University of Ottawa Holocaust historian sues Polish group for libel

Jan Grabowski (Jan Grabowski/CC BY-SA 4.0)

A Polish-born professor of history, whose specialty is the fate of the Jews in wartime Poland, is suing a Polish nationalist organization for allegedly libelling him.

Jan Grabowski, a professor of history at the University of Ottawa, filed legal documents in the District Court in Warsaw on Nov. 16, alleging that the Polish League Against Defamation had itself defamed him by questioning his findings about the complicity of Poles in the wartime murder of Jews.

“I feel I was slandered and called a liar and fabricator of historical evidence,” Grabowski told The CJN.

He is asking for a public apology and written apologies to the institutions he is associated with. He is not requesting monetary damages.


Grabowski is the author of Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, which won the Yad Vashem International Book Prize in 2014. He said the book attracted the attention of Polish nationalists, who were angry at his assertion that Poles participated in the murder of their fellow Jewish citizens.

Grabowski said he reached his conclusions after years of research into the fate of Polish Jewry during the Holocaust.

“The more I studied these issues, I saw a level of complicity of parts of Polish society in the destruction of Polish Jews,” he said.

“From among the approximately 250,000 Polish Jews who had escaped liquidations of the ghettos and who had fled, about 40,000 survived. We have thus more than 200,000 Jews who fled the liquidations and who did not survive until liberation. My findings show that in the overwhelming majority of cases, their Polish co-citizens were – directly through murder, or indirectly by denunciation – at the root of their deaths.”

Jews are liquidated from the Krakow Ghetto in 1943.

“Whether they lived or died depended to a large extent on the attitude of the Poles,” he continued. While some Poles did save Jews, he said that “Polish society demonstrated various behaviours, some of which were horrifying.”

That perspective riled many Polish nationalists, who have promoted a sanitized version of history, in which Poles were the innocent victims of the Nazis.

Following the book’s publication in Polish in 2011, Grabowski received death threats, while some Polish historians questioned his findings. They argued that the number of Jewish victims found by Grabowski was exaggerated. Some argued that his perspective did not take into account the support Jews received from the Polish elite and that he had discounted the number of Poles who saved Jews and who were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. They also argued that police had to follow German orders, or be killed themselves.

On its website, the Polish League Against Defamation wrote in 2017 that, “In his numerous publications and public statements, he (Grabowski) falsifies the history of Poland, proclaiming the thesis that Poles are complicit in the extermination of Jews.

Jews are loaded onto trucks in the Lodz Ghetto, to be sent to an extermination camp in 1942.

“The attempts to ascribe part of the responsibility for the crimes of the World War II and the Holocaust to the Poles are evidently actions damaging Poland and are based on Jan Grabowski’s unconfirmed estimated figures.”

It called Grabowski’s findings “untrue” and based on “pseudofacts.”

Grabowski said the organization does not have any historians among its members and is closely linked to the government.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Research and Education Centre (HRREC) at the University of Ottawa issued a statement supporting Grabowski, saying that the Polish League Against Defamation “has attempted to silence Prof. Grabowski by criticizing both his academic credibility and his personal integrity. Most recently, the league circulated a letter to universities in Europe and North America – including the University of Ottawa – that questions Prof. Grabowski’s widely acclaimed scholarship and accuses him of defaming the Polish nation.

“The HRREC affirms our confidence in the highly respected scholarship of Prof. Grabowski and we underline his academic freedom to pursue and publish his research without fear of attacks on his person or reputation.

“The HRREC strongly denounces the attacks on Prof. Grabowski as well as any endeavour to interfere with independent research.”

Grabowski, whose father was a Jewish Holocaust survivor, has in the past also received support from the Polish Center for Holocaust Research. And on June 19, 2017, about 180 Holocaust historians and other historians of modern European history signed an open letter in his defence.