Sarah Anne Golabek-Goldman - Taube Center for Jewish Studies
Polish Historical Memory of the
In loving memory of Renée Golabek-Kaye, my mom, eternal best friend, and hero, whose
extraordinary spirit inspires everything I do
Chapter One: Background…………………………………………………………...10
Jews in Poland Before and During World War II……………..……….10
Evolving Polish Historical Memory of the Holocaust………………....25
Individual and Collective Memory……………………………….………41
Part 1: Memory of the Holocaust and Polish Jewry Under Communism……....44
Chapter Two: The Public Sphere ……………………………………………………45
Polish Literature Lessons……………………………………..…………...46
The Role of Teachers……………………………………………………….52
Additional Materials on the Holocaust and Jews………………….......53
Chapter Three: The Private Sphere…………………………………………………..59
Did Poles’ Views on the Holocaust Correspond with Communist
Personal Memories and Transmission…………………………………..73
Part 2: Memory of the Holocaust and Polish Jewry After Communism………..99
Chapter Four: New Generation of Poles……………………...……………………..100
Changing Perceptions of the Holocaust and Polish Jewry?..............100
Learning about the Holocaust in School Today…………………........103
The Role of Teachers Today……………………….………………..107
Anti-Semitism Among Young Poles……………….………….…...…….110
An Emerging Interest and New Opportunities…...………….………...112
Chapter Five: Conclusion and Possible Improvements in Holocaust Education…....115
Prewar Jewish Life and Local History…………………………………116
Appendix A: Interview Questions
Appendix B: Breakdown of Randomly Selected Interviewees by Age Group
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Over the last year and a half, I
discovered the same could be said about writing a history honors thesis. I primarily owe
thanks to Professor Katherine Jolluck. Professor Jolluck knows every detail about the
history of Jews in Poland and was the perfect individual to advise me on my research.
She invested hours in my project and offered invaluable advice on broad concepts and
small edits. Professor Jolluck always challenged me to push my writing in novel and
rewarding directions. I could not have completed this thesis without her expertise and
Professor Sean Hanretta, my academic adviser, also contributed significantly to
this project. He inspired me to approach my research from a fresh perspective and wrestle
with the complexities of the subject matter.
I am grateful to Phyllis Pollak, Virginia Visconti, and Jeff Hawthorne for helping
me combine research and public service. I would especially like to thank Phyllis for
partnering with me on our cemetery restoration project and Virginia for her unparalleled
enthusiasm throughout the thesis-writing process.
A number of individuals gave me invaluable advice on conducting research
before I left for Poland, recommended individuals I should interview, helped me become
situated in a new country, offered or suggested materials essential to my work, and even
read and edited my paper. These individuals include but are not limited to: Severyn
Ashkenazy, Mary Felstiner, Magdalena Gross, Paulina Kapuscinska, Nancy Kollmann,
Leszek and Elisabeth Lazowski, Norman Naimark, Shanna Penn, Maciej Siekierski,
Matthew Sommer, Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, Steven Uran, and Marat Volman.
I received research and public service grants from Stanford University, the Taube
Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, and the Davis Projects for Peace Foundation.
The grants allowed me to conduct research for my thesis, restore a Jewish cemetery with
school children in Białystok, and film a documentary on Polish-Jewish relations. These
once-in-a-lifetime opportunities enriched my college years beyond measure.
When I first planned my research project, I thought I would be lucky to interview
around twenty Poles about this extremely sensitive subject matter. The fact that I was
able to interview over two hundred is a testament to the openness and generosity of the
individuals I encountered. Interviewees frequently invited me into their homes for tea or a
meal following a three-hour conversation on the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations. A
number of contacts I made during the research project even developed into meaningful
friendships. Tomasz Wiśniewski, the incredible journalist and historian, picked me up at
the train station (showing me right away where to purchase the best pierogi so I would
not go hungry), offered invaluable advice and guidance on my research, and helped me
discover my family roots. Marzena Rusaczyk facilitated a number of interviews, devoted
months to editing our documentary, offered fantastic research advice, and even cooked a
few “Jewish” delicacies for me when I got homesick. Agnieszka Puchalska immediately
took me under her wings. She not only drove me to the pharmacy at 2 AM in the morning
when I had an eye infection, but also offered emotional support during the moments I
needed it the most. Because of these individuals, and so many others I do not have room
to mention, I will return to Poland.
At Stanford, Alex Harwin was always there to discuss thesis dilemmas and
ensured that my senior year would be full of adventures. Josh Fouse allowed me to talk
hours on end about the Holocaust while, at the same time, always reminding me about the
beauty in this world.
I am eternally grateful to my family. My devoted father not only instilled in me a
love of learning, but also helped me format footnotes and encouraged me to fill his inbox
with daily backups. My three incredible siblings always reminded me to take breaks and
my four aunts sent me care packages and cards in the mail while I was in the thick of
writing. I would especially like to thank my older sister, Michele, for reading my thesis
while in the midst of applying to law schools, my Aunt Libbe for offering both thesis and
life advice, and my Bubbe (Yiddish for grandmother) for being my biggest cheerleader
and role model of a strong, independent woman. Finally, a deep thanks to my beloved
Aunt Mona who not only shared part of my journey to Poland and assisted me immensely
with my documentary, but also helped make me the person I am today. Mom was right
when she said you would always be by my side.
Copyright by Neal Bedford
Almost every topic that will be explored in this thesis is controversial. Because in
this field such things are of interest: I am an American-born granddaughter of a Polish
Jewish Holocaust survivor. My family came from the Podlasie Province, the region
where I happened to conduct most of my research. Most of my family was murdered in
Auschwitz and Treblinka. My grandfather, Michel, was studying medicine in France
when the Nazis invaded. He joined the French underground resistance, receiving the
croix de guerre for his bravery.
Before writing this thesis, I lived in Poland for a total of six months over the
course of two summers. The summer after my freshman year in college, I taught English
in the small village of Zakliczyn, Poland with the organization Learning Enterprises. My
hosts, the Poręba family, were incredibly gracious and kind people and we remain in
close contact. As with the majority of my students and neighbors, they had never met a
Jew before and were eager to help me learn about my heritage in Poland.
One day, my Polish host father and I took a walk by the Jewish cemetery in
Zakliczyn. He put his hand on my shoulder and explained, “Sarah, what the Nazis did to
the Poles and the Jews was just awful.” While attending a Jewish high school, I had been
taught that the Holocaust was a uniquely Jewish experience. Yet, during our
conversation, my host father equated the Nazis’ treatment of Poles and Jews and failed to
distinguish between each people’s wartime experiences. What could account for the
difference in how we learned about and considered this time period?
The historian Michael Steinlauf wrote, “After 1948, with the totalitarian system
in place, most evidence of Polish reactions to the Holocaust concerns the actions and
attitudes of the party and state.”1 Whereas scholars have traditionally looked at decisions
of communist authorities in order to gauge Poles’ attitudes towards Jews and the
genocide under communism, my thesis explores this theme through Poles’ firsthand
accounts. While I was growing up, a number of Jewish Holocaust survivors shared their
personal stories with me and explained the importance of never forgetting this tragedy.
Indeed, many Jewish Holocaust survivors have published memoirs in recent years so that
subsequent generations may learn from their horrendous experiences. Yet, witnesses to
their plight, the Poles, have stories regarding their Jewish neighbors that are left untold.
Their memories offer new perspectives on the genocide and Polish-Jewish relations, as
well as provide insights on how humans respond to adversity and cope with trauma.
With the realization that the number of witnesses is quickly dwindling, I decided to return
Complete objectivity is something that is often difficult to achieve, especially
when a subject matter has such personal significance. However, I took great pains to be
impartial. I frequently use direct quotes and provide percentages in footnotes to avoid
generalizations. My background has not affected the conclusions I reached in this paper.
Michael Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust
(New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 62.
In the conclusion of Neighbors, Jan Gross asserts that ‘‘we have reached a
threshold at which the new generation, raised in Poland with freedom of speech and
political liberties, is ready to confront the unvarnished history of Polish-Jewish relations
during the war.’’1 For years after the war, communist portrayals of the Holocaust
highlighted the martyrdom and resistance of Poles while downplaying the ethnicity of the
victims and the unique experience of Jews at the hands of the Germans. Until the fall of
communism in 1989, a number of political leaders in Poland silenced or manipulated
memory of the Holocaust in order to achieve their political objectives. These objectives
included advancing communist ideology that downplayed national differences among
Poles in the immediate aftermath of the war, promoting Polish nationalist sentiment in the
1950s, and designating Jews as scapegoats for the nation’s economic and political woes
in the late 1960s.
Communist authorities chose to represent the war in a manner that would earn the
approval and support of the Polish populace. Poles, as with most peoples in previously
occupied territories, favored a war narrative that highlighted their many acts of heroism
but avoided addressing personal and collective guilt. The Communist Party would have
had to challenge the Polish populace by accurately representing the Holocaust in the
public sphere. Indeed, the Communist Party’s war narrative was more easily integrated
into Polish national consciousness because Polish witnesses to the Holocaust, as well as
Jewish Holocaust survivors, frequently confirmed distortions of the past.
Jan Gross, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz (New York: Penguin Group,
Inc, 2002), 73.
Misconceptions regarding the Holocaust may be glimpsed in public opinion polls
conducted in the 1990s. These studies reveal “a lack of awareness among the majority of
contemporary Polish society concerning what really happened in these lands between
1939 and 1945.”2 Despite the fact that most of the three million prewar Polish Jews were
killed during the Holocaust or fled because of a surge of anti-Semitism after the war, a
significant percentage of Poles believe that there are still many Jews in their country and
are unaware of the full extent of the genocide.3 Poles who grew up under communism
often insist that Nazis treated their ancestors just as brutally as they did Jews and believe
that Poles did everything they could to end the mass killings of their Jewish neighbors.
Poles’ memory of the Holocaust is exemplified by their perception of Auschwitz as a
representation of Polish national martyrdom, a place symbolized by the heroic Polish
resistance fighter rather than the helpless Jew led to a gas chamber.4 Communist
propaganda and witnesses’ interpretations of events, often influenced by stereotypes and
blinders, shaped collective memory of the Holocaust in Poland for over 38 years.
Despite the establishment of the Third Republic of Poland in 1990, which ended
the Communist Party’s grip on the government, the debate over representation of the
Holocaust has only intensified in recent years. While Poles often consider the heroic
Polish resistance fighter as symbolic of the Nazis’ victims and highlight cases of Polish
assistance to Jews during the war, Jews from Poland and abroad generally remember the
Holocaust as a period when Eastern European Jewry was largely annihilated. The
Feliks Tych, "The Image of the Holocaust in Polish Historical Consciousness," Polin 14
Robert Gildea, Marianne in Chains: Everyday Life in the French Heartland Under the
German Occupation (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002), 10.
historian Gunnar Svante Paulsson points to differences between Polish and Jewish
narratives of the Second World War:
For Poles the Second World War, a feast time or holy time in this sense, is
recalled as a time of exceptional solidarity, of extraordinary, historically
meaningful events, and also as sacred, a time sanctified by an enormous sacrifice
of blood, spilt to defend Poland from enemies. For the Jews, on the other hand,
the war was not a holy but a cursed time, having none of these positive aspects:
Jewish blood was spilt, not in the defense of the Jewish community, but in the
course of its almost complete destruction. Even acts of armed resistance that took
place could not, in the nature of things have been more than symbolic, in defense
perhaps of honor, but without hope of preserving or defending anything else. The
Jewish-German war was one-sided war, a war of the Nazis upon the Jews,
whereas the Polish-German war, however unequal, was a war between nations
that allowed the Poles to mount a real defense and emerge from with pride.5
Western historians have accused Poles of diminishing the Jewish catastrophe in an
attempt to bring the Polish war experience to the forefront and evade a discussion of
Polish indifference or collaboration. During recent debates regarding Polish antiSemitism and violence against Jews, such as the controversy over the massacre in
Jedwabne, a number of Poles argued that facts incriminating their compatriots were
fabricated and that discussion regarding these incidents offended their national honor.
Also contributing to the Polish-Jewish polemic is the fact that Westerners, and
Jews in particular, are often unaware that Poles experienced utter brutality under the Nazi
occupation. While many Poles refrained from assisting their Jewish neighbors because of
extreme deprivation and the threat of death, their inaction has often been misinterpreted
as anti-Semitism. Indeed, all too frequently, “Western writing about the Holocaust in
Poland treats the subject in a vacuum, seemingly assuming that the Poles, on the other
Barbara Engelking, Holocaust and Memory: The Experience of the Holocaust and its
Consequences: An Investigation Based on Personal Narratives, ed. Gunnar Paulsson
(London: Leicester University Press, 2001), xii.
side of the ghetto wall, were enjoying a normal, peacetime existence.”6 Unfortunately, the
debate on Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War has often failed to
consider the circumstances surrounding the Holocaust, including severe limitations
placed on Poles. Individuals on both sides of the Polish-Jewish debate have refused to
acknowledge that, like all peoples in Nazi occupied territory, the majority of Poles
focused on survival while a smaller number collaborated with the Nazis against their
Jewish neighbors or risked their lives in an attempt to save them.
This thesis explores how Polish historical memory of the Holocaust has evolved
from the communist era to the present. I aim to determine whether today’s young
generation of Poles, because of the more open media and increased openness in society,
are free from communist era distortions of the past that contributed to the divide between
Polish and Jewish collective memories of the Holocaust. To this end, I interviewed Poles
regarding prewar Polish-Jewish relations, reactions of Poles to the Nazi occupation, the
experiences of Jews during the Holocaust compared to those of ethnic Poles, and their
knowledge of Polish collaboration with Nazis. I examine how memory of the genocide
has changed among different generations of Poles in the cities, towns, and villages that
had the most vibrant prewar Jewish life.
I traveled to Poland in June of 2009 and remained there until the end of
September to conduct interviews. I sought to determine how different age groups of Poles
remember Polish-Jewish relations during the war and consider the experiences of Jews in
relation to those of ethnic Poles during the Holocaust. Interview questions sought to
Barbara Engelking, Holocaust and Memory, xiii.
gauge how participants learned about the Holocaust, considered the conduct of Poles
during the Holocaust, and compared wartime experiences of Polish Jews with those of
ethnic Poles. In order to determine the extent to which personal background influenced
the answers of interviewees, I asked each interviewee about his or her birth place (urban
or rural), education, work, religious views, and family wartime memories that were
passed down.7 Most interviews lasted approximately 1.5 hours. In addition, I conducted
three informal focus group sessions in Białystok and Łomża to explore these themes.8
While I had a standard list of questions, I soon discovered it was more fruitful to
allow the interviewee to shape the interview in the direction of his or her choice. I then
probed at specific points directly related to my research. Individuals who lived during the
war are still affected by the Soviet and German occupations, recalling with clarity the
death of a loved one, the constant hunger after being deported to Siberia, and the feeling
of brotherhood while fighting in an underground resistance organization. As researchers
have discovered while conducting interviews on sensitive topics, powerful experiences
“are etched in the memory and often provide the subjects around which interviewees will
construct a narrative.”9
In order to interview a random sampling of Poles, I conducted interviews at a
variety of locations, including parks, town and village squares, community centers,
shopping centers, high schools, universities, restaurants, cafés, hotels, hostels, pubs,
For the list of interview questions, see Appendix A.
In the first focus group in Białystok, there were eight 16 to 18-year-olds who I
encountered standing in front of their high school. The second focus group was also in
Białystok, where I interviewed ten Poles in their 20s and 30s who were taking adult
education classes. The third focus group consisted of eight Poles in their 70s and 80s
from the city of Łomża whom I met at a park in the city center.
Alistair Thomson, "Fifty Years On: An International Perspective on Oral History," The
Journal of American History 85, no. 2 (1998): 582.
churches, and youth centers. While I conducted the majority of my interviews in
Białystok, a city that was once 75 percent Jewish and considered by some as the
“Jerusalem of Poland,” I also traveled to other cities, towns, and villages throughout
Poland with a strong Jewish presence before the war. In the 1930s, Polish Jews were
mainly located in eastern, central, and southern Poland.10 In eastern Poland, or the
Podlasie region, I conducted interviews in Białystok, Łomża, Tykocin, Krynki,
Jasionowka, Narew, Knyszyn, and Bielsk Podlaski. In central Poland, I conducted
interviews in Łódź and Warsaw. Finally, in southern Poland I interviewed Poles in
Kraków, Tarnów, Dębica, and Oświęcim. In addition, I selected Kielce because
allegations of a blood libel in 1946 led to a pogrom there in which Poles murdered 42
Jewish Holocaust survivors who had returned home.
There were a total of 204 interviews. The ages of interviewees ranged from 14 to
94 years.11 Of these 204 people, 173 were randomly selected. The group of randomly
chosen interviewees included: 140 Catholics, 19 Orthodox Christians, eight Jews, three
atheists, two Baptists, and one Protestant.
I also interviewed esteemed historians and professors who are experts in the field
of Polish-Jewish relations and the issue of Polish historical memory of the Holocaust.
Individuals in this category include Konstanty Gebert, Felix Tych, Annamaria OrlaBukowska, and Adam Dobroński. Due to debates regarding the responses of the Polish
clergy to the deportation of Jews, I interviewed Orthodox and Catholic priests.
Ronald Modras, "Polska katolicka albo nie-polska. Stosunki polsko-żydowskie w
latach 1933-1939 w świetle prasy katolickiej z tego okresu," Studia Judaica 2, no. 6
For the breakdown of my randomly selected interviewees by age group, see Appendix
While one school of thought dismisses the use of oral testimonies as historical
evidence, the collection of personal accounts offers insights inaccessible through
quantitative methods. Critics of this approach argue that memory is distorted “by physical
deterioration and nostalgia in old age, by the personal bias of both interviewer and
interviewee, and by the influence of collective and retrospective versions of the past.”12
However, the so-called unreliability of memory might help, rather than hinder, historical
interpretation and reconstruction by demonstrating how people understand and cope with
both personal as well as historical events. Oral history provides access to the ‘hidden
histories’ of women, ethnic minorities, and other groups of people who are often
overlooked by historians. In-depth interviews offer opportunities to explore parts of
history that are rarely recorded, such as domestic life and personal relationships.13 In
addition, by treating memory as an object of historical analysis, testimonies may become:
a powerful tool for discovering, exploring, and evaluating the process of historical
memory—how people could make sense of their past, how they connect
individual experience and its social context, how the past becomes part of the
present and, finally, how people use it to interpret their lives and the world around
Oral testimonies provide an invaluable mechanism to study the evolution of historical
memory, demonstrating how successive generations reinterpret the past with private and
public sources of information.
The analysis of oral testimonies is especially useful when researching the
evolution of Polish historical consciousness of the Holocaust. My research provides
insights on the personal experiences or interpretations of events: what it felt like to watch
Thomson, “Fifty Years On: An International Perspective on Oral History," 584.
Michael Frisch, Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (New
York: State University of New York Press, 1990), 188.
Jewish neighbors being deported, to see starving children in the ghetto, or to learn about
the massacre in Jedwabne. Poles who lived during the war talked openly about this time
period and their sentiments towards Jews, both positive and negative, recounting personal
encounters in detail. When studying memory of the Holocaust, silences and
inconsistencies may point to the legacy and nature of communist propaganda and
demonstrate unwillingness to remember cases of Polish complicity in wartime atrocities.
I examined how interviewees consider this time period in order to understand the impact
of communism and transmission of family views on memory of the Holocaust.
Research on Polish historical memory of the Holocaust would not be complete
without exploring how communist officials and museum curators manipulated and
repressed memory at Auschwitz, the largest and most well known of Nazi extermination
and concentration camps. Many Poles from each age group explained that they learned
the most about the Holocaust while visiting Auschwitz during gymnasium (grammar
school) or high school. In order to determine how the Auschwitz Memorial has
represented the experiences of Jews and Poles over the years, I spent three days at
Auschwitz conducting interviews with museum curators, tour guides, and locals from
Oświęcim.15 I obtained official guidebooks offered to visitors of the camp under
communism. Comparing these guidebooks to the one the museum currently provides
indicates how official representation of the Holocaust has evolved.
In addition to collecting oral testimonies and conducting research at the
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, I sought to explore how teaching of the
Holocaust has evolved from the communist era to today in Poland. To this end, I found
Oświęcim (German: Auschwitz) is the town located next to the Auschwitz-Birkenau
copies of the main grammar and high school textbooks used in Białystok during the
communist period. I compared the information on Polish-Jewish relations and the
Holocaust in these textbooks with that in current grammar and high school textbooks.
Similarly, I contrasted Ministry of Education guidelines on Holocaust education used
during the communist period to guidelines currently employed at grammar and high
schools. At the Ministry of Education in Warsaw, I interviewed Stefania Wilkiel, from
the Department of General Teaching and Education, and Joanna Iwaszkiewicz, from the
Department of International Cooperation, on how Polish-Jewish relations and the
Holocaust are taught in public schools today. Lastly, at the public library in Białystok, I
found communist era travel brochures of Warsaw, Kraków, and other cities with thriving
Jewish communities before the war. I compared these travel brochures with others
published after 1989.
My research aims to have a public service component. While collecting oral
testimonies, interviewees often expressed the wish that more Poles and Jews would learn
about their rich shared history. During my time in Poland, I collaborated with Marzena
Rusaczyk and Białystok Television to film an hour-long documentary on Jewish life in
Poland before the war, Polish-Jewish relations, and anti-Semitism. This film, “Poland
Revisited,” also illustrates a Jewish cemetery restoration project that I conducted with
Phyllis Pollak of the New Roads School in New Jersey and schoolchildren in Białystok to
commemorate the Jewish men, women, and children who once lived in and contributed to
Jews in Poland Before and During World War II: A Brief History
Jews lived in Poland for over a thousand years before the Holocaust. Poland
contained the largest Jewish community in Europe and served as a focal point for Jewish
culture. Jews persecuted in other European countries fled to Poland after the
establishment of the Kingdom of Poland in 1025. In 1264, Prince Boleslaus the Pious of
Kalisz issued a General Charter of Jewish Liberties that bestowed upon Jews freedom of
trade, travel, and worship.1 In these early centuries, violence in Poland against Jews paled
in comparison to that they faced in Western Europe.2 With the hope that Jews would
develop a commodity economy, Kazimierz the Great encouraged Jewish immigration
after ascending the throne in 1333. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, Jews
flocked to Poland, which was increasingly considered a “heaven for the Jews.”3 Whereas
the general Polish population consisted of peasants and a small number of landlords, Jews
were generally members of the middle class. During this period, Jews made significant
contributions to the economic development of Poland. They generally immigrated to
Heiko Haumann, A History of East European Jews (Munich: Deutsche Taschenbuch
Verlag GmbH & Co., 1990), 4.
