The Holocaust according to Jan Grabowski, historian, researcher and professor

Posted on Wednesday, January 25, 2023

A Polish policeman, Krakow, 1941

Photo: A Polish policeman, Krakow, 1941 - Photo 8/2/4691, National Digital Archives/ Varsovie, Pologne

Jan Grabowski is a professor of history at the University of Ottawa. After studying the history of European colonization in North America, he decided to switch gears. For the past 22 years, he has dedicated himself to the history of the annihilation of Poland’s Jewish community during the Holocaust (1939–1945), the Shoah in Poland and relations between the country’s Jewish, Polish and German populations. He talks to us about his work as a historian, researcher and professor. 

When he started out, Jan Grabowski thought that “the Holocaust had been studied inside and out, basically, and that people already knew what had happened.” After poring over archival records for several years, he saw there were still pieces of the puzzle missing. “Historians concentrated on the role of the Germans and their victims, but more or less ignored the role of European societies during the Nazi occupation of Poland.”  That is what has led him to investigate that aspect of history. What role do ordinary people play in history and its darkest moments? 

Understanding the Holocaust and hate speech past and present 

Grabowski says that historical research helps not only to answer questions about the past, but also to understand the mechanisms and systems that continue to operate in our societies.  

He maintains that research on the Holocaust is especially meaningful currently. In Grabowski’s view, we live in a complex world where democracy—taken for granted—is under threat from rising populism and totalitarianism.  

“It’s symptomatic of what I see in the way certain leaders engage in politics, for example, Trump in the United States, and in the discourse of Polish and Hungarian leaders—basically, hate speech directed against minorities. Their points of argument are actually a recycled version of the hate-speech playbook of the 1930s and 1940s. 

“My passion is investigating hitherto unexplored topics, areas and realities. In a nutshell, I like making discoveries. All of a sudden, you ‘get’ it. You can see more clearly what happened and the mechanisms at play. It’s like when you finish a puzzle.“  

Unconventional research 

In his research, Grabowski “tracked” Polish Jews fleeing extermination: the supposedly safe places where they went and the strategies they used to stay under the radar, for example, by adopting new identities. By tracing their steps, he uncovered the mechanisms that led to their extermination and the reasons why most of them perished. 

Grabowski puts his research into context, situating it in what he calls the third phase of the Holocaust in Poland, “the hunt for Jews who managed to escape the ghettoes.” His focus begins after an initial period that saw the ghettoization, marginalization and terrorization of the Jewish population, and an ensuing period characterized by the liquidation of the ghettoes and the transportation of Jews to the killing centres.  

“At that time, in what I call the third phase of the Holocaust, the Germans were not the principal danger, as they were no longer able to tell who was Jewish and who wasn’t. In reality, ordinary people—neighbours—were the ones to be feared.”  

Thanks to the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada, Grabowski is able to conduct his research in archives in Europe. He juggles his research trips with his teaching, which he will be resuming in person in fall 2023 for the first time since the pandemic. In December 2022, the internationally renowned professor received the prestigious SSHRC Impact Insight Award for his research on the Holocaust.  

Teaching to educate and inspire future generations 

Grabowski does what he does because he loves to teach and share his knowledge and discoveries. When he isn’t teaching and is devoting his time to research instead, he misses that contact with students tremendously. His reward in teaching is having an impact on students and receiving feedback from them.  

By teaching the history of the Shoah to his students, Grabowski also wants to show how human beings can dehumanize other groups of people. Studying history to shed a new light on the past and present, and training the next generation of researchers, are Grabowski’s driving force. 

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