When Wikipedia Distorts the Holocaust. Interview with Shira Klein and Jan Grabowski.

Historians Shira Klein and Jan Grabowski have published an important article on the distortions of the history of the Holocaust — particularly in Poland — present on a large number of Wikipedia pages. They analyze the practices of certain Wikipedians, those volunteers who contribute to the editing of the open encyclopedia, who aim to minimize, omit or even deny a series of historical facts; in particular those that affect the image of a victimized and heroic Poland, with a large number of Righteous who saved Jews during the war. Interview conducted by Ewa Tartakowsky.


Mini globe Wikipédia dans les bureaux de la Wikimedia Foundation à San Francisco


You have just published an article, which was widely followed by the international press, on the historical distortions of some Wikipedia sites in Polish about the history of the Holocaust. You analyze the practices of some Wikipedians, these volunteer contributors to this open encyclopedia, who aim to minimize, omit, or even deny certain historical facts, particularly those that affect the image of Poland as a victim and hero in its sacrifice to the Jews. Before coming to your recent analysis of Wikipedia, could you come back to the context in which these practices occur?

Jan Grabowski: Since the beginning of this century the politics of memory started to play more and more prominent role in the political and public life in Poland. This phenomenon was, in part, due to the expectations of the European Union which pressured its future members to align their understanding of the Shoah with what was considered the dominant narrative by the Western democracies.  Equally important was the long-pending desire to take stock of the events of own national past which until recently have been obfuscated, distorted, or simply removed from the curriculum by the communist authorities. Finally, the opening years of the 21st century marked a period of growing nationalisms which more and more energetically asserted their place on the political map of Eastern Europe.  The history of the Holocaust found itself, early on, at the very centre of Polish memorial policies because it was the only part of Polish history which had a universal, world-wide meaning. It was, therefore, the only part of Polish history which the Polish authorities had no control over. To gain control over the Holocaust narrative has become the main objective of the ‘history policy’ of the Polish state.

What was the consequence of this situation?

Jan Grabowski: The result was the creation of several institutions charged by the authorities with the development and enforcement of the official, state-approved, version of national history. Foremost among them was the Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej – IPN), created by the decision of the Parliament in 1998. Initially, the mandate of the institution was to look at the 20th century crimes committed against the Polish nation and to prosecute people involved with the communist system during the 1944-1989 period.  With time, the mandate has been expanded, and included the care of enormous archival holdings, and a very broad spectrum of educational activities beefed up with a massive research portfolio.  The IPN soon went on a shopping spree, hiring hundreds of professional historians, it soon became the largest “producer” of historiography in Poland.  Nowadays, the IPN, weaponized by the Polish state with an annual budget of 500,000,000 zlotys ($125,000,000), with more than 2,500 employees (including three hundred employees with doctoral and professorial titles) has become the major player on the “memorial” field, worldwide. It has also become a clear and present threat to the memory of the Holocaust.

The IPN, since the very beginning, had a distinctively right-wing tilt (“defending the good name of the nation”) and, not surprisingly, it has become a refuge for nationalists of various hues. The ideological evolution of the IPN has accelerated since the Right and Justice party (PIS) came to power in 2015 and has reached its logical conclusion with the appointment, in 2021, of Dr. Tomasz Greniuch to the position of director of IPN’s large office in Wrocław.  Dr. Greniuch is a former neo-Nazi, publicly lifting his right arm in a Nazi salute (also known as Hitlergruß, or “Hitler greeting”) and an admirer of Hitler’s favorite “son, I never had”, Leon Degrelle.

The IPN is not the only institution active in this field. 

Jan Grabowski: Indeed, next to the IPN is the Pilecki Institute, founded in 2017, which might be called IPN-light, a smaller outfit (active not only in Poland but also abroad, with a German branch opened in Berlin, with another one scheduled to open in New York) which works hand in hand with the IPN, attacking independent historians and promoting the myth of “innocent Poland”.  Pilecki Institute, weaponized with significant funds from the state budget, now offers Western academics grants, financially attractive awards, paid lectures, pays for translation and publication of their books, and covers the cost of travel of selected scholars.  

