Friday, 3 July, 2015

Recently four HMDT staff members undertook a learning trip to Poland, where they visited Krakow, Oświęcim, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here Communications Manager Mark Harrison reflects on Polish memorialisation of the Holocaust.

Like two other colleagues, it was the first time I had visited Poland, and the trip provided an opportunity to learn more about how the Holocaust affected Poland, and how the country remembers the Holocaust. Spending a full day learning about pre-war Jewish life in Krakow and Oświęcim gave crucial context to visiting the Auschwitz camps, and a better understanding of the Jewish society and culture in Poland that was lost. It also demonstrated the progress made in the country since 1989 in engaging truthfully and fully with the catastrophe perpetrated by the Nazis on Polish soil.

Auschwitz I – the original concentration camp and current home to the museum exhibitions – is a site where two people’s tragedies are commemorated – those of the Polish and the Jewish people. Auschwitz was initially opened as a camp for Polish political prisoners. Our guide effectively explained the enormity of the Nazi treatment of Poland – the extermination of its political, military, cultural and religious elite, severe repression of the civilian population, and a longer term genocidal plan for Germanisation of the country, which would remove or destroy the Slavic population. Auschwitz I is one of the most important sites for Polish national commemoration of the Nazi occupation, a site where tens of thousands of Polish prisoners were killed in appalling conditions.

Auschwitz barracks

Auschwitz I's barracks

This memorialisation has to sit alongside that for which Auschwitz is more infamous – the industrial killing of nearly a million Jewish people from all over Europe, making it the most significant murder site of the genocide's six million victims. These two memories haven’t always sat comfortably together.

Auschwitz I contains various ‘national exhibitions’, housed in the camp's barracks. The contrasts between these exhibitions vividly illustrate some of the contested historical narratives of the Holocaust and World War Two, particularly those prior to the fall of communism.

Poland's national exhibition was created in 1985, and its communist vintage is obvious. The Polish communist regime sought to subsume the genocide of the Jews into a narrative of Polish national suffering. According to this narrative all resistance was led by communists, and the Polish nightmare ended thanks to the liberation by the USSR. There is no mention of the specificity of the Jewish experience, or the fact that more than 90 per cent of Poland’s Jews were exterminated. The exhibition is shouty, unsubtle propaganda – bizarre when you consider how the Nazi treatment of Poland hardly needed to be exaggerated or played up. Gruesome photographs of atrocities abound.

Since 1989 there has been one significant change to the exhibition – boards have been inserted to highlight Stalin’s complicity with Hitler between 1939 and 1941 when the two dictators divided Poland between themselves with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It began the country's 50-year nightmare that didn't conclude until the fall of the Soviet Union. Interestingly, the Russian national exhibition at Auschwitz I begins abruptly in 1941 and makes no mention of the pact.

The exhibition created by Israel’s Yad Vashem at Auschwitz I is dramatically different. Simply entitled Shoah, it tells the story of the Holocaust in a humane and respectful way. It looks at the pre-war Jewish life that was lost, drawings by incarcerated children are recreated, and the names of millions of individuals murdered are displayed in huge volumes for visitors to leaf through. It is far more effective at communicating what was lost, and the ramifications of a genocide on this scale.

Vad Vashem exhibition at Auschwitz

Recreation of a drawing by a child imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Yad Vashem exhibition 

As time goes on it is likely the Polish national exhibition will be updated, to bring it into line with the huge progress in historiography since 1989. The recent opening of Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews demonstrates how seriously modern Poland is engaging with its Jewish history. Polish museums we visited which really impressed us were the Jewish Museum in Oświęcim, and the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow. Both present nuanced, thoughtful exhibitions exploring issues like the absence of Jewish people – asking questions such as ‘what is the role of a synagogue in a town with no Jews?’ There’s also a willingness to talk about the chequered history of Jewish life and antisemitism in Poland.

Galicia Jewish Museum Krakow

Galicia Jewish Museum, Krakow

There continues to be an understandable reluctance among many Polish people to engage with the issue of Polish antisemitism. Too often outsiders have made ignorant criticisms which put the primary blame for the Holocaust at the door of the Polish people, instead of the perpetrators. Polish diplomats around the world are rightly alert to calling out clumsy language about ‘Polish extermination camps’. The camps were geographically in Poland, but they were put there and operated by the Germans. Many Poles interpreted Claude Lanzmann’s seminal film Shoah as having an undue focus on the casual antisemitism of Polish inhabitants of the countryside, rather than the people who actually organised and carried out the killing. When asking questions about why more Polish people didn’t assist Jews, we should remember the merciless punishment that awaited any Pole who was caught attempting to do this.

Yet engaging with these issues in an honest and calm way is really valuable. We need to be clear that the Polish experience and the Jewish experience were different – while not minimising or disrespecting the suffering of either. We should be honest that visceral antisemitism was a problem in Poland before, during and after the war. Many of the Holocaust survivors we work with can attest to this; and the fact that almost all the Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust chose to leave Poland in the late 1940s is a sobering one. The casual antisemitism of ordinary Polish people interviewed by Lanzmann in Shoah in the 1970s and 80s, and their seeming lack of interest in the fate of Jewish people, does not make them morally equivalent to the perpetrators, but it does raise questions about their roles as bystanders. 

In fact, examining the range of Polish responses to the Holocaust is especially relevant to 2016’s HMD theme – Don’t stand by. It’s interesting to really interrogate the blurred categories of collaborators, bystanders and rescuers – as it isn’t always clear who fits into which category. This isn’t to single out the Polish people for criticism but to have an honest examination of human responses to a uniquely evil situation. None of us can be confident of our own response when challenged by such a situation, but learning about the responses of others helps us to challenge and think through our own morality and beliefs.

Most Polish people are rightly proud of their country’s resistance to Nazism (and indeed to the other totalitarian evil of Soviet communism). Unlike some other European countries, there is no shameful history of collaboration by Polish leaders or enthusiastic involvement in the perpetration of the Holocaust. The Polish people suffered grievously during World War Two, and their losses should be commemorated. However, today a more self-confident post-communist Poland is able to re-examine the Holocaust with fresh eyes, acknowledge the uniqueness of the scale and nature of the genocide of the Jews, and begin to engage with the issue of the loss and absence of a Polish Jewish society and culture of more than three million people, which had been a presence for many centuries.

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Photo credit: Holocaust Memorial Day Trust