Jews are led by German Waffen SS soldiers to the assembly point for deportation, Warsaw 1943.

Too Much Forgetting

Letter from Poland

Returning to Krakow at the end of the day, having navigated unaccountably tangled traffic, we disembarked from the airless bus and stepped into a beautiful, cool city evening. One of the few European capitals to have been spared bombing during World War II, Krakow would have been an inviting prospect in any case, but we were especially grateful to be there after our excursion to Auschwitz. It had been a day of virtual silence as we moved methodically from building to building of the infamous Stammlager, or main camp, then after lunch traipsed through the Birkenau sub-camp, built to accommodate the killing of millions of mainly Eastern European Jews.

With poplars glistening in the morning sun, and the branches of monumental birch trees wafting in the breeze, Auschwitz was, as one my students remarked, actually quite beautiful—or would have been, if only we could block out the genocide conducted there. We were a group of undergraduates and faculty from the University of Notre Dame, part of the new “International Economics Abroad” initiative, here to attend a seminar at the Krakow State University of Economics. The focus was the economics of migration and refugees, a topic central to Polish history and national myth.

The morning after our visit to Auschwitz, we proceeded with the seminar.  Presenting his research on Polish “remigres”—Poles who return after having lived abroad—Professor Jan Brzozowski began his lecture by emphasizing the mono-ethnic nature of Polish society. Referencing our group’s excursion the previous day, he suggested that we would understand why the country is mono-ethnic: its Jews, once almost 13 percent of the population, had been obliterated by the war, and the “occupied Poland” of the Cold War was not permitted to admit immigrants.

The night before, I had asked Kasia, our city guide, about the Krakow Jewish ghetto, and she had balked. What ghetto? she asked. She explained that the Jews had lived happily in Krakow in a “district” all their own, separate by their own choosing; the only exception, she maintained, was the period of Nazi occupation. There was that phrase again. Indeed, “occupied Poland” became a refrain we would hear almost as frequently as “partitioned Poland” (a reference to the eighteenth-century division of the nation among Prussia, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian empire), which was really just another way of saying the same thing. According to this narrative, Poland and Poles had no part in the disappearance of the Jews. So would we see any Jews in our visit to the Jewish District? I asked. “No. Now, no more Jews,” Kasia responded. “The Jews are gone.”

The neglected suffering of the Poles under occupation turned out to be a theme that linked a number of our events in Krakow.

The neglected suffering of the Poles under occupation turned out to be a theme that linked a number of our events in Krakow. Marta, our very competent guide at Auschwitz (and a graduate student of history and Jewish Studies at the University of Krakow), spoke knowledgably of the murder of Jews, particularly as conducted at Auschwitz. But she punctuated her presentation with frequent pleas, strange to our American ears: “Please remember that Poles were also prisoners at Auschwitz.” Why these regular reminders? Maybe she was just rectifying what she guessed was a too simple narrative in the minds of her young American tour group.

And that narrative probably is too simple. That morning, on the bus ride to Auschwitz, I had attempted to provide a brief overview of the genocide, in order to give our students some context for what they were about to see. I laid out the three phases, following Raul Hilberg, of discrimination, concentration, and extermination. Going beyond Germans and Jews, I inquired into the Poles. My brief bullet points reviewed the post-WWI reconstitution of the Polish state and its demise at the outset of WWII, as German tanks rolled over the border on September 1, 1939. Poles were themselves considered Untermenschen (subhuman) by the Nazis, barely better than Jews, and may well have been next on their genocidal agenda. Poles were incarcerated in large numbers and sent to Germany as slave labor in armaments and other industries. In 1944, the Polish resistance mounted a major uprising against the Germans in Warsaw; they fought bravely for more than two months, but Soviet forces, gathered on the outskirts of the city, simply let them be mowed down—some 200,000—by German tanks and guns. And did our students know about the 1940 Katyń massacre—the mass murder of Polish elites, some twenty-two-thousand officers and members of the intelligentsia?

