between the “average” Pole and the authorities. The organizers were bombed with notes and phone calls of “average” Poles demanding that they cancel the event. The IPN and the Polish Embassy in Paris shared hateful opinions about the conference through social media. Polish public television taken over by the ruling party reported the event in the same hateful manner. The day after on the news they singled out and stigmatized scholars from the Center for Holocaust Research together with Jan Gross, who was identified as a “publicist,” for the sake of caricature. In another popular broadcast on public television Holocaust scholars were presented as people with a Soviet mentality.
The involvement of Polish authorities in the matter was quite evident.
Brent: Say a bit about the reaction to these protests.
E.J.: The French minister of science sent an official protest note to the Polish minister of science. In return she was advised to deal with French anti-Semitism. As a result the Polish minister was asked by his French counterpart to not appear at the inauguration of Polish-French Scientific Year. But the case is far from being closed. The organizers have prepared a lawsuit. The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw condemned the attacks at the conference. So did the Polish Academy of Sciences as a whole and its institutes employing scholars targeted in Paris (with the exception of my Institute of Slavic Studies). Other letters of support have followed–namely on the part of the American Jewish Committee Europe, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem.
Brent: Does this disruption fit into a larger pattern? What do you think it tells us about the future of scholarship on the Holocaust in Poland?
E.J.: Paris is part and parcel of a bigger picture. Holocaust and anti-Semitism studies in Poland are under a kind of a siege. The world could see what this means in the example of the recent Polish Holocaust law. The law was revoked under the pressure of the international community, first of all by the U.S. However, the case of Jan Gross has been in process since 2015 according to the Polish penal code. Every time the investigation is declared closed the minister of justice requires its reopening. In the past the Polish Consulate in New York or the Polish Embassy in Washington practiced a kind of “scientific diplomacy” intended to interfere with scientific inquiry. In other words, the current Polish authorities are not the first to mistake research for PR. Together with bottom up anti-Semitic aggression such as occurred in Paris the effect might be that of intimidation resulting in self-censorship more powerful than an outright top-down institutionalized censorship. This situation has also influenced the course of Polish Jewish Studies. If one combines it with the financial politics of the state (consisting of measures aimed at humanities and including the fact that the budget of the IPN is five times bigger than that of the PAS) one doesn’t need to be a clairvoyant to imagine the future of Holocaust and anti-Semitism scholarship in Poland.
Brent: Do you see consequences for Polish society as a whole as a result of rejecting the truth of the Holocaust in occupied Poland?
E.J.: It is not about a partial adjustment of the Polish narrative of six years of WWII. If we take the research results seriously, if we understand the place and role of the non-Jewish majority in the structure of the crime, if we become aware that the non-Jewish majority had a considerable influence on the effectiveness of the extermination by sealing countless imperfections of the German Nazi system, if we realize that anti-Semitic violence was not anomic violence but had a strong socio-cultural legitimacy, Polish society and culture as a whole need a fundamental reassessment that will lead to a rejection of the dominant ethnoreligious model of collective identity together with its founding myths and axiological assumptions. This necessity to reassess and reject is what triggers such aggression. During my presentation a lady performed the gesture of cutting my throat. The very same gesture Claude Lanzmann recorded in his documentary Shoah. The point on which I agree with my “opponent” is that the stakes and consequences of Holocaust research are definitely far more than purely scientific.