Polish historians of the Holocaust were allegedly called “dirty Jews” and “non-Poles” by nationalist protesters who disrupted an academic conference in Paris last week.
The protest is a further sign that Polish nationalists are seeking to intimidate historians whose work argues that Poles were complicit in the Holocaust.
This latest incident occurred on 21 and 22 February, when about two dozen protesters descended on a conference titled The New Polish School of Historical Research on the Shoah, which was hosted by the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris.
Olga Byrska, a researcher at EHESS and one of the organisers of the conference, said that the protesters had tried to “shout down and interrupt” invited historians, causing so much disruption that the second day overran by 90 minutes.
The protesters also “chased” the historians after their presentations, calling them “nasty Jews”, “vicious Jews” and “non-Poles”, she said. Protesters filmed the talks, and footage appeared shortly afterwards on a Polish television programme that described the conference as a “festival of anti-Polish lies”.
In the run-up to the event, organisers had received anonymous phone calls and emails containing antisemitic slurs, Ms Byrska said. Someone had even come in person to EHESS and demanded to talk to the organisers, she added.
EHESS has condemned the incident as an attack on freedom of thought and academic research, and the institution’s president is set to demand an explanation from the Polish embassy.
Ms Byrska said that some of the protesters were Poles living in Paris, while others had come from London and Poland. They appear to have been organised by “extreme right-wing” figures and groups, she said.
Jan Grabowski, a professor of history at the University of Ottawa, confirmed that upon leaving the conference he had been surrounded by demonstrators and called a “stinking dirty Jew”. During the lectures themselves, protesters had shouted that the historians were “traitors” and “communists”, he said. In 30 years, “I have never been exposed to anything close” to this incident, he added.
“Two or three years ago, it would never have happened,” Professor Grabowski continued. Recently, however, discourse in Poland had changed, and antisemitism was now far more prevalent, he said.
Many in Poland emphasise the role played by ordinary Poles in protecting Jews from the Holocaust, and also object to the use of the term “Polish death camps” to describe sites such as Auschwitz.
Along with other historians, Professor Grabowski has sought to question this “triumphalist” attitude in Poland, and scholars have documented incidents of betrayal and collaboration.
Jan Gross, a professor of history at Princeton University who also spoke at the conference, said that the protesters “had no scholarly qualifications or intent”.
Professor Gross, whose work has also explored Polish complicity in the Holocaust, said that at one point during a break a protester handed him a leaflet that purported to expose the “lies” in his research, including a condemnation of his work by a fabricated “uncle”.
The Pilecki Institute, a Warsaw-based research centre that focuses on totalitarianism, put out criticism of the conference on Twitter, accusing Professor Grabowski of making “controversial and outrageous statements”. It did not respond to a request from Times Higher Education for further comment.
Last year, the Warsaw government proposed a law that threatened jail for anyone who suggested that the Polish “state” or “nation” was complicit in the genocide, although it contained an exemption for academic work, and the criminal aspect of the law was dropped after an international outcry.