In 2020, the state-funded Roman Dmowski and Ignacy Jan Paderewski Institute of Legacy of National Thought, commonly named Dmowski Institut, opened for business.  For those less familiar with Polish history a word of explanation: Roman Dmowski was the founder and leader of the Polish National Democracy (Endecja) party, and a rabid antisemite who made the struggle against the Jews a cornerstone of his political ideology. Despite its recent establishment, the Dmowski Institute already managed to gain notoriety, serving as a clearing house for the disbursement of government funds (known as “Patriotic Fund”) earmarked for extreme nationalists and their militias. 

Then, there is the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, selling the state historical narrative (through a number of specialized branches) to foreign audiences. There are also various GONGOs (“Government-organized NGOs”), generously subsidized by Polish taxpayers with direct links to the Polish authorities.  Although their names sound burlesque-like: “The Institute to Combat Anti-Polonism Verba Veritatis” or “The Redoubt of Defense of the Good Name of the Polish Nation”, there is nothing amusing about their activities. 

After 2015, the Polish “memorial” museums have been drafted to join the state-sponsored assault on history.  Some of them, such as the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw or the Museum of WW II in Gdańsk saw the appointment of new directors, loyal soldiers of the nationalist regime, and aligned their narrative with the expectations of the authorities.  Colossal sums have been committed by the Polish government towards the building of new museums, all of which entirely, or in part, have a role to play in the memorial warfare against the history of the Holocaust. In 2016, the Ulma Museum of Poles Rescuing Jews in Markowa opened for business; the Museum of the Warsaw Ghetto (introduced by Minister of Culture Gliński as “the museum of Polish-Jewish love”)  is scheduled to open in 2025, the huge Museum of Polish History will open later this year in Warsaw, and two museums of “Cursed Soldiers”, opened last year.

When it comes to studying the history of the Holocaust, the attacks are also affecting the legal field. Can you come back to this?

Jan Grabowski: Indeed, there are the laws. These legal regulations, meant to defend the “honor of the nation”, are styled after the legislation dating back to the 1930s.  Originally introduced into the Polish criminal code in 1932 as article152, the law called for terms of imprisonment of up to three years for those, who “publicly deride or mock Polish Nation or Polish State”.  During the late 1930s, in the context of growing nationalism and antisemitism, this law has been often applied against Polish Jews. After the war, under communism, the law was changed to better reflect the new political realities.  Article 133 of criminal code stipulated ten years in prison for those who “publicly try to subvert the unity of Polish People’s Republic with an allied state”.  It was not difficult to guess what particular state the socialist legislators had in mind.  

On June 2018, Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish PM, said in the parliament: “Those, who claim that the Polish nation, or the Polish state, bear responsibility for the crimes of WW II, should – of course – be in prison.”

In 1997, after the fall of communism the Polish lawmakers simply brought back the pre-war regulation, lock, stock and barrel.  The new article §133 of the criminal code, provides for the terms of up to three years in prison for people “slandering the good name of the Polish nation”.   The definition of the “good name of the nation” is, of course, purely arbitrary and nowadays it is up to state prosecutors, and their political masters, to decide if and when to bring charges.  In 2015,  Jan T. Gross, one of the best-known scholars of the Holocaust, a professor of history at Princeton University, opined that: “during the war, Poles killed more Jews than they killed Germans”. Undisputably true, the statement triggered furious reaction of the Polish authorities and a lengthy, and ultimately futile, investigation conducted under above-mentioned article 133 of the criminal code.   

