While honoring Polish Gentiles who risked—and in some cases, lost—their lives helping Jews in the midst of the Shoah seems a noble affair, Jan Grabowski argues that recent, enthusiastic efforts by the Polish government to do so have a more sinister agenda, aimed at distorting history. Their purpose is to suppress the history of Polish collaboration with the Nazis, and of Polish anti-Semitism, while painting Poles as uniformly victims or heroes. To make his point, Grabowski take the recent ceremony honoring Jan Maletka, a railway worker shot by the Nazis for offering water to Jews in cattle cars outside the Treblinka death camp:
Of the more than 900,000 Jews who arrived in Treblinka, fewer than 100 survived the war. Jewish survivor testimonies of Treblinka are harrowing: many remembered extreme thirst; they also recalled groups of Polish railway workers and Polish youths who stood close to the cattle cars ready to hand over water—in exchange for gold or cash. In their oral histories and written accounts, survivors described how they were met not with compassion, but with greed: Jankiel Wiernik, a carpenter and cabinet maker, recalled how terribly hot the day he arrived in Treblinka was. From the train he saw Polish locals selling water to desperate Jews. Abram Jakub Krzepicki remembered that people in the wagon were dying of thirst. He described terrible scenes of Jews pleading with the workers, handing over fistfuls of money for a mere half cup of water.
None of this is necessarily to undermine the story of Jan Maletka and what is said to be the quiet act that cost his life. There are no eyewitnesses left, so we will never know whether Mr. Maletka acted out of empathy for the dying Jews or not. But this huge memorialization effort obscures the full story. It is essential to understand that Mr. Maletka’s actions occurred within the broader experience of exploitation and murder. To identify and shift focus to Mr. Maletka serves not only to elevate a heartwarming story about a young man but also to marginalize the hundreds of thousands of mostly unnamed Jewish victims. Indeed, the sign on the monument devotes equal spaces to the Polish railway worker and the Jews who perished in Treblinka.
Poland’s efforts to reframe history reflect a trend proliferating in other European countries to obfuscate the history of the Holocaust. In France, the far right has made efforts to whitewash the record of the Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis. In Hungary and Croatia, local complicity and collaboration during the war is downplayed, shifting the blame for the Jewish catastrophe entirely onto the German occupiers. What makes the Polish example so distinctive is the apparent scale of state official involvement in redirecting the narrative.