Students looking at the “Every Person Has a Name” exhibit at Auschwitz. (William Collins Donahue)

That is where I took a wrong turn myself. Misidentifying the perpetrators of this crime, I inadvertently retold the old Soviet lie—imposed on Poland throughout the Cold War—that it was the Nazis who murdered the Polish elite, rather than the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police, who in fact carefully planned and implemented the mass murder during the Soviet Union’s alliance with Nazi Germany at the beginning of the war. It was not my finest hour. But there was little risk of seriously misleading my students: for whenever I asked about the Jews, it was Katyń that came up.

The error I made helps me better understand Marta’s predicament. Auschwitz now draws well over one million visitors each year, many of whom may come in order to confirm a story they feel they already understand pretty well. But few visit the Katyń forest memorial. There, the mass graves hastily dug by the Soviets after the 1940 massacre soon began disgorging their putrefying contents, contaminating the groundwater, killing off fish in nearby lakes, and compelling the Nazis, as they advanced eastward to attack the Soviet Union in 1941, to exhume and burn the bodies. Needless to say, it was not the SS elites, but prisoners (often Jews) who were forced to carry out this gruesome task.

Can a memorial such as Auschwitz capture this adjacent story of horror? Should it? Site-specific memorials face a dilemma. If they only tell the story of “what happened here,” they inevitably offer a partial, even myopic perspective. Auschwitz counters this with a poignant exhibit about Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe prior to the war, with some attention to resistance, survivors, and postwar Jewish life. But if exhibits go too far in this direction, attempting to tell the “whole story” (think of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), the sweep of information can easily overwhelm. In their efforts to provide the comprehensive narrative, well-intentioned pedagogues—such as those who designed the permanent exhibit at the Nuremberg Nazi Rally site we had visited just the week before—can risk overwhelming the visitors they hope to engage. (I succumbed to the excessive weight of information and gave up two-thirds of the way through.) So where to draw the line?

For years, telling the story of Polish suffering was held to be antithetical to the mission of Auschwitz. Commemoration was treated as a zero-sum game: to remember one group was somehow to neglect another. While this tension hasn’t totally dissipated, a more integrative approach now exists. Speaking at the dedication of the memorial in the Katyń forest several years ago, Auschwitz Museum Director Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński called the history of Katyń and Auschwitz “inseparably connected,” remarking on a later occasion that “these places are different faces of the same tragedy,” and as such engender the “same need of memory.” Cywiński is a diplomat for inclusive memory, if ever there was one. His admirable mission would be less fraught, I believe, if there were greater official recognition of the history of Polish anti-Semitism. But Polish memory work has apparently been exhausted by the task of rectifying the Cold War suppression of Katyń.

Bundles abandoned by Jewish deportees from the Kraków Ghetto, March 1943

In her steadfast effort to bring recognition to the Polish prisoners at Auschwitz, Marta managed to convey another historical fact—namely, the routine exclusion of Jews from any sense of national belonging. For Jews were never really Poles, despite the huge role they played in Polish history and culture; during the war, they were routinely recorded as a separate “nation,” and this practice is carried over into the museum today. It is too late now to make that correction. Marta got the history right, I think, but seemed unaware of what her story says—or withholds—about today’s Poland.

At the main camp, we visited a room containing rows of huge white books, each with hundreds of oversized laminated pages. They hold the names, and brief personal data, of some of the inmates. This “Every Person Has a Name” project originated in Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial and is designed to reverse the anonymity imposed on those who died here. It is hard to explain the attraction of these massive books, but we were drawn to finger the pages and eager, even desperate, to learn more about the victims who died here. We were clearly not alone: the pages were darkened along the edges by thousands of other fingers.

It was in this room that Marta brought us up to date on Poland today. Jews, she explained, tend to view post-Holocaust Europe as one mass graveyard, and thus have not returned at all to “the Europe,” emigrating instead to Israel or the United States. Having just come from Berlin, where our program is based, I knew that this wasn’t quite true. Yes, in the immediate postwar years, many Jews fled Europe. But seventy-plus years later there is one prominent European country to which Jews—including many Israelis—have returned in astounding numbers: Germany, now home to at least two-hundred-thousand Jews, what Haaretz has called “the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world.” So why not destination Poland? Marta correctly reminded us that Poland was the site of all the major extermination camps. But why does Germany, the actual perpetrator of genocide, fare better when it comes to the return of Jews?