In January 2018, the Polish parliament voted the so-called “Polish Holocaust Law” (to be exact: “Changes to the Law Regarding the Institute of National Remembrance”) which, among many other things, threatened those who “blamed the Polish society for crimes committed by the Nazi III Reich” with prison terms of up to three years.  The new law, although styled after the article 133, was much more specific, and had a clearly defined ‘memorial’ target. Correctly perceived as a threat to further study of the Holocaust and an assault on the memory of one of the greatest crimes in human history, the passage of the bill raised protests around the world.  On June 27th, 2018, retreating in the face of international indignation, the Polish government withdrew the criminal provisions of the bill.  Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish PM, said in the parliament: “Those, who claim that the Polish nation, or the Polish state, bear responsibility for the crimes of WW II, should – of course – be in prison.  But we have to act bearing in mind international realities and this is why we take them into account”.  Morawiecki assured the parliament, however, that the Polish state still had enough tools at its disposal to inflict pain on the offenders – especially by the means of civil litigation.  The new bill made it easier for NGOs to take legal civil action against “slanderers of the good name of the Polish nation”, and civil lawsuits could henceforth be filed free of court fees. Indeed, this scenario, or plan of action against Polish historians, was soon to be tested in Polish courts[1]

Let’s go back to your article, the starting point of which is the importance of Wikipedia in the formation of representations and knowledge about the Shoah. Which are the main tropes of these narratives shaped by these Wikipedians with nationalist bend?

Jan Grabowski: Main tropes concern general belief in “historical innocence” of the Polish society during WW II. In particular, it’s about the alleged universality of Polish rescue efforts of Jews during the Shoah embodied by the expression “Millions of Poles recued Jews” (!), whose logical consequence is the inflating the numbers of Poles killed for rescuing the Jews. Another trope concerns insisting on the “Jewish complicity” in the Holocaust, attempts to paint the Jewish Councils and the Jewish police, as essential actors in German genocidal plans and insisting on the alleged large-scale collaboration of Jews and communists – especially in the context of explaining the massacres in the summer of 1941, such as Jedwabne. (‘the Jews had it coming”). The inflation of Polish war-time losses and suffering, as demonstrations of so-called ‘Holocaust envy'[2], is another important trope. The consequence is a downplaying the importance and the extent of Polish antisemitism. 

Can you give some examples of the dominant Polish rescuers narratives which suffer from distortions linked to victimization in one hand and heroization in the other of non-Jewish Poles during the WWII? 

Jan Grabowski: Pilecki Institute has a programe called “Called by Name” – erecting monuments to honor Poles killed for rescuing Jews.  One of the most recent ones is the monument of Jan Maletka, a Polish railway worker killed by the Germans on the Treblinka railway station for bringing water to Jews waiting in the death trains at the station.  There is not a shred of credible evidence that Maletka did it out of the goodness of his heart. There is an overwhelming evidence, however, of Polish railway workers selling Jews water at Treblinka station for gold, diamonds, jewelry.  

Another Pilecki monument sits in Ostrow Mazowiecka, close by. It is erected to honor Ms. Jadwiga Długoborska.  There is no credible historical evidence tying Długoborska to saving Jews, but she happens to be the aunt of Magdalena Gawin, until recently Poland’s deputy Minister of Culture, and now the director of Pilecki Institute, and this more than compensates for the lack of historical proofs of her noble wartime acts.

Irena Sendler is now universally hailed as a savoir of 2,500 Jewish children. A few hundred is a more probable number. 

Most importantly, the history of the rescuers is taken out of context. In reality, they were courageous people who were, most of all, afraid of being denounced by their own neighbors.  In the Polish society there was little acceptance for people who gave shelter to Jews.  The most glaring example is the Markowa museum of the Ulma family. Ulmas have been executed for rescuing Jews – this story is told multiple times. What is not told, is the fact the the “Final Solution” in that village (and in many other villages in that area) has been done without even one German present!  That the local Jews have been robbed, raped and murdered by possess of local peasants, local voluntary firefighting brigades and Polish Blue policemen. 

These distortions can be found in Wikipedia.

Another trope is the one of Jews as communists and collaborators. Which are these narratives? 