Ellis Rivkin, “The Utilization of Non-Jewish Sources for the Reconstruction of Jewish
History,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 48, no. 2 (1957): 189.
Walter Laqueur, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the
Present Day (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006), 65.
towns and cities, where special “Jewish streets” emerged containing Jewish businesses,
synagogues, and cemeteries.4
Economic tensions between Jews and non-Jews intensified with the creation of
the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. Jews frequently worked as tax collectors
and tavern owners, professions that incurred the resentment of their Polish neighbors. As
a result of Judeo-phobia, Polish Jews lost the civil privileges that they had enjoyed for
centuries. Despite escalating tension, however, the Polish Commonwealth remained a
relatively hospitable place for minorities and served as a haven for them during a time
period when Poland’s western neighbors experienced intense religious strife.5 Indeed, the
period from 1500 to 1650 is known as the Golden Age in Jewish historiography. During
the Golden Age, Poland “provided a particularly favorable environment for its numerous
ethnic-religious communities not just to practice their way of life in relative tranquility,
but to enjoy as well considerable autonomy in the administration of their affairs.”6 In
addition to Jews, Eastern Orthodox communities, German Lutherans, Arians, Polish
Calvinists, Anabaptists, Greeks, Armenians, Scots, and Turkish and Tatar Moslems lived
in the Commonwealth. Even with violence accompanying Cossack, Russian, Tatar,
Prussian, and Swedish invasions in the second half of the seventeenth century, Jewish life
in shtetleh7 remained relatively untouched.
Bernard Dov Weinryb, The Jews of Poland: A Social and Economic History of the
Jewish Community in Poland from 1100 to 1800 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication
Society, 1973), 312.
Michael Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust
(New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 2.
Shtetleh (plural of shtetl) were towns or villages where Jews generally lived and
governed themselves free from outside interference.
With the loss of Poland as a sovereign state in 1795, Jews became subject to the
policies of three partitioning powers, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. As most Jews lived in
the Pale of Settlement, the Russian-occupied territory, the following historical
background refers to the experience of Jews in this region. While Jews in Western
Europe were emancipated, Polish Jews generally continued residing in segregated
shtetleh, which were usually quite poor. The policies of the Russian Empire became
increasingly anti-Semitic. Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881,
pogroms erupted in the Russian occupied territory of Poland, including one in Białystok
that claimed the lives of over one hundred Jews.8 Economic competition contributed to
antagonisms between Poles and Jews during this period. When a Polish middle class
finally began to appear around the turn of the century it “became the most hostile group
towards Jews; its members envied the superior competitiveness of the Jews and regarded
them as the main obstacles to their own advancement—a view that later became the basis
of the program of the National Democratic Party.”9
Discrimination and new ideological influences from the West encouraged
differences among Polish Jews. While Jews inspired by the Haskalah, or Jewish
Enlightenment, promoted secular values and encouraged fellow coreligionists to adopt
Russian culture in response to persecution, most Polish Jews continued their traditional
religious lifestyles.10 Amidst growing tension between Poles and Jews, the Hasidic
Sara Bender, The Jews of Bialystok During World War II and the Holocaust
(Massachusetts: Brandeis University Press, 2008), 15.
William Hagen, “Before the ‘Final Solution’: Toward a Comparative Analysis of
Political Anti-Semitism in Interwar Germany and Poland,” The Journal of Modern
History 68, no. 2 (1996): 379.
Joanna Michlic, Poland's Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the
Present (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 41.
movement, an ultra-Orthodox branch of Judaism, increased in popularity. By the late
1800s, Jews harbored a wide variety of attitudes regarding the course of action they
should choose in response to occupation and persecution. New political movements
emerged, including Zionism, the religious Polish Mizrahi, and the socialist Bund. Jews
who wished to prosper under the Russian Empire learned Russian, worked with the
authorities, and even adopted aspects of Russian culture.11 However, contrary to
accusations that Jews rejected Polish customs and traditions, in Warsaw and Łódź a
wealthy Jewish industrial and commercial class “took the lead in the movement calling
upon Jews to Polonize and financed the important Polish-language press during the 1860s
and 1870s.”12 By the end of the 19th century, some Jews in these regions were
completely Polonized, adopting aspects of Polish culture and learning the Polish
language.13 Many of these assimilated Jews joined the Polish uprisings against the Tsar,
including the Kościuszko Insurrection in 1794, the November Uprising in 1830, the
January Insurrection in 1863, and revolutionary movement of 1905. Jews played a
significant role in Poland’s struggle for independence, joining the military forces of Józef
Piłsudski in 1918.14 During this time period, Poles increasingly embraced the idea of the
integration of Jews into their society. In order to integrate, however, Jews were often
expected to shed cultural or religious characteristics that set them apart.15
Theodore Weeks, "Assimilation, Nationalism, Modernization, Antisemitism: Notes on
Polish-Jewish Relations, 1855-1905," in Antisemitism and its Opponents in Modern
Poland, ed. Richard Blobaum, 27 (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005).
Ezra Mendelsohn, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars (Indiana:
Indiana University Press, 1983), 20.
Joanna Michlic, Poland's Threatening Other, 41.
Theodore Weeks, From Assimilation to Antisemitism: The “Jewish Question” in
Poland, 1850-1914 (Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2006), 82.
Following the First World War and the subsequent border wars, a wave of
pogroms ensued due to charges that Jews aided the enemies during the occupation.16 In
response to reports of Polish violence against Jews, President Woodrow Wilson insisted
that the Versailles Treaty include clauses protecting the rights of minorities in Poland.
Poland’s March Constitution of 1921 promised Jews religious tolerance as well as
political and civil rights.
During the interwar period, the Jewish population in Poland was larger than that
of any other European nation. In 1931, over three million Jews resided in Poland,
comprising approximately 10% of the population.17 The majority of Polish Jewry lived in
towns, accounting for approximately 27% of the urban population.18 In small towns
throughout Eastern Poland, they frequently comprised more than half of the population.
They were highly represented in manufacturing and commerce and often owned small
taverns, stores, and tailor shops. In the liberal professions, Jews worked as doctors and
lawyers. An array of Jewish newspapers, theaters, schools, and social organizations
flourished during the interwar period. Jewish authors, engineers, scientists, artists, and
singers contributed to Poland’s rich culture.
Unlike Jews in countries such as Germany and Hungary, Polish Jewry largely
resisted assimilation. Most Polish Jews remained distinguishable in their language and
attire, with the 1931 census on language affiliation revealing that almost 80 percent of
Polish Jewry declared Yiddish to be its first language.19 Between the world wars, Poles
Michlic, Poland's Threatening Other, 110.
Joseph Marcus, Social and Political History of the Jews in Poland, 1919-1939 (New
York: Mouton Publishers, 1983), 4.
Weeks, "Assimilation, Nationalism, Modernization, Antisemitism," 23.
often expressed a sense of betrayal that Jews and other nationalities did not assimilate.20
However, the fact that a number of Polish Jews identified with Poland is highlighted in
the first census held in independent Poland, where one-fourth of the people who were
Jewish by religious denomination declared themselves to be of Polish nationality.21
During the early years of interwar Poland, the processes of modernization, secularization,
and acculturation, originating in the old Austrian and Russian empires, accelerated.
Jewish youth increasingly attended public schools, learned to speak Polish, and joined
Polish youth movements. While Jewish leaders often promoted the preservation of
traditions and many Jews remained connected to their religion and beliefs, “from a
cultural viewpoint, there is little doubt that Polish Jews had much more in common with
non-Jewish Poles by the end of the interwar period than they had at its beginning.”22
As political leaders during the interwar period appealed to nationalism and antiSemitism in order to obtain popular support amidst increasing economic woes, Jews were
increasingly regarded as the “other” and detrimental to Poland. In contrast to the Polish
left, which argued that Jews could discard external, linguistic, and cultural distinctions
and become integrated into the Polish nation, the Polish right, as exemplified by the
leaders of the National Democratic Party, identified Jews as irrevocably “outside the
boundaries of their national community and threatening to its future agenda.”23
Nationalists pointed to the growing number of Jewish communists to underscore Jews’
Mendelsohn, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars, 37.
Stanislaw Krajewski, “Jews and Communism,” in From the Polish Underground:
Selections from Krytyka 1978-1993, ed. Michael Bernhard and Henryk Szlajfer, 208
(Pennsylvannia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).
Keely Stauter-Halsted, “Jews as Middleman Minorities in Rural Poland: Understanding
the Galacian Pogroms of 1898,” in Antisemitism and its Opponents in Modern Poland,
ed. Richard Blobaum, 57 (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005).
disloyalty and lack of Polish patriotism. Prewar newspapers reveal that, “there were many
small radical rightist parties which contained in their xenophobic ideologies a stereotyped
view of the Jew-communist (Zydokomuna).”24 While rejecting the possibility of Jewish
assimilation, the right also opposed granting Jews modern national autonomy. Polish
nationalists claimed that the growth of Jewish national consciousness, starting in the
1880s, indicated that Jews constituted a disloyal group threatening the integrity of the
new nation-state.25 In the late 1930s, the Sejm passed new legislation, such as a bill that
outlawed ritual slaughter, which avoided identifying Jews by name but was blatantly
directed at this group of “outsiders.” Right-wing students at universities and colleges
demanded the establishment of ghetto benches where Jewish students had to sit in a
designated area of the classroom. Jews were increasingly subjected to boycotts and
violence, and banned from universities and professions. As the interwar period
progressed, Polish Jews found it more difficult to escape accusations of being traitorous
The rise of Jewish nationalism paralleled the growth of Polish nationalism during
the interwar period. The shift towards extremism in Jewish politics, expressed as
increased support for both the right and the left, was largely a reaction to anti-Semitic
measures implemented by Polish elites to blame Jews for the nation’s tribulations.26
Many Jews became involved with communism and the Polish Zionist Movement, perhaps
not out of preference, but because they were attacked by the nationalist camp and
Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, “Poles and Jews as the 'Other,'” Polin 4 (1990): 17.
Weeks, "Assimilation, Nationalism, Modernization, Antisemitism," 34.
Szymon Rudnicki, “Anti-Jewish Legislation in Interwar Poland,” in Antisemitism and
its Opponents in Modern Poland, ed. Richard Blobaum, 158 (New York: Cornell
University Press, 2005).
members of the Sanacja regime who relied on anti-Jewish propaganda and new legal
restrictions to obtain popular support.27 Particularly in the 1930s, economic upheaval and
brutal anti-Semitism, “along with the secular, democratic and modernizing character of
the new Polish state, meant that Jewish children were more likely to ‘run away’ to the
Pioneer, to the Bund, or to the Polish Communist Party.”28 If Polish Jewry was highly
politicized, one factor may have been the increasing attention to the “Jewish question”
itself, which forced many young Jewish people in particular to look towards political
solutions that appeared threatening to mainstream Polish society.
Despite the increasing radicalism of Jewish politics that paralleled the growth of
an exclusive brand of Polish nationalism, most Jews rejected communism and realized
that extremism could threaten their livelihoods and wellbeing. Jewish voting patterns in
the 1922 and 1928 elections for the constituent Sejm revealed that, “the bulk of Jews
drifted into establishment politics, disproportionately supporting the pro-government
Bloc.”29 In the 1920s, most Jews saw their future in Poland and both the Orthodox
traditionalists and the socialists in the Bund opposed Zionists advocating for emigration.
Indeed, according to the historian Jan Gross, Polish Jews were a principally conservative
population, uninterested in radical reforms and “the most law-abiding and statesupporting community in interwar Poland…they supported the ruling Sanacja regime
from the mid-1920s onward more consistently than did any other category of citizens.”30
Even throughout the 1930s, Gross points outs, only one-fifth of one percent of the total
Jewish population was associated with the Communist Party of Poland.
Rudnicki, “Anti-Jewish Legislation in Interwar Poland,” 159.
Mendelsohn, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars, 41.
Gross, Fear, 198.
Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact,
officially titled the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet
Socialist Republics, in August of 1939. This treaty would remain in effect until Operation
Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the USSR in June of 1941. By entering into this
treaty, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to partition Poland. Germany invaded
Poland on September 1, 1939 while the Soviet Union attacked on September 17th.
During the invasion, Poland’s enemies surrounded the nation on three sides, with over
800,000 Soviet troops on the country’s eastern border and “nearly two million German
troops pouring across the frontier into Poland from the west, north, and south.”31 Poland
was in a desperate situation; the Germans enjoyed three times the number of planes and
tanks as well as twice the number of troops.
Life in the Soviet-occupied territory of Poland was generally brutal for both Poles
and Jews. The Soviets executed approximately 21,000 Polish military personnel. They
also arrested and exiled government officials and civilians. While the number is still
subject to debate, from 1940 to 1941 Soviets deported anywhere from 320,000 to one
million Polish civilians to Siberia, Central Asia, and the Arctic North.32 Though the
majority of deportees were ethnic Poles, approximately 20 percent were Jewish.33 The
occupiers nationalized private businesses, resulting in huge economic losses for both the
general populace and a large number of Jews who owned small businesses. Soviet
authorities frequently offered Jews, especially those who identified with communism
Mark Mazower, Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe (New York: Penguin
Group, 2008), 64.
Katherine Jolluck, “Gender and Anti-Semitism in Wartime Soviet Exile,” in
Antisemitism and its Opponents in Modern Poland, ed. Robert Blobaum, 212 (New York:
Cornell University Press, 2005).
during the interwar period, jobs held by Poles who were exiled or banned from civil
service.34 While most Jews opposed communism, some welcomed the job opportunities
and praised the Soviet occupation as an alternative to falling under Nazi rule or living
under an increasingly nationalistic independent Polish state.35 On the other hand, other
Jews fought alongside ethnic Poles against the Soviets and many suffered under the
occupation. Hundreds of Jews were among the Polish officers Soviets killed in the Katyń
massacre and tens of thousands of Jews were deported to the Soviet Union.36
Germany annexed large areas of western Poland, including regions it lost under
the 1918 Treaty of Versailles, and planned for the Germanization of these territories. The
German assault on Polish culture was ruthless. The Nazis dissolved Poles’ cultural,
religious, and political organizations and shut down their universities and museums. In
addition, the Nazis made a “sweeping assault on the Catholic Church, in which large
numbers of monasteries were confiscated and church organizations were dissolved.”37 In
contrast to the annexed areas, Germans considered the General Government, located in
the center of Poland, to be occupied territory.38 Under the German occupation, millions of
Poles perished and the majority struggled to earn a basic livelihood. Hans Frank, the Nazi
Governor-General of occupied Poland, imprisoned and shot thousands of Polish
intellectuals, artists, writers, and politicians as part of the AB Special Pacification
Operation. While Auschwitz has become a symbol of Polish Jewry’s destruction,
Joanna Michlic, "The Soviet Occupation of Poland, 1939-41, and the Stereotype of the
Anti-Polish and Pro-Soviet Jew," Jewish Social Studies 13, no. 3 (2007): 140.
Doris Bergen, War & Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (Maryland:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003), 122.
Michlic, "The Soviet Occupation of Poland,” 142.
Mazower, Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe, 93.
Jan Gross, Polish Society Under German Occupation (New Jersey: Princeton
University Press, 1979), 45.
approximately 340,000 political prisoners, the majority of whom were ethnic Poles, died
in Auschwitz. As Nazis placed Slavs especially low on the racial hierarchy and harbored
few qualms about exploiting and decimating them, Hitler decided that the Polish people
would be converted into a nation of slaves to serve Germany. According to the historian
Richard Lukas, who estimates that approximately three million ethnic Poles perished
during the Nazi occupation, Poles were victims in a “forgotten holocaust.”39
The Nazis’ arbitrary violence inspired Poles to resist from the beginning of the
occupation. Indeed, the largest underground resistance in occupied Europe was in Poland.
The partisans undertook a variety of actions against the Germans, including ambushing
their units, disrupting their transport and communication, assassinating Nazi personnel,
providing military intelligence to the British, and sending reports on Auschwitz-Birkenau
and the Jewish genocide to the Western Allies. The Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK),
the resistance organization loyal to the Polish government-in-exile in London and the
military branch of the Polish secret state, was the largest anti-fascist resistance group in
Poland. From 1943, tensions emerged between the Home Army and the new People’s
Army (Armia Ludowa or AL), the resistance organization supported by the Soviet Union
and directed by the communist Polish Workers’ Party. In addition to the Home Army and
People’s Army, Poles in France established a Polish resistance in 1940. Hundreds of
thousands of Poles joined these various resistance bands in 1942 due to increasing
hunger, casual shootings, collective punishment for suspected attacks on Germans, and
heightened repression. The resistance movement in Poland became more effective and
professionalized as a result of increasing cooperation with the Allied military and
Mazower, Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe, 69.
espionage services.40 Many Polish nationalists joined the Home Army late in the war in
the hope of avoiding liberation by the Red Army, which, they realized, would lead to
While both Poles and Jews suffered tremendously under the Nazi occupation, the
experience of Polish Jews during the war was vastly different from the experience of
ethnic Poles. After the initial invasion, Germans burned several synagogues and
implemented a variety of discriminatory measures against Jews. Polish Jews soon had to
wear identifying Star of David badges. Beginning in October of 1939, Nazis forced
Polish Jews into cramped quarters of large Polish cities and towns. Living conditions in
these ghettos were unbearable and countless numbers of inhabitants perished from
epidemics and hunger. Following Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941, Jews in Eastern
Poland became the targets of Einsatzgruppen, or Nazi death squads.41 With Hitler’s
decision to implement the Final Solution in 1942, Jews in ghettos throughout Poland
were transported to extermination camps. Millions perished from gassing, disease,
torture, hunger, and medical experiments at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Chełmno, Majdanek,
and Bełżec. Only about 300,000 Polish Jews, ten percent of the prewar population,
survived. The historian Barbara Engelking-Boni explained that while both Poles and Jews
experienced brutality and the threat of death, their fates must be distinguished:
The one aspect of the Jewish experience that cannot be compared to that of nonJews was that experience which left no survivors to tell about: the extermination
camps and the gas chambers, the murder squads that killed Jews in the millions.
Here we are left to imagine. As a subjective experience, to be shot as a Jew by an
Einsatzkommando or as a Pole by a firing squad was probably much the same
thing, and to die from inhaling poison gas was no less terrifying but perhaps less
Bob Moore, Resistance in Western Europe (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2000), 252.
Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish
Policy September 1939-March 1942 (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 16.
painful than to die of starvation or a beating. It is not in the area of individual,
subjective experience that the Holocaust is incomparable to other events, but in
the horrible yet objective historical fact of the destruction of an entire people.
That people’s customs, language, and future are gone forever. Poland was reborn
after the war; a new Jewish world was born in Israel, but the thousand-year-old
culture of the European Ashkenazim died at Treblinka and Auschwitz.42
While the occupiers subjected both Poles and Jews to unimaginable cruelties, Nazis
singled out European Jewry for annihilation.
Many Jewish historians and Holocaust survivors have criticized Poles’ behavior
towards Jews during the war. Despite the fact that numerous nuns, priests, and monks
throughout Poland participated in rescue activities on behalf of Jews, the Polish Catholic
Church as an institution did not protest their deportations. Priests often promoted
discrimination or aggression towards Jews during the interwar period, thereby
encouraging homegrown anti-Semitism.43 Blackmailers, or szmalcowniks, extorted
money from Jews on the Aryan side and caused the deaths of many Jews and their Polish
protectors when they could no longer meet their demands. Other Poles denounced Jews
because of anti-Semitism or the promise of a reward by the Germans, which often
consisted of a few liters of vodka or a pound of sugar.44 Anti-Semitism even existed
among Poles who resisted the Nazis. During the war, calls for assistance to Jews in the
Polish underground press were rare.45 Polish partisan groups often excluded Jews and
certain Home Army units treated Jews no differently than they did the Germans.46 While
Engelking, Holocaust and Memory, xx.
Dariusz Libionka, “Antisemitism, Anti-Judaism, and the Polish Catholic Clergy during
the Second World War, 1939-1945,” in Antisemitism and its Opponents in Modern
Poland, ed. Robert Blobaum, 249 (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005).
Emmanuel Ringelblum, Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War
(Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, 1974), 137.
Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead, 38.
Emmanuel Ringelblum, Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War, 220.
it is clear that the Holocaust was a Nazi enterprise, in some cases the occupation
unleashed local anti-Semitism and brutality. A number of massacres occurred at the
hands of Poles. For example, in Jedwabne, Poles murdered hundreds of their Jewish
neighbors by burning them alive in a farm. According to the Polish Institute for National
Remembrance, 22 Polish towns, including Radziłó and Wąsocz, witnessed similar
pogroms during this time period.47
While some Poles persecuted Jews under the Nazi occupation because of antiSemitism or economic incentives, the majority of Poles neither collaborated with the
Nazis nor assisted their Jewish neighbors. Inaction may be explained by the fact that
Poles faced special challenges and severe consequences for helping Jews. In contrast to
Western Europe, where Jews were often more assimilated, Polish Jews and their
neighbors shared few personal connections. While Poles aided former Jewish bosses,
distant relatives, and friends, it was much less likely that they would risk their lives to
save people whom they hardly knew and who seemed to be foreign.48 The cultural,
social, and linguistic distinctions between ethnic Poles and their Jewish neighbors help
explain the fact that fewer Jews were saved in Poland. Nazi policies further divided Jews
from their neighbors and discouraged Polish intervention. The Nazi procedure of forcing
Jews into ghettos and then concentration camps separated Jews from potential rescuers
and ensured that most Poles would not witness their suffering. Additionally, Poland was
the only country where the punishment for hiding Jews was the death penalty. Saving
Jews was not only a life-threatening endeavor but also extremely expensive and time-
Dariusz Stola, "Jedwabne: Revisiting the Evidence and Nature of the Crime,"
Holocaust and Genocide Studies 17, no. 1 (2003): 140.
