Scholars Defend Polish-Canadian Holocaust Historian


In a February 2016 post, “Academic Freedom Threatened in Poland,” I reported on how academics in Poland were coming to the defense of Polish-American scholar Jan T. Gross, Professor of History at Princeton University and one of the world’s leading Holocaust historians, after reports that Poland intended to withdraw a national honor because he claimed that Poles were complicit in Nazi war crimes. Now historians world-wide are rallying to defend Jan Grabowski, a distinguished scholar of Polish and Holocaust history at the University of Ottawa, who is accused of slandering Poland’s reputation with research that focuses on the participation of some Poles in the killing of Jews during World War II.

Jan Grabowski

According to the Polish League Against Defamation, Grabowski’s scholarship “falsifies the history of Poland, proclaiming the thesis that Poles are complicit in the extermination of Jews.” The group made its claim in a public statement June 7 signed by dozens of Polish academics, none historians of the Holocaust. Since then Grabowski has received several death threats, leading to security patrols in his department. The son of a Holocaust survivor, Grabowski described the campaign against him as a “very brutal, vicious, and personal attack.”

“I feel personally attacked but this is for me a much more dangerous and general problem that has to be dealt with,” Grabowski told The Canadian Press from Ottawa. “It’s a pure and simple attack on basic academic freedoms, which we take for granted here in Canada. I’m dismayed.”

Grabowski notes that his critics are no longer content to denounce him in Poland. They have now written directly to the university where he has worked for almost 25 years to accuse him of lying and fabricating historical evidence.  In two letters this month, the Polish League Against Defamation wrote that  “Grabowski fails to adhere to the fundamental rules of researcher’s credibility.  He uses vivid and exaggerated statements to create propagandistic constructions, rather than to provide an honest picture.”  One of the letters is signed by 130 Polish scholars — none with any connection to Holocaust studies.

In 2014, Grabowski was awarded the Yad Vashem International Book Prize for his Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, an award the league called “disturbing.”

Scholars have jumped to Grabowski’s defense.  On June 11, the Polish Center for Holocaust Studies issued a statement “In defence of Jan Grabowski’s good name.” They wrote:

The signatories of the letter “strongly oppose Jan Grabowski’s dissemination of a false and wrongful image of Poland and Polish people during World War II in placing the blame for the Holocaust upon the Polish Nation.” They “urge Jan Grabowski to stop slandering the Polish Nation and adopt an attitude befitting a researcher, which is to serve the truth.”

So many beautiful words, particularly frequent is the occurrence of “truth”, but the entire argument is hardly accurate. It is pointless to try to demonstrate that “one is not a camel”, as a Polish saying goes, so we will not. We are however ready to engage in a scholarly debate with competent historians.

None of the 134 signatories is a Holocaust historian. All these economists, linguists, oncologists, chemists, nuclear physicists, engineers, constructors of electromechanical appliances, environmental geologists, ethnomusicologists, theatrologists and priest professors present themselves as Holocaust experts, but cannot even quote sources they refer to or to give the correct name of the organization that rescued Jews, which they mention.

In addition, scores of pre-eminent international Holocaust scholars on Monday wrote to the chancellor of the University of Ottawa defending Grabowski as a scholar of “impeccable personal and professional integrity.”

“The current attack on Prof. Grabowksi by the Polish League Against Defamation, as in a recent public letter signed by more than 100 academics who have no expertise in the subject, is baseless, putting forth a distorted and whitewashed version of the history of Poland during the Holocaust era,” the letter states.

“We are confident that your university, which is a bastion of learning and freedom of scholarly inquiry, will give its full support to Prof. Grabowski against those who seek to besmirch his reputation and curtail his work, and by extension, ours as well.”

Among the more than 180 scholars to sign the statement are prominent historians from the United States, Israel, Poland, and elsewhere. They include Yitzhak Arad, former director of Yad Vashem; Omer Bartov, at Brown University; Christopher Browning, emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina; and Deborah Lipstadt at Emory University.

On June 22, Professor Sylvie Perrier, chair of the History Department at Ottawa, responded to the League:

Please find attached the official response of the University of Ottawa to your smear campaign.

As the Chair of the History Department, I am proud to count Dr. Jan Grabowski among my distinguished colleagues and I highly regard his research, conducted in the most rigorous manner, based on solid methodology, and peer-reviewed.

All the professors of the History Department value integrity, academic freedom, and informed debate and we will not tolerate the continued abuse to which our colleague is currently subjected.

You have made your position clear. Any more communication from your organization will be considered superfluous.

The official response of the University of Ottawa, which Perrier attached, reads:

The University of Ottawa and its Faculty of Arts are committed to supporting the principles of academic freedom and defending the right of our scholars to conduct and disseminate their research.  We therefore reaffirm our support for Professor Jan Grabowski, who has been subjected to a vicious campaign directed both at his scholarship and at him personally.  We are taking a firm stand against this campaign.

Professor Grabowski is a nationally and internationally recognized scholar of Holocaust history and is one of the University of Ottawa’s most prominent researchers.  He is the author of numerous articles and books, many of which have been ground-breaking in their analysis of the Holocaust in Poland.  Dr. Grabowski has won several important awards for his work, most notably the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research for his book Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland.  Dr. Grabowski’s work is supported by prestigious peer-reviewed grants, and he is regularly invited to present his research at conferences around the world.

The role of the academy to advance human knowledge can be fulfilled only if it provides a space for free thought and expression.  As scholars, it is our privilege, our right, and our duty to research, debate, and present ideas that risk controversy and that call into question received truths.  Academic freedom guarantees our ability to question our understanding of our world, our histories, and ourselves, thus contributing to our collective growth in open and prosperous societies.  The University of Ottawa has a proud and longstanding tradition of excellence and leadership in research, led by scholars who have expressed a diverse range of intellectual positions.  Professor Grabowski continues this tradition.  The University of Ottawa reiterates its unwavering support for him and his scholarship.

Yours sincerely,

David Graham, Ph.D, Vice President Academic and Provost

Kevin Kee, Ph.D, Dean, Faculty of Arts

If only we could get strong statements like this from more administrators here in the U.S. when members of the faculty are subjected to campaigns of external harassment for their scholarship or their personal opinions.

There is an online petition in support of Professor Grabowski, which may be accessed here.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.