The Polish Government, the Holocaust and Jan Grabowski

By Jim Clifford

“‘Who controls the present, controls the past,’ wrote George Orwell, and the Polish authorities seem to have taken Orwell’s words to heart.”[1] On September 20th, University of Ottawa historian Jan Grabowski published an op-ed in Macleans highlighting the dangers of a new law working its way through Poland’s parliament that threatens historians and others with up to three years in jail if they “accuse the Polish nation, or the Polish state, [of being] responsible or complicit in Nazi crimes committed by the III German Reich.”[2] Grabowski continued:

…in the face of the new legislation, historians who argue that certain segments of Polish society were complicit in the extermination of their Jewish neighbours in the Second World War will now think twice before voicing their opinion. What about those who would like to study the phenomenon of blackmailing of the Jews, known in Polish asshmaltsovnitstvo? What about those who would like to talk about the role of the Polish “blue” police who collaborated with the Germans in the extermination of the Polish Jewry? What about those who want to shed light on the deadly actions of the Polish voluntary firefighters involved in the destruction of Jewish communities?[3]

Lukasz Weremiuk, the Chargé d’affaires at the Polish Embassy in Ottawa responded a week later arguing Grabowkski’s article “contains a list of strong, but often groundless opinions and accusations toward Poland.”[4] I highly recommend people read Grabowski’s full article on the Maclean’s website along with the response from the Polish Embassy and Grabowski’s further comments.

This recent controversy caused me to reflect on my 2015 visit to Kraków and Auschwitz-Birkenau. My dad and I drove from Munich to Poland and spent a couple days in Kraków before driving back via the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. In Kraków we visited the Schindler Factory Museum. In many ways it is an excellent museum that focuses on the history of Kraków under German occupation. I had read a little about life in the General Government territory and the crimes committed against the Polish population, but the museum did a lot to expand my understanding of the broad spectrum of crimes against humanity committed during the occupation. This ranged from murdering Poles in the streets, through to the hundreds of thousands Christian Poles who died alongside millions Jewish people from Poland and the rest of Europe in the concentration camps. Nonetheless, as we left the museum, my dad commented on how he expected it to focus more on Schindler and the jewish workers he saved. There was a small exhibit focused on Schindler, but it was a minor part of the museum. A quick look at the Trip Advisor reviews finds numerous other visitors have the same reaction (“Not what was expected, but interesting.”). Visitors know the history of Schindler’s List from Steven Spielberg’s film and they expect the museum to focus on Jewish slave labour and Schindler’s efforts to save twelve hundred Jews.

It is understandable and valid for a Polish museum to engage tourists visiting Kraków as a part of a holocaust pilgrimage with the ethnic cleansing committed against the Polish people (Christian and Jewish) during the occupation. But, I am not sure if Schindler’s Factory was the best choice of location for this museum. I also do not remember any discussion of the “blue” police or asshmaltsovnitstvo, though I was not explicitly looking or taking detailed notes. The new law and its aggressive defense by a Polish diplomat in Canada puts the politics of this history in a new light and makes the limited attention to the Jewish people who worked in Schindler’s factory a little more troubling. All that said, I would still recommend visiting the museum along with the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum if you are ever in Kraków.

For travellers who visit both museums, the shocking and deeply unsettling experience of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is probably more than enough to offset any imbalance in the focus on non-Jewish Polish victims at Schindler Factory Museum. It would be a shame, however, if tourists only visit the factory in Kraków and miss the opportunity to situate the awful history of ethnic cleansing in Poland alongside the monumental history of the genocide committed against European Jews.

[1] Jan Grobowski, “The danger in Poland’s frontal attack on its Holocaust history” Maclean’s, September 20, 2016.

[2] “The danger in Poland’s frontal attack on its Holocaust history

[3] “The danger in Poland’s frontal attack on its Holocaust history

[4] “The Polish Embassy in Ottawa responds to Jan Grabowski”, September 30, 2016.

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