Ringelblum, Polish-Jewish Relations, 94.
consuming. Most Poles during the German occupation worried about feeding their own
children with insufficient rations.
Despite the risks and costs of helping Jews, thousands of Poles refused to be
bystanders to Nazi atrocities. Poles who ignored Hitler’s decrees, including the family
that housed the historian Emmanuel Ringelblum, often sacrificed their lives as a result.49
Żegota, the codename for the Polish Council to Aid Jews, was an underground resistance
organization backed by the Polish government-in-exile that saved 4,000 Polish Jews by
finding them hiding places on the “Aryan” side and providing them with necessary
resources such as medical care and false identity documents. Żegota saved Jewish
children by placing them in orphanages, convents, and foster homes. Irena Sendler, a
Polish Catholic social worker who served in the children’s division of Żegota, smuggled
2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto and found them safe homes during the
war.50 After the war, many members of Żegota earned praise from the State of Israel for
their heroism. Indeed, the Yad Vashem Museum has awarded Poles with the highest
number of Righteous Among the Nations awards in recognition for saving Jews from
extermination during the Holocaust.51
The Soviet “liberation” of Poland began in January of 1944. On August 1, 1944,
the Home Army began an uprising in Warsaw in an attempt to liberate Poland and
Richard Lukas, Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation, 19391944 (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1986), 81.
Joseph Kermish, “The Activities of the Council for Aid to Jews (‘Zegota’) in Occupied
Poland,” in Rescue Attempts During the Holocaust, Proceedings of the Second Yad
Vashem International Historical Conference, ed. Yisrael Gutman and Efraim Zuroff, 10
(Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1977).
Joanna Zylinska, “‘Who is My Neighbor?’ Ethics Under Duress,” in Imaginary
Neighbors: Mediating Polish-Jewish Relations after the Holocaust, ed. Dorota Glowacka
and Joanna Zylinska, 281 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2007).
prevent the Soviets from claiming control over their nation. During the uprising,
however, the military and political institutions of the Polish Underground were
completely destroyed, ensuring a smooth Soviet take-over after the war. Meeting at Yalta
in February of 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill,
and General Secretary Joseph Stalin agreed that Poland would become part of the
Russian zone of influence once the Nazis were defeated. While the “Big Three” at the
Yalta Conference agreed upon free elections and the establishment of a coalition
government consisting of Polish communists and members of the Polish government-inexile, communists had no intention of allowing the opposition to maintain real power.
Manipulating the outcome of the January 1947 Polish legislative election, the Communist
Party established an oppressive regime that would last until 1989.52
Evolving Polish Historical Memory of the Holocaust
For years following World War II, Polish historical awareness of the Holocaust
demonstrated an alarming disconnect with reality. While shortcomings in Polish
historical recollection of the Holocaust can be credited to trauma, traditional antiSemitism, as well as Poles’ desire to evade national guilt, historians such as Michael
Steinlauf attribute the phenomenon to communist leaders who enhanced their political
and social control by manipulating memory.53 Even though the legacy of communist rule
is still deeply felt in Poland, attitudes towards the Holocaust and Jews have evolved in
recent years. For the first time in postwar history, these sensitive topics are frequently and
Richard Staar, "Elections in Communist Poland," Midwest Journal of Political Science
2, no. 2 (1958): 204.
Jonathan Heuner, Auschwitz, Poland, and the Politics of Commemoration: 1945-1979
(Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2003), 25.
publicly discussed.54 Efforts by Pope John Paul II to shed light on the past, the emergence
of critical works that questioned official communist representations of Polish behavior
during the Holocaust, the rise of Solidarity, and the transformation of Poland into a
democracy help explain why Poland began to revisit and wrestle with traditional postwar
interpretations of Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust.
For 45 years after the war, communist leaders in Poland helped shape memory of
the Holocaust in order to achieve political objectives. During the harsh period of
Stalinization in Poland, from 1948 to 1956, the state controlled every aspect of social and
political life. Throughout this period, the USSR had a strong interest in encouraging local
populations to believe that they had been blameless victims of German aggression and
“full partners of liberation led by the heroic Soviet Union, putting emphasis on a few
traitors, the label under which the authorities could sentence anyone they found
inconvenient.”55 Authorities arrested thousands of members of the Home Army and
strove to discredit them in the eyes of the Polish people as the soldiers’ loyalty to the
government-in-exile threatened to interfere with a complete communist takeover. The
early communist leaders in postwar Poland generally avoided referencing the Jewish
extermination. Downplaying ethnic and religious differences in accordance with Marxist
ideology, they presented the war as a break with the past capitalist stage and a collective
struggle to achieve a bright socialist future.
Events in 1956 not only contributed to a surge of anti-Semitism, but also
influenced official representations of the Holocaust and war years. Jewish communists
Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead, 123.
Joanna Wawrzyniak, “Negotiating the Nation's Official Past: The Politics of
Commemoration of WWII in Communist Poland” (presentation, Transregional Center
for Democratic Studies, New York City, NY, April 26, 2001).
were accused of being Titoists and purged from the Party in the late forties and early
fifties. Jews were increasingly harassed after Władysław Gomułka established a national
communist regime in October of 1956 as a consequence of the de-Stalinization
processes.56 In 1956, the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ formula was fortified and the Jewish theme
became a tool in a political battle within the Party. The hard-line Natolin faction,
consisting of ethnic Poles harboring a nationalistic-communist ideology, stressed the
dangers of liberalization. The reformist Puławy faction, comprised of Jewish communists
and members of the old intelligentsia, called for domestic reforms to modify Stalinism.57
Natolinians used anti-Semitic slogans and rhetoric to sully the reputation of their
opponents and blame Jews for abuses committed during the Stalinist era. While
communist officials largely dictated representations of the war during the Stalinist period,
from “1956 onward, the politics of commemoration of WWII was a subject of negotiation
between the state and the society, primarily because the state was in constant search of
support.”58 For the communist leaders who came to power in 1956, promoting a narrative
of the war years that emphasized Polish martyrdom and resistance was “a politically
useful and culturally accessible way of recalling the past.”59 Greater emphasis on Polish
martyrdom at the expense of Jewish suffering, already deemphasized, allowed the new
regime to obtain popular backing without implementing real economic and political
Gross, Fear, 31.
Bozena Szaynok, “The Role of Antisemitism in Postwar Polish-Jewish Relations,” in
Antisemitism and its Opponents in Modern Poland, ed. Robert Blobaum, 281 (New York:
Cornell University Press, 2005).
Wawrzyniak, “Negotiating the Nation's Official Past,” 4.
Heuner, Auschwitz, Poland, and the Politics of Commemoration, 52.
Especially after 1956, the subject of the Holocaust was carefully portrayed in all
aspects of society. Polish history textbooks used in secondary schools emphasized Polish
aid to Jews and discussed the experience of Jews only in the context of general Polish
suffering.60 In most educational materials before 1989, discussion of the cultural,
religious, and social life of Jews in prewar Poland was absent and the topic of the
genocide of three million Polish Jews was generally “camouflaged by the magical
formula ‘six million Polish citizens’ murdered by the Nazi occupier.”61 The AuschwitzBirkenau State Museum promoted the Polish official perspective by describing the Nazis’
victims in terms of their citizenship or simply classifying all victims of fascism as ludzi
or people. Even though Jews comprised 90 percent of the camp’s total victims, until well
into the 1980s, an acknowledgment that Jews constituted a distinct group of victims was
absent. Exhibitions in the blocs of the former main camp referred to victims as ‘people,’
‘masses’ and ‘millions,’ artifacts of Jews were often displayed without captions, and the
model of the crematorium lacked accompanying information about the identity of the
murdered people. Text that accompanied photographs described victims in the most
general terms, consisting of phrases such as ‘Women driven into a gas chamber.’62 The
fact that the Jewish identity of the victims of mass extermination was generally omitted
or downplayed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the site that perhaps best symbolizes Jewish
suffering, demonstrates official efforts to manipulate memory of this time period.
The Anti-Zionist campaign in the late 1960s most clearly demonstrates how
factions within the Communist Party distorted memory of the Holocaust in order to
Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead, 83.
Tych, “The Image of the Holocaust,” 323.
Marek Kucia, “'Jews'- The Absence and Presence of a Category in the Representations
of Auschwitz in Poland, 1945-1985,” Studia Judaica 2, no. 18 (2006): 336.
enhance their power and appeal to the Polish masses. In 1968, an escalating wave of
protests swept through Czechoslovakia and Poland, organized by students and
intellectuals eager to secure political and civil reforms. Nervous that the riots would
undermine their authority, Minister of the Interior Mieczyslaw Moczar and other Party
activists exploited political tensions between Israel and the Soviet Union that stemmed
from the Six-Day War to de-legitimize both student protestors and political opponents.
Labeling adversaries as “Zionists,” they accused them of conspiring with Jews and the
West against Poland. While communist officials claimed their objective was to root out
Zionists in their midst, in reality, they persecuted Polish Jews regardless of their
sentiments towards Israel and targeted a group of Poles as well. During the campaign,
approximately 13,000 Jews, the majority of the remaining Jews in Poland, emigrated
from their homeland because they lost their jobs or feared for their safety.63
Communist authorities garnered support for the campaign by promoting the preexisting notion that Jews were responsible for abuses committed by the Party.
Accusations that Jews dominated the Stalinist regime were prevalent during the campaign
and could be detected years later. Even a recipient of a Righteous Among the Nations
award exclaimed, “The ten years of Jewish rule in Poland could not be easily forgotten. It
was an era of the midnight knock at the door, arbitrary arrests, torture, and sometimes
secret execution.”64 The authorities conveniently ignored the tendency of senior Jewish
communists to be assimilated and the fact that many ethnic Poles committed abuses in the
Dariusz Stola, "Anti-Zionism as a Multipurpose Policy Instrument: The Anti-Zionist
Campaign in Poland, 1967-1968,” Journal of Israeli History 25, no. 1 (2006): 191.
Stefan Korbonski, Jews and the Poles in World War II (New York: Hippocrene Books,
regime’s security forces.65 Moczar succeeded in manipulating memory by appealing to
Poles’ anger regarding communist persecution of the Home Army as well as pre-existing
nationalism and anti-Semitism, drawing “from the concepts of żydokomuna (Jewish
communists), Jewish conspiracy, and Jews as parasites on the body of the Polish nation,
all well established already before WWII.”66 The Jewish communist stereotype that
Stefan Korboński, an author and member of the Polish Underground during the war, and
that like-minded scholars encouraged, disregards the notion that the Jewish people have
never been a homogenous group and that Jews differ immensely in terms of their
individual ‘Jewishness.’ Due to the fact that communism leaves little room for religious
expression, practicing Jews found no possibility of rebuilding prewar Jewish life in the
new order and, consequently, most of the remaining Polish Jews in this category
emigrated soon after the war.67 Individuals of Jewish heritage who remained and became
high-ranking officials in the regime tended to be completely assimilated, contradicting
arguments that associate communism with Judaism and Jewish teachings.
Especially during the Anti-Zionist campaign of 1968, the regime was careful to
control how the situation of Jews and Poles from 1941-45 was addressed “by the most
influential purveyors of knowledge in society: radio and television, historical journalism,
schools, tourist guides, encyclopedias, regional exhibitions, films, trade books and
memoirs.”68 During only four days of the Anti-Zionist Campaign, millions of antiSemitic propaganda messages inundated the mass media. In order to obtain popular
support, this generation of communists emphasized the legacy of Polish resistance during
Krajewski, “Jews and Communism,” 371.
Wawrzyniak, “Negotiating the Nation's Official Past,” 22.
Krajewski, “Jews and Communism,” 127.
Tych, "The Image of the Holocaust in Polish Historical Consciousness," 316.
the war years. While communist authorities persecuted members of the Home Army in
the early postwar years, accusing them of being fascists and reactionary, Moczar asserted
that the Home Army resisted the Nazis and should be included in the Polish resistance
narrative. At the same time, Moczar distorted aspects of this time period related to the
experience of Jews. In order to combat alleged Zionist attempts to undermine Polish
suffering during the war, Moczar and his allies attacked works that hinted at the Jewish
identity of the victims of mass extermination. For example, they labeled as “reactionary”
an article in the state-published encyclopedia that differentiated between concentration
camps and death camps, where Jews were systematically murdered. Party elites set forth
a portrayal of the war years that they knew would be popular with the masses.
Even though communist officials helped manipulate and repress memory of the
Holocaust for years, John Paul II, who served as Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church
from October 1978 to April 2005, confronted misconceptions surrounding the genocide
and inspired his compatriots to look critically at their past. While initial efforts to re-think
Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust were confined to a small group of the
Catholic intelligentsia, the first Polish pope transformed scattered efforts into a national
movement to reconsider a painful history. The Pope’s visit to Poland in 1979
undoubtedly transformed human relationships and popular attitudes in the nation. Indeed,
“Millions of people, and above all youth, found themselves acting in a manner that the
system had heretofore thwarted: ‘kinder to one another, disciplined yet free and
relaxed.’”69 Powerful reactions to his visit underscore the Pope’s great influence on
Polish society and his unique position to make Poles question long-accepted viewpoints.
Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead, 95.
When he visited Auschwitz in 1979, the Pope made a statement that emphasized the
Holocaust and urged Catholics to remember the unique fate of Jews during the war. The
Pope’s effort to reconcile Jewish and Polish versions of the past was far from expected.
Indeed, “Given the context, or more specifically, the history of public events at
Auschwitz, the Pope’s acknowledgment of the Holocaust was unusual and was certainly
the first such acknowledgment there before an audience of three hundred thousand
people.”70 The Pope’s decision to address Polish historical memory of the Holocaust was
instrumental in beginning the process of re-considering the past.
Perhaps even more powerful in contributing to a new memory of the Holocaust
than the Pope’s first speech at Auschwitz were his efforts to inspire a reexamination of
the Catholic Church and Christians’ role during the war. The Pope’s support for the
publication of “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,”71 the 1998 document calling
for repentance from Catholics who failed to intervene on behalf of Jews during the
genocide, influenced a primarily Catholic country to reassess the state-supported
conception of widespread Polish assistance.72 Emphasizing the importance of
remembering the Shoah, the document pledges the Church’s support to explore historic
antipathy and indifference towards Jews. While distinguishing Nazi racist ideology from
Christian hostility towards Jews, the document explains that Christians could have done
more to help their Jewish neighbors and indicates that anti-Jewish sentiments in Poland
facilitated the atrocities that occurred on Polish soil. Indeed, the document debates
“whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish
Heuner, Auschwitz, Poland, and Commemoration, 218.
The Hebrew term used to describe the Holocaust.
George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York:
Harper Collins, 2005), 824.
prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts.”73 By implying that anti-Jewish
prejudices made Christians less sensitive and even indifferent to Jewish suffering at the
hands of the Nazis, the Pope encouraged millions of his compatriots to reconsider the
traditional image of the Polish political prisoner as representative of Polish behavior
during the war years. In the document, the Vatican proclaims its fervent hope that the
tragedy of the Jewish people “will lead to a new relationship with the Jewish people. We
wish to turn awareness of past sins into a firm resolve to build a new future in which
there will be no more anti-Judaism among Christians.”74 Encouraging Catholics to
respect the Jewish people, the Church implicitly rejected anti-Semitic measures and
proclamations that the communist regime had adopted to fortify its control. Through the
publication of this work, the Pope exercised his immense moral authority to inspire
Poland to look critically at its history and repent for past mistakes.
Paradoxically, the Pope encouraged a reexamination of Polish-Jewish relations
and the Holocaust, not only through his reconciliation efforts, but also by making
statements that served to divide Poles and Jews even further. Many survivors accused the
Pope of “Christianizing the Holocaust” by comparing Auschwitz to Golgotha, canonizing
the Jewish-born nun, Edith Stein, and praising the anti-Semitic Father Kolbe.75 The
Pope’s controversial statements highlighted discrepancies in how Poles and Jews
remember their collective past and garnered international interest in how Poland
commemorated the genocide. To the dismay of some Jewish groups, the Auschwitz cross
Weigel, Witness to Hope, 824.
Edward Cassidy, "The Vatican and the Holocaust; Solemn Words Offered by the
Vatican: A Call to Penitence," The New York Times, March 17, 1998: A10.
Theresa Sanders, Celluloid Saints: Images of Sanctity in Film (Georgia: Mercer
University Press, 2002), 151.
was erected in front of Block 11 for the duration of the Pope’s 1979 visit. In 1984, the
Polish national Catholic bishops conferences supported the Carmelite nuns in their efforts
to establish a convent at the former death camp. While the Pope eventually issued an
order for the nuns to move, the Carmelites reinstalled the large papal cross. Holocaust
survivors opposed the presence of a Catholic institution and religious symbol on the soil
of a Jewish genocide. In response to protests by members of Jewish groups in the late
1990s, Poles installed hundreds of smaller crosses near the Pope’s cross. While local
authorities eventually removed the smaller crosses, the papal cross still stands. Some
scholars assert that subsequent criticisms by the international community made Poles
more eager to advocate and preserve communist-supported representations of the past.
Indeed international criticism of Polish attitudes towards Jews and the Holocaust
“triggered manifestations of anti-Semitism within Poland – a symptom of defensiveness,
which implies that the Polish national commemorative idiom is being challenged now
more than it ever was.”76 While reactions to the Pope were not always positive,
international responses to his decisions forced Poles to wrestle with alternative versions
of the past. Partly because the Pope brought so much attention to the issue, the wartime
narrative that highlights Polish martyrdom at the expense of Jewish suffering is no longer
received with unanimous acceptance in Poland.
Just as Pope John Paul II challenged the Polish people to look more critically at
the Holocaust and Polish complicity, the Solidarity movement, established in 1980,
helped break down silences and misconceptions encouraged by the communist regime.
Indeed, while the Pope sparked more open dialogue about Polish-Jewish relations, “the
Bill Niven, "Remembering the Holocaust: Representation, Neglect and
Instrumentalization," European History Quarterly 36 (2006): 6.
independent trade union movement Solidarity provided the political and social context.”77
Ironically, efforts of the authorities to manipulate the past, as most notably demonstrated
with the Anti-Zionist Campaign, ideologically compromised the regime and inspired
young people to demand a complete overthrow of the communist system.78 In the late
seventies and eighties, for the first time, society created structures of organization
independent from the state and communists lost their monopoly on the way the nation’s
history was constructed. Versions of history that differed from official accounts were
articulated, not only among friends and families, but also in Poland’s civil society
through a wide variety of underground publications and illegal manifestations.
Due to the efforts of Solidarity, a fundamental distinction was drawn in the minds
of Polish people “between those who controlled political and economic resources and
attempted to legitimize their authority, and those who had little power but struggled to
make ‘their’ discourse visible, audible, and eventually, hegemonic.”79 Questioning the
legitimacy of the entrenched regime, Solidarity proposed an alternative vision of society
based on a system of principles incompatible with the existing order. The opposition
networks that Solidarity built were so strong that, despite the imposition of martial law in
1981 and de-legalization of the trade union, thousands of grassroots activists continued to
meet clandestinely throughout the 1980s and kept its legacy alive until the union was relegalized at the end of the decade.80 Solidarity, mobilizing millions of people and
Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead, 232.
Stola, “Anti-Zionist Campaign in Poland,” 298.
Renata Pasternak-Mazur, "The Black Muse: Polish Hip-Hop as the Voice of ‘New
Others' in the Post-Socialist Transition," Music and Politics 3, no. 1 (2009): 4.
Grzegorz Ekiert, The State Against Society (New Jersey: Princeton University Press,
engaging them in a political battle with the forces of the party-state, created an
environment where critiquing state policies and accounts served a moral imperative.
By encouraging the emergence of civil society, the Solidarity movement
contributed to the recovery of memory of the Holocaust. More critical accounts of the
past emerged in the mid-1980s, “largely because of the easing of censorship which
allowed new evidence of the extent of Jewish suffering and the negative role Poles played
in the Holocaust to be placed in the public domain.”81 The tide of publications, films,
dissertations, and exhibitions concerning Jewish themes and the Jewish absence that
appeared during this time period brought into question traditional communist portrayals
of these topics. The Solidarity movement, committed to ending an array of silences,
engaged in a process of “truth-telling,” organizing a wide variety of activities relating to
the past so as to reclaim and recuperate what the regime had concealed for years. To
many participants in the growing Solidarity movement, Polish-Jewish relations during the
war stood out as an issue that needed to be pushed into public conversation.82 Advocating
for a pluralist conception of Polish history, the movement rejected the regime’s efforts to
downplay national differences and subsume Jewish suffering under the Polish narrative.
Opposition leaders encouraged the preservation of the physical traces of the Polish Jews
and spent considerable time condemning anti-Semitism, a prejudice seen as all the more
detestable because it had served as an instrument of the regime.83 In an effort to
encourage the resurgence of memory, soon after the Gdańsk Accords, Solidarity
Toby Haggith, Holocaust and the Moving Image: Representations in Film and
Television Since 1933 (London: Wallflower Press, 2005), 225.
David Wyman, The World Reacts to the Holocaust (Baltimore: John Hopkins
University Press, 1996), 130.
Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead, 103.
published an article entitled “Jews and Poles” that commemorated the 40th anniversary of
the closing of the ghettos. Solidarity leaders successfully brought the subject of Polish
Jewry into the mainstream national consciousness by making the resurrection of memory
an objective of the opposition movement.
Perhaps most powerful among the new works and polemics that called into
question postwar portrayals of the Holocaust was Jan Błoński’s “The Poor Poles Look at
the Ghetto.” The 1987 publication of the article initiated a nationwide debate on wartime
Polish-Jewish relations and Polish moral responsibility for Jewish suffering.84 In his
article, Błoński asserts that Poles must accept their share of guilt for the genocide instead
of placing blame on political, economic, or social conditions. The essay met with severe
criticism by Poles who could not comprehend how one could, as they interpreted
Błoński’s article, charge the Poles of involvement in mass murder. An editor of the
Tygodnik Powszechny, the most independent newspaper published legally in Poland at
the time, explained that after printing the article, “The reaction was greater than anything
known in the course of the 42 years during which I have edited that paper.”85 Despite an
array of negative reactions to the article, the publication pushed Poles to re-examine their
behavior during the Holocaust and encouraged a diversity of Polish viewpoints at
variance with the official communist interpretation.