Why does Germany, the actual perpetrator of genocide, fare better when it comes to the return of Jews?

Of course Germany’s economic success plays a big role in spurring immigration. For Jews, however, the German consensus on the Holocaust has been even more decisive. Like no other country—ever—Germany has publicly come to terms with its national sins, commemorating its own state-sponsored genocide and making a series of dramatic, ritual apologies, beginning with Chancellor Willy Brandt’s celebrated Kniefall, his seemingly spontaneous (but in fact carefully planned) genuflection during a visit to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970. Historian Fritz Stern famously termed Unification Germany’s great “second chance”; but in truth, that second chance dates to Germany’s candid confrontation with its Nazi past, and has continued with its recent and dramatic admittance of over one million refugees.

Taking in refugees in these numbers altered Germany’s conception of itself, as well as its reputation abroad. Like Poland, Germany has a tradition of ethnic homogeneity, and long insisted that it was no Einwanderungsland (land of immigration), specifically distancing itself from the American model of multiculturalism in favor of a society based on das Volk, the German people. For years, in the face of gradually increasing ethnic diversity, Germans spoke only of “guest workers” and “asylum seekers,” remaining staunchly committed to the mono-ethnic ideal that still characterizes present-day Poland. But a number of factors converged, not the least of which is Germany’s own low birthrate, to bring about a reversal of that self-definition. Today the federal government funds shelters, hostels, and even language classes—poignantly called Willkommensklassen, or welcome classes—for Syrian and other refugees.

Is Germany today the quintessential land of hospitality and openness? The answer is more complicated than such sunny phrases suggest: there is clearly little appetite to expand the welcome so generously extended to Middle Eastern refugees in 2015, and Germans—especially those in the East—readily grumble about the policy. Yet it is one they have nevertheless fundamentally accepted. Poles, in comparison, have no such policy and no such evolving story about themselves. To be sure, they did not perpetrate a genocide. Still, when it comes to reconciliation with Jews and to welcoming other religious and ethnic groups, the contrast between the two countries today is dramatic. Rather than embracing diversity, Poland has seen a profound inward-turning, cultivated by a sense of national victimhood. The belated recognition of the Soviet perpetration of the Katyń bloodbath occupied the public for almost two decades, culminating in reconciliation ceremonies in Russia presided over by Vladimir Putin. It is as if all the commemorational energy in Poland was absorbed by this effort. At any rate, during the almost seven hours of touring both Auschwitz and Krakow, we heard nothing—not a word—about Polish anti-Semitism, or about the extent to which some Poles collaborated not only in the Nazi occupation, but in the genocide itself.

The scope of that collaboration has been a subject of ongoing controversy. Jan Gross’s 2001 book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, foregrounded the leading role of Poles in the murder of some Jews, and ignited a furious debate in Poland. If subsequent studies have found that Gross’s thesis overreached somewhat, the basic fact of Polish collaboration remains. (Christopher Browning’s widely admired Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992) had already documented that fact.) Stanisław Musiał, a Polish priest who advocates for Polish-Jewish dialogue, credits Gross—and the conversation he ignited—with unwinding the myth of pure Polish victimhood. And Gross is not alone in this effort. Research into the Holocaust as it played out throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans—with and without the willing assistance of local populations—is one of the most productive areas of contemporary research, evidenced by such influential works as Timothy Snyder’s 2015 Black Earth: Holocaust as History and Warning. Yet if you take a tour of Auschwitz today, you will hear none of this. Instead, you will be reminded that Nazis removed local Poles from the town of Oświęcim so that they would know nothing of the atrocities occurring at Auschwitz. The refrain of a beleaguered “occupied Poland” casts the country as the site of Nazi crimes, nothing more.

Polish anxiety about cultural homogeneity continues today—possibly in some measure because of the nation’s unresolved relationship to the Holocaust. Bishop Rydzyk, Poland’s most influential Catholic, who presides over popular radio and television shows (and, according to Brzozowski, keeps a coterie of politicians in his pocket), actively opposes welcoming Muslim refugees. In defiance of Pope Francis’s explicit exhortations, Rydzyk fans fears about the “Muslimification” of Polish Catholic society via his influential and extremely conservative Radio Maryja.

