Treblinka is the site of a Nazi extermination camp in occupied Poland where an estimated 900,000 Jews were murdered. Thursday night at Northeastern, Jan Grabowski recalls a visit last November to the meadow in his native Poland where the gas chambers once stood.

“It was a very sad day with screaming clouds and raindrops,” Grabowski told an elated audience. “I looked at the ground under my feet and saw tiny white dots. Small pebbles, I thought. But they were too small. They were actually unburnt pieces of bone that date back to the surface after each rain.

“After the 80 years,” he said of generations passed since World War II, “this is a place where the ashes, the bodies, of hundreds of thousands of people were burned and then buried. Those remains, those ashes, they come to the surface, so it’s a place where you can feel history touching you with its cold hand or grabbing you by the throat Treblinka has meaning and it’s the memory of almost a million people who had the chance to live, and that chance was denied to them.

“We’re getting closer to that Orwellian view that whoever controls the present controls the past,” Grabowski told an elated audience at Northeastern. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Grabowski, a history professor at the University of Ottawa and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, went on to tell the fascinating and haunting story of a book he researched and wrote about the Holocaust in Poland – a landmark project that put him and his co-author on trial for libel.

Grabowski’s personal journey in the name of truth resonates with the ongoing dynamic of Russia’s war on Ukraine, said Simon Rabinovitchthe Stotsky Associate Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern, who presented the 29th Annual Robert Salomon Morton Lecture.

Grabowski’s presentation, “From Holocaust Denial to Holocaust Distortion: The State-Sponsored Attack on Holocaust Memory in Poland,” served as the main event of Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week to North-east.

University of Ottawa history professor and author delivered the 29th Annual Robert Salomon Morton Lecture. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“This cynical militarization of the past by Russia and Russian propagandists – absurdly defining the current Ukrainian state as a Nazi regime – has pushed the past to the center of this conflict, and has truly demonstrated how these issues of memory and of memorialization are alive. the law are still present in European life and society,” said Rabinovitch.

Grabowski and co-author Barbara Engelking were found guilty in a Warsaw district court of defaming the late mayor of a Polish village in their highly sought-after 2018 book, “Endless Night: The Plight of Jews in Some Counties of Occupied Poland.” The two-volume history revealed testimonies that the mayor betrayed Jews who hid from the Nazis, resulting in the deaths of 22 people.

Of European Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, half were killed in Poland, according to the new yorker. But that historical fact has been undermined by a revisionist narrative, Grabowski said — an interpretation that portrays Poland as a valiant defender of the Jews during World War II and portrays Poles as having suffered as horribly as the Jewish victims of the Final Solution. .

Grabowski shared polling data showing that 40% of Poles believe historians who write about Polish complicity in the Holocaust should be brought to justice. This view was supported by the Polish populist Law and Justice party.

Pages from Art Spiegelman's book.  Photo by Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“The lawsuit wanted to introduce into Polish civil litigation a new concept…the right to national pride, the right to national identity,” Grabowski said. “We were told that whenever a reader of our book felt their national pride was hurt, he or she could sue the historians.”

A court of appeal reversed the guilty verdict, Grabowski said.

“It took a lot of courage,” Grabowski said of the latest move, which was condemned by Poland’s justice minister as “a coup,” according to Grabowski.

Some time ago, Grabowski believed that Holocaust denial was an “exhausted force, intellectually speaking.”

“And then the situation started to move in different directions,” said Grabowski, author of “Jew Hunt: Treason and Murder in German-Occupied Polandwhich received the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize.

The new threat is “Holocaust distortion,” Grabowski said.

A painted rock found as part of a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, honoring those killed during worship services.  AP Photo by Gene J. Puskar

“It really is a cottage industry powered by weird people, can we tell,” Grabowski said. “Holocaust distortion is a state-funded and approved methodology for distorting our understanding of history or denying history itself.”

The events in Poland should not be seen as an isolated incident, Grabowski insisted.

“We are getting closer to this Orwellian view that whoever controls the present controls the past,” he said. “We cannot take for granted even things that are so firmly established.”

Historians have long wondered if Holocaust history might be further undermined when the last of the survivors died, Grabowski noted.

“Well, a view of that can be seen through the prism of Eastern Europe or Poland,” he said. “This is a new kind of distortion that can threaten Holocaust commemoration, and what happens depends to a large extent on how we all react to it – whether we decide it’s not an important issue. .

“If you look at today’s manipulation unfolding during the conflict in Ukraine, and how Russian society is exposed to fundamental untruths, you will see that it has existential significance for all of us.”

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