Claude Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah was also instrumental in contributing to
the reexamination of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust. Shoah highlighted
Polish indifference to Jewish suffering and, for some, became the model of an “honest”
Joshua Zimmerman, Contested Memories: Poles and Jews during the Holocaust and
its Aftermath (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 5.
Antony Polonsky, My Brother's Keeper?: Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust
(New York: Routledge, 1990), 13.
film about the Holocaust.86 Lanzmann, in an attempt to resurrect the past as precisely as
possible, selected witnesses who could “relive history in the present.”87 Each segment of
the film opens with a statement that encourages the viewer to serve as a belated witness.
When Shoah premiered in Paris in 1985 and later in Poland, as a result of a change of
heart by the communist regime, “it was bitterly attacked by the official press as an antiPolish provocation and the Polish government even delivered a note of protest to the
French government which had provided part of the finance for the film.”88 The film
provoked extensive debate on Lanzmann’s methods and choice of subjects. While most
Poles rejected Lanzmann’s depiction of typical Polish behavior during the Holocaust, the
film inspired the re-evaluation of many long-held perceptions and forced Poles to defend
their version of history to an increasingly attentive international community.
The 2000 publication of Jan Gross’ Neighbors, which brought to international
attention the massacre of Jews in Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors, also challenged the
Polish public to reexamine its past. Neighbors inspired an intense public debate among
journalists, scholars, political and church leaders, and visitors of online discussion
groups. Responses to the publication were diverse, ranging from absolute denial to pained
acceptance. During the debate over the massacre in Jedwabne, individuals and groups
that disagreed with Gross’ thesis set forth the typical representation of the Jew as the
harmful “other” and Poles as innocent victims or martyrs. Instead of acknowledging
Polish culpability, Gross’ opponents often adopted arguments that revolved around
“various ethno-nationalist themes of Jewish destructiveness; Jewish collaboration with
Haggith, Holocaust and the Moving Image, 232.
Froma Zeitlin, "The Vicarious Witness: Belated Memory and Authorial Presence in
Recent Holocaust Literature," History and Memory 10, no. 3 (1998): 6.
Polonsky, My Brother's Keeper, 9.
Poland’s other enemy.”89 Perhaps attempting to justify violence against Jews, a few
scholars claim that after the town fell to the Soviets in 1939, Jews “led the NKVD to
apartments and houses and denounced Polish patriots.”90 Because, as these individuals
maintain, Jews betrayed the Polish state, destruction of the Polish Jewry in Jedwabne
should be understood in terms of warranted anger and Polish self-defense.91 These
arguments fail to acknowledge that many Jews suffered immensely under Soviet rule and
that anti-Semitism likely influenced reports of Jews welcoming the Soviets. Additionally,
these scholars neglect the possibility that Polish treatment of Jews as outsiders may have
encouraged some to welcome foreign invaders.
Despite severe criticism of Neighbors in Poland, the publication of Gross’ work
contributed to dialogue on the subject of Polish-Jewish relations and challenged the
traditional Polish victimization model. The extent of German involvement in the
massacre is still not certain and some argue that Nazis threatened to harm Poles for
refusing to participate. According to the political scientist Jenny Wüstenberg, however,
“This discussion has overall had the positive effect of diversifying many Poles’ attitudes
towards their history and enabling a more nuanced confrontation with the past.”92 Before
the publication, most Poles accepted that a small group of their compatriots blackmailed
or denounced Jews to the Nazis during the war, but not that Poles were the direct
Michlic, Poland's Threatening Other, 182.
Antoni Macierewicz, "The Revolution of Nihilism," in The Neighbors Respond: The
Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland, ed. Antony Polonsky and Joanna
Michlic, 148 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
Tomasz Strzembosz, "Collaboration Passed Over in Silence," in The Neighbors
Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland, ed. Antony Polonsky
and Joanna Michlic, 135 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
Jenny Wüstenberg, “Towards a New Kind of Legitimacy? Jan Gross's Neighbors and
Poland's Reckoning With the Past,” CEU Political Science Journal 2, no. 2 (2007): 154.
murderers in certain instances. Even though anti-Semitic arguments were made in
response to the publication, including those by Catholic priest Tadeusz Rydzyk of Radio
Maryja, Polish bishops and President Kwaśniewski issued an official apology on behalf
of Poles and Catholics. Inspiring official and private dialogue in Poland and abroad,
Neighbors started a process of the “reshaping of Holocaust historiography and of
historical memory for Poles even more than for Jews.”93 The debate encouraged dialogue
on Polish collaboration in a society in which the topic had been excluded from the public
sphere for decades. Discourse surrounding the massacre demonstrated that even the
strongest opponents of Gross’ thesis generally did not deny Polish involvement.
While the Communist Party controlled the mass media for years and distorted the
war narrative, Pope John Paul II, the Solidarity movement, and the emergence of critical
works on Polish-Jewish relations contributed to the reemergence of memory of the
Holocaust. There has been a shift away from the politicization of issues related to the
Holocaust to a reliance on documents and artifacts. New editions of Polish textbooks
dedicate more room to the Shoah.94 Poles organize Holocaust-related commemorative
activities and Jewish festivals. Despite these changes, however, public opinion polls
conducted in the 1990s revealed that nearly 90 percent of respondents believed Poles did
all they could to save Jews.95 Long-standing attitudes cannot be easily eradicated.
Gershon Bacon, "Holocaust ‘Triangles,’ Ambivalent Neighbors, and Historical
Memory: Some Recent Notable Books on Polish Jewry," The Jewish Quarterly Review
97, no. 2 (2007): 2290.
James Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 174.
Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead, 125.
Individual and Collective Memory
Distinguishing these two types of remembrance, Werner Müller and Jenny
Wüstenberg explain that:
‘Mass individual memory’ or souvenir denotes the recollection of events which
people actually lived through. To this one can add the remembrances which are
passed on through the generations, mainly in families. Collective memory or
mémoire on the other hand, serves as the social framework through which
individuals can organize their history. This framework can be actively constructed
by actors within the state and other elites.96
Müller and Wüstenberg assert that collective memory is constantly evolving due to new
political negotiations between dominant actors.97 While this view adopts a top-down
approach, attributing to dominant authorities the power to shape popular perceptions of
the past, some scholars place more weight on individual agency than state power. Torsten
Koch explains that, “individual remembrance is passed on mainly in the family, through
the telling and re-telling of events of personal importance. These are called ‘acts of
intergenerational negotiation’ in which the past is constructed jointly.”98 Parents share
stories with their children who reinterpret these memories to make their own. Individual
memories may conflict with the dominant collective memory, resulting in a ‘bifurcation
of memory.’99 Margit Reiter explains that family memories are more often preserved if
Wüstenberg, “Towards New Legitimacy,” 155.
Jan-Werner Müller, "Introduction: The Power of Memory, the Memory of Power and
the Power over Memory," in Memory & Power in Postwar Europe - Studies in the
Presence of the Past, ed. Jan- Werner Muller, 21 (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Wüstenberg, “Towards New Legitimacy,” 156.
Siobhan Kattago, Ambiguous Memory: The Nazi Past and German National Identity
(Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2001), 4.
the dominant actors do not challenge them.100 Therefore, if private and public narratives
are compatible, perceptions of the past are likely to remain stable.
According to Jenny Wüstenberg, Polish memory of the Holocaust appeared
unified during the communist period because, “The idea of Polish victimhood and
collective innocence was present in both individual and official narratives – they
mutually reinforced one another. Individual memories of Jewish suffering and Polish
collaboration existed of course, but they were marginalized in both private and official
arenas.”101 Due to the fact that Polish families suffered tremendously during the war and
most were reluctant to speak about events that could portray them in a negative light,
communist officials presented a narrative affirmed in the private sphere that endured for
many years. Poles were not unique in reconstructing wartime memory. In the wake of
World War II, Wüstenberg explains, all European societies constructed ‘foundational
myths’ about the war that involved a great deal of forgetting and simplification. These
foundational myths served the interests of postwar political leaders who, faced with the
destruction of prewar populations and the uprooting of government institutions, focused
on promoting social cohesion, reconstruction, and legitimacy. In nations previously under
Nazi occupation, a dominant discourse soon emerged that revolved around resistance and
social cohesion. For example, the postwar government in France led by Charles de Gaulle
established a collective memory that most French citizens supported the resistance
movement. However, Wüstenberg concludes that the repression of memory in Poland
differed from that in democratic countries because the Party had more control over public
discourse and could prevent marginalized memories from emerging.
Wüstenberg, “Towards New Legitimacy,” 156.
Tracing Polish reaction and memory of the Holocaust is especially important
because of the nation’s geography. Poland was not only the prewar center of European
Jewry, one that flourished for almost 1,000 years, but also the place where Jews from all
over Europe were brought to their deaths. Poles were involuntary witnesses to the
Holocaust and, as Steinlauf asserts, to examine Polish reaction to the Holocaust is to
“investigate the effects of a mass psychic and moral trauma unprecedented in history.”102
Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead, ix.
Memory of the Holocaust and Polish Jewry Under Communism
Treblinka Memorial, photo by
Auschwitz Cross, photo by author
Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, photo
The Public Sphere
In the public sphere, Poles gained most of their knowledge about the Holocaust at
school or by visiting the memorial at Auschwitz. A small number of educated Poles had
access to more accurate and reliable materials on the Holocaust from private institutions.
While public representations of the Holocaust were powerful in shaping memory, Poles
frequently explained that their knowledge about the war was obtained, not through
official sources deemed acceptable by the communist regime, but through information
received in the private sphere. Results from a 1992 questionnaire, entitled “Poles, Jews,
and Other Nationalities,” revealed that 48 percent of Poles learned about Jews from
discussions with family and 30 percent from friends. Only 14 percent of respondents
explained that they studied the subject of Polish Jewry in school. As Steinlauf asserts, due
to the legacy of 40 years of communism, “for better and for worse, it is above all personal
narrative, transmitted behind closed doors by family and friends, that has been relied
upon for making sense of the world.”1
Personal experiences and family stories perhaps shaped perceptions about Jews
and the Holocaust more strongly than official representations. In order to understand the
formation of Polish historical memory of the Holocaust, I will first discuss how Poles
learned about the genocide and Polish Jewry in the public sphere. Next, I will explore
possible reasons why discussion of the Holocaust was often absent or self-censored in the
Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead, 124.
private sphere. Finally, I will discuss memories and perceptions of the Holocaust and
Jews that Polish witnesses chose to transmit to their descendants.
Polish Literature Lessons
In the context of a time when little was said about Jews in the public sphere,
works of literature were invaluable in ensuring that memory of Jews was not erased.
Piotr, an interviewee from Warsaw in his seventies, recalled that his teachers never talked
directly about the Jewish community in Poland before the war. Nonetheless, he was
exposed to this subject. He recollected, “When I started high school, there was only one
history textbook with very little about Jews during the Second World War. There was
nothing on the history of Jews before the Second World War. However, when I studied
literature in school, I read about Jewish characters.”2 As this excerpt suggests, while the
topic of Jews was often omitted from history lessons and textbooks, even in early postwar
Poland, literary works exposed students to the subject of prewar Jewish life. Similarly,
Tomasz Wiśniewski, a journalist, historian, and author of Jewish Białystok and
Surroundings, recalled that students learned indirectly about Jewish life in Poland and the
destruction of the Jewish community through literary works:
As a child in the 1960s, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about Jewish life or the
Holocaust. In history class, there was a limit on how much we could learn about
this subject. But I remember reading many books in gymnasium written by Jewish
writers, such as Franz Kafka, Isaak Babel, and Isaac Singer. My teachers and
friends knew that these authors were Jewish. When I started my studies at
Białystok University and studied Polish literature, I spoke with my professor
about how so many Polish writers had Jewish roots.3
Tomek’s testimony suggests that while students of all ages had access to works of
literature on the war, university students were much more likely to engage in dialogue
Piotr, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 9, 2009.
Tomasz Wiśniewski, interview by author, Białystok, PL, September 8, 2009.
with their professors and develop a deeper understanding of the Jewish past in Poland.
In addition to hinting at a Jewish presence in Poland before the war, literary
works also provided information regarding the fate of Polish Jewry during the Holocaust.
Zofia Nałkowska’s Medaliony (Medallions), published in 1946, Seweryna
Szmaglewska’s Dymy nad Birkenau (Smoke Over Birkenau), published in 1945, and
Tadeusz Borowski’s short stories in the volume Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria),
published in 1948, entered students’ readings lists soon after the war and offered
background on the German occupation and Nazi atrocities.4 Like many Poles whom I
interviewed in his age group, Lukas, a man in his sixties from Lvov, recalled that his
family never talked to him about the Holocaust. However, Polish literature classes
provided him with awareness that Jews experienced a unique fate during the war:
The first time I learned about the Holocaust was in primary school. There were
compulsory readings, including Medallions, about life in a concentration camp.
These readings provided information not available in historical books. In the
literature, there was no definition of the Holocaust. But readers knew something
happened to the Jews.5
Works of literature ensured that students who grew up during the communist period
generally developed a basic understanding that Nazis persecuted Jews.
Despite the fact that works of literature hinted at a Jewish presence in Poland
before the war and conveyed that Nazis murdered Jews, students who learned about the
Holocaust solely through works of literature generally did not comprehend the size of the
prewar Jewish population in Poland, the scale of the Holocaust, or the complexity of
Polish-Jewish relations during this time period. These works do not offer background on
the history of Jews in Poland, but generally expound on one character’s experience.
Kucia, “'Jews'- The Absence and Presence of a Category,” 329.
Lukas, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 10, 2009.
Often, these characters are not representative of the vast majority of Jewish Holocaust
victims. For example, Jewish witnesses in these stories are usually more secularized than
the majority of Polish Jews before the war. Additionally, Jewish characters are among the
few who survived the concentration camps. The experiences of individuals exterminated
immediately upon arrival are not explored. In addition, victims of different ethnicities,
nationalities, and religions are described in these literary works. The Jewish identity of
protagonists or mass extermination victims is not emphasized. As a result, to a Polish
student in an ethnically homogenous country with no background on the Holocaust, the
fate of Jews often appeared indistinguishable from the fate of other peoples.
Interviewees often expressed shortcomings with learning about the Holocaust
solely through works of literature. Mirosław Obstarczyk, a historian and curator at the
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, explained that learning about the Holocaust
this way provided a rudimentary education on the subject:
Under communism, everyone knew about what took place during the Holocaust.
There was literature in school. But we didn’t understand the scale of the crime
against Jews. Generally, people knew there were Jews in Poland before the war.
My mother told me that Jews dressed differently, they were strange because they
couldn’t speak Polish very well. This was all. Judaism was an exotic element.6
Lucy, a librarian from Krynki in her forties, described the difficulty in understanding
Hitler’s agenda to annihilate European Jewry with the information in works of literature:
The Holocaust is quite new for us. We knew the basic facts but we never realized
the scale of the Jewish genocide, how there was such a system. Almost everyone
knew that the Jews were killed during the Second World War. We read about a
few Jewish characters in works of literature. But to know that all these cases were
part of a bigger phenomenon was something quite new in the 1980s.7
As Lucy suggests, while information about Polish Jewry was not completely absent from
Mirosław Obstarczyk, interview by author, Oświęcim, PL, September 2, 2009.
Lucy, interview by author, Krynki, PL, July 24 2009.
classroom lessons, works of literature did not convey that Jews experienced a unique fate
during the war and that Nazis annihilated entire Jewish communities throughout Poland.
Students who learned about the Holocaust through works of literature often did
not realize how significantly the genocide impacted their regions. Wiśniewski, born in
We heard about the Holocaust, that Jews were killed. But in school there were
almost no accurate statistics. The statistics are shocking. Białystok was 70 percent
Jewish. Many cities and towns were. I was a journalist and prepared for searching,
eager to know as much as possible about Białystok and its surroundings. For
most, Jewish tradition in Białystok was even more of a mystery.
Poles who attended school soon after 1989 often did not discover the rich Jewish heritage
of their region because they learned about the Holocaust primarily through works of
literature. Ari, a 34-year-old, explained, “In high school, in the 1990s, I was never taught
that there was a Jewish community in Białystok. My friends and I didn’t even know there
were synagogues or a Jewish district here.”8 Similarly, Agna, a college graduate in her
early thirties, explained, “I never learned about prewar Jewish life when growing up in
Chełm, even though it has such a rich and famous prewar Jewish heritage.”9 According to
these individuals, drastic improvements in Holocaust education did not accompany the
fall of communism.
The fact that students often learned about the Holocaust solely through works of
literature meant that teachers could deemphasize or omit topics from discussion that they
deemed uncomfortable, offensive, or taboo. Piotr Kowalik, a 42-year-old director of the
Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, explained that while he learned about
the extermination of Jews through works of literature, educators focused on teaching
Ari, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 13, 2009.
Agna, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 1, 2009.
about the experience of Poles during the war:
We had a strong stream in Polish literature about the impact of the Holocaust,
even just after the war. Tadeusz Borowski and others. But the focus was on Polish
pain and suffering. In the 1960s and 1970s, lessons were especially homogenous.
We suffered as Poles! Nothing more. There was no separate chapter on Jewish
Interviewees explained that, in addition to deemphasizing Jewish suffering, their teachers
downplayed Polish indifference or collaboration with the Nazis. Elżbieta Czykwin, a
professor of sociology at Warsaw University, recalled hearing about Błoński’s “The Poor
Poles Look at the Ghetto” during high school:
When I was in school, a Polish poet wrote about the ghetto in Warsaw. A poor
Pole looks into the ghetto and rides a merry-go-round while people inside are
fighting for their lives. My teacher said that there were Poles who didn’t help
Jews. But most people don’t remember this because teachers didn’t say it very
loudly. They taught about resistance and Poles helping Jews. It was taboo to say
that some Polish people helped Nazis. It was taboo to talk about Jedwabne or the
fact that Nazis hired Polish people to transport Jews to concentration camps.11
Czykwin’s testimony demonstrates that, while memory of the Holocaust was not
completely repressed, teachers highlighted or minimized certain aspects of this subject.
Similarly, Monika, a woman from Kraków in her thirties, explained that teachers omitted
uncomfortable subjects from class discussions:
In Polish literature, some Poles helped Germans. But there were definitely not too
many. Teachers never talked about this. In school, we talked about Polish people
who were the best, who helped everyone. I never knew about Jedwabne or Kielce.
Our history was great. Only recently have I learned about these other aspects of
During a focus group session in Białystok, Poles in their thirties shared similar
recollections. Participants explained that they learned about the Holocaust by reading
Piotr Kowalik, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 1, 2009.
Elżbieta Czykwin, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 10, 2009.
Monika, interview by author, Kraków, PL, July 3, 2009.
works of literature, such as Felicja Nowak’s My Star: Memoirs of a Holocaust Survivor.
Although these works offered examples of Poles who turned in Jews, collaborators were
often portrayed as villains on the margins of Polish society. In addition, there were topics
that were almost never touched upon in works of literature, including pogroms or Polish
anti-Semitism. As a result, Poles who learned about the Holocaust through works of
literature often developed incomplete and distorted versions of this time period.
In the same way that works of literature failed to convey the significance of the
Holocaust, the Auschwitz memorial did not highlight the Jewish wartime experience. A
tour guide who worked at the camp for over 40 years and wished to remain anonymous
explained that, under communism, her supervisors ordered guides not to emphasize the
Jewish identity of victims. As a result, she generally mentioned the term “Jews” about
once during each tour, “and only if visitors did not seem threatening or like they would
take offense.”13 This tour guide refrained from conveying any information regarding the
identity of her supervisors. During the communist period, many students visited the camp
as part of their school curriculums. Dr. Artur Szyndler, Director of Education and
Research at the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oświęcim, explained that student visitors
could not grasp the magnitude of the Holocaust because texts did not accompany exhibits
at the camp and tour guides offered almost no historical background. He explained, “I
visited Auschwitz as part of my high school curriculum. During the tour, the guide
simply mentioned that Jews were also killed. I definitely did not comprehend the
Interview by author, Auschwitz, PL, September 2, 2009.
Holocaust, the scale of the crime.”14 Like Szyndler, Anna Sommers, a resident of
Oświęcim born in 1979, did not learn about the Jewish heritage of her region. Sommers
developed an interest in the Holocaust during college and became a guide at the camp in
order to become more knowledgeable about the Jewish history of her town:
In high school, I had no awareness about what happened at Auschwitz. Even
though it was after the fall of communism, there were the same educators and
textbooks as before. We visited the camp in school, but Jewish and Polish
experiences during the Second World War were blended. Students thought Jews
were killed for the same reasons as Poles. We didn’t have a sense that 90 percent
of the Jewish population here was destroyed. Only when I went abroad did I
realize that everyone knows about the place I came from.15
Students generally did not gain new insights about the Holocaust after visiting Auschwitz
or learn to differentiate between the experiences of Poles and Jews.
The Role of Teachers
During the communist period, teachers largely determined whether students
learned about the Holocaust and prewar Jewish life as well as more taboo topics such as
anti-Semitism and cases of collaboration. While most teachers abided by governmentissued guidelines on teaching the Second World War, some courageously shared
information that was not part of official school curricula. Stefania Wilkiel, Counselor to
the Polish Minister of National Education, described the important role of teachers:
During communism, nobody learned that so many Jews were murdered. It wasn’t
in the textbooks. It really depended on how rebellious the teacher was, if he or she
would present material not in the guidelines. Most teachers went with the
guidelines because it was the easiest and safest course to take. But some teachers
heard stories from their families, witnessed what happened, and wanted to tell
their students. In some cases, teachers risked damaging their career.16
Teachers who felt an imperative to teach about the Holocaust and Jewish history in
Artur Szyndler, interview by author, Oświęcim, PL, September 2, 2009.
Anna Sommers, interview by author, Kraków, PL, July 4, 2009.
Stefania Wilkiel, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, August 12, 2009.
