I am deeply concerned for Poland. Something is changing, and I’m afraid a country I care about deeply is moving in a very dangerous direction.

The recent decision by a Warsaw court in a defamation case brought against two prominent historians is yet another indication that Poland is choosing to go back to a much darker time in its relationship with the Jewish people. 

Shockingly, the court ordered Professors Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski to apologize for writing that the mayor of a Polish town gave up Jews to the Nazis during World War II. The court held that the historians were wrong to have relied on the testimony of a Holocaust survivor. 

We know that there were thousands of courageous and honorable Christian Poles who risked their lives to hide and help Jews during the Holocaust. But there were also Poles who betrayed their Jewish neighbors and were complicit in their deaths. These are not polemics; they are undeniable facts.

It is absolutely unacceptable that historians should now be afraid to cite credible testimony from an eyewitness, just because the eyewitness may be Jewish. This does not bode well for the future of historical research in Poland, and it sends a very dangerous message because it emboldens those who want to stifle the work of scholars. Actually, it is even worse. 

The court’s decision takes on more ominous overtones against the backdrop of a recent poll overseen by Marek Kucia, a professor of sociology at the Jagiellonian University. Kucia found that 19% of the respondents – practically one-fifth of all Poles – agreed with the statement that “war is a horrible thing, but it is good that it resulted in fewer Jews in Poland.”  

There have been other cases as well. A Polish journalist, Katarzyna Markusz, was questioned at length by the police after asking in one of her articles when the Polish authorities would “admit that hostility toward Jews was widespread among Poles, and that Polish complicity in the Holocaust is a historical fact?”

At the same time, Tomasz Rzymkowski, a man whose record of anti-Jewish utterances is well known, has just been named deputy minister of education.  

In the city of Wrocław, Tomasz Greniuch, an activist of the antisemitic National Radical Camp (in Polish, Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny, or ONR, the successor to a pre-war fascist organization that symbolizes the worst traditions in European history), has been appointed to head the local branch of the state-sponsored Institute of National Memory. Greniuch is charged with investigating the crimes committed during the German occupation of Poland and under Communist rule.

A march organized by the Lublin Brigade of the National Radical Camp (ONR) in Lublin, Poland. EPA-EFE//WOJCIECH PACEWICZ

No one better appreciates the privilege of freedom and democracy than the people of Poland who spearheaded the struggle against Soviet tyranny in Central and Eastern Europe, and who ferociously fought and died to preserve their independence.  

Once Poland succeeded in breaking the shackles that bound it to Moscow, Poles went on to establish a vibrant democracy and a robust economy. They joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004. Poland has become one of America’s closest and most loyal friends in Europe. It also developed a flourishing relationship with Israel. This was good for the free world and it was good for Poland.

But, the more recent dangerous signs have left Poland’s sincerest friends – and I count myself among them – wondering what is going wrong.  

This began in 2018, with the dangerous law that threatened an honest portrayal of Poland’s wartime history. In a blatant attempt to control the historical narrative, the Polish government tried, in effect, to criminalize the questioning of Polish wartime actions in regard to the Holocaust. The decision in the case involving Professors Engelking and Grabowski may relate only to defamation, but it is another step to muzzle historians who dare to be honest. Instead of encouraging a frank confrontation of the past, we are watching a bizarre rewriting of history. 

The government and people of Poland must realize that the world is watching. How Poland comes to terms with the darker parts of its history tells us all where Poland positions itself on the world’s moral spectrum. 

Germany, which perpetrated the Holocaust, has long admitted its national guilt and its historical responsibility for the crimes committed at the hands of the Third Reich. Every European country occupied by the Nazis had its share of both heroes and collaborators, of altruists who saved Jews and collaborators who assisted in their deportation and annihilation. 

A view on the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland. EPA-EFE//ANDRZEJ GRYGIEL

Poland is no exception, and the stubborn denial of this basic fact by people in authority is not fair to the vast majority of Poles who recognize that Jews were an important part of Polish history, but who also have the honesty to admit that there were Poles who grievously wronged their Jewish neighbors. 

I sincerely hope that Poland will return to its honest approach of looking at its past, rather than allowing the forces of darkness, antisemitism, and xenophobia to take hold. 

I am not alone. The entire world is watching.  

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