Scholars come to defense of Polish Holocaust researcher under fire from government

Over 600 sign letter decrying ‘political attack’ on Barbara Engelking after TV interview in which she said Poles could have done more to help Jews during Nazi occupation

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

WARSAW, Poland — Scholars and historical institutions from around the world are coming to the defense of a Polish researcher who is under fire from her country’s authorities after saying that Poles “failed” Jews during the Holocaust.

Barbara Engelking said in a television interview last week that Polish Jews felt disappointed in Poles during World War II, referring to what she described as “widespread blackmailing” of Jews by Poles during the Nazi German occupation.

“Jews were unbelievably disappointed with Poles during the war,” said 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 historian and the independent television broadcaster have been threatened since then with consequences by government institutions — turning the matter into a campaign issue before an election scheduled for this fall.

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.

Poland’s conservative government and pro-government media have described the remarks by Engelking, who is Polish, as an attack on the nation. They accuse her of distorting the historical record and not giving due credit to the Poles who risked — and sometimes lost — their lives to help Jews.

It is the latest eruption of an emotional debate that has been going on for years in Poland over Polish-Jewish relations, particularly the behavior of Poles toward their Jewish neighbors during the war — when Germans committed brutal crimes against Poles, whom they considered subhuman, and against the Jews, a population they sought to exterminate in its entirety.

Poles reacted in various ways to the German treatment of the Jews. Some helped the Jews, an act punishable with execution by the occupation forces. Others denounced or blackmailed them, motivated by antisemitic hatred or for personal gain. Many Poles lived in fear and sought to survive the war without getting involved either way.

Polish nationalists don’t deny that some Poles preyed on their Jewish compatriots, but say these cases shouldn’t lead to generalizations about society at large. They fear scholarship on Poles who betrayed Jews is distorting a history of heroism by Poles who resisted the Germans. And they argue it risks unfairly shifting the responsibility of the German crimes onto Poles.

Engelking spoke on the 80th anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. She was being interviewed by private broadcaster TVN about an exhibition she helped create on the fate of civilians in the ghetto, “Around Us A Sea of Fire,” which opened last week.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks at the forum Debate on the Global Economy during the World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) headquarters in Washington, April 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki reacted to the interview with a long social media post describing Engelking’s comments as “scandalous opinions” and part of an “anti-Polish narrative.”

Morawiecki referred to the more than 7,000 Poles recognized by Israel’s Holocaust institute Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. A Polish institute is trying to document cases that have so far not been recorded.

“We know that there could be tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of such cases,” Morawiecki said.

This week, Polish Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek threatened the funding of the institution where Engelking works, the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, which is part of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

“I will not finance an institute that maintains the kind of people who simply insult Poles,” Czarnek said.

He said that Poles “were the greatest allies of the Jews, and if it had not been for the Poles, many Jews would have died, many more than were killed in the Holocaust.”

According to Yad Vashem, around 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland on the eve of the September 1, 1939, German invasion, and only 380,000 survived the war.

About 3 million other Polish citizens who weren’t Jewish were also killed during the war.

This file photo taken on December 5, 2019, shows a man walking by the barbed wire fence enclosing the memorial site of Auschwitz. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP)

Poland’s state broadcasting authority has also opened an investigation into TVN, which is owned by the US company Warner Bros. Discovery. The broadcaster also faced government criticism recently for a report claiming that St. John Paul II had covered up cases of clerical abuse in his native Poland before becoming pope.

Government critics see an attempt to exploit the issue to win votes before the election — as the ruling party risks losing votes to a far-right party, Confederation, which has been surging in popularity.

Liberal media and commentators warn that media and academic freedoms are being threatened.

Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan said that he called Engelking to show support for “freedom of expression and of academic research, in the face of blatant and menacing attacks.”

By Friday, more than 600 scholars of the Holocaust and related subjects in Poland and abroad had signed a statement expressing opposition to the “political attack” on Engelking.

They said they regard “such censorious tendencies… as extremely dangerous and unacceptable,” adding: “We object to the idea of making a subject that calls for meticulous and nuanced research — as carried out by Professor Engelking — part of an election campaign.”

The POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, where the exhibition about civilians in the Warsaw ghetto is being shown, also defended Engelking in a statement Wednesday.

The museum argued that the feelings of disappointment expressed by Jews during the war are a “fact,” and that “they appear in almost every account of those who survived the Holocaust, as well as those who managed to leave a record of their fate, but did not survive.”

Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, and other Jewish leaders said in a statement that they considered attempts by the state to “censor the opinions of independent historians” as unacceptable.

Engelking more than a decade ago also angered some Poles by saying death for Poles then “was simply a biological, natural matter… and for Jews it was a tragedy, it was a dramatic experience, it was metaphysics.”

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