Jan Grabowski: In order to explain the massacres such as Jedwabne, Jews are presented as the chief force in the Soviet-organized militias which organized deportations to Siberia. In fact, the Jews were, proportionally, the largest group among the people deported. Second, the Jews were more visible in the militia – because the sight of Jews in any kind of police force came to non-Jewish observers as a shock. Implying that Polish communists of Jewish origin were following their own “Jewish” (and not communist) agenda. That post-war pogroms and murders of Jews were caused by political and not racial reasons (“Jews killed as communists, not as Jews”) 

In your article, you address very important question about the scientificity of Wikipedia, which concerns in fact all this collaborative tool. You also mention the problem of sourcing and referencing the Wikipedia’s articles. Can you explain the difference between visibility of authors on Wikipedia and Google Scholar you have analyzed and how it plays a role in the visibility of scientific knowledge on the net? 

Jan Grabowski: In order to shore up the Polish national myths, the Wikipedia editors engaging in Holocaust distortion have to quote unreliable authors and unreliable sources which they have to “sell” to other editors as trustworthy and valuable ones. They do it in a variety of ways which we describe in the article in detail. Finally, they tend to discredit most eminent historians, in order to bring them to the level of their own authors. In the end, fringe authors, such as Lucas or Chodakiewicz, are being quoted more often than the most eminent historians in the field. 

In this context, the moderating of the scientific discussion seems to be crucial. Can you explain the ArtCom case?

Shira Klein: It’s ArbCom, short for Arbitration Committee. In addition to Wikipedia’s many active editors on English Wikipedia, there is a 12-member Arbitration Committee, often dubbed Wikipedia’s Supreme Court. A few months after our publication came out, Wikipedia’s ArbCom released a ruling responding to our study, sanctioning several editors. While this may seem promising, in fact, ArbCom’s actions should concern anyone who cares about disinformation. 

[There is] a gaping hole in Wikipedia’s security apparatus. Its safeguards only protect us from fake information when enough editors reach a consensus that the information is indeed fake.

This was the third ArbCom case on the Holocaust to make the same mistakes. ArbCom paid lip service to the importance of tackling source manipulations, while completely disregarding dozens of such problems presented to them by our study and by concerned editors. By ignoring egregiously false content, and focusing only on editors’ civility, ArbCom sends the message that there’s no problem with falsifying the past, as long as you are nice about it. The results are tragic: The arbitrators banned one editor who, as our article showed, had brought in trustworthy scholarship to rebut the distortions. They sanctioned another editor for documenting the distortionists’ whitewashing of current Polish antisemitic figurines (called, tellingly, “Jew with a Coin”).

Worse still, they described as “exemplary” a distortionist editor who has defended Holocaust revisionist Ewa Kurek. Kurek has claimed that Jews “had fun” in the Warsaw ghetto and that COVID-19 is a “Jewfication” of Europe. Two additional editors who were banned are indeed distortionists, but the ban (appealable in 12 months) responded to their bad manners, not their manipulation of history.

It’s worth noting that the committee’s mandate is to judge conduct, never content. This is a good policy. We wouldn’t want arbitrators, who are anonymous volunteers with no expertise in any particular subject, to control content. Wikipedia’s strength lies in its enabling anyone to edit, democratizing knowledge like never before.

But this leaves a gaping hole in Wikipedia’s security apparatus. Its safeguards only protect us from fake information when enough editors reach a consensus that the information is indeed fake. When an area is dominated by a group of individuals pushing an erroneous point of view, then wrong information becomes the consensus.

This issue also raises the question of the visibility of academic research in relation to tools for popularizing research, such as Wikipedia, or school textbooks, which I am working on and which also incorporate very little of what has been learned from the new historiography of the Holocaust. To put it somehow provocatively: isn’t research too distant to the societies? How can we, as academics, bridge this gap between the progress of research with increasingly specialized works and a popularization that seems, as in this case, deliberately more and more imprecise and distorted? 

Shira Klein: I think more academics should keep doing what they’re doing – perform the highest-quality research even at the expense of its accessibility – but also to make a habit of writing for popular audiences. We have a responsibility to disseminate our research in such a style that is accessible to the wider public, not to mention free of paywalls. To do that, however, academia needs to value scholars’ public engagement more than it currently does. Just for example, universities could encourage faculty to take courses on op-ed writing, on social media engagement.

