New book examines Poles who killed Jews during WWII

A history professor records the massacres of Jews by their neighbors in his native Poland, until now a little-told chapter of Holocaust history

Historian Jan Grabowski. (photo credit: courtesy)
Historian Jan Grabowski. (photo credit: courtesy)

WARSAW — He has suffered death threats, is boycotted in the Canadian Polish community where he lives today, and is not always welcome even in his homeland, but eminent Polish historian Jan Grabowski will not give up his struggle to expose the truth.

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Grabowski, 50, is a graduate of Warsaw University and is currently a history professor at University of Ottawa. For the past several years he has published a number of books with a common theme — Polish participation in the killings of their Jewish neighbors.

As expected, the books and their content were not well-received in Grabowski’s homeland, where a number of local residents treat him as a traitor who besmirches the image of Poland abroad.

Fanning the flames, his new book, “Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland,” was published this October.

The English edition, based on the Polish original, includes additional studies conducted by the historian revealing massacres in which Poles volunteered to take part in Hitler’s efforts to exterminate the Jews.

“The purpose of my research was to discover the condition of the Jews who managed to avoid being sent to death camps and chose to live in hiding. My research brought me to the level of individual cases of people who chose to hide. I tried to understand how only very few of those Jews who decided to hide were able to stay alive until 1945,” says Grabowski.

Jan Grabowski's new book 'Hunt for the Jews' was published in English in October. (photo credit: courtesy)
Jan Grabowski’s new book ‘Hunt for the Jews’ was published in English in October. (photo credit: courtesy)

The study took over three years and included visits to several countries where Grabowski interviewed Holocaust survivors and local residents, primarily in Poland, Israel and Germany.

Among other things, he studied previously unpublished results of dozens of trials of Polish residents who were tried by the Communist regime for taking part in the killing of their Jewish neighbors.

This is not the first book in which Grabowski touches upon this sensitive subject. While he knows the revelations arouse strong emotions, in Jews and Catholic Poles alike, he tries to counterbalance their accusations by noting that among the Poles there is also the highest number of Righteous among the Nations who saved many Jews.

“It is more complicated than just blaming the Poles for betraying their Jewish neighbors. On the one hand there were extraordinarily brave Poles who risked their lives to save Jews, and on the other hand there was no great love between Poles and Jews before World War II.

“During the war these relationships became even more hostile. A large segment of the Polish population was displeased with their neighbors’ help to the Jews during the war, and for many it seemed even as an unpatriotic step. Therefore, some segments of the Polish population took an active part in the hunt for the Jews, and that is what the new book deals with.”

Grabowski has found many Poles are still not ready to face the past and the fact that many of their ancestors took an active part in the extermination of the Jews.

Only last November the movie “Pokłosie” (“Aftermath”) hit the screens in Poland. Opening this week in the US, it is based on Princeton professor Jan Gross’s explosive 2001 work “Neighbors,” which examined the massacre of Jews from Jedwabne village in Nazi-occupied Poland and states it was the Poles, not the Nazis, who were to blame.

“Aftermath” is the first Polish film to deal with the responsibility of local residents for the massacres of Jews, and it has faced criticism by large groups in Poland who claim the movie s blackening their names on a global scale.

Like Grabowski, the film’s star Maciej Stuhr received death threats, and in several online forums there were comments such as “You are not a Pole anymore, you have become a Jew.”

Grabowski knows these accusations well.

Whom did you meet during your research and how did you collect evidence of unknown massacres?

After I published my previous book in Polish, I was suddenly contacted by Holocaust survivors with interesting stories that I never knew before. I met with a lot of them in Israel, Canada, the US and elsewhere. They told me amazing stories that appeared later in the book. The most interesting change in the new book compare to the previous one is the fact that the new book also includes two diaries written by Jews while they were hiding in Poland, as well as new oral testimonies by Polish peasants and Jewish Holocaust survivors who hid and managed to stay alive.

Grabowski speaking recently at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. (photo credit: courtesy)
Grabowski speaking recently at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. (photo credit: courtesy)

(Although his previous books were not translated into Hebrew, Grabowski says Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has shown interest in translating the new book.)

Do you feel that Poles are beginning to courageously deal with their past crimes and are admitting to some of them, or do you believe that most of the Poles are still not ready to face the past?

I think that when you look at the international community, then the Polish society seems to have done the most in terms of attempting to reconcile with the Polish-Jewish past. I was very pleased to see that after the publication of my book or Jan Tomasz Gross’s book you could see that Polish intellectuals are ready to re-examine the past.

For many parts of the Polish society it is very difficult, since for decades they were victims themselves, first of the Nazis and then of the Communists. If you look at the countries around Poland, such as Ukraine or the Baltic states, you will not find the same level of public debate about their relationship with their own Jewish minority.

Are you not worried that revealing the responsibility of Polish peasants for the murder of many Jews will increase the perception of Poland as an anti-Semitic country?

That is the reason why in the last two chapters of my book I bring the stories of Poles, who despite the negative image of Jews and the enormous pressure from their relatives took a huge risk in hiding them. It is undeniable that certain things have happened but you must understand the atmosphere in which it happened.

I emphasize the heroism of those who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis, and did so despite the pressure exerted on them from their relatives and neighbors.

We should all remember that the Germans were responsible for this tragedy; it is they who murdered most of the three million Jews who lived in Poland before World War II. My book explains how the Germans were able to mobilize segments of the Polish society to take part in their plan to hunt down the Jews and help them carry out their Final Solution.

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