Competing Narratives of Jewish History and the Holocaust: Reflections on My Recent Journey to Poland

October 4, 2022
The old historic Synagogue, which contrasts with an office building in Warsaw, Poland (@ Didier Marti/Getty Images)

The relationship between Poles and Jews is complex and often contentious, historically when Poland was the home to the largest Jewish community in the world, ever more so when it was the site chosen by the Germans for the murder of Jews in death camps, and even today. We both remember a shared history, but often we remember it quite differently.

In 2018, Poland passed a law on Holocaust remembrance that the government believed would have benign implications on Polish-Jewish relations. The law sought to outlaw conflating the crimes committed by the Third Reich in occupied Poland with the Polish nation. While the Polish government may not be equally culpable for the crimes under German occupation, the law inhibited discourse on Polish complicity and accurate Holocaust memorialization.

The Israeli and American governments, along with the Jewish community, responded with strong condemnation. Accordingly, the Polish government recanted the possibility of criminal prosecution for violating the law; however, civil penalties remain. The second version of the law did not exclude creative and scholarly work in contrast to its predecessor. Israel, which initially agreed to the law, was slow to distinguish the differences, so much so that Yad Vashem, a government-sponsored memorial institution, admonished Israel’s complacency.

The issue of Holocaust remembrance is fraught in some cases, and there are competing narratives on how to accurately honor its victims. Three dominant narratives in the collection of Holocaust remembrance include: the Jews living in Poland, the Polish government, and Jews outside of Poland. Each narrative fails to incorporate a comprehensive overview of pre-Holocaust, the Holocaust and its aftermath.

Some neglect to include the complete arc of Jewish history in Poland, the background of Poland’s territorial sovereignty, or the resurgence of the Jewish community in Poland. However, a comprehensive narrative of the Holocaust in Poland under German occupation must account for 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland, the context of previous conquests and annexation of Polish territory, and the current composition of Jewish life.

When studying the events of the Holocaust and World War II, specifically in Poland, many begin on September 1, 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland. Some posit that a more accurate starting point is the moments leading up to Germany’s invasion with the Anschluss of Austria, the takeover of the Sudetenland with the appeasement of Hitler by France and England, and the March 1939 conquest of Czechoslovakia.

While both of those dates align accurately with one objective of the Third Reich, to capture sufficient lebensraum,living space, for a more prosperous Germany unconstrained by territorial limitations, they neglect the second, more salient and consequential objective: the complete annihilation of the Jews, which was at the crux of Hitler’s nefarious intentions.

In 1939, there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland amounting to approximately ten percent of Poland’s population. Such a prevalent Jewish demographic could not exist without suitable conditions that could enable a minority group to survive and even thrive in segments. While the territory under the auspices of the Polish State expanded and retracted, Jews within its border, notwithstanding anti-Jewish riots and expulsions from certain cities, benefited from proclamations and statutes enumerating their rights. As a consequence of greater religious freedoms, synagogues, yeshivas, and other cornerstones of Jewish life sprouted throughout Poland. Hitler chose Poland to be the location for his death camps because Poland was the epicenter of Jewish life in Europe, far enough from Germany to provide a measure of secrecy, and some Poles supported the annihilation of Jews.

Although some overlook the integral role a thriving pre-World War II Polish Jewry plays on the narrative of the Holocaust, the contemporary Polish Jewish community and Poland’s government actively seek to highlight how it flourished before the Holocaust. And the rebirth of the Jewish community after communism, while modest in scope, is deeply symbolic in importance. Situated next to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial, the POLIN Museum broke ground in 2007 and opened in 2013, filling a massive chasm in Polish museology. The POLIN Museum is not simply another Holocaust museum within the myriad Holocaust exhibits and memorials.

The POLIN Museum is a paradigm for what the rest of Polish Jewry seeks to achieve. The Holocaust and World War II, as destructive and unfathomable as the events were, dominated six years of Jewish history in Poland. The museum adequately and accurately depicts the events of the Holocaust within the greater context of the history of Jews in Poland. To some, the Holocaust is the beginning, middle and end of Polish Jewry. For the POLIN Museum, the Holocaust is one of many examples of how governments and people were both historically cordial or antagonistic to the Jewish people in Poland.

The Holocaust does not mark the end of Jewish history in Poland. Between the culmination of World War II and the fall of communism in 1989, the vast majority of Poland’s surviving Jewish community, more than 350,00 people, emigrated out of Poland. Figures vary on how many Jews stayed; however, the community that remained could not be rebuilt until the democratization of Poland.

As Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich expressed, “A Jewish community in Poland is the result of democracy.” The liberalization of Poland became a catalyst for those who hid their Jewish identity to share who they truly were. Second, it initiated uninfringed access to academic sources and the study of Jewish history in Poland. Lastly, democracy enabled open practice of the religious and cultural elements that are sacrosanct to Judaism.

