Prof. Jan Grabowski, University of Ottawa. Credit: Adrian Grycuk / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 PL)
On May 30, in Warsaw, the Polish Sejm deputy Grzegorz Braun interrupted a lecture by Professor Jan Grabowski, a historian reporting on the state of research about the World War II extinction of Polish Jews. Braun climbed onto the rostrum, threatening Grabowski, and trashed the microphone and speakers—as if not only physically, but also symbolically taking away the lecturer’s voice. Since there are no longer any groupings of recognizable Jews in Poland, the assault on Jan Grabowski is the symbolic equivalent of a pogrom. The otherwise inexplicable destruction of property forms part of the pogrom repertoire.
The attack broke the psychological barrier limiting public anti-Semitic actions. The incentive for this assault was certainly created by the government media’s massive mobilization against Grabowski and the institution that organized his lecture, the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. The assault on the Holocaust historian at the German Institute became a joint propaganda platform of the authorities and the extreme right (which demonstrated outside the institute). This is today’s implementation of the attitude Prime Minister Morawiecki demonstrated while paying tribute to the soldiers of the Świętokrzyska Brigade—soldiers who during WWII, and immediately after, fought not against the Germans but against the Jews.
Just across the border, the war is raging and the “defense” patriotism of the ruling camp is intensifying. A new McCarthy-like commission is established to sniff out “Russian influence.” Its objective is to eliminate from the coming elections the leaders of the opposition. Germany is besieged by demands for war reparations, Brussels depicted as a new occupying force. President Andrzej Duda, standing in a group of folk-dressed Poles, called for the eradication of everything foreign. Poland is militarizing, but the enemy is not only external. The president demanded unity. The same is demanded by MP Braun. And he is demonstrating what this unity should consist of.
TVP—government TV stations—attack Grabowski on a daily basis, as well as Professor Barbara Engelking, psychologist and historian, head of the Center for Holocaust Studies. Vicious attacks are directed also at all those who challenge the narrative that during the war Poland massively protected its Jews. Grabowski, Engelking, and their colleagues are called “Polakożercy”—those who feed on Poles. Such name-calling was used in the past as one of the tools of anti-Semitic violence. Now it is directed at historians—it demonizes them, removes them from the body of the nation not only ethnically, but also socially. They are being deprived of the respect they deserve, exposed to persecution and now violent assault.
Braun’s action was an attack against a historian and history that runs counter to the nationalist narrative. The Law and Justice (PiS) establishment has taken such self-admiring history as its own and writes it every day. It is an anti-Semitic history. As a statement of the NGO Open Republic cogently declares, this history is created in an atmosphere of “anti-Semitic violence: verbal, legal, institutional, economic and physical. PiS “colonizes” existing institutions and creates new ones, and they are tasked with perpetuating a propaganda version of the past. It needs a monopoly to do this, and uses state power to deprive irreverent historians of their jobs, research funds and a sense of security. Does PiS believe in the success of controlling the past? It cares first and foremost about pleasing its electorate. About convincing the electorate that it has something to be proud of and no one will dare to diss them.
In Poland, anti-Russian and anti-German sentiments are constant, their intensity oscillates depending on the political situation. The intensity of anti-Semitism is also related to public sentiment, but the historical context is very different here. World War II closed the historical chapter “Polish Jews in Poland.” Everything changed in this chapter as the presence of the old Jewish diaspora in Polish lands ended. Only anti-Semitism did not change. Neither in its ideology nor in its symptoms. The mini-pogrom put on by MP Braun illustrates it the best.
Irena Grudzińska-Gross is a literary critic, historian of ideas, a 1968 émigré from Poland.
This essay was first published, in a slightly different form, in Democracy Seminar on June 6, 2023.