In the past few weeks, I had the rare opportunity to publicly register my opposition to the Polish government’s efforts to revise and control the narrative of the Holocaust. It was a small gesture that will not change the situation but may offer some succor to activists, academics and other people in Poland opposed to the current government’s policies.
As is well known by now, the populist and nationalist Polish ruling party has not only passed a law to punish those who defame the good name of Poles during World War II, but also actively and energetically introduced rescue as the main aspect of Polish-Jewish relations during the war to be recognized and discussed in public.
Many Polish scholars have continued to produce cutting-edge work that engages with the complexities of life under the terrible German occupation, yet they do so under threat. In February 2021, two leading Polish historians were ordered by a court to apologize for work they had published. While many outside of Poland were appalled by this turn of events, there was little we could do to advocate for academic freedom and against the distortion of the Holocaust.
Thus, when my book, Survival on the Margins: Polish Jewish Refugees in the Wartime Soviet Union, won the Pilecki Prize, I suddenly had a chance to take a stand on behalf of my colleagues in Poland. The Pilecki Institute is a research institution dedicated to studying 20th-century totalitarian regimes and funded by the government. They are able to offer generous subsidies for their research projects, fellowships and prizes. They have also supported the government in undermining uncomfortable historical research findings and promulgating the paradigm of Polish non-Jews as rescuers of Polish Jews.
On October 30th, the institute wrote to offer me the prize and ask me to keep quiet about it until the official announcement on November 16th. After serious deliberation with friends and family, I declined the Pilecki Prize with a letter explaining my decision on November 4th. Eight days later, when the institute put out a press release regarding my decision, I allowed my letter to be published in Polish the following day. The institute responded with an open letter of their own. Here is my original letter, explaining why I could not accept the prize:
Dear Mr. Stefanek,
I want to thank you for honoring my book with the Witold Pilecki Book Award. After a decade of research in archives around the world, it is truly heartwarming to receive recognition. Equally, I hope that the book will indeed bring attention to the important story at its core: the experiences of Polish Jewish refugees who survived the Second World War in the Soviet interior. Finally, the life of Witold Pilecki, after whom the Institute and the prize are named, is an inspiration to us all. It is thus with a heavy heart that I must decline this honor.
The Pilecki Institute, while very generous in supporting some historical scholarship on the Second World War, has also been involved in suppressing the work of historians who strive to show the complex and indeed tragic aspects of Poland’s wartime past. War and occupation push humans and societies to their limits. The situation during World War II was horrific for all Poles, albeit not in equal measure. Some non-Jewish Poles, as profiled on the institute’s website, lost their lives protecting their Jewish compatriots. Others, as we know from the scholarship of Professors Jan T. Gross, Jan Grabowski, and Barbara Engelking among others, profited in a variety of ways from the murder of their neighbors.
Across Europe, different countries have slowly begun to come to terms with the Holocaust and its difficult legacies. The Nazis did not achieve their goals single-handedly. Rather, they relied on extensive local support in every country that they occupied, as well as collaboration from Axis and even neutral states. Recognizing and researching this entangled past is part of moving forward. After 1989, it appeared that Poland was on this path. Indeed, the quality, breadth, and depth of research coming from Polish scholars of the Holocaust continues to be breathtaking. However, in recent years the government, with the support of the Pilecki Institute, has moved to curtail this crucial research through the threat and reality of legal action.
As an historian, I must stand with my many brave friends and colleagues in Poland and the remarkable research they are doing. Moreover, I believe that continuing the difficult work of confronting the complicated and uncomfortable facts of the Holocaust in Poland will help the country to make sense of its past and help scholars around the world to learn about the ongoing effects of genocide.