The discovery by some Poles that they are Jewish or have Jewish ancestors has sparked considerable interest in learning more about Judaism. Access to academic sources spurred an influx of scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, to study Jewish archives and Jewish history. Freedom of religion has ushered in a growing Jewish community in Warsaw led by Rabbi Schudrich, a JCC in Warsaw and a JCC Krakow that provide shabbat meals and teach Hebrew, a 34-year-old Krakow Jewish festival that is the largest Jewish festival in the diaspora (incidentally, organized by a non-Jew), shops and restaurants dedicated to Jewish culture, and other Jewish institutions.

To say that the Jewish community in Poland could see a resurgence to pre-Holocaust levels of Jewish life would be inaccurate, but to ignore the work accomplished since the post-Holocaust democratization of Poland in the revival of Jewish life in Poland is a great disservice to the overall narrative of Jewish history in Poland.

To say that the Jewish community in Poland could see a resurgence to pre-Holocaust levels of Jewish life would be inaccurate, but to ignore the work accomplished since the post-Holocaust democratization of Poland in the revival of Jewish life in Poland is a great disservice to the overall narrative of Jewish history in Poland.

While the American Jewish community tends to focus primarily on the six years of the Holocaust, the Polish government and many in the Polish Jewish community emphasize the periods of Jewish prosperity before World War II and in the last decades.

The Polish government and many Poles place the Holocaust and World War II within the structure of Polish sovereignty and the historical infringement of Polish self-determination by its neighbors. In addition to German occupation, Poland lost battles against Kievan Rus and the Holy Roman Empire; the third partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth eliminated Polish sovereignty over its territory for 123 years; and political freedom and open markets crumbled under communist influence after World War II.

The larger Polish narrative differs from that of the Polish Jewish community. In this account, Nazi Germany’s occupation of Poland in 1939 is just another example of Poland as the victim of enemy aggression. While many of the most horrific atrocities committed during the Holocaust happened on Polish soil, the Germans occupied the country. Of course, there were Polish collaborators, Nazi sympathizers and Poles who turned in Jews to receive a reward. However, Poland’s government argues that the Polish government, then in exile in London, did not participate in the persecution of Jews, Roma and political prisoners.

Poland’s narrative depends on distinguishing aggressors and elucidating a degree of Polish victimhood. It agonizes over the difference between calling concentration camps “Nazi concentration camps in German-occupied Poland” as opposed to a less precise “Polish concentration camps,” often used within the Jewish community. To the native English speaker, the meaning of Polish concentration camps is clear. To Poles, the suggestion of Polish concentration camps obfuscates who was culpable for the crimes, who established and ran the camps, and who was in charge of the country. When applicable, Poland uses the German names of ghettos. For example, most Jews would be familiar with the Lodz Ghetto; however, the Poles will refer to it only as the Litzmannstadt Ghetto. In research conducted by institutes funded by the Polish government, a greater emphasis is placed on righteous Poles and crimes inflicted on ethnic Poles. Although the Polish government recognizes Jews as the main target of Nazi Germany, officials insist on including and stressing Polish suffering in the narrative.

A third storyline, the narrative of Jews outside of Poland, revolves around Jewish suffering, preserving faith, and the establishment of the State of Israel. To many Jews, Poland is nothing less and nothing more than a massive Jewish cemetery. Trips that take Jews to visit the cemeteries and killing centers at Lodz, Chelmno, Sobibor, Madjanek, Treblinka, Auschwitz and Birkenau corroborate the aforementioned claim. But these visits fail to capture the broader scope and context of Jewish history in Poland. As Helise Lieberman, the director of the Taube Center, stated, “Only going to concentration camps and ghettos is not education.”

Educating young Jews about the Holocaust cannot be confined to an equation: death and suffering plus preservation of faith equals the creation of Israel. The Holocaust is an example of the most malevolent actions within the spectrum of human capabilities. However, the presence of Jewish life in Poland should be celebrated alongside the recognition of these atrocities. It should be just as much an integral part of studying the Jewish experience in Poland. Likewise, Poland’s government must acknowledge and discern the roles of individual collaborators even while recognizing that the Polish nation was under German occupation.

The mechanisms by which governments and people reckon with their pasts are indicative of the future they are looking to build. If Jews focus solely on death and destruction, it will serve as a signal to the generations that follow that Jewish life is confined to moments of sorrow—hardly a reliable foundation on which to build. Similarly, should the Polish government disproportionately concentrate on Polish woes, it would catalyze a future where distorting history becomes an instrument for personal gain. For the Polish Jewish community, Poland’s government, and the Jewish community at-large, a comprehensive narrative is sacrosanct to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and ensuring a brighter future.

Ezra Hess is a Program Associate for NCSEJ, the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to advocating for Jews in the former Soviet States and its historic sphere of influence. Recently, he participated in a trip funded by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bring members of American Jewish organizations to Poland.

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