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The Subtext of a Recent International Scandal

Part One: Confronting Polish Responsibility for the Shoah in Paris

In Paris, on February 22nd of this year, a conference entitled “The New Polish School of the History of the Shoah” (NPSHS) began. The conference was meant to be a celebration, particularly a celebration of all the research done over the past 15 years on the role that non-Jewish Poles played in the Shoah.[1]

On the morning of the 22nd the lecture hall was full of people. Many of them agitated; angry and disruptive. Jacek Leociak, one of the presenters, had trouble even being heard over the voices of his fellow Poles. They were screaming at him: Hańba! Kłamstwo! (Disgrace! Lies!). One audience member stood during his speech and loudly asked “how much did they pay you [for these lies]?” The hoots, howls and exclamations that disrupted not only Prof. Leociak’s talk but many others came from a group of some 30 persons who were mortally offended at the idea addressed by the conference: that Poles might be something other than victims of Nazi aggression; that they had, in fact, enacted a version of the Shoah themselves.

Having been asked to remain silent, at one point the protestors resorted to bodily gestures. During a presentation by Jan Grabowski and Alina Skibińska on the ethnic/racist massacres of Jewish Poles by non-Jewish-Poles, one after another rose from their chairs to make a forceful thumbs down gesture or, more threateningly, drag their thumbs across their throats. More than one conference participant confessed to being shocked by the situation.

But these threats were limited neither to the days of the conference nor by the conference walls. Rather, these well-organized provocations began several days before the event, with both organizers and speakers receiving repeated e-mails and phone calls demanding the conference’s cancelation. Moreover, protesters distributed brochures denouncing some of the researchers as “anti-Polish” and liars. Some were even followed outside the academic building, hounded on the streets, in the subways; outside the hotels where they were staying. Insults were hurled at them in these public spaces: “Dirty Jew,” they were called, or “Jewish ulcer.” Some of these insults, such as “Parch” (Dirty, or “shitty” Jew), were directly borrowed from the repertoire of the Interwar anti-Semitic “classics.” [2]

Christophe Prochasson, the president of the L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales which helped to host the conference, later said that he had never seen a scholarly conference attacked with such violence. Both the French speakers and the assembled audience were shocked.

The Polish scholars in attendance, though, were not even surprised. They are, we might say, sadly used to such treatment.

Polish scholars in fact experience two kinds of risks: being injured by a group present at their public talks, and being judged for “damaging the good name of Poland.” The first risk is mainly undertaken by scholars of such topics as gender studies or Marxism. The highest risk, however, is undertaken by scholars who focus on the Holocaust. Their conferences, whether in Poland or now in Paris, are often attended by supporters of what is called the “post-history” narration. These protestors take notes and made records of what is said, often with the aim of initiating criminal proceedings against researchers for injuring “the good name of Poland” under the auspices of the IPN law. But how did we get here? Where did this research come from and why is it being opposed so strenuously?

A Brief History of The New Polish School of the History of Shoah

While the work was begun by Poles, the title of “The New Polish School of the History of the Shoah” was created by French scholars who were convinced of its particularity and pertinence. These scholars saw that this new approach contributed to a better understanding of the role that Polish society played in Shoah.

This does not mean, however, that scholars of this “research milieu” have any doubts either about German responsibility for the Holocaust or the central role played by the Nazi party in the genocide. But research on these topics has been conducted institutionally since 1945. It is a large and established set of scholarship. What the NPSHS researchers focus on is not what has been established but what has been neglected: the tense, often violent, relationship between Polish-non-Jews and Polish-Jews.

The first publication that attracted attention to this neglected scholarly terrain was Polish-American Jan Tomasz Gross’s book “Neighbors: the Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland.”[3] In this text Gross famously describes and analyses the massacre of Jedwabne, in which over 1000 Jewish Poles were killed by their non-Jewish neighbors. Although this consisted in a closely-examined case study of one small town, with the publication of his book Gross opened Pandora’s box.

Since 2000 other case studies have been published – the latest collective work directed by Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking being one such example. Entitled Later Is The Night: the Destiny of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland, it contains detailed studies of violence in several Polish counties. This work definitively demonstrates how broadly accepted was such massive violence against Jews, as well as how many non-Jewish-Poles participated in the killing of their Jewish-Pole neighbors during the Nazi occupation.