Poland presented material or shared stories that widened their students’ perspectives on
these subjects. Ludwik, a writer from Chełm born in 1950, explained:
I attended a prestigious private high school. The authorities didn’t like it because
it had too much independence. Officially, the curricula did not mention Jews.
Nothing. But in unofficial conversations with the teachers, they explained to us
that ethnic Poles used to be minorities in Chełm. I knew about the Holocaust
because of these talks, but the majority of my peers in those days didn’t know
there were Jews in Chełm or the magnitude of the genocide.17
Teachers at private institutions had greater freedom to instruct on the Holocaust.
However, Poles who attended public schools also remembered teachers who inspired
them to question official representations of the past. These educators ensured that their
students would have a stronger background on this subject than students with teachers
who adhered to communist guidelines on teaching the Second World War.
Additional Materials on the Holocaust and Jews
While works of literature provided limited knowledge of prewar Jewish life and the
Holocaust, other resources provided more in depth information on these subjects. The
existence of these sources suggests that communist authorities did not erase all memory
of the Holocaust in postwar years. However, while a large number of Poles read works of
literature, only a small group of educated Poles had access to these other materials. Piotr
Setkiewicz, the Head of the Research Department at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial
and Museum, explained that some materials published almost immediately after the war
revealed the ethnicity of mass extermination victims:
There was a difference between propaganda, what was in the textbooks, and
relative freedom of research. Under communism, two thousand copies of a journal
were published here for historians which stated that 90 percent of the camp’s
victims were Jewish. Poland was the only country in this part of Europe that was
given certain freedom in this research on a basic level. The problem was that
Ludwik, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 16, 2009.
people from outside couldn’t easily get access to this material.18
As Setkiewicz suggested, the Auschwitz-Birkenau archives and library contained a
variety of materials published in communist Poland that described the Jewish genocide.
Sources concerning this subject were even published in the immediate aftermath of the
war or soon after the campaign of 1968. For example, Auschwitz (1940-1945): GuideBook Through the Museum was published by the museum in 1969. The guidebook has a
special section entitled “Racial Discrimination of Jews,” which offers historical
background on the Nuremberg laws, pogroms (in Germany), Kristallnacht, the
demolition of synagogues, and the deportations of Jews to concentration camps. In the
section on extermination, the author states, “The entire population of districts, lying even
at some distance from Auschwitz, began to talk about the burning of Jews.”19 While the
Jewish origin of inmates is mentioned in a few instances, Jews are much more frequently
referred to as men, women, children, prisoners, victims, people, inmates, or civilians. In
numerous sections, including one on the Uprising at Auschwitz, it is unclear if the
“heroic rebels” that the author refers to are Jews or Poles. However, while the Jewish
genocide is not nearly as emphasized in guidebooks published under communism as in
the one the museum currently provides, they clearly reveal that Nazis exterminated Jews.
Feliks Tych, a historian and professor as well as the Director of the Jewish
Historical Institute, also explained that scholars who were interested in learning more
about the Holocaust and Jewish heritage in Poland obtained materials on these subjects:
Some people think that during the communist era, people were cut off from
information. That is not true. Except during the years of Stalinization, scholars in
Piotr Setkiewicz, interview by author, Auschwitz, PL, September 2, 2009.
Kazimierz Smolen, Auschwitz (1940-1945): Guide-Book Through the Museum
(Auschwitz: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 1969), 29.
Poland could travel. I went three times to an exchange in France where I worked
in the French archives. There was a reading room for academics at the Jewish
Historical Institute where they could get books not available to the general public.
The Institute published many articles about the Holocaust. There was a Yiddish
publishing house. In addition, the National Library collected everything
connected to Polish history. Of course, it was not so easy to get information
because you couldn’t go to a bookshop and get a book that was illegal. But if you
had a friend, especially one who traveled, you could get what you wanted.20
In the same way that Poles could obtain materials on the Holocaust and Polish Jewry
while traveling abroad or visiting the Jewish Historical Institute, at times they could find
works on these subjects at private institutions of higher learning. Ludwik, the interviewee
from Chełm born in 1950, explained, “At Catholic University in Lublin, my alma mater,
the library was rich with books on Jews and the Holocaust. Catholic University was the
only private university belonging to and supported by the Church so it had more
independence.” Similarly, Janek, a journalist from Białystok in his late forties, recalled:
Under communism, materials on the Holocaust were there for people who were
curious and determined. They could find information at university libraries. It was
the knowledge for scientists, for writers, for very educated groups of people who
were already conscious of Polish history. There were always two sources. Official
sources available to everyone and sources where you had to receive special
permission from the university. My thesis was based on unofficial sources, books
from abroad. My dean at the university wrote me a special note and I went to the
university library and got what I wanted.21
As these interviewees suggest, educated Poles had access to academic works that
accurately described the identity of mass extermination victims. Most people who grew
up during the communist period, however, lacked opportunities to obtain objective
information on the Holocaust and Jewish history in Poland.
Despite difficulties in obtaining objective academic works on the Holocaust, other
sources that conveyed the Jewish identity of mass extermination victims were accessible
Feliks Tych, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 8, 2009.
Janek, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 15, 2009.
to the general public. Wiśniewski recalled:
In Treblinka, a memorial was created at the end of the 1950s. The memorial was
of a menorah, which made it clear that it was a death camp for Jews. Poland was
different than other countries. When I became interested in Jewish history in the
1980s, I found nothing in Lithuania. But there were memorials at the ghettos in
Warsaw and Białystok. The plaque at the site of the former Great Synagogue in
Białystok was installed in 1958. People generally knew what happened.
Obstarczyk explained that historical films also provided a large number of Poles with the
awareness that Jews suffered a unique fate during the war:
When you look at Polish historical films from the first years after the war, the
topic of the Holocaust is always present. Especially after 1956, the Polish cinema
industry was in blossom and we could see movies that weren’t available in other
communist countries. There were many films about the ghettos with Jewish
characters knocking on doors of Poles, begging for help. The films reveal that
Jews were mass exterminated, that their fate was worse.
Andrzej Lechowski, the 53-year-old Director of Museum Podlaskie in Białystok,
described additional reminders about the Jewish heritage in Poland: “Streets were named
after Jewish heroes and there was a plaque at the Jewish cemetery in Białystok. There
was a bulletin connected with Jewish history and culture from the Jewish Historical
Institute. I worked at a museum in Białystok for the last 30 years, and the Institute always
sent me these bulletins.”22 Similarly, guidebooks that were available at bookstores and
libraries under communism reveal that Poles had access to information about Polish
Jewry. For example, Cracow: The Guidebook, published in 1951, states, “…and we turn
into Wąska street, which leads us to an old and previously crowded, noisy Jewish
neighborhood. It was the scene of the huge tragedy of Jewish society.”23 Whether or not
information on Polish Jewry is present in guidebooks depends on the inclinations of the
Andrzej Lechowski, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 22, 2009.
Władysław Dobrowolski, Cracow: The Guidebook (Warsaw: Sport i turystyka, 1951),
author. In Journeys and One Day Trips from Cracow as well as Journeys and One Day
Trips from Warsaw, both published also in 1951, there are no hints concerning the prewar
Jewish communities that thrived in these regions. Despite heightened censorship during
the campaign of 1968, there are guidebooks published around this time period that
mention Jews. This is Warsaw, published in 1971, refers to Jews who hid from the
Gestapo in the catacombs of the Powązki Cemetery. Another one published in 1970,
entitled Białystok, explains that Nazis destroyed the Jewish quarter of the city and set up
a Jewish ghetto before sending most of its inhabitants to Treblinka. While these
guidebooks refer to the annihilation of Jews, the fate of Poles is often portrayed as
similar. For example, the 1974 Białystok guidebook explains that the Jewish citizens of
Tykocin were murdered in a forest while the Poles, except the elderly and children, “were
taken on the day of May 1944 to Gross-Rosen and Ravensbrück. Many people died in the
concentration camps.”24 Readers who lacked historical background on the Holocaust
would not have grasped the magnitude or significance of the Jewish genocide.
Nonetheless, these materials and testimonies demonstrate that the subjects of the
Holocaust and Polish Jewry were not entirely absent from the public sphere.
Although reminders of the Jewish past in Poland were present in both private and
public spheres, the availability of these sources was inconsistent. Konstanty Gebert, an
acclaimed journalist, was one of the leaders of Flying University, a secret institution
revived in 1978 to educate Poles on subjects in history censored by the government.
Gebert described the difficulty in learning about the Holocaust and Polish Jewry during
the Anti-Zionist campaign of 1968:
K. Marszałek-Młyńczyk and W. Monkiewicz, Białystok (Warsaw: Krajowa Agencja
Wydawnicza, 1974), 35.
Until 1968, anyone who wanted to know more could go to a legally existing place
such as the Jewish Historical Institute. Poles at that time thought that there was
too much attention on Jewish suffering. For a long time, you couldn’t mention the
Warsaw Uprising. But the Ghetto Uprising was a popular topic after the war.
There was a Yiddish Daily and Jewish schools. But with 1968, anything that
mentioned Jews becomes dangerous. Books on Jewish history and translations of
books by Jewish authors were banned. Any mention of the Jewish past was
expunged from guidebooks. The Jewish cemetery was not mentioned. The theater
was a tragedy; many plays on Jewish themes were banned. Outside the Jewish
Institute, you couldn’t even talk about Jewish trade in the 17th century.25
However, while communist authorities took measures to severely repress discussion and
scholarship on Jewish subjects during the campaign, officials could not erase memory.
According to Gebert, Poles who were adults before the campaign already had basic
information on the Holocaust and young Poles were eager to discover more about the fate
of Polish Jewry when censorship eased. Other interviewees also asserted that Poles had
access to materials on the Holocaust and Polish Jewry. For example, Lukas, a tour guide
born in 1946, recalled that during the campaign he researched the history of Lvov in
order to provide historical background to tourists. He found materials regarding Jews and
conveyed basic information about the Holocaust to visitors:
In 1968, you could still learn about the Holocaust. There was no inquisition or
burning of books. Of course, communist officials fired people of Jewish origin
from publishing houses and falsified a few encyclopedia entries about the
Holocaust. But it is not that easy to erase history. When I started training to be a
tour guide in 1970, information was available. There were all the pieces of the
picture. If you saw enough pieces, you could have an idea of the entire picture.26
Despite difficulties in finding sources on the Holocaust and Polish Jewry, even amidst
heightened repression, Poles could obtain information on these subjects. As communist
authorities did not succeed in erasing memory of the Holocaust, the silence may also be
attributed to a lack of interest or witnesses who chose not to speak about this subject.
Konstanty Gebert, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 7, 2009.
Lukas, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 10, 2009.
The Private Sphere
Did Poles’ Views on the Holocaust Correspond with Communist Representations?
As Poles obtained limited knowledge of the Holocaust and history of Polish
Jewry in the public sphere, information acquired in the private sphere was often
instrumental in shaping what they learned about these subjects. According to Halina
Parafianowicz, Dean of the History Faculty at Białystok University, “An important part
of education was family education. In many cases, family members said one thing and
books said something else.”1 Before examining stories that Polish witnesses passed down
to their children, I will set forth possible reasons why Poles generally did not challenge,
and at times even promoted or inspired, communist distortions of this time period.
Wartime trauma often dissuaded witnesses from analyzing the Jewish genocide.
Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, a professor of sociology at Jagiellonian University and
author of The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe, explained that this phenomenon
was not unique to Polish society:
There were silences in both communist and democratic societies because of the
trauma. I examined Polish, German, and Israeli textbooks published after the war.
Gaps in textbooks confirm that societies didn’t want to deal with the Holocaust in
the 1950s and 1960s. When I went to high school in Chicago, we read Anne
Frank’s diary. But our teacher didn’t tell us that she was Jewish. This was a girl
who died during the war. None of our teachers said anything about the Holocaust.
The trauma was greater in Poland than in Western Europe or America because so
many families witnessed the atrocities.2
Poles frequently explained that family members refrained from discussing the war
Halina Parafianowicz, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 20, 2009.
Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, interview by author, Kraków, PL, August 25, 2009.
because of the stress they endured. Piotr, a man from Warsaw born in 1940, claimed that
the subject of Nazi atrocities was not popular in postwar Poland because, “Some people
went through it and a lot of us saw what happened. The memories were too fresh and
drastic.”3 Similarly, Anya, a resident of the town of Oświęcim in her twenties, explained
that none of her family members discussed the Nazi occupation even though many
experienced intense suffering:
My aunt was a prisoner at Auschwitz because she was caught feeding Jewish
prisoners in the camp. She never spoke about it. When I was a little girl I asked
about the number on her arm. She cried the whole day. I felt so sorry and had no
idea why. When I worked as a tour guide at Auschwitz, I wanted her to tell her
story at the museum. But she simply couldn’t.4
For the same reason Polish people frequently refrained from discussing their own
experiences during the war, witnesses often chose not to refer to their murdered Jewish
neighbors. Ana, a woman in her fifties from Białystok, recalled, “My mother never told
me about the Jews in her town. After she died, I read in her diary that German soldiers
took Jews to the synagogue and burned it.”5 As in the case of Ana’s mother, many Polish
witnesses did not educate their children on the subject of the Holocaust because of the
pain this subject evoked.
A sense of guilt also discouraged discussion of the fate of Polish Jewry. In many
instances, Poles watched silently as Jews were deported to concentration camps and later
obtained their former neighbors’ property by illegal means. Kate Sztop, a professor of
sociology at the University of Białystok who grew up in Łódź, maintained that Polish
witnesses were silent on the subject of the Holocaust because of shame:
Piotr, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 9, 2009.
Anya, interview by author, Oświęcim, PL, September 1, 2009.
Ana, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 30, 2009.
Our parents and grandparents unconsciously gave us a feeling of guilt. During the
interwar period, Jews were generally disliked. When our grandparents were
witnessing the Holocaust, most of them didn’t want to do anything. Some were
scared for their families. After Jews were annihilated, many Poles moved into
Jewish homes. Because of these reasons, when my grandparents talk about the
war, Jews are never in their stories or are only referred to in a very negative
According to Sztop, Polish witnesses did not want to discuss the fate of Jews because
they profited from their suffering. Similarly, Agna, the interviewee in her late thirties
from Chełm, recalled:
My grandparents and parents didn’t talk about the war or the Jews. When I asked
elderly people in Chełm about Jews who used to live in the town, they would
respond, ‘I don’t remember. I was too young. Too small too small.’ After the war,
Jewish survivors had to leave Chełm because Polish people took their buildings,
gold, everything. When a Jew came back, people were hostile.
While Poles who stole Jewish property experienced a sense of guilt or fear that
discouraged discussion of the Holocaust, Poles who murdered Jews were even more
eager to avoid this topic after the war. Grażyna, an educator in her mid-fifties, recalled:
During the war, my parents were forced to move to a little shtetl. In this shtetl,
which is now a town called Goniądz, Poles killed 160 Jews during the war. It was
very similar to the massacre in Jedwabne. After the war, Polish people were
always quiet about this topic. They often moved into Jewish homes. I lived in the
shtetl for ten years and there was only silence.7
Guilt associated with theft and murder encouraged Poles to accept and promote
communist representations of the past that omitted mention of Jewish suffering and
stressed Polish martyrdom.
In addition to trauma and a sense of guilt, postwar obstacles and challenges
contributed to silence on the subject of the Holocaust. With the destruction of prewar
populations and uprooting of government institutions during the occupation, as well as
Kate Sztop, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 14, 2009.
Grażyna, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 24, 2009.
shortages of basic necessities and materials, Poles had to rebuild their nation and
communities. Setkiewicz explained that Poles confronted an array of daily challenges
after the war, ensuring little time to examine the past:
Life under communism was not easy. You had to work fourteen hours for a piece
of meat. People after the war focused on everyday life. Perhaps they didn’t want
to remember much about the Jewish genocide. They were thinking about new
flats. In discussions with my grandfathers, for example, we talked about their
struggles after the war. The Jews, because they disappeared in 1941, were not part
of the history they transmitted to their children and grandchildren.
Likewise, Czykwin, the sociology professor at the University of Białystok, stated that,
“After the war, many cities were destroyed. People were focused on re-building Warsaw,
finding food to eat. Material, everyday concerns were prioritized.” After the war, most
Poles had to focus on providing for themselves and their families. Wiśniewski offered a
similar explanation for why Polish witnesses did not discuss the fate of Polish Jewry:
It was a very poor country with little education. There was no middle class. The
entire intelligentsia was killed. After the war, peasants moved to little towns like
Białystok. People knew about Jews but not too much. I remember my mother
going to the shop and waiting six hours to get bread. People under communism
had different problems than thinking about the Holocaust or Jewish heritage in
Poland. The most important thing was to buy something to eat.
As Wiśniewski suggested, Poles from villages who had little contact with Jews before the
war often moved to cities that the Nazis destroyed, such as Białystok and Warsaw. These
Poles focused on building new lives, rather than discussing the fate of a people who often
seemed quite foreign. As their family histories lay elsewhere, they had little incentive to
critically analyze their region’s past.
As with postwar obstacles and challenges, separation of Poles and Jews ensured
that the topic of the Jewish experience during the war would be deemphasized. Even
before the war, a large number of Jews resisted assimilation and many Poles considered
Jews to be irrevocably strangers. During the war, distance between Poles and Jews
generally widened. Adam Dobroński, a historian at the University of Białystok, explained
that the Holocaust was an unpopular subject in postwar years because Nazi policies
towards Poles and Jews differed.8 Poles generally did not witness the terrible conditions
of life in the ghetto. Most Poles never entered the death camps where Nazis exterminated
millions of Jews.
Family stories transmitted through generations of Poles often illustrated that the
experiences of Poles and Jews during the war were drastically different. While many
interviewees shared tragic stories in which Poles suffered at the hands of Nazis, others
explained that Poles who lived in villages were not dramatically impacted by the
occupation. For example, Wojtek, a priest in his thirties, explained, “My grandparents
lived in a little village in northeast Poland. They were simple people. Grandmother said
that some days Germans came to her village. But there weren’t problems. They said
Germans were very cultured and clean. They didn’t say that they were brutal.”9 At times,
Polish witnesses I interviewed shared the sentiments of Wojtek’s grandparents,
recollecting that German soldiers were polite and friendly. Poles often explained that the
Soviet occupation was much more brutal and demanding than the Nazi one. Alicja, a
young woman from Kraków, recalled differences in the memories passed down by her
father’s Jewish family and her mother’s Polish family. While her father’s parents talked
about the horrors at Auschwitz, the Polish side of her family “lived in villages and didn’t
talk about the Holocaust. I don’t think it was as hard in villages as in cities. They always
Adam Dobroński, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 10, 2009.
Wojtek, interview by author, Kraków, PL, July 3, 2009.
had enough food and animals.”10 While Nazis targeted all Jews for extermination, Poles,
especially those who lived in villages, had opportunities to maintain decent standards of
living and avoid violence. As a result, stories that Poles shared with their children and
grandchildren about the war often lacked themes of brutality and slaughter.
When Polish witnesses talked to their descendants about the war, they generally
shared their memories, rather than those of their lost Jewish neighbors. Mariosh, a man in
his mid-forties from a village near Warsaw, recalled, “Sometimes my family talked about
the war. They had some basic knowledge of the Holocaust and Jews but normal people
were not involved in the subject so it wasn’t so important for them. It was not a part of
their life. During wartime, they didn’t know about this tragedy. Each family has its own
story.”11 As Mariosh suggests, most stories that Polish witnesses passed down to their
children revolved around experiences with personal significance. Grandparents talked to
their descendants about fighting in the Polish underground or the hunger that
accompanied dwindling food rations. In the same way that Mariosh’s family did not
regard the Holocaust as a personal subject matter, Conrad, an interviewee from Kielce,
explained, “Every grandfather in Poland speaks to his grandchild about the war. Like my
grandfather who escaped Auschwitz, they were soldiers in the resistance. But they don’t
talk so much about the Holocaust. We now know about the Holocaust because of
television but this history is not personal.”12 Even though Conrad’s grandfather witnessed
Jews’ fate in Auschwitz, he chose not to include their suffering as part of his wartime
story. When witnesses did mention Jews, they often simply stated that Nazis entered their
Alicja, interview by author, Kraków, PL, July 6, 2009.
Mariosh, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 1, 2009.
Conrad, interview by author, Kielce, PL, August 28, 2009.
community, rounded up Jews, and took them away. Interviewees who were witnesses
often claimed to have no knowledge of the fate of Jews from their region or explained
that Jews probably escaped the Nazis, thus avoiding the topic of extermination. At times,
Poles shared emotional stories related to the deportations. For example, a handful of
interviewees expressed the shock and sadness associated with losing a good friend soon
after the Nazi invasion. For most witnesses, however, the annihilation of Polish Jewry
often seemed a rather distant issue.
At the same time different perspectives and experiences contributed to silence on
the Holocaust, a competition of suffering between Poles and Jews ensured that the subject
was not popular in postwar years. For example, Gebert explained:
Poles and Jews use suffering as an insurance policy. It is like the situation in
Japan. The only worse thing about being the first city bombed is being the second
one. Nagasaki is the Poles. Only one city can be at the pinnacle of suffering. Poles
go to a museum about the war and see room after room regarding the Shoah and
nothing about Polish suffering. They say Jews robbed them of their suffering.13
Gebert suggested that both Poles and Jews intentionally underscore their own suffering,
while deemphasizing the experience of the other group. As Polish witnesses suffered
tremendously during the war, they understandably wanted their experiences to be
recognized and acknowledged in postwar Poland. While communist officials chose to
deemphasize Jewish suffering in official representations, classifying both ethnic Poles
and Jews as Polish citizens corresponded with the aims of Poles who feared that attention
to Jewish suffering would detract from the Polish experience. Maria, an actress in her
twenties, asserted that the competition of suffering remains strong: “Poles were victims
during the war,” she said. “We had to make sacrifices, so somehow we are better. If
Konstanty Gebert, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 7, 2009.
