The earth outside the tiny village of Treblinka, in eastern Poland, still bears traces of the death camp the Nazis built there in 1942. Close to 925,000 Jews were slaughtered at Treblinka, making it the second-largest Jewish killing field in the world after Auschwitz. On a sad, wet day in November, I wandered close to where Germans had burned the bodies of those murdered in the gas chambers nearby. At my feet on the damp ground, among the pebbles, I saw tiny white specks. They were small pieces of bones that still rise to the surface of the tainted earth of Treblinka after the rain.
The ashes there tell one of the many stories of the murdered Jews of Europe. But recently, Poland’s government has been working to redirect the narrative. That same day in November, I saw Magdalena Gawin, the Polish deputy minister of Culture and National Heritage at the time, speak at the Treblinka train station flanked by a Polish Army honor guard, a Roman Catholic bishop and other distinguished guests, including Yehoshua Ellis, an American-born rabbi. They were assembled in Treblinka, a couple of miles away from the former death camp of the same name, to unveil a monument honoring Jan Maletka, a 21-year-old Polish railroad worker. Mr. Maletka, Polish researchers say, was shot in 1942 by the Nazis for giving water to the Jews as they waited in locked cattle cars idling outside the camp.
At the ceremony that day, Ms. Gawin spoke of death and sacrifice. “It is estimated that 900,000 Jews died in Treblinka”, she said. “At the same time, we meet here to commemorate the death of one man, 900,000 Jews and one man”.
The scene that unfolded last November in Treblinka is one of the most vivid examples of a dangerous new threat that is spreading rapidly today in Eastern Europe: Holocaust distortion. A false equivalence of victimization is but one hallmark of the new Polish historical revisionism. Another hallmark is a state-sponsored effort that downplays antisemitic terror at the hands of the Poles, though such incidents are well documented in the historical record.
To better explain how this distortion works, consider this: Of the more than 900,000 Jews who arrived in Treblinka, fewer than 100 survived the war. Jewish survivor testimonies of Treblinka are harrowing: Many remembered extreme thirst; they also recalled groups of Polish railway workers and Polish youths who stood close to the cattle cars ready to hand over water — in exchange for gold or cash. In their oral histories and written accounts, survivors described how they were met not with compassion, but with greed: Jankiel Wiernik, a carpenter and cabinet maker, recalled how terribly hot the day he arrived in Treblinka was. From the train he saw Polish locals selling water to desperate Jews. Abram Jakub Krzepicki remembered that people in the wagon were dying of thirst. He described terrible scenes of Jews pleading with the workers, handing over fistfuls of money for a mere half cup of water.
None of this is to necessarily undermine the story of Jan Maletka and what is said to be the quiet act that cost his life. There are no eyewitnesses left, so we will never know whether Mr. Maletka acted out of empathy for the dying Jews or not. But this huge memorialization effort obscures the full story. It is essential to understand that Mr. Maletka’s actions occurred within the broader experience of exploitation and murder. To identify and shift focus to Mr. Maletka serves not only to elevate a heartwarming story about a young man but also to marginalize the hundreds of thousands of mostly unnamed Jewish victims. Indeed, the sign on the monument devotes equal spaces to the Polish railway worker and the Jews who perished in Treblinka.
Markers to Poles killed by Nazis for rescuing Jews have been proliferating in the Polish countryside for several years now. The effect of these memorials to Polish national virtue is a new historical narrative that depicts the rescue of the Jews as a default position of Polish society during the Holocaust. The Polish government denies it is engaging in Holocaust distortion, but these stone monuments play into a distortion of the historical narrative. In my work as a historian of the Holocaust, I have come to call these efforts “memory patches” — stories intended to paper over the tragic legacy in which some Poles denounced or turned over to the Gestapo Jewish fellow citizens who were seeking shelter in wartime Poland.
Take the testimony of Adam Starkopf, who escaped the Warsaw ghetto with his wife, Pela, and their young daughter. Mr. Starkopf described in his memoir “Will to Live” being woken in the night in the town of Sadowne, where the couple were hiding in plain sight because Mr. Starkopf looked “Aryan” enough to pass as a Pole. A group of Polish villagers, he wrote, invited him into their plan to hunt down, rob and then turn over to the Gestapo a group of Jews who had escaped from a cattle car. “Just think — all these Jews lying on the ground, ready for the taking! It’s a windfall!”, Mr. Starkopf recalled his neighbors saying to him. “We’ll take their clothes, clean out their pockets and on top of that we’ll get a reward from the Germans for bringing them in”. (Mr. Starkopf declined to participate.)
The Polish narrative of wartime heroism and valor is espoused by Poland’s nationalistic government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice Party. In 2019 Ms. Gawin initiated “Called by Name”, a program intended to commemorate Poles who died rescuing Jews. “Called by Name” lives under the auspices of the government-funded Pilecki Institute, itself dedicated to commemorating Poles “who were murdered for providing aid and assistance to Jews during the Second World War”. In the vicinity of Treblinka in the past several years, the Pilecki Institute has erected no fewer than 10 other monuments to celebrate brave Poles who died giving assistance to Jews.
As if to underscore how integrated the government is with this effort, Magdalena Gawin, the minister who oversaw the Treblinka memorial, is now the director of the Pilecki Institute. The institute’s former director, Wojciech Kozlowski, has denied that the institute’s work is politically driven. “We are not in any way interested in promulgating any sort of ‘alternative narrative’ or in pursuing any kind of political agenda”, he told The Times of Israel in 2020.
