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How Media, Political and Religious Elites Shape Plebian Resistance

Part Two: Confronting Polish Responsibility for the Shoah in Paris

Editor’s note: in the first part of her essay on the challenges Polish scholars are confronting in their efforts to bring attention to Polish-responsibility for portions of the Shoah, Wagner discussed origins of – and the rise of resistance to – the New Polish School of the History of Shoah. In this second part she analyzes the political and religious actors who are initiating the extreme resistance to this form of historical analysis.

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In a prior essay I discussed public forms of resistance to new scholarship being done on Polish responsibility for the Shoah. But resistance to confronting the convoluted, tragic history is not limited to protestors at academic conferences. This new form of holocaust denial has “elite” forms – media, political, and religious – that accompany the more “plebian” as well.

For example, the Polish media rallied resistance to the L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) conference by calling it a “Sabbath of Witches.” It is important to note that it was not just any media outlet, but TVP – the official channel of the Polish government; funded by tax monies – that treated the EHESS conference as if it were an anti-Polish coven. The distinguished Polish researchers gathered there were accused, by an official channel, of being anti-Polish, unprofessional and biased. In effect they were labelled enemies of the Polish state.

This was not a one-time affair. On February 23rd TVP broadcast a notably propagandistic account of the conference using illegally-made and decontextualized recordings.[1] These clips prominently feature “witnesses” who complain of not having access to the microphone, and who describe themselves as “patriots,” “true Poles,” and “Polish Catholics.”

According to their own declarations, the protestors depicted on television were mainly part of the Polish Diaspora who were already living in France, many of whom were close to the Gazeta Polska.[2] But this assertion is only partially true, because local, Paris-dwelling protesters were reinforced at the conference by foreign activists. The Times Higher Education cited historian Olga Byrska to this effect, quoting her as saying that “some of the protesters were Poles living in Paris, while others had come from London and Poland.”

So, who is behind the gathering of such a group of emigrant Poles at the Paris NPSHS conference? An answer can be found by turning to some of the “patriots” interviewed both on TVP and other privately held, right wing, media groups. In both sets of interviews a central figure is mentioned: Father Stanisław Jeż. Fr. Jeż, who was rector of the Polish Catholic Mission of the Polish Diaspora in France for nearly thirty years, enjoys significant influence among the Polish community in Paris.

As with many other emigre communities, the Polish diaspora (which is particularly large in Chicago, New York, London, and Paris) is composed of various groups of people, each of which emigrated at different times and for different reasons. In the Polish case, the best organized of these groups are Roman Catholics. Emigres of this group benefit from the institutional support of the Church in which parishes maintain Polish cultural identity via Polish language Sunday schools and other religious-traditional activities. While the version of Catholicism practiced in Poland (as well as the diaspora) often results in the making of strong distinctions between “us” (Catholics) and “them” (non-Catholics), in recent years anti-Semitism has become one of the strongest markers of this cultural identity.[3] With regard to the recent protests against the NPSHS, the Parisian Polish community, unified around Polish Catholic Mission, seems to have been mobilized by Fr. Jeż to protest against what they perceived as an attack on good image of Poland.

A confluence between media and ecclesial roles in forming this resistance to the NPSHS can be seen in a radio show that took place following the conference. There Fr. Jeż himself charged Prof. Jean Gross with a number of false offenses. “Mister Gross,” he claimed, “said that Poles killed in the countryside more Jews than German did in the death camps.” But this accusation is simply wrong. Prof. Gross never formulated such a conclusion. The accusation that he did is but one example of the fabrication of facts that, later on, forms the ground for a contrary narration of history.

But Fr. Jeż is not the only figure working to construct such a narration. Political authorities have joined these media and ecclesial elites by planning a counter-conference that will include historians working at the Institute of National Remembrance. These historians, as well as others from Catholic University in Lublin, will play the role of public “experts” in an increasingly strong effort to request the elimination of public financial support for the scholarly work of NPSHS scholars. These “experts” play an important role in shaping the discourse around anti-Semitism in contemporary Poland. Because, while anti-Semitism is perceived as the form of racism specific to lower classes, here we can see how it is legitimated by various “elites.”

Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, who herself participated in the Paris conference, has recently written an account of the controversies that makes plain this division of class roles. She draws on her expertise in the study of pogroms, in which class-position often determines the role that one takes in the massacre – the brain vs. the arm, for example. It is the lower classes who perform the most visible actions, she notes. There is a parallel to be noted in the resistance to the Paris conference. It was not the ecclesial or academic or the political elite who were screaming insults during the paper presentations or openly sharing anti-Semitic opinions in the media.[4] Behind this public arm of the protest lies the brain, the “authorities” who perform the less-visible but no-less-essential intellectual work that maintains hatred for “the other.”

Despite efforts to call it to task, these forms of anti-Semitic hate speech have continued to spread through Polish media. A phenomenon that, perhaps, reached a culmination with a recent front page of the Polish nationalist newspaper Tylko Polska (Only Poland). The headline of the page, taken directly from Nazi propaganda, read: “How To Recognize a Jew.” The underlying article, which described itself as a response to the “attack on Poland at a conference in Paris,” contained a list of typical Jewish features. Perhaps even more threatening was the illustration of a typical Jew that accompanied the article, which was not an illustration at all but a picture of the Paris conference’s keynote speaker: the Polish American Jan Tomasz Gross.

Despite having noted the roles that various elites have played in forming the resistance that burst forth in angry denunciations at the Paris conference it is important to note how contextual both this event and the public outcry against it are. If the conference had been disrupted in a similar fashion but had taken place in, say, Warsaw, the reaction of indignation would be much more limited than it currently is. It is only because it took place in France that these common practices of scapegoating and the promotion of anti-Semitic nationalist propaganda is able to become public. An international perspective was – and is – necessary. It is to these two spheres, the diplomatic and the academic, that I will turn in the third and final part of this essay.

Izabela Wagner (PhD EHESS-Paris) is associate professor in the department of Philosophy and Sociology at the Institute of Sociology at the University of Warsaw. She is also an associated researcher at IDHES-Paris. She is the Author of Producing Excellence: The Making of Virtuosos Becoming Transnational Professional, and has written several articles about work conditions, the construction of careers, and the international mobility of artists and scholars. Since 2016 she has been investigating the phenomenon of refugees in Southern Europe.

 


[1] It is EHESS policy to forbid audio or video recording of events without permission.

[2] This group of “patriots” was informed about the conference by their U.S. colleagues via tracts informing them that Jan Gross was scheduled to give a talk in Paris. The letter of protest against the event was signed by members of Polonia in Chicago and other cities worldwide. This is how network of Polish emigrants prepared their actions. In public media appearances they stated that their desire was to prevent the diffusion of a “bad image of Poland.”

[3] For more on this see: Joanna Tokarska-Bakir’s “Pod klątwą. Portret społeczny Pogromu Kieleckiego” (forthcoming in English from Princeton UP as Cursed. A Social Portrait of the Kielce Pogrom) and Jacek Leociak, “Młyny boże.” Zapiski o Kościele i Zagładzie.

[4] This is a point also made by Prof. Jean Charles Szurek, director of research at CNRS.

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