Jan Grabowski to the publishers of

Ottawa, 16 February 2016

Ms. Amanda Crocker
Managing Editor
Between the Lines
401 Richmond St W,
Toronto, ON M5V 3A8

Dear Ms. Crocker,

I am writing to you as a professor of history of the Holocaust at the University of Ottawa.  Quite recently I became aware of an exchange which occurred between Polish ambassador in Canada and yourself. The Polish ambassador, unhappy with one of your publications, decided to make his displeasure very public, placing his letter on the embassy website and sending copies to various cultural and ethnic institutions and associations across the Dominion.  The ambassador pointed out an error contained in a book  A Flight to Freedom. Stories of Escape to Canada.  The book, a feel-good collection of short stories of refugees from around the world looking for and finding a better home in Canada, has been put together by two Toronto academics, Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner.  The ambassador’s deep concern was only with one statement in the entire book; on p. 178, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust from Sokolow Podlaski (small town north-east of Warsaw) is quoted saying: “in 1941, German troops, Polish SS (Schutzstaffel), and collaborators began herding Jewish families into makeshift ghettoes”. In his rather long letter the ambassador protested the usage of the incorrect term (indeed, there never was “a Polish SS”), reminded the editor about Poland’s heroic struggle against the Nazis and - as Polish diplomats invariably do - invoked the high number of Poles decorated by the state of Israel for having saved the Jews under the German occupation. Finally, he demanded an apology, corrections and then sent another letter, this time to the Polish-Canadian associations – which he also made public. Here, the good ambassador was less cordial: “please, send your own letters to the editor and make others aware of the protest [...] I know that some members of the Polish community in Canada think about initiating legal action against the publisher. We would consider offering our support [for such an action]”.  The authors of the book immediately reacted and wrote to Mr. Bosacki a public letter, in which they apologized profusely: “We apologize for any hurt and misunderstanding caused by our wording. We sincerely regret the error. We will correct it by replacing the current wording with “the SS.” This new wording is in context, preceded by the explanation that “ Wehrmacht troops had taken over in Eastern Poland”. This correction will be made immediately by issuing an errata to be inserted in all print copies yet to be sold. The new wording will be used in reprints of the print book. The new wording will also be used in the e-book, which is yet to be published. Further, we will post notice of our error on our social media accounts and on the book and publisher websites”.  
    This, in turn, makes me, as a historian of the Holocaust, uneasy: in their haste to appease the upset Polish official the two authors (none of whom is historian by trade) are likely to stumble from one error into another. First, the revised statement would imply that the German Wehrmacht took over this area in 1941. It did not: Sokolów Podlaski had been under the German occupation since September 1939. Second, replacing the incorrect term “Polish SS” with “SS” makes no sense for the simple reason that the SS was not involved in the resettlement of the Jews into the Sokolow Podlaski ghetto in 1941. There were two major ghettoes in this area: one in Sokolow Podlaski and the other one in Wegrow, 12 kilometers away, with a joint population of about 24.000 Jews.  Both ghettoes, (administered from Sokolow) have been created in 1940 and 1941 and, in both cases, the Jews have been herded into the ghettoes by the German gendarmerie and by their - much more numerous - Polish underlings from the Polish Police (Polnische Polizei - PP). Incidentally, in September 1942, during the brutal liquidation of the Sokolów and Wegrow ghettoes (and the subsequent deportation of their inhabitants to the extermination camp in nearby Treblinka), it was the Polish Police with the assistance of the Polish voluntary firefighters, who - hand in hand with the Germans and their Ukrainian auxiliaries - committed particularly heinous crimes on the helpless Jews.  The number of Jewish victims, brutally murdered, or delivered to the execution sites by the Polish Police in Sokolów Podlaski and Wegrow goes in the hundreds. The degree of involvement of the PP in the crimes against the local Jewish communities (Sokolow, Wegrow, Stoczek) has even raised some concerns in the reports of the Polish underground sent at the time from the area to headquarters in Warsaw.  The presence of their Polish neighbors, sometimes former classmates, among the killers was, for the terrorized Jews, even more painful (and better engraved in memory) than that of the largely anonymous Germans.  We, historians of the Holocaust, tend to treat the testimonies of survivors with deep respect. Not everything is always true, the trauma of the experienced horrors and the decades of trying to forget leave an imprint on the accuracy of the historical record. Nevertheless, if a survivor recalls the horrors committed in his community by Poles in uniforms, his testimony should not be dismissed lightly.  Even if the murderers were not clad in the grey-green uniforms of the SS but in dark-blue uniforms of the Polish Police.  In his letter sent to the Polish-Canadian associations, ambassador Bosacki wrote: “let us not allow for the historical truth to be wiped away”.  Indeed, let us not allow this to happen. We should treat the Polish ambassador’s exhortations as an encouragement for further study of the more painful aspects of the history of the Holocaust - with special attention devoted to the attitudes of the local populations in the face of the Jewish catastrophe.  In the case of “Flight to Freedom” I would encourage the authors to include in their erratum a more complete and more exhaustive explanation, one which will place the testimony of the survivor of the Holocaust in the proper historical context.

Sincerely Yours,

Jan Grabowski
Professor/Professeur titulaire
Department of History/Département d’histoire
University of Ottawa/Université d’Ottawa

cc. Canada Council for the Arts
Ontario Arts Council
Polish embassy, Ottawa
Canada Book Fund




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