Polish regulator probes TV channel after academic argued Poles ‘failed’ Jews in WWII

Prominent Holocaust scholar Barbara Engelking told TVN that Jewish Poles felt betrayed by their compatriots, and accused modern Warsaw of ‘falsifying history’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Professor Barbara Engelking, June 20, 2018. (Wikipedia/Adrian Grycuk; CC BY-SA 3.0 pl)
Professor Barbara Engelking, June 20, 2018. (Wikipedia/Adrian Grycuk; CC BY-SA 3.0 pl)

Poland’s broadcasting regulator said it opened a probe into the country’s biggest private television network, TVN, after a prominent Holocaust scholar said on the channel last week that Poles “failed” to become Jews’ allies during the Nazi atrocities in the country during World War II.

Warsaw has been widely accused of whitewashing the well-documented participation of some Poles in atrocities — though others defended and protected Jews — and of cracking down on academic voices deviating from the government’s stance.

“Jews were unbelievably disappointed with Poles during the war,” said Barbara Engelking, director of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, in her interview, according to a translation by the Notes from Poland website. “They knew what to expect from the Germans, [who were] the enemy… but the relationship with Poles was much more complex,” she added.

“Poles had the potential to become allies of the Jews and one would hope that they would behave differently, that they would be neutral, kind, that they would not take advantage of the situation to such an extent and that there would not be widespread blackmailing. It seems to me that this disappointment plays a role, that Poles simply failed,” she continued.

Engelking also accused Poles today of often “falsifying history” by exaggerating the level of aid given by Poles to Jews during the Holocaust.

The interview drew outraged remarks, including from Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who claimed it included “scandalous words that have nothing to do with reliable historical knowledge,” and which are part of an “anti-Polish narrative in some media.”

In a statement Friday, the head of the National Broadcasting Council regulator, Maciej Świrski, announced the proceedings against TVN.

“In Poland, everyone can, using freedom of speech, say any nonsense and lies,” he said. “[But] the job of journalists is to react to lies because the press law requires them to provide reliable information. If the guest on a program is lying, the journalist must tell viewers that it is a lie.

Barbara Engelking, a prominent Polish historian.(Yad Vashem via AP)

“And finally, if Poles did not help Jews, the Germans would not have introduced the death penalty for helping [Jews],” added Świrski, even though Engelking did not deny that there were Poles who helped Jews during the Holocaust.

A central tenet of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party is defending the image of ethnic Poles and imposing nationalist narratives on the past, especially the period of World War II. While history shows that many Poles participated in the persecution of Jews, Poland’s nationalist right insists on portraying Poles only as victims or heroes.

In 2018, the Polish government passed what is known as the Polish Holocaust Law, which makes it illegal to slander the Polish nation or blame the country for Nazi crimes. In practice, the law has served to censor scholars and chill debate.

Research published earlier this year revealed that a dedicated group of Polish Wikipedia editors has for 15 years systematically edited Wikipedia pages providing information on the Holocaust to lay the blame for the atrocities on Jews and absolve Poles of almost any responsibility for its record of antisemitism.

“On the eve of the German occupation of Poland in 1939, 3.3 million Jews lived there,” according to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance center. “At the end of the war, approximately 380,000 Polish Jews remained alive, the rest having been murdered, mostly in the ghettos and the six death camps: Chelmo, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau.”

Asaf Elia-Shalev/JTA contributed to this report.

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