Poland is the chosen nation, then how about the Jews who are chosen by God in the
Bible? As my teacher said, there can’t be two chosen nationalities.”14 Maria suggested
that a competition in suffering between Poles and Jews has, at root, both religious and
nationalistic factors. Zofia, a student at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, also pointed
to a competition of suffering. She recollected, “When I wrote my thesis at Jagiellonian
University, my professor wrote that she disliked it because it was unjust. She told me that
my work was anti-Polish and too emotional because I wrote a lot more about Jewish
suffering than Polish suffering.”15 While Maria and Zofia criticized Poles who discourage
memory of the Holocaust, interviewees from each generation asserted that there is too
much emphasis on Jewish suffering. Communist efforts to repress memory of the
Holocaust satisfied Poles who believed this subject detracted from Polish suffering and
Polish nationalistic sentiment also discouraged discussion of the Holocaust in
postwar years. During the war, Poland boasted the biggest underground resistance
movement in Nazi occupied territory. With many examples of Polish bravery and
solidarity, Poles were often hesitant to talk about aspects of the war, such as collaboration
or indifference to Jewish suffering, which did not flatter their nation. Tych explained,
“The Polish population consciously distorted memory of the past because they didn’t
want this truth. Most Poles look at Poland like fans are looking at a soccer team.
Everything is perfect. Luckily, now there is a segment of the Polish intelligentsia who
want to know the entire truth.” While Tych was especially critical of Poles’ ability to
look truthfully at the past, people of all nationalities choose to focus on the positive
Maria, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 20, 2009.
Zofia, interview by author, Kraków, PL, August 25, 2009.
aspects of their nation’s history while ignoring parts that could incur shame. Although
Polish witnesses often spoke to their descendants about the sacrifices of their compatriots
and Poles’ courage in the face of life-threatening danger, mention of Polish complicity or
apathy in the face of Jewish extermination was generally absent from conversations.
Polish anti-Semitism, like nationalistic sentiment, contributed to silence on the
topic of the Holocaust in postwar Poland. Polish interviewees sometimes considered Jews
to be strangers or traitors, describing their fate as inconsequential. Mariana, a woman in
her seventies, explained, “It wouldn’t be Poland if Jews returned here and took back their
property. It is impossible to be Polish and Jewish. These nations should be separated.”16
Polish interviewees who grew up during the communist period often shared similar
sentiments. Igor, an interviewee from Warsaw born in 1948, explained:
It would not be good if Jews returned to Poland, because Jews only support Jews.
Right before the Second World War, when the Germans were coming, Jews said
that they could speak the German language so Germans would leave them alone
and take care of those Poles! Such stupid words made the atmosphere unpleasant
and relations more difficult. Also, while Jews say that there were four million
Jews killed, modern research shows that only one million Jews were killed.17
As with Igor, Poles who harbored negative attitudes towards Jews often downplayed the
significance of the Holocaust. A small group of individuals even approved of the
genocide. Grzegorz, a man in his late thirties from Białystok, maintained:
Jews gained their property by cheating. They always helped each other. Jews
killed Jesus because they didn’t recognize that he was the son of God. I am
Catholic. I can’t say the Jews deserved what happened but it is good that Hitler
came here and killed all the Jews. If Hitler didn’t, there would be too many of
them. Even the Jewish children, it is good they were killed. From a little Jew,
grows up a big Jew, and he will be cheating again. A good Jew is a dead Jew!18
Mariana, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 27, 2009.
Igor, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 10, 2009.
Grzegorz, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 6, 2009.
While the intense hatred that Grzegorz expressed was rare, Poles from diverse
backgrounds expressed clear antipathy towards Jews. As the sociologist Ireneusz
Krzemiński discovered, elderly Poles and those with limited education are most likely to
express traditional anti-Semitism, rooted in religion. More frequently, Polish interviewees
expressed modern anti-Semitism, based on political ideology. This group of anti-Semites,
which consisted of Poles of different ages, regions, and educational levels, explained that
Jews strive to dominate the world economy. They sometimes contended that Jews
deserved their fate and, therefore, that the history of Jews in Poland should not be
discussed or remembered. Partially because of anti-Semitism, Poles often set forth
representations of the war that minimized the Jewish tragedy and corresponded with
communist portrayals of this time period.
Discussion of the Holocaust was further limited because the majority of Polish
Jewry was annihilated and Polish Jewish survivors generally left Poland after the war or
did not speak about their experiences.19 Similarly, Jewish survivors in Israel and around
the world chose not to examine the subject of the Holocaust in the immediate postwar
years. Often, Jewish survivors in Poland were extremely Polonized, surviving the
Holocaust because they were assimilated into Polish society and had the language
abilities or physical features to conceal their Jewish identities. Tych explained that Jewish
survivors did not want to explore the topic of the Holocaust in the first decades after the
war because of the trauma and pain associated with the subject. Many harbored guilt for
surviving while their families and friends perished. In addition, a group of Jews
However, a number of Jewish survivors in Poland, including members of the Central
Jewish Historical Commission, dedicated their lives to collecting historical
documentation of the Holocaust, founding an archive and library, and publishing
materials on the fate of Polish Jewry.
dissociated themselves entirely from their Jewish roots and heritage in order to devote
themselves to the Communist Party, which promised equality for all. Setkiewicz
explained that even Jewish leaders in Poland and curators at the Auschwitz memorial
preferred not to emphasize the Jewish identity of mass extermination victims:
Representatives of Jewish organizations in Poland, such as the Jewish Historical
Institute, made remarks right after the war such as, ‘We don’t want to go again
into the walls of the ghetto. We don’t want to be recognized as Jews. We want to
be recognized as loyal citizens of Europe.’ This attitude is even seen among
Jewish founders of the exhibition at Auschwitz in 1947.
According to Setkiewicz, Jewish survivors believed that they would garner more respect
by representing themselves as Polish patriots, persecuted for their involvement in the
Polish resistance movement, rather than as victims. He explained, “When Jewish
survivors explained why they were arrested, it was because they were members of an
illegal organization. Survivors were taken to concentration camps because they were
enemies of the regime.” In the same way as Setkiewicz, Obstarczyk maintained that
discussion of the Holocaust was muted because survivors experienced shame and felt that
they must put the past behind them in order to rebuild their lives: “Many memoirs written
by Jewish survivors explain that they were ashamed. They hid their numbers with
scarves. Many Jews didn’t want to stay here because of the memories and, of course,
anti-Semitism. The great majority of Jews emigrated in 1947.” Obstarczyk concluded,
“Poles very quickly forgot about their neighbors who disappeared.” Silence on the part of
Jewish survivors ensured that the communist regime and Polish society could focus
solely on Poles’ experiences during the war.
Holocaust survivors in Poland often hid their Jewish identities and chose not to
speak about their suffering because of anti-Semitism and aggression. Interviewees shared
personal stories that demonstrated the fear and danger associated with being Jewish in
communist Poland. For example, Zbigniew Siwiński is a Polish Jew in his late sixties
who was saved from the Białystok ghetto as a child and raised by a Polish woman as her
own. He only recently discovered the identity of his birth parents. While his adopted
mother saved his birth certificate, she never told him about his Jewish roots out of fear
for his safety. “My adopted mother started to teach me Yiddish when I was a child,”
Siwiński recalled. “She told me that it may be useful to me one day and that she had
many Jewish friends before the war. My birth parents were probably her friends. But
during the campaign of 1968 she was so afraid for me that she told me there were no
more Jews in Poland and everyone was Polish.”20 At the same time a number of Poles
lost all connection to their Jewish heritage during this time period, the campaign forced
most of the remaining Jews in Poland to emigrate. Marie, a woman from Białystok,
recollected that her mother joined the Home Army at age 16. As a partisan in the forest,
Marie’s mother befriended Felicia, a Polish Jew who escaped the Białystok ghetto. Marie
I used to think that Felicia was one of my mother’s sisters. In 1968, when Felicia
was getting ready to move to Israel, my mom finally told me that she wasn’t her
sister and that she was Jewish. Felicia didn’t practice Judaism after the war. She
and her husband changed names. Their children were Christianized. It was a
question of survival. In socialist Poland, minorities had to assimilate. People did
what was expected of them.21
Like Felicia, many Polish Jews after the war disassociated themselves from their Jewish
heritage because of concerns for their careers and safety. The fact that most of them left
Poland during the campaign of 1968 further limited discussion of the Holocaust.
Zbigniew Siwiński, interview by author, Białystok, PL, September 6, 2009.
Marie, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August, 24, 2009.
Polish Jewish survivors often chose not to speak about the Holocaust or their
Jewish roots with their descendants, ensuring that a generation of Polish Jews did not feel
a personal responsibility to preserve memory of the Jewish genocide. Joanna Fikus,
Coordinator of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, recalled that her
grandparents only mentioned their Jewish heritage on one occasion:
My grandparents survived because they hid their religion. Most people who
survived were quite assimilated. My mother didn’t know her father was Jewish.
One day after school she said she hated Jews. Her father asked, “Do you love
me?” As my mother grew up, she discovered that all her father’s friends were
Fikus’ testimony demonstrates that even Poles who grew up surrounded by Jews lacked
opportunities to learn about the history of Polish Jewry. Similarly, Piotr, a recent graduate
from the University of Warsaw, only discovered his Jewish identity a few years ago. Piotr
recollected, “My grandmother taught me some Yiddish. She never ate milk and meat,
according to Jewish custom. But she didn’t tell me that she was Jewish. She said that she
was allergic.”23 Like Piotr, a number of Poles have discovered their Jewish roots since the
fall of the communist regime. Many of them are passionate about exploring their Jewish
identities and studying the Holocaust. For years, however, examination of the Holocaust
was limited in the public and private spheres, partially because of a lack of vocal Jewish
witnesses and descendants of survivors who were conscious of their roots. Individuals
who could have powerfully challenged communist distortions of the past were often
Additionally, the subject of the Holocaust was unpopular because Poles feared
speaking about any subjects in Polish history that communist authorities considered
Joanna Fikus, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 9, 2009.
Piotr, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 1, 2009.
offensive. Interviewees explained that they could have lost their jobs or faced
imprisonment for committing the slightest offense. Jolanta, a woman from Białystok born
in 1959, recalled:
Officially, there was no talk about the Holocaust. We could not speak about many
subjects from World War II, such as Katyń, the AK, or Jedwabne. It was easy to
find a subject that was uncomfortable for the government. Under communism,
people had two lives. Only in private did we talk about these subjects. I can’t
explain the fear. People were just afraid of the consequences of speaking. My
parents were doctors and they were afraid of losing their jobs.24
The fear was especially intense during the period of Stalinization. According to Irena, an
elderly interviewee from Knyszyn:
Teachers were scared to talk about the Holocaust, just like they were afraid to
speak about many topics. When one of my friends from school asked about
Soviets deporting Polish people to Siberia, the teacher was so scared that he
dropped the class register. When you said anything that the Soviet government
didn’t agree with, you could be taken to jail and tortured. During communism, we
never learned about the history of Poland, except for the biographies of famous
communists. I started school in 1945 and they didn’t talk at all about Poland,
patriotism, Jewish people, or the war.25
Igor, a retiree from the village of Narew, became a high school teacher after the war. He
explained, “It wasn’t taboo to talk about the Holocaust in class but it wasn’t so
emphasized like today. Mentioning deportations to Siberia, however, was completely
forbidden.”26 While Igor suggested that teachers could mention the genocide of Jews, he
explained that all history subjects were introduced in a “political way” to avoid offending
the communists. Similarly, Piotr, from Warsaw, recalled: “The less you knew after the
war, the better, the less time you had to spend in jail. Especially when Stalin was in
power, you could be arrested for no reason. People were constantly on alert, afraid of
Jolanta, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 22, 2009.
Irena, interview by author, Knyszyn, PL, August 8, 2009.
Igor, interview by author, Narew, PL, August 4, 2009.
sharing any information. After the war, everyone feared that Nazis would return. It was
just better not to mention Jews.”27 Piotr described an atmosphere of uncertainty, where
Poles believed that speaking about Jews could incur the wrath of communist authorities,
fellow Polish citizens, or potential foreign invaders. Trepidation ensured that Poles would
not challenge official representations of the past and contributed to silence on the
Personal Memories and Transmission
I will now examine the memories and perceptions of the Holocaust preserved in
the private sphere of Polish society. Interviewees’ shared their views of the Jewish
experience under Nazi occupation and Jews’ level of resistance. They compared the
experiences of Jews and Poles during the war. While describing their perceptions of
Polish treatment of Jews before and during the war, they often related nostalgic stories of
Polish-Jewish relations, instances of Polish assistance to Jews and resistance to Nazis,
and cases where fear limited assistance to Jews. Finally, they shared their opinions
regarding the subject of Polish collaboration.
Most Polish interviewees believed that Jews were in a dire and hopeless situation
during the Holocaust. However, some individuals of all ages opined that Jews were killed
because they were innately weak and refused to fight back. These Poles often explained
that Jews’ suffering during the war has been exaggerated. Witnesses to the war and Poles
who grew up during communism were almost equally likely to express the sentiment that
Jews passively accepted their fate and should have done more to resist.28 Sokrat
Piotr, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 9, 2009.
20.69% of interviewees in their 40s, 50s, and 60s (12 out of 58 people who answered
this question) and 15.15% of interviewees in their 70s, 80s, and 90s (five out of 33)
Janowicz, a renowned poet and journalist in his seventies, explained that his parents
criticized Jews for following Nazi orders. He commented, “My parents’ generation said
something about the destruction of Jews but always with the question, ‘Why did Jews go
to their death so quietly?’ There was no deeper analysis about the circumstances facing
Jews.”29 Józefa, a 94-year-old, explained, “Polish people fought the Nazis but the Jewish
people were too passive. Friends asked them why they weren’t doing anything to resist,
why they were so passive. The Jewish people said that it is in the Bible that they were
going to die. There was little resistance in Białystok.”30 As with Józefa, Polish witnesses
who maintained Jews chose not to fight blamed the mentality of the Jewish people
without acknowledging that Jews faced a shortage of weapons and materials and had
limited assistance from Poles and the outside world. They also failed to recognize the
heroism of many Jews who sacrificed their lives in order to fight the Nazis, such as the
organizers of the uprisings in the Warsaw and Białystok ghettos.
Family perceptions and memories helped ensure that approximately one-fifth of
Polish interviewees who grew up under communism adopted the opinion that Jews
passively accepted death. Poles sometimes expressed the anti-Semitic attitude that Jews
chose not to challenge the Nazis because they were preoccupied with money. Richard, a
resident of Dębica in his thirties, explained:
Jewish people would avoid Germans and hide. Polish people would fight and
maybe hide Jewish people. Jews had business and money, so they would rather
hide. They owned everything here so many were able to survive that war. Polish
people fought because they had nothing to lose. Poles didn’t hide Jews for money
expressed the sentiment that Jews passively accepted their fate and should have done
more to resist.
Sokrat Janowicz, interview by author, Krynki, PL, July 24, 2009.
Józefa, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 14, 2009.
but because it was a basic instinct.31
Like Richard, a minority of Poles made explicit comparisons between Jews, whom they
described as innately weak, passive, and cunning, with Poles, whom they characterized as
strong, courageous, and honest. These Poles contended that Jews were persecuted, not
because of anti-Semitism, but because of their innate weaknesses and flaws. The historian
and sociologist Alina Cała discovered that witnesses and Poles who grew up during the
communist period often expressed resentment towards Jews for working in mental, nonphysical professions in a society that appreciated hard, physical work.32 Interviewees
sometimes adopted the same arguments made by Nazis. Igor, a 66-year-old, explained, “I
think Nazis singled out the Jews because they didn’t like to work hard. They were always
trading and the Nazis wanted to have a working class. The Jews didn’t like to work
physically. Jews made one mistake. Instead of buying gold, they should have bought
guns.”33 Poles who grew up during the communist period often had misconceptions about
why Nazis murdered Jews. These individuals lacked an understanding about the terrible
circumstances faced by Jews during the occupation and failed to acknowledge that Jews
had limited opportunities to obtain weapons. Middle-aged Poles likely developed these
attitudes because, while they were exposed to communist propaganda and heard family
stories that emphasized Polish heroism and courage during the war, their parents spoke
about Jews’ passivity and aversion to combat.
While some Polish witnesses criticized Jews for not doing more to resist, the
majority whom I interviewed recognized that they faced special challenges during the
Richard, interview by author, Dębica, PL, August 27, 2009.
Alina Cała, The Image of Jew in Polish Folk Culture (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1995),
Igor, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 17, 2009.
Nazi occupation.34 Józefa, the 94-year-old, explained, “Germans singled out Jews. They
treated Jews worse. They couldn’t walk on the streets. They were forced into the ghetto.
They had to do the most difficult work. They had to walk on the street, not on the curb.”
Similarly, Maria, a woman from Łódź in her late seventies, stated:
Jews were treated much worse. The young and old were beaten and killed. Jews
aged ten to fifty or so worked in the ghetto because they were useful. There was a
bridge in the ghetto. In the beginning, the bridge was so crowded with Jewish
people that they could barely walk. As time went on, there were fewer and fewer
and fewer yellow stars on the bridge. The Nazis were taking them away and
Witnesses to the war remembered that Nazis rounded up Jews in their vicinity, most of
whom would never return. As a result, these interviewees were less susceptible to
communist propaganda that portrayed the fate of all inhabitants of Poland as the same.
However, the fact that Polish witnesses realized Jews and Poles had different experiences
during the war does not mean that they transmitted this knowledge to their children.
Witnesses often chose not to discuss Jews’ suffering for reasons including trauma, guilt,
fear, or anti-Semitism.
Polish witnesses’ silence on the Holocaust as well as communist propaganda
deeply impacted how younger interviewees remembered the fate of Polish Jewry.
Approximately one-third of interviewees who grew up in communist Poland explained
that Nazis treated Poles and Jews equally. A few erroneously assumed that Jews had
better chances of surviving the war than Poles because they were more prosperous. For
example, Piotr, born in Kielce, explained:
33.89% of interviewees in their 40s, 50s, and 60s (20 out of 59 people who answered
this question) while only 14.29% of interviewees in their 70s, 80s, and 90s (five out of
35) explained that Nazis treated Poles and Jews the same.
Maria, interview by author, Łódź, PL, August 29, 2009.
From what I know, Jewish people were not so afraid of Germans at first because
they had money. Also, many of the Nazi leaders were Jewish. Adolf Eichmann
was Jewish. I also read a book that Hitler’s grandfather was Jewish.
Poles were more threatened. As the war progressed, the Nazis didn’t care if their
victims were Polish or Jewish and treated everyone in the same way. Poles and
Jews were mass exterminated in the camps.36
Like Piotr, a handful of Poles made preposterous claims that Jews helped mastermind the
Holocaust. In a few cases, interviewees explained that Poles and Jews experienced the
same fate, but then indirectly highlighted differences in experiences between the two
peoples. For example, Algina, a woman in her sixties raised in Bielsk, commented,
“Nazis treated all non-Aryans the same. There were also good Germans who helped
people.”37 While Algina recalled that a number of German soldiers were friendly and
cordial, very few Jewish witness would have made a similar comment. Poles who grew
up during the communist period frequently failed to distinguish between the causes of
death for Jews and Poles. For instance, Jen, born in 1962, explained, “Polish people were
exterminated in gas chambers with Jews. Polish women and children were murdered at
the camps in the same number as Jewish ones.”38 While Poles perished due to a variety of
causes, including hunger, the vast majority of mass extermination victims were Jewish.
These testimonies suggest that communist representations of the Holocaust still hold
weight in democratic Poland.
While a significant number of interviewees raised in communist Poland
considered the experience of Poles and Jews during the war to be similar, interviewees
who had a high level of education more often differentiated between the fates of the two
peoples. For example, Mariosh, an interviewee who earned a PhD at the University of
Piotr, interview by author, Kielce, PL, August 28, 2009.
Algina, interview by author, Bielsk, PL, August 11, 2009.
Jen, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 27, 2009.
In my opinion, the situation of Jews was much more difficult. Germans organized
ghettos for Jews. I know it was absolutely horrible to live in the one in Warsaw.
Thousands of people didn’t have anything. They just died in the streets. Polish
people had a little bit at least, usually enough food, jobs, and support from
families outside of Warsaw.39
Other Poles who attended institutions of higher learning also cited concrete examples of
how Nazis singled out Jews, such as confining them to ghettos. These Poles had more
opportunities to learn about the experiences of Jews during the war than Poles with
limited education and, perhaps, were more eager to discover this history.
Interviewees who were minorities, including Orthodox Christians, Baptists, Jews,
and atheists, almost always differentiated between the fates of the two peoples.40
According to Elżbieta Czykwin, the Orthodox Christian in her fifties who is a professor
at the University of Białystok, “The situations of Poles and Jews were radically different.
Poles suffered because we fought against Germans to defend our land. But Jews suffered
because they were Jewish. They had no choice in the matter.” Most Orthodox Christian
interviewees, including Czykwin, recognized that Jews suffered because of their
identities, rather than their actions. Aleksander Sosna, a 46-year-old Orthodox Christian,
is Vice President of the City of Białystok. Like Czykwin, he asserted that the experiences
of Poles and Jews during the war were incomparable: “The situation of Jews was much
worse than the situation of others. I have no doubt. Everywhere, Germans tried to
collaborate with people in the occupied territories. But there was almost never any
Mariosh, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 1, 2009.
36.95% of Catholic interviewees (51 out of 138 people who answered this question)
while only 5.26% of Orthodox Christian interviewees (one out of 19) and 9.09% of all
minorities (three out of 33) explained that Nazis treated Poles and Jews the same.
discussion with Jews.”41 Orthodox Christians, including Czykwin and Sosna, likely
differentiated between the experiences of Poles and Jews because many of them had
ancestors who were persecuted as well. Orthodox Christians increasingly experienced
discrimination at the hands of nationalistic Catholics in the years preceding the Second
World War. Marzena, a professor of sociology at the University of Białystok, stated:
In 1938, Catholics burned down over a hundred Orthodox churches. In front of a
hotel in Warsaw, there was a wonderful Orthodox Cathedral that Catholics
destroyed in the 1920s. It was very similar to the burning of synagogues. This is
forgotten history. Now, Orthodox people are trying to restore this history and
remind people about these tragic events. Catholic politicians, however, often want
to believe that the Polish nation never did harm to anyone.42
In the same way a number of Jews were murdered by members of the AK during the war,
Orthodox Christians also experienced violence at the hands of Catholics in the
underground resistance movement. Natalie, a 29-year-old who is the daughter of an
Orthodox Christian priest, explained: “When I compare myself with my Catholic friends,
I realize we have different views concerning historical events. In this territory, the AK
was divided into groups. Some were bandits who burned Orthodox Christian villages.