Poland’s efforts to reframe history reflect a trend proliferating in other European countries to obfuscate the history of the Holocaust. In France, the far right has made efforts to whitewash the record of the Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis. In Hungary and Croatia, local complicity and collaboration during the war is downplayed, shifting the blame for the Jewish catastrophe entirely onto the German occupiers. What makes the Polish example so distinctive is the apparent scale of state official involvement in redirecting the narrative.
In all these cases, pushing blame for the destruction of Jewish communities entirely onto Nazi occupiers obfuscates the larger context of Holocaust horror and the very real problems of collaboration, bystanderism and local antisemitism that helped run the machine of the Holocaust.
Indeed, in Poland some of the commemorative markers have even been erected in places such as the town of Sadowne, where Mr. Starkopf described listening to the sound of Jews “being dragged through the snow to barns and stables” after his conversation with his neighbors. Thus the marker serves to deflect attention from atrocities committed by locals and to reframe their role in history. This commemorative drive allows the nationalists to present themselves as primarily defenders of the idea of historical innocence of the nation.
To be sure, efforts to shift the historical narrative in Poland did not begin with the Law and Justice Party. Older markers, some erected by municipalities and local organizations, can be found in the former Warsaw ghetto, in the Plaszow concentration camp (depicted in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”) and near the site of the 1946 Kielce pogrom, where a Polish mob murdered scores of Jewish survivors who returned to the city after the war.
In the former Warsaw ghetto — where about 80,000 Jews died of starvation or disease and from which more than 300,000 were transported to their deaths at Treblinka — tourists encounter not only memorials to Jewish trauma but also a street named after a brave Polish woman who saved Jewish children. There is also a statue of a Polish underground courier who tried to alert the indifferent Western Allies to the continuing genocide and a marker commemorating an organization to save Jews and a roundabout bearing the name of the “Righteous Among the Nations”, to name but a few.
Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust archive and museum, has long honored righteous gentiles who saved or in some way protected Jews. Over 7,000 of those righteous gentiles were in Poland, more than in any other country. And Poland suffered greatly at the hands of the occupiers; in a population of 35 million, Nazis murdered an estimated 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians. There is a way to honor them and to underscore how a population under siege can still act with valor. But that effort cannot come at the expense of remembering the Jewish victims of the war, a large majority of whom did not survive the era.
Poland’s Jewish population numbered well over three million before the war. At the end of the war, some 380,000 Polish Jews had survived, most of whom had fled in 1939 into the former Soviet Union. By 1950, only about 45,000 Jews were left living in Poland.
The current effort to erect dozens of monuments to Polish heroes in places of Jewish terror appears to be changing the teaching and understanding of history in Poland. Even Auschwitz, perhaps the most visible symbol of the genocide, has not been spared. According to a national poll published in 2020, nearly half of Poles today think that Auschwitz is most of all a place of Polish suffering. Thus Auschwitz — which is also a museum funded by the Polish government devoted to the memory of nearly one million Jews who lost their lives in the gas chambers of Birkenau — has emerged, to a certain extent, as a place of Polish suffering as much as a Jewish one.
As a historian, I myself have encountered this new and dangerous trend. In 2021 I was accused of slandering the memory of a long-deceased Polish village mayor. The claim was based on a footnote in “Night Without End”, a book that I co-edited. In the text, a Holocaust survivor is quoted recalling an incident in which the mayor of his village alerted the Nazis to the whereabouts of a group of Jews, resulting in their death. The mayor’s niece, assisted by an NGO that receives government funding, took us into Warsaw’s District Court to defend the name of her uncle. We were dismayed by the ruling, in which the judge, Ewa Jonczyk, asked us to apologize.
“We can assume that ascribing to Poles the crimes of the Holocaust committed by the Third Reich can be construed as harmful and detrimental to the sense of identity and of national pride”, the judge said last February. “Attributing to the Polish nation the responsibility for the Holocaust, for the killing of Jews during World War II and for the confiscation of their property touches upon the sphere of the national heritage and, consequently, as completely untrue and harmful, can significantly impact one’s feeling of own national dignity, destroying the justified — based on facts — belief that Poland was the victim of war operations initiated and conducted by the Germans”.
Fortunately the ruling was overturned, but the chill was felt among scholars inside and outside Poland.
It seemed to me that the real objective of the lawsuit was not to rescue a man’s name or alter his reputation, but to frighten scholars of the Holocaust, to instill Poland’s pervasive atmosphere of fear into an entire discipline and to make students and educators think twice before choosing topics that would challenge the government-sponsored version of history. The idea of a right to national pride, advanced in court, is an ambiguous and legally undefined sentiment that effectively means any member of the Polish nation has the right to sue historians whose findings offend them.
Meanwhile, Holocaust survivors are dying every day. There are few left to protest the new revisionism.
The assault on the value of Jewish survivor testimony and the legal attack on our knowledge of the past are signs that the memory of the Holocaust is under threat not only by the deaths of survivors, but also by the willful choices of the present generation. The more time distances us from the event, the more heated the exchanges become, and the more forceful the attacks on the memory of the Shoah.
Jan Grabowski is a professor of history at the University of Ottawa.