Do these distortions both in the institutional field and in Wikipedia have a multinational, European or even global dimension that would signify that this is both a specifically Polish phenomenon and at the same time the one that resonate with a strong trend beyond Poland alone?

Shira Klein: This problem is not unique to Wikipedia’s treatment of the Holocaust. A similar disinformation campaign is taking place in Wikipedia’s articles on Native American history, where influential editors misrepresent sources to the effect of erasing Native history and whitewashing American settler colonial violence. The Wikipedia article on Andrew Jackson, plagued by such manipulations, attracts thousands of readers a day.

I also wonder about digital humanities. The AI offers today unprecedented possibilities, especially in the formulation of visual, audiovisual, and textual content. How can we protect ourselves from new probable distortions of history? This question seems to me crucial in a context where, on one hand, academic research is infinitely less diffused and read in the social field than the popular devices such as Wikipedia and, on the other hand, the AI applications propose contents from an aggregation of already existing data available precisely on the Internet, which is already full of distorted information.

Shira Klein: AI now amplifies online information on an unprecedented scale, so it’s all the more important to ensure that Wikipedia – one of AI’s sources – is accurate.

Finally, to end on a more positive note, you make a series of recommendations. What are they?

Shira Klein: The Wikimedia Foundation needs to intervene, as it has already done to stem disinformation in Chinese Wikipedia, Saudi Wikipedia and Croatian Wikipedia, with excellent results. It must do so in English Wikipedia as well.

The Wikimedia Foundation must harness subject-matter experts to assist volunteer editors. In cases where Wikipedia’s internal measures fail repeatedly, the foundation should commission scholars — mainstream scholars who are currently publishing in reputable peer-reviewed presses and work in universities unencumbered by state dictates — to weigh in.

In the case of Wikipedia’s coverage of Holocaust history, there is a need for an advisory board of established historians who would be available to advise editors on a source’s reliability, or help administrators understand whether a source has been misrepresented.

Interview by Ewa Tartakowsky

Jan Grabowski is a Professor of History at the University of Ottawa and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. His interests focus on the Holocaust in Poland and, more specifically, on the relations between Jews and Poles during the war. Professor Grabowski’s book: ‘Hunt for the Jews. Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland’ (Indiana University Press) was awarded the Yad Vashem International Book Prize for 2014. In 2018 he co-edited and co-authored ‘Dalej jest noc’ [Night Without End]. The English edition was published in 2022. Grabowski’s most recent book ‘On Duty. The Role of the Polish “Blue” Police in the Holocaust’ has been published in Poland, in March 2020 (forthcoming in English, in 2023).

Shira Kleinis Associate Professor of History at Chapman University. Her book ‘Italy’s Jews from Emancipation to Fascism’(Cambridge University Press) was awarded finalist for the 2018 National Jewish Book Award. She has received multiple grants, including from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, USC Shoah Foundation, and the Barbieri Endowment. She has taught extensively about Wikipedia and has published on the value of teaching history students to edit Wikipedia. Since 2012 she has overseen Wikipedia-editing by 150 students, who added a total of 58,000 words to Wikipedia articles. She holds a Ph.D. in History and Judaic Studies from New York University.



1 In February 2021, for example, the Polish courts initiated a suit against Professors Barbara Engelking, President of the International Auschwitz Council, and Jan Grabowski for defamation on the grounds of alleged “inaccuracies” in their book Dalej jest noc [Night without End. The Fate of Jews in German-Occupied Poland], which describes numerous cases of Polish complicity in the Jewish genocide during the Second World War. NdR
2 ”Holocaust envy” is an expression that refers to jealousy towards Jews, due to the feeling of support that the international community would have given to the Jewish people following the Holocaust. See : “Holocaust envy: the libidinal economy of the new antisemitism.”NdR.

Contact the author

    Support us!

    You can help us

    With the support of:

    Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.