While Francis is flatly ignored on the welcome of Syrian refugees, he is prominently trotted out to document Catholic commemoration of the Holocaust

But while Francis is flatly ignored on the welcome of Syrian refugees, he is prominently trotted out to document Catholic commemoration of the Holocaust: on numerous huge posters displayed in one of Krakow’s beautiful central parks, visitors cannot miss seeing somber images of the pontiff, walking quietly along the pathways of Auschwitz. This strikes me as a puzzling, even paradoxical effort by the Poles. Of course the pope has his own reasons for visiting Auschwitz. But in a roundabout way it seems that his visit is being used to bolster what the Poles want to enshrine—the Holocaust as justification for Polish monoculturalism. This linkage makes that monoculturalism seem somehow inevitable, perhaps even a bit tragic. And it tends to relegate to history, and to others, what is really the responsibility of contemporary Poles.

The failure to thematize Polish anti-Semitism seems an odd and troubling lacuna at Auschwitz, a site where, rightly or wrongly, we expect a more or less definitive narrative.  (Germans, for example, frequently use “Auschwitz” to stand for the genocide in its entirety.) While referring to Poland repeatedly and exclusively as “occupied Poland” is technically correct, it is also misleading. This incessant focus on Poland as victim, on Poland as violated and oppressed, obscures a more nuanced view, one that would face up to an ugly history of anti-Semitism. How many people know, for example, that a lethal anti-Semitic pogrom—resulting in the murder of some forty Jews in Kielce—occurred in postwar Poland, in 1946? The pogrom was initiated by, believe it or not, a medieval blood-libel rumor, the age-old anti-Semitic tale that a Christian boy had been kidnapped by Jews for nefarious ritual purposes. On top of the Holocaust itself, this homegrown Jew-hatred contributed to the postwar mass exodus of Jews from Poland, and helps explain why the country remains so ethnically homogenous today.

The legacy of Polish anti-Semitism remains important even today. In Berlin, the chief dramaturg at the Gorki Theater told us that his ensemble decided to support the choral theatre of celebrated Polish director Marta Górnicka in part because in Poland her work was deemed zu jüdisch (too Jewish). Without sacrificing its principal charge of telling the story of what happened on site, the Auschwitz memorial could, it seems to me, accommodate more historical context in this regard. Jews have not returned to Poland in any appreciable numbers because of the Holocaust; that much is certainly true. But let’s be honest: it is also because Poland has neither vigorously confessed to, nor prominently commemorated, its own anti-Jewish bigotry and violence.

Kracow may lack Jews (Jan Brzozowski guesses there are “maybe two dozen Jewish families in Krakow, mostly expats doing business”), but it does have a bustling Jewish Quarter, where we spent a beautiful evening. According to our guide, it is an artists’ quarter, home to “Cracowian bohemians.” Totally refurbished since the end of the Soviet era, it is quite the tourist destination, boasting a picturesque square, several synagogues, and a couple of nice restaurants. Steven Spielberg filmed scenes from Schindler’s List here, giving a boost to local tour operators. We ate an “authentic” Jewish meal in the cavernous cellar of the restaurant “Ariel,” named after the Hebrew angel of wrath who metes out punishment. No sign of this avenging spirit intruded on this balmy summer evening, where we tourists happily handed over our zlotys in exchange for a good time. A pair of klezmer bands played to a full house, talented young musicians presenting klezmer-inspired jazz numbers, including some original work.

One can’t help feeling that this resurrected Jewish District—where Jews once “happily” segregated themselves, according to Kasia—serves a crucial Polish public-relations function. And to be completely honest, on that temperate summer evening, it felt, well, almost restorative to us as well. After a long day at Auschwitz, it can feel good—maybe too good—to relax on this carefully constructed stage set: a reconstituted Polish Jewish District, only without the Jews.

Published in the October 6, 2017 issue: 

William Collins Donahue is a fellow of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, Cavanaugh Professor of the Humanities, and chair of the Department of Russian and German at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of the study Holocaust as Fiction (2012).

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