Catholics here generally don’t accept this part of history as true.”43 As with Natalie,
Orthodox Christians often criticized Catholics for denying cases where Poles persecuted
Orthodox Christians and instances where they murdered Jews, such as at Jedwabne. In
addition, today’s young Orthodox Christians often conveyed that they detest antiSemitism because they personally experienced discrimination. Many explained that, in
the same way Catholic Poles harbor stereotypes regarding “Judeo-Communism,” they
often accuse Orthodox Christians of harboring disloyalty to Poland. Horacy, a
Aleksander Sosna, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 15, 2009.
Marzena, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 21, 2009.
Natalie, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 21, 2009.
shopkeeper in his twenties from the village of Narew, contended: “Our Catholic society
treats Orthodox people worse. They call them Russian people, a reference with bad,
pejorative associations. The clergy has always wanted one big Catholic nation. In my
village, two Catholic men burned down a very old Orthodox church that was built in
1723. This crime occurred in 2000.”44 As a result of persecution at the hands of
Catholics, many Orthodox Christians developed empathy and sensitivity to the plight of
other minorities. They frequently lacked a strong sense of Polish patriotism in
comparison to Catholic interviewees. This may be because, as Poland’s borders were
constantly shifting before the war, their ancestors did not consider themselves Polish.
Due to these factors, minorities did not feel as compelled to stress Polish suffering or
deny that Jews experienced a unique fate.
The majority of Polish interviewees from each generation maintained that the
Auschwitz memorial should refrain from stating the nationality and religion of mass
extermination victims and, instead, present general human suffering.45 Surprisingly, they
supported the communist model. Despite the fact that 90 percent of the camp’s victims
were Jewish, three teenagers from the town of Oświęcim contended that the memorial
should not specify the ethnicity of the victims because all people in Poland had a similar
experience under the occupation. Similarly, Anya, a 23-year-old raised in Oświęcim who
used to be a tour guide at the camp, believed that the identity of the victims should not be
specified at the Auschwitz memorial because, “Poles suffered in the same way as Jews.
Horacy, interview by author, Narew, PL, August 4, 2009.
Again, however, there was a difference between how minorities and Catholic
interviewees responded. 75.61% of Catholic interviewees (93 out of 123 people who
answered this question) while only 22.22% of Orthodox Christian interviewees (four out
of 18) and 21.43% of all minorities (six out of 28) asserted that the Auschwitz memorial
should not mention the ethnicity of extermination victims.
Perhaps German people hated Jews more than other people. I think that when they
tortured people, Jews probably suffered more. But in general, Germans treated us all the
same.”46 Even though Anya claimed to have studied and trained extensively to become a
tour guide at the camp, she lacked knowledge as to why Nazis persecuted Poles and Jews
or the methods they most commonly utilized to murder each people.
While many Poles contended that the memorial should only present general
human suffering because experiences of Poles and Jews were indistinguishable,
interviewees who believed Jews experienced a unique fate also asserted that the
Holocaust should not be emphasized at Auschwitz. Some opposed identifying victims so
as to avoid a competition of suffering while others opposed highlighting the Jewish
experience in order to provide a universal message of man’s capacity for evil. In a few
instances, Poles felt that the memorial should not emphasize the Jewish identity of mass
extermination victims because Jews were Polish citizens. Even Poles who asserted that
Nazis subjugated Jews to unparalleled horrors promoted representations of the Second
World War strikingly similar to those set forth under communism.
In contrast to most interviewees who believed that the Auschwitz memorial
should not highlight the Jewish experience during the war, a minority of Poles stressed
the importance of differentiating between the experiences of Poles and Jews for the sake
of historical accuracy. For example, Cecilia, a woman from Krynki born in 1960,
disputed, “At Auschwitz, it is very important that we tell the complete truth. Of course,
the camp should teach about general human suffering during this time period. It is
Anya, interview by author, Oświęcim, PL, September 1, 2009.
required, however, to separate the nations as well. Memory is very important.”47 A
minority of Polish interviewees expressed that, in order to understand their nation’s past,
the memorial must provide the most accurate and complete information possible.
In addition to comparing the Polish and Jewish experiences during the war,
interviewees shared their perceptions regarding Polish treatment of Jews before and
during the war. Polish witnesses generally described Polish-Jewish relations before the
war as cordial and friendly. Nostalgic stories about Polish-Jewish relations were
especially common in small towns and villages. For example, Józefa, an interviewee in
her nineties, explained, “Grodno was 50 percent Jewish. Relations between Poles and
Jews were good during this time. There were never problems. They were all friends.
There was a Jewish doctor and he treated me when I had the chicken pox.”48 As with
Józefa, many elderly Poles shared memories of Jews before the war that are associated
with commerce, trade, or other types of professional activities. While most Polish
witnesses did not have deep personal relationships with Jews, encounters were generally
described as positive. Maria, from Łódź, explained, “My parents were poor workers so
they didn’t have many interactions with Jews. My father bought things from Jews
because we could get things cheap before Shabbat. I liked Jews. There was always
business, fish, candy, and action. It was always fun.”49 Similarly, Janina, another elderly
woman, described simple and cordial relations between Poles and Jews in Tarnow: “I was
eight-years-old when the war started. Jewish people were our neighbors and they were
friendly. If people didn’t have enough money for food, Jewish people would lend them
Cecilia, interview by author, Krynki, PL, July 24, 2009.
Józefa, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 14, 2009.
Maria, interview by author, Łódź, PL, August 29, 2009.
money and give food.”50 The majority of witnesses, including Piotr from Kielce,
maintained that there were no conflicts between Poles and Jews before the war. Piotr
recalled, “In Kielce, there were no problems before the war. I remember that when I was
a child, Jews would come to our homes and sew things or sell and buy things.” Elderly
Poles often talked to their children and grandchildren about positive interactions with
Jews. Cecilia, from Krynki, recalled, “My mother went to the school with Jewish children
in public schools. They were friends and got along.”51 Similarly, Caesar, an interviewee
in his late forties, explained that relations between Poles and Jews before the war were
pleasant: “My grandparents lived near the Jewish district in Białystok. My grandmother
told me that she had good relationships with her neighbors before the war. My mother
said that before the war, she played with Jewish children. There was no hostility or antiSemitism.”52 Family stories transmitted through the generations revealed that Polish
witnesses often harbored a sense of nostalgia for life before the war and regretted the
disappearance of their Jewish neighbors. In many villages, towns, and cities, Poles and
Jews had neighborly relations and interacted with each other on a daily basis.
While witnesses’ nostalgic sentiments and stories may very well have been
genuine, interviewees often neglected to reveal that Poles were increasingly hostile
towards Jews during the interwar period. Parafianowic, the Dean in the Department of
History and Sociology at the University of Białystok, maintained that Poles focus on
positive aspects of Polish-Jewish relations before the war and downplay negative
instances when Poles were aggressive towards Jews or benefited from their plight:
Janina, interview by author, Tarnow, PL, August 26, 2009.
Cecilia, interview by author, Krynki, PL, July 24, 2009.
Caesar, interview by author, Białystok, PL, September 5, 2009.
When villagers were witnesses, it is the same situation as in Białystok. It is very
typical when you go into villages that many people say that Jew was my neighbor,
he was a very kind man. Perhaps it wasn’t a true story. But maybe the Polish
neighbor took things from his home. In cities, there were fewer such stories
because people are more anonymous in the cities and people didn’t know their
neighbors so well. Even in Jedwabne, Jews and Poles really lived together before
the war. They were connected with each other in every aspect of their lives.
As Parafianowic suggested, witnesses frequently simplified memory of Polish Jewry to
focus entirely on cordial, if distant, relationships. These stories do not convey that
relations between Poles and Jews were diverse; Poles and Jews sometimes shared
friendships and, at other times, had relationships that were competitive and antagonistic.
Like Parafianowic, Sztop asserted that Polish witnesses frequently exaggerate friendly
and neighborly relations before the war: “In my opinion, these sentimental stories are a
kind of defense. I think these stories are also unconscious tools to deal with guilt.” Polish
witnesses generally described Polish-Jewish relations as cordial and neighborly without
addressing the more painful aspects of Polish-Jewish history.
At the same time they shared nostalgic accounts about good Polish-Jewish
relations, Polish interviewees often described stories in which their ancestors and
compatriots saved Jews during the Holocaust. Polish witnesses to the war and Poles who
grew up under communism frequently did not differentiate between efforts to undermine
the Nazi occupation and acts to help Polish Jewry.53 According to these interviewees,
Poles who resisted the occupation were always sympathetic to Jews and assisted them
whenever possible. These individuals often idealized Polish-Jewish solidarity in the
Polish resistance movement. For example, Józefa, a 94-year-old born in Grodno, stated,
38.98% of interviewees in their 40s, 50s, and 60s (23 out of 59 people who answered
this question) and 48.57% of interviewees in their 70s, 80s, and 90s (17 out of 35)
explained that the majority of Poles resisted the Nazis and assisted Jews.
“General Anders made an army. Some were professional soldiers and some were not.
There were Poles and Jews in the army. They all fought together and there were no
problems in the army. We were all one Poland. No one thought, you are a Jew or you are
a Catholic.”54 While stressing military assistance to Jews, interviewees recalled other
ways Poles helped Jews during the war. In addition to stories in which Poles provided
false identification documents and other forms of material assistance, interviewees also
remembered cases where Poles offered spiritual support. Teresa, born in 1933, recalled,
“When Poles saw trains with Jews they prayed for them. Most Poles tried to help Jews by
hiding them and giving them food.”55 Poles of all ages explained that their ancestors
helped Jews confined to ghettos. For example, Cecilia, a 50-year-old, explained, “My
grandmother prepared the bread in the town and for a long time she sent most of the
bread to Jews in the Krynki ghetto.” In addition to providing food, Poles shared stories of
ancestors who risked their lives to hide Jews in their farms or cellars. For example, Tyk, a
man in his early sixties, recollected, “My grandfather lived near Treblinka. There were
Germans all around this village. But my grandfather hid Jews in his farm for a very long
time.”56 Similarly, Jarosław, born in 1970, recalled that his family sheltered Jews during
the war: “My grandparents from my father’s side talked a lot about the war because my
grandfather was in a German prison. My grandma left Warsaw with two children on her
hips. But my mom said that my grandfather hid two Jews in his cellar.”57 Although it is
impossible to establish the truth of these claims, the proportion of Poles who asserted that
Józefa, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 14, 2009.
Teresa, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 28, 2009.
Tyk, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 8, 2009.
Jarosław, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, June 30, 2009.
they had relatives who sheltered Jews far exceeds the estimates made by Emanuel
Ringelblum and other scholars.58
Witnesses’ silence on the Jewish genocide, family stories, and communist
propaganda that emphasized Polish heroism may have inspired middle-aged Poles to
devise a number of these stories. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that no
interviewees who were alive during the war claimed to have personally assisted Jews. In
addition to sharing uncorroborated stories of relatives who saved Jews, Polish
interviewees who grew up under communism frequently exaggerated the total number of
Poles who offered assistance. For example, Eddy, a 64-year-old, contended:
Most Poles tried to help Jews. I think that about 25 percent of the Polish
population adopted Jewish children from the ghetto and raised them as their own.
But in small villages, they never told other people that they saved Jewish kids.
They didn’t talk about it because they did this from their hearts and didn’t want
anything in return.59
Similarly, Andrzej, a man in his forties from Białystok, stated, “Most Poles tried to help
Jews even though there was a high risk. They hid them in their flats and gave them food.
About 70 percent of Poles hid Jews in their homes. There was no discrimination.”60
Interviewees who drastically inflated the number of Poles who assisted Jews often had
limited education. These individuals frequently asserted that Poles received no money for
hiding Jews. Although a number of Poles hid Jews without compensation or received
only enough money to provide assistance, such claims disregard cases in which Poles
helped Jews for financial incentives.
According to Ringelblum, about half of the estimated 30,000 Jews who escaped from
the ghettos went into hiding in Warsaw (Ringelblum, 1988b, p. 9). The Jewish Historical
Institute estimates that in total between 50,000 and 60,000 Jews were saved in Poland.
Eddy, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 14, 2009.
Andrzej, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 27, 2009.
While Polish interviewees from cities often exaggerated the number of
compatriots who assisted Jews during the Nazi occupation, interviewees from small
towns and villages tended to explain that Poles in their vicinity focused on survival. For
example, Agatha, born in the village of Kołodno, stated, “In little villages, farmers and
peasants analyzed the entire situation differently than people in cities. Here, it was
possible to lead decent lives under the German occupation. They just wanted to survive
the war as a family. Only a few people were partisans. In this region, people were just
frightened.”61 When evaluating Poles’ efforts to assist Jews during the war, Poles from
small towns and villages focused on local stories. Interviewees from villages sometimes
mentioned a family in the vicinity who hid a Jew during the war, but they explained that
this behavior was rare. Communist propaganda emphasizing Polish heroism may have
been less prevalent in small villages and towns than in big cities. Since the fall of
communism, there has been renewed attention on cases of Polish resistance in cities,
including the Warsaw Uprising, which may be interpreted as being synonymous with
assistance to Jews. In addition, Poles from villages who assisted Jews often remained
silent on their activities after the war for reasons including anti-Semitism and fear of
Interviewees who were minorities and those with high levels of education
generally differentiated between Poles who assisted Jews and those who were indifferent
or contributed to their suffering.62 Kowalik, Director of the newly established Museum of
Agatha, interview by author, Kołodno, PL, July 11, 2009.
38.57% of Catholic interviewees (54 out of 140 people who answered this question)
and only 10.53% of Orthodox Christian interviewees (two out of 19) and 12.12% of all
minorities (four out of 33) explained that the majority of Poles resisted the Nazis and
the History of Polish Jews, is the grandson of Polish Jews who survived the war with the
help of righteous gentiles. Kowalik recalled, “My family differentiates between good and
bad Poles. They have good memories of Polish peasants who even suffered for them.
Many peasants helped Jews and when their neighbors discovered this, they burned down
their farms. There were cases of retribution even after the war.” Similarly, Poles in this
category often differentiated between Poles who resisted the Nazi occupation and Poles
who assisted Jews. Michal Bilewicz, a professor at the University of Warsaw, explained:
Even during the Warsaw Uprising, there was one unit of the Home Army, or AK,
that killed Jews who came out of hiding to join them in the fighting. Jewish
leaders in the uprising, such as Marek Edelman, wrote a lot about these fascist and
anti-Semitic members. Of course, there were Polish partisans who helped Jews as
well. But there are monuments all over Poland for the AK while students never
learn about cases where nationalistic members killed Jews.63
Minorities and Poles with higher levels of education more often provided a nuanced
picture of Polish-Jewish relations during the war.
Although Polish witnesses to the war whom I interviewed never claimed to have
personally assisted Jews, they frequently maintained that most Poles sheltered Jews
during the war or provided other forms of aid. However, while they recalled that their
compatriots alleviated the suffering of their Jewish neighbors, they often shared personal
stories that revealed that fear limited assistance. For example, Dorota, an interviewee in
her late eighties from Białystok, insisted that most Poles actively helped Jews by hiding
them in their homes and providing them with food. However, soon after, Dorota
described the powerlessness her family and Polish neighbors felt as Nazis rounded up the
Jews from her city: “When they were deporting Jewish people, you couldn’t do anything.
You couldn’t even come close because there were Nazis with guns. If you even looked at
Michal Bilewicz, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 9, 2009.
them…there was no chance to help them.”64 Similarly, Victor, an elderly man from a
village near Białystok, asserted that the majority of Poles actively resisted Nazi policies
towards Jews. However, he proceeded to share a story that demonstrated even Poles with
close ties to Jews were often powerless to help them:
There were a few cases where Polish men from our village were married to
Jewish women. When Germans came, they took all the Jewish women and
children to death camps. The Polish men asked if they could get their children
back. The Germans said that they could go with their families but they would be
killed. They stayed.65
While these men demonstrated courage by asking Nazis to return their family members,
they chose not to risk their lives in an attempt to halt the deportations of their children.
Similarly, Agna, an 82-year-old raised in the village of Jasionowka, shared a story that
illustrated how fear discouraged prolonged assistance to Jews:
In the summer of 1943, a Jewish woman knocked at my aunt’s door and begged
her for help. She survived the deportation but her husband had been killed and she
had lost her children. My aunt told her that she could help her but only for one
night. She had many children and was scared. My aunt gave her something to eat.
The woman insisted on going to get something she had buried near her home,
with the hope that my family would continue hiding her in exchange for the
treasure. She left at nine in the evening, during the hours when the police said no
one could walk outside. The next day my cousins got a message that a German
soldier had shot her. So the entire family was murdered.66
Agna’s aunt housed a Jewish woman for an evening, despite the death penalty for hiding
Jews. The fact that her aunt refused to provide shelter for a longer period of time,
however, suggests that assistance to Jews was often ephemeral. Janina, the woman from
Tarnow in her seventies, insisted that the majority of Poles tried to save Jews. She soon
recounted, however, how she and her neighbors watched helplessly as Nazis murdered
Dorota, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 17, 2009.
Victor, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 23, 2009.
Agna, interview by author, Jasionowka, PL, July 28, 2009.
the Jews in her neighborhood: “I saw young Jewish children being killed. There was a
public bath, a mass murder. There was nothing we could do because the Germans could
have shot us and taken us to a camp as well.” Irena, an interviewee from the town of
Knyszyn, maintained that most Poles actively assisted Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Yet, she recollected:
The old baker was a Jew. Before the war, he always carried me on his back and
gave me fresh bread. I can’t remember when he and the other Jews of Knyszyn
were killed. All I remember is that the bodies of Jews were taken on big cars and
the Polish people were told to lock all their doors and not look out. Sometimes we
peeked out from our windows.
While Polish witnesses frequently spoke to their descendants about cordial relations
between Poles and Jews before the war and asserted that most Poles assisted Jews, they
shared firsthand accounts that demonstrated they experienced fear and helplessness
during the deportations of their Jewish neighbors. As a result, some interviewees who
grew up after the war explained that Poles chose not to risk their lives to help Jews. For
example, Jolanta, a 51-year-old, recalled, “My babysitter told me about the transport of
trains she watched pass, of Jewish people being sent to the camps. One woman with her
young child got out of the train when it was moving and a soldier shot her. The people
were too afraid to help her child.”67 Similarly, Wojtek, a man in his late forties, recounted
a story in which fear prevented his grandmother from helping a Jewish child:
My grandmother told me about an incident during the war when she was returning
home after a trip to the market. She had two children with her, including my
mother. One young Jew approached her and asked her for bread because he was
starving. He offered her a gold chain. My grandmother couldn’t give him bread
because a German soldier was standing nearby with a rifle. My grandmother told
me that she would remember the boy’s eyes for the rest of her life.68
Jolanta, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 22, 2009.
Wojtek, interview by author, Białystok, PL, September 5, 2009.
While communist era representations of the past highlighted Polish resistance and
assistance to Jews while deemphasizing Jewish suffering during the war, family stories
painted a different picture. At times, Poles who grew up under communism heard
accounts that illustrated Nazis singled out Jews for extermination and Poles were helpless
to change their neighbors’ fate. These family stories help to explain why, while Polish
interviewees from each age group explained that most Poles resisted the Nazis and helped
Jews, most maintained that fear limited assistance.69
When discussing the topic of collaboration with Poles, the controversy over the
massacre in Jedwabne frequently arose. Sztop, the sociology professor in Białystok,
stated that the case of Jedwabne brought the topic of collaboration to the forefront of
Polish society and forced Poles to face this aspect of their nation’s history:
I think that there are no more taboo subjects with regards to the story of Jews in
Poland after Jedwabne. People had to talk about the past. Children at home asked
their parents what happened. Polls show that most Polish people think that
Germans committed this crime. But this case was very important because people
all across Poland started to talk about Jews and the Holocaust in public. The
young generation started to think about anti-Semitism for the first time.
Approximately one-third of the interviewees conceded that Poles massacred the Jewish
residents of Jedwabne; as Sztop suggested, most blamed the crime on Germans.70 Polish
witnesses to the war whom I interviewed often denied that there were any cases of Polish
collaboration with the Nazis or contended that Jews deserved to be punished.71 However,
interviewees frequently heard different arguments on this subject and most Poles who
77.48% of interviewees (148 out of 191 people who answered this question) explained
that fear limited Polish assistance to Jews.
32.42% of interviewees (59 out of 182 people who answered this question) stated that
Poles were responsible for the massacre in Jedwabne.
51.43% of interviewees in their 70s, 80s, and 90s (18 out of 35 who answered this
question) denied that there were any cases of Polish collaboration.
grew up after the war conceded that there were at least a few cases in which Poles
assisted Nazis in the persecution of Jews.
Polish interviewees who lived during the war were less likely than younger
interviewees to place responsibility for the massacre in Jedwabne on Poles. For example,
Luba, a woman from the village of Grodno born in 1930, maintained, “There were no
cases of Polish collaboration during the war. Jedwabne is not true. It is a type of revenge
and shouldn’t be in history books and taught in schools.”72 Witnesses to the war
transmitted their perceptions of Polish collaboration to their children. Poles who grew up
in communist Poland accused Americans and Jews of fabricating or overemphasizing
cases where Poles were perpetrators in order to tarnish Poland’s national honor. For
example, Frank, from the town of Sejny, asserted, “The media made too big a case out of
Jedwabne. The excavation stopped and nobody knows why. I don’t think it is true. There
are Americans who caused a big deal about Jedwabne. There were many synagogues
burned with people inside during the war.”73 A few interviewees who grew up under
communism attempted to minimize the significance of the massacre in Jedwabne and
diminish the value of human life by explaining that many Jews died during the war.
While Frank only received an elementary school education, Poles with different levels of
education expressed the sentiment that the international community has focused unfairly
on crimes committed by Poles. For example, an author and history professor at the
University of Białystok who wished to remain anonymous maintained that Americans
attack Poland by publicizing cases such as Jedwabne:
What are pogroms? Fine, a few Jews were killed. Ok. At this time, more Germans
Luba, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 29, 2009.
