TOP STORY: WHO OWNS HISTORY? Polish groups cast doubt on Holocaust scholar

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c. 1996 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ Amid all the horrors housed at this city’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is a three-story exhibit to human dignity known as”The Tower of Life,”more than 500 photographs of the Jewish residents of a small Polish village of Ejszyszki, taken before the Nazi terror forever changed their lives.

Organized by leading Holocaust scholar Yaffa Sonenson Eliach, whose grandparents were the village photographers, the exhibit serves as a prelude to a personal and collective tragedy.

Nearly all those pictured _ children at play in the snow, families sharing summer picnics, young couples celebrating their wedding day _ perished in the Holocaust.

Eliach, 61, now a professor of history at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, survived the war in hiding with her family, protected by Polish Christian neighbors.

She remembers returning to the village at age 9 after the war ended to witness yet another horror: On October 20, 1944, armed soldiers wearing Polish Army uniforms invaded their home, and, while her father and elder brother hid behind an attic door, the soldiers pumped bullets into her mother and infant brother.”My family had many Polish friends for generations, that’s why it’s so painful. When the Germans killed Jews there was anonymity. But the Poles were neighbors, they were family friends,”said Eliach, who often observes that she is”caught between two Poles”_ the good and the bad.

Eliach’s story is a widely-known piece of Holocaust history. But now some Polish-American groups, chagrined at the idea that the telling of Holocaust history tends to cast Poles as anti-Semites, are claiming it is a hoax.

The controversy raises anew the issue of who owns history in a world that remains divided by race, religion, ethnicity and politics.

As witnesses to the history of World War II and other seminal events of the 20th century grow older and fade from the scene, it is a question that becomes ever more pressing. “Prof. Yaffa Eliach, as an average survivor, or an eyewitness of any recent common crime, cannot repeat her story twice in a similar manner,”said Miroslaw Dragan, vice president of the Polish Historical Society, a 100-member organization based in Stamford, Conn.

Eliach, Dragan said, suffers from”Holocaust survivors syndrome,”which”makes half of all survivor testimony worthless.”Dragan believes that Eliach’s mother and brother were killed when the Polish partisans, fearful of a new conquest by the Soviets after the Nazi defeat, launched a grenade into Eliach’s family home in an attempt to kill Russian officers who were lodged there.

Dana Alvi of the Polish American Public Relations Committee in Santa Monica, Calif., also questions Eliach’s veracity.”Eliach has not reported her story twice the same way,”she said.

Alvi added that Holocaust survivors tend to be”revisionist, wanting to satisfy their egos, defame others, and financially profit.” Historians, Holocaust experts, and members of the American Jewish community defend Eliach’s credibility both as an historian of the Nazi terror and as one of its victims.

Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Judaism and Holocaust studies at Atlanta’s Emory University and author of”Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”(Free Press) said that Dragan and Alvi”are on the fringe of Holocaust denial, distressed by the fact that Poles were accused of expressing anti-SemitismâÂ?¦ in the aftermath of the war.” Michael Berenbaum, director of the research institute at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that Eliach’s situation is part”of a much larger struggle within the Polish community.””The Polish president (Aleksander Kwasniewski) is committed to improving relations between Poles and Jews,”Berenbaum said.”This has led to resentment in the extreme right-wing segment of the Polish communities.” While in Washington this week, Kwasniewski visited the Holocaust Museum and expressed regrets over the postwar slaughter of Jews by Poles in another Polish village, Kielce.

Eliach’s account of the death of her mother and brother has been published in numerous books and scholarly articles; transcripts of witnesses to the murders are housed in the archives of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.

But what has raised the ire of Dragan and Alvi is the documentary,”Shtetl,”recently broadcast on the PBS series,”Frontline.”The film offended many Polish-Americans because it focused attention on anti-Semitic actions by Poles before, during, and after World War II.”Frontline,”which maintained a home page on the Internet, drew much heated criticism from some Polish-Americans, who considered it an unfair rendering.

An erroneous story recently published in a suburban New York newspaper further fueled Dragan’s and Alvi’s contention that Eliach was an unreliable source of information about the Holocaust.

After hearing Eliach lecture at Sacred Heart High School in Yonkers, N.Y., Gannett Suburban Newspapers staff columnist Nancy Q. Keefe erroneously reported that Eliach’s family was murdered by Germans while hiding in a cave rather than in the attic and made other factual errors.

Keefe corrected her mistakes in a later column, but neither Dragan or Alvi acknowledged the correction. Dragan said it”doesn’t matter whether she (Keefe) heard correctly,”and Alvi said that the correction”doesn’t make much of a difference.” But the attacks on Eliach have taken on a life of their own.

U.S. News & World Report reported July 8 in its”Washington Whispers”section that the Polish ministry of justice has launched an official investigation of Eliach’s account, in cooperation with the division of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Special Investigations, which investigates Nazi war criminals.

However, a Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged receiving a request from the Polish government to interview Eliach, but said no U.S. investigation is underway.”We deeply regret that some individuals claim that this is an investigation of her veracity,”said the official.”We have the highest regard for Professor Eliach’s work, and we have complete confidence in her veracity.” Dragan’s and Alvi’s continued insistence that Eliach fabricated her story has earned them some criticism in the North American Polish community .

Bernard Wisniewski, secretary general of the Canadian Polish Congress, rejected the tactics of Dragan’s Polish Historical Society.”They use the name `Polish Historical Society,’ yet they are completely distorting the history,”he said.

Eliach’s daughter Smadar, who was named for her murdered grandmother, said the distortions will not deter the family from telling the true story.”If deniers say it enough times, people believe it,”she said.”It’s horrible. So we must respond and keep telling our story.”JC END LEBOWITZ

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