But these atrocities did not end with Polish liberation. In their 2011 text Golden Harvest, Jan Gross and Irena Grudzińska-Gross touch on another neuralgic point of Polish history, the practice of taking possession of “Post-Jewish” goods. While it is important to remember that this phenomenon is certainly present in other European countries, the Gross’s work demonstrates how broadly accepted the social practice of taking into possession “Post-Jewish goods” was in Poland. Like hyenas, humans not only stole goods that belonged to persons who had been killed by Nazis, they also killed Polish-Jewish neighbors who miraculously survived the occupation of Poland, and who returned to their homes seeking to recover their pre-war goods.

As the Gross’s conclude, one the central problems with this social practice is how widely accepted it became. Taking possession of “post-Jewish-goods” became part of the norm. And, as demonstrated by Joanna Tokarska-Bakir in her outstanding book Cursed: A Social Portrait of the Kielce Pogrom,[4] the Polish post-war middle class was formed from the goods of the exterminated Polish-Jewish bourgeoisie. The passage of Jewish houses, furniture, factories, and money into Polish hands, in other words, was a crucial element in the creation of the Polish “new bourgeoisie.”

But in Poland this complicated, mournful, tragic past is not to be discussed. Many, including those screaming at scholars in an academic building in Paris this past February, take research into this part of Polish history to be violating a taboo. And the Gross’s, Tokarska-Bakir, and other scholars from the NPSHS have violated this taboo. They have transgressed the Polish omerta.

Attempting to Suppress the New Polish School of the History of Shoah

Since the publication of Gross’s book this research-transgression has awakened many protests. This is because the results of the research performed by the NPSHS tells a different story than that taught to the Polish post-war generations at school. Collective memory is deeply formative element of the identity of any society. To change it is an enormous challenge — one that only grows larger when political leaders link their authority to the power of nationalism.

Today, nationalism and patriotism are the leading ideologies of the Polish government. And in such a circumstance any person who cannot sign on to the official version of history (in which Poles were simultaneously victims and heroes during World War 2) is considered anti-Polish; an enemy of Polish nation. The “good name of the nation” is even protected by law. [5]

When nationalist ideology is the religion of the state, historical evidence can become an obstacle. A strong and proud nation, so the rhetoric goes, rejects all ambivalences and facts that might show that (non-Jewish) Poles were responsible for the death of other (Jewish) Poles. Nationalist circles protest against the revelation that some of those heroes and victims are also executors.

Fifteen years ago, at the beginning of the NPSHS’s activity, this group of historians hoped that initiating a process of accepting a difficult past – a process of mourning those victims who were murdered by their neighbors – would help Poland to know itself; to be a truer Poland. Today, as Gross concluded in his talk at the College de France[6] these efforts have largely failed. Much of the response to such groundbreaking scholarly work has been denial and, as evidenced by the epithets thrown at speakers in Paris, a painful increase in antisemitism. [7]

In part two of this report, I will explain in greater detail the nature and the significance of this new form of holocaust denial.

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] The conference, sponsored in part by L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, was intended to celebrate 15 years of cooperation between a number of organizations with the Polish Academy of Science, particularly its Center for Research on the Holocaust.

[2] See, for example, Adam Michnik’s introduction in Against Anti-Semitism. An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Polish Writings.

[3] While earlier historians had worked on the subject, and some work had been published, none had previously reached such a large audience. Gross was also the first to point out clearly the phenomenon of “killing the neighbors” – the massacre of Polish Jews by their Polish non-Jew neighbors.

[4] This is forthcoming in English from Princeton University Press. The original, published in 2018, was titled “Pod klątwą. Portret społeczny Pogromu Kieleckiego”.

[5] This refers, of course, to the now-famous IPN law. In this law specific paragraphs were voted on, then, after international protest, modified. Still, a person that expressed a negative opinion about Polish nation could be charged and condemned to up to 3 years in jail.

[6] The lecture was included in the EHESS conference as a prestigious event. Entitled “The trajectory of the historian studying Shoah in Poland,” was based on Gross’s own experience and the complex relationship between the progress of NPSHS’s scholarship and the reception of its results.

[7] A recent study of antisemitism in the EU shows that Poland ranks among the most problematic.

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Izabela Wagner

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