Frank, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 20, 2009.
were killed. More Poles were killed. People make big problems about pogroms!
There were maybe two or three during the war. I don’t know if these people were
killed only because they were Jewish. Maybe Polish bandits thought they had
Many interviewees who accepted Poles’ involvement in the massacre downplayed
religious antagonisms and explained that the murderers, on the margins of society, were
motivated to kill for financial gain. These individuals refused to acknowledge that clergy
from Jedwabne and other regions in Poland were openly anti-Semitic and sometimes
inspired escalating hostility towards Jews.75
Poles who lived in the vicinity of Jedwabne were the interviewees most likely to
deny or defend Poles’ involvement in the crime. For example, Alice, a 68-year-old who
grew up near Jedwabne, confided that her father informed Nazis where Jews in her
village were hiding and helped round them up to be massacred. Despite the fact that her
father facilitated murder, she asserted that Poles shared no responsibility for Jews’ fate
because Germans allegedly instructed Poles to assist them. Alice also insisted that Jan
Gross exaggerated the crime in Jedwabne:
Why did the Jewish author Gross describe Polish people as those who murder
Jewish people? I lived around ten kilometers from Jedwabne. In Jedwabne, you
can see the capacity of the barn. It could only hold two to three hundred people.
Gross wrote that two thousand Jews were killed in the barn. It is impossible that it
Most interviewees from the vicinity of Jedwabne, like Alice, contended that Gross
inflated the number of victims in order to incriminate Poles. They often concluded that
Poles were not responsible for the crime because his initial estimates were inaccurate. As
the historian David Engel notes, while Gross encouraged dialogue on complex issues,
Interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 14, 2009.
Gross, Fear, 205.
Alice, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 20, 2009.
including the complicity of local east European populations in the annihilation of Polish
Jewry, responses in Poland virtually ignored deeper issues to focus almost exclusively on
“largely factual matters related to the number of victims, the relative degree of Polish and
German initiative on planning and execution of the massacre, and the extent to which the
Polish perpetrators may have been provoked by the behavior of the town’s Jews during
the recently-concluded period of Soviet occupation.”77 Poles from Białystok, which is a
short drive from Jedwabne, more frequently denied Polish responsibility for the massacre
than Poles from cities such as Kraków and Warsaw.78 Similarly, during a focus group
with elderly Poles from the city of Łomża, which is in the same region as Jedwabne, all
participants denied Polish involvement in the crime. Poles from cities near the Eastern
border such as Białystok and Łomża likely denied Polish involvement in the massacre in
order to protect the honor and reputation of their families and communities.79
The history of occupation in their region also helps explain why Polish
interviewees near the Eastern border more often blamed Jews for the massacre in
Jedwabne. As a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Soviets entered Białystok in 1939
while Nazis invaded Warsaw and Kraków. While the exact number is uncertain, some
Jews welcomed the Soviet invaders, hoping that their condition would be improved.
Their Polish neighbors subsequently accused Jews of joining the Soviet secret police and
helping the invaders select Poles for deportation. These allegations help explain why
David Engel, "Some Observations on Recent Polish Writing About Polish Jewry
During the Holocaust," Studia Judaica 2, no. 14 (2004): 254.
30.95% of interviewees from Białystok (26 out of 84 people who answered this
question) while only 13.33% of Poles from Kraków and Warsaw (four out of 30) denied
any Polish involvement in the massacre at Jedwabne.
Similarly, five of the seven interviewees from Kielce denied Polish responsibility for
the postwar pogrom in their city while the other two interviewees had no knowledge of
interviewees near the Eastern border asserted that Jews from Jedwabne were traitors and
should not be remembered or mourned.80 As the historian Katherine Jolluck discovered
when reading thousands of testimonies written by Polish women deported to the USSR
from 1940 to 1941, Poles often demonstrated “no awareness or understanding of abuse
suffered by Jews in the interwar state, and they react to any complaint or suggestion that
the Jews’ lot might improve under the Soviets as outright betrayal.”81 Interviewees often
explained that Jewish suffering should not be discussed because of their alleged
disloyalty to Poland. For example, Zosia, an elderly woman from Łomża, stated, “People
who were not in Jedwabne should not talk about it. Before the war, not all Jews were
saints. Some Jewish people deserved to be punished.”82 While Zosia explicitly argued
that some Jews deserved their fate, many Poles near the Eastern border simply implied
that Poles had valid reasons to murder their Jewish neighbors. Cecilia, from the town of
Krynki, exclaimed, “In Jedwabne, nothing happens without a reason. It was not just a
wild reaction of Polish neighbors without reasons!” Polish from this region frequently
cited unverified cases in which Jews persecuted Poles to justify aggression towards them.
In addition to claims that Jews conspired with the Soviets, Poles offered a variety
of other reasons to explain the annihilation of the Jewish community in Jedwabne. For
example, Dorota, a woman from Białystok in her late eighties, asserted, “Some Polish
people worked very hard for Jewish people and were not paid well. Jews cooperated with
the Soviets to deport Poles to Siberia. When the Nazis came, Jews gave Poles away and
34.44% of interviewees from Białystok (31 out of 90 people), while only 6.67% from
Kraków (one out of 15) and 10.53% from Warsaw (two out of 19) expressed the “JudeoCommunism” stereotype.
Jolluck, “Gender and Anti-Semitism in Wartime Soviet Exile,” 215.
Zosia, interview by author, Łomża, PL, August 14, 2009.
cooperated with them. Jews even welcomed Nazis with flowers. Only later did Nazis
change their policies towards Jews.”83 Like Dorota, interviewees who believed Jews were
to blame for their suffering made accusations against them that lacked credibility. Polish
witnesses and Poles who grew up under communism often expressed traditional and
modern anti-Semitism while attempting to justify the massacre. Igor, a 62-year-old,
When Russians came, Jews helped them kill the Polish intelligentsia and pointed
to who should be taken to Siberia. Jedwabne was just revenge. Any friction before
the war was caused by the fact that Jews didn’t want to live with Poles and
supported the Russians. With Jedwabne, maybe Russians were dressed as Poles.
There are no archives or documents on this topic that we have access to.84
As with Igor, Poles who maintained that Jews helped Soviets persecute Poles often
simultaneously blamed the Soviets for the massacre in Jedwabne. Piotr, a 47-year-old,
was even more hostile and inaccurate in his accusations against Jews. He asserted that
Jews deserved their fate because they annihilated Polish communities:
I don’t know if the story of Jedwabne is true. But I think of cases of Jews
connected to communists and the Soviet Army. Jews mass exterminated Polish
people too. Before the war, there are documented cases where Jews exterminated
Poles. The Holocaust touched Jewish people but I read in different articles that
Jewish people worked with communists to destroy entire Polish villages.85
In communist Poland, reference in the public sphere to Poles’ suffering at the hands of
Soviets was taboo. These testimonies suggest that, in private, a number of Polish
witnesses told their descendants that Jews worked with Soviets against Poles and
deserved to be punished.
While interviewees who were witnesses or grew up under communism frequently
Dorota, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 17, 2009.
Igor, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 10, 2009.
Piotr, interview by author, Kraków, PL, July 4, 2009.
denied cases of Polish involvement in Jedwabne, most Poles who were members of
minorities maintained that Gross’ publication was accurate and truthful.86 Minorities may
have more readily acknowledged cases of Polish collaboration because they experienced
discrimination. Lukas, a 64-year-old atheist from Lvov, explained that he felt deep
empathy for Jews due to the fact that Poles harassed him as a child:
I come from a very atheistic family. Even though officially there was no antiSemitism after the war because communists said everyone was equal, I
experienced something like anti-Semitism myself. People called me Jewish
because I wouldn’t bow before a cross. I read both Neighbors and Fear. I felt
terrible when reading these books, especially Fear, because it presented
something called train actions where Poles pointed to Jewish passengers and
Similarly, Michael, an Orthodox Christian priest from Białystok, stated, “I think
Jedwabne is true. Some Polish people were horrible to Jewish people and even helped
Nazis. I know many situations like this happened here because of confession. As a priest,
Orthodox people confessed what Catholics did to them and Jews before and during the
war.”88 In addition to acknowledging cases of Polish collaboration, minorities generally
recognized a history of anti-Semitism in Poland. Radek Poczykowski, an Orthodox
Christian professor at the University of Białystok, explained:
It is shocking to read newspapers published in Białystok during the interwar
period. In this context, I understand how the Holocaust was possible. It is not like
we lived in peace and Germans came and the Holocaust happened. There was a
long time where dense tensions built up. I wouldn’t say that Polish anti-Semitism
facilitated the Holocaust. But if there hadn’t been such hostility towards
minorities, I believe more Jews would have been saved.89
61.11% of Orthodox Christian interviewees (11 out of 18 people who answered this
question) and 68.75% of all minorities (22 out of 32) asserted that Poles were responsible
for the massacre in Jedwabne. In contrast, 28.03% of Catholics (37 out of 132)
acknowledged that Poles committed the crime.
Lukas, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 10, 2009.
Michael, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 20, 2009.
Radek Poczykowski, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 20, 2009.
While Catholics often denied or justified cases of violence towards Jews, minorities
generally acknowledged and condemned Polish anti-Semitism before and during the war
and regretted that assistance was not more widespread.
With the exception of minorities and highly educated individuals, Poles’ views on
the Holocaust frequently corresponded to communist representations. For a number of
reasons, including guilt and anti-Semitism, Poles often downplayed the significance of
the Jewish genocide. Most interviewees’ emphasized Polish martyrdom and assistance to
Jews while denying cases where Poles were perpetrators. The fact that Polish witnesses
made statements about this period that demonstrated disconnect with reality suggests that
communist portrayals confirmed, rather than established, misconceptions regarding this
subject. Communist representations of the war catered to Poles who preferred to forget
the Jewish tragedy while providing justification and encouragement for their beliefs.
Memory of the Holocaust and Polish Jewry After Communism
Jewish Festival in Tykocin, photo by author
Paintings in Białystok of Jews and gold,
photo by author
Restaurant in Kraków, photo by author
Jedwabne Memorial, photo by author
New Generation of Poles
Changing Perceptions of the Holocaust and Polish Jewry?
In comparison to Poles who grew up under communism, interviewees raised in
democratic Poland were more aware of the horrendous circumstances facing Jews during
the war. They more frequently explained that Nazis were so meticulous and determined
in implementing the Final Solution that Jews had few opportunities to resist.1 Dorota, a
26-year-old raised in Warsaw, explained that Jews could never have anticipated the fate
that awaited them: “From the beginning, Jews believed that they were going to a better
place. They took all their treasures with them. They didn’t know that they would be killed
so they didn’t resist. If they knew more, they would have done more.”2 While Poles who
attended school in democratic Poland were not more knowledgeable than older
interviewees about cases of Jewish resistance, they were generally more sympathetic to
the situation of Jews during the war. Today’s young Poles are exposed to the subject of
the Holocaust through the international media, trips abroad, and discussions with foreign
exchange students and tourists. Due to educational reforms, the greater openness in
Polish society, and dialogue with international actors who have an interest in accurately
portraying the Holocaust, they are increasingly aware of the genocide.
Despite this trend, however, a minority of young Poles charged Jews with
submissively accepting their fate. Young interviewees who made these arguments often
12.82% of interviewees in their teens, 20s, and 30s (10 out of 78 people) explained Jews
passively accepted their fate in comparison to 20.69% of interviewees in their 40s, 50s,
and 60s (12 out of 58).
Dorota, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 7, 2009.
expressed a variety of anti-Semitic attitudes. For example, Luke, an interviewee in his
I know Polish people are fighters and always fight with their enemies. Jews are
always giving up without even trying. For example, when Germans came to
Białystok, Jews came into the streets and invited them. Then they did the same
thing with the Soviets after the war. They didn’t fight because they wanted
As Luke’s testimony reveals, the perception that Jews were passive, cunning, and
treasonous while Poles were resilient and combative still persists among a segment of
today’s young Poles. These young interviewees harbored misconceptions about
opportunities available to Jews to collaborate with Nazis as well as their chances of
Surprisingly, Polish interviewees who grew up after 1989 did not distinguish
between experiences of Poles and Jews during the war more frequently than interviewees
who witnessed the Holocaust or grew up during the communist period.4 Young Poles
who attended institutions of higher education more often described the special
circumstances Jews faced during the Holocaust. In a focus group conducted in Białystok,
Carolina, a sociology graduate student, explained:
I think that Jewish people were treated differently. My grandfather lived in a
village where the German and Soviet armies passed back and forth. Sometimes
Germans brought his family food and treated them nicely. The statistic is that
almost the same number of Poles and Jews perished during the war. But the
proportion of Jews that was annihilated was much larger.5
Similarly, Brian, a student at the University of Warsaw, asserted:
Luke, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 19, 2009.
34.17% of interviewees in their teens, 20s, and 30s (27 out of 79 people who answered
this question) explained that Nazis treated Poles and Jews the same. In comparison,
33.89% of interviewees in their 40s, 50s, and 60s (20 out of 59) and 14.29% of
interviewees in their 80s and 90s (five out of 35) held the same belief.
Carolina, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 11, 2009.
Poles could always count on their friends, their compatriots. Jews often didn’t
know who were their friends and who were the enemies. They didn’t know if they
could rely on neighbors for shelter or if they would betray them. The situation of
Poles was not very good, especially in cities. But Jews were tormented in all areas
that the Nazis occupied. The whole idea of the Holocaust was to destroy the
In contrast to young Poles with high levels of education, young interviewees with limited
education often regarded the experiences of Poles and Jews as similar. For example,
Patrick, a 22-year-old who grew up in Kraków, explained, “My grandfather was taken to
Auschwitz and he was Polish, not Jewish. Jews and non-Jews were treated the same.
Nazis didn’t kill Jews right away. When they had gold or money for the Germans, they
were released. Many Jews with money saved themselves this way.”7 At times, young
Polish interviewees expressed similar misconceptions about opportunities available to
Jews under the Nazi regime as Poles did who grew up during the communist period. They
may have not learned differently or felt that differentiating between the experiences of
Jews and Poles would diminish the memory of their relatives’ suffering.
Young Poles’ estimates of the extent of Polish assistance to Jews during the war
tended to be more conservative than those of previous generations.8 For example, Brian,
the University of Warsaw student, stated, “I think there were some cases where Poles had
good hearts and tried to help Jews, particularly Jewish children. In Warsaw, maybe ten to
20 percent of Poles helped Jews in their houses. It is normal that, during war, most people
focus on saving themselves.” While young interviewees more frequently asserted that
Brian, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 19, 2009.
Patrick, interview by author, Kraków, PL, July 2, 2009.
23.68% of Poles in their teens, 20s, and 30s (18 out of 76 people who answered this
question) explained that the majority of Poles resisted the Nazis and assisted Jews in
comparison to 38.98% of interviewees in their 40s, 50s, and 60s (23 out of 59) and
48.57% of interviewees in their 70s, 80s, and 90s (17 out of 35).
Poles focused on survival, most still set forth exaggerated estimates of the number of
compatriots who assisted Jews. At times, young Poles made estimates very similar to
those of interviewees of the previous generation. For example, Anna, a 22-year-old
volunteer at the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków, explained:
Half of all Poles hid Jews in their homes. They were friends with their Jews.
Sometimes Poles hid Jews who they didn’t even know. I think my grandma even
hid Jews in her cellar…Poles and Jews were on the same train to Auschwitz.
There was no difference between a Pole and a Jew back then. Poles who were
watching helped people escape from the train. It was very common.9
In the same way Anna inflated the number of Poles who assisted Jews during the war,
approximately one-fourth of Polish teenagers claimed that most Poles provided active
assistance to their Jewish neighbors. Izabela, a 19-year-old from Białystok, exclaimed,
“Around 70 percent of Poles hid Jews in their homes. But I don’t know for sure.”10 While
young Polish interviewees generally acknowledged a range of Polish attitudes towards
Jews during the war, they nonetheless overestimated the number of Poles who helped
Jews. Their testimonies suggest that misconceptions regarding the Holocaust have not
Learning about the Holocaust in School Today
Today’s young Poles are more likely to have teachers who emphasize the Jewish
identity of mass extermination victims. However, while the Holocaust is studied in Polish
schools today, the subject is often taught in a superficial way. Many schoolchildren do
not have history lessons devoted to the Holocaust. Instead, they learn about the subject
through works of literature and briefly during history lessons on the Second World War.
Magda, a university student from Białystok, explained, “Jewish life in Poland was not
Anna, interview by author, Kraków, PL, July 2, 2009.
Izabela, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 24, 2009.
taught in history but came up in works of literature. The Holocaust, or genocide of Jews,
was very briefly taught in primary and high school.”11 According to officials at the
Ministry of Education, Polish literature lessons provide opportunities to discuss both
positive and negative cases of Polish-Jewish relations. In addition, students often find
reading works of literature to be more engaging than memorizing facts from history
textbooks. However, when students learn about the Holocaust primarily through literary
works, they often lack a historical background on the subject and face the same
limitations as Poles of the previous generation.
In the same way as Polish interviewees who grew up during the communist
period, today’s young Poles frequently explained that they did not learn about the Jewish
history in their region. For example, in a focus group with eight 16 to 18-year-olds in
Białystok, participants had almost no knowledge of the vibrant Jewish community that
once thrived in their city. Despite the fact that Białystok had one of the biggest Jewish
populations, most young people I interviewed did not know about the Białystok ghetto or
the array of Jewish cultural and social institutions in their city before the war.
According to young Polish interviewees, high school educators continue to be
silent on Polish collaboration. While teachers and older family members rarely discussed
Polish collaboration, today’s young Poles have access to information on the topic though
movies, television programs, and internet forums. Poles in their late twenties and thirties
often explained that they learned about Polish collaboration due to publicity surrounding
the publication of Jan Gross’ Neighbors in 2000. They also frequently cited movies,
including the Pianist, as sources that provided them with a background on this subject.
Magda, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 16, 2009.
These interviewees often acknowledged and regretted cases where Poles persecuted their
Jewish neighbors. Nicholas, a 22-year-old, stated that not all Poles were sympathetic to
the plight of Jews: “From my point of view, I know that Jedwabne happened and there is
no point shouting about it or denying it.”12 During a focus group in Białystok, a woman
in her late twenties named Magda explained, “We also know situations where Poles
collaborated with Germans. It is a shame for our whole nation. I couldn’t say that Polish
people felt only empathy for Jews. Some people felt that this was Poland for Polish
people.”13 Poles in Magda’s age group more often acknowledged a variety of Polish
attitudes and behaviors towards Jews during the war than older interviewees.
While almost all Polish interviewees in their late twenties and thirties believed
Poles were responsible for the massacre in Jedwabne, the majority of Poles I interviewed
who were in their early twenties and younger claimed to have never heard about the
massacre.14 In fact, teenagers often denied any cases of Polish collaboration, explaining
that their high school teachers told them all Poles resisted the Nazis. For example,
Patrick, a teenager from Chełm, stated, “I never heard about cases where Poles tried to
kill Jews. I don’t know about Jedwabne. Maybe Jedwabne is a camp like Auschwitz?”15
Anya, the 23-year-old from Oświęcim who is a high school teacher in Kraków and
former tour guide at Auschwitz, insisted that Poles only collaborated with Nazis
involuntarily. She stated, “Sometimes Poles were afraid. And when you torture people,
sometimes they just say things. That is all. But it wasn’t on purpose, that is for sure.”
Nicholas, interview by author, Kraków, PL, July 2, 2009.
Magda, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 11, 2009.
79.17% of Polish teenagers interviewed (19 out of 24 people) had no knowledge of the
Patrick, interview by author, Kraków, PL, July 4, 2009.
Even young Poles with a relatively strong background on the history of Jews in Poland,
such as Anya, often had no knowledge concerning cases where Poles persecuted Jews.
The fact that there was extensive media coverage over the massacre in Jedwabne
following the 2000 publication of Jan Gross’ Neighbors helps explain why Poles in their
thirties and twenties were much more knowledgeable about the massacre in Jedwabne
than teenagers. Marc, a student born in 1991, illustrated differences and similarities
between Holocaust education under communism and today: “Nowadays, teachers say that
Jews suffered,” he said. “But they do not mention at all that some Poles helped Nazis,
that there were many traitors.”16 Sensitive issues such as collaboration and the massacre
in Jedwabne are still often not incorporated into school lessons.
Even more disturbing than the fact that young Polish interviewees often did not
know about cases of collaboration is that a number had no knowledge about the
Holocaust or Jewish past in Poland. For example, Daimon, a 17-year-old from Białystok,
explained, “I don’t know what the Holocaust is. Maybe it is like Katyń? It happened
during the Second World War.” When asked if many Jews were killed during the Second
World War, Daimon responded, “I don’t know. But I don’t think so. Nazis killed Polish
people. They killed everybody.”17 Like Daimon, a group of young Poles from other
cities, towns, and villages also claimed not to have learned about the Holocaust in school.
Research conducted in May 2000 at Jagiellonian University established that even
students at Poland’s most elite university often did not know the term ‘Holocaust.’
Indeed, only 24 percent of the polled students in the Jagiellonian study offered a correct
Marc, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, August 13, 2009.
Daimon, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 21, 2009.
definition.18 Teachers who hope to improve Holocaust education in Poland face immense
The Role of Teachers Today
As under communism, the quality of Holocaust education today largely depends
on decisions made by educators. In recent years, teachers have much greater access to a
variety of materials on the Holocaust and prewar Jewish life. At the Ministry of
Education in Warsaw, there are numerous publications and guidebooks on topics such as
the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, the Anti-Zionist campaign of 1968, the pogrom in Kielce,
and facilitating dialogue between Polish and Jewish youth. These materials, often
supplied by a diverse range of NGOs in the field of education, offer examples of sample
lessons and questions to pose to students during class discussions. In addition, the
Ministry of Education, Jewish Historical Institute, and Jagiellonian University provide
summer courses to teachers interested in learning more about the Holocaust and Jewish
history in Poland. Teachers who participate in these programs may earn special degrees
that result in higher incomes.
Poles in the field of education emphasized the role of teachers in determining how
Polish youth today learn about the Holocaust and Jewish heritage of their country. Eva, a
Polish literature teacher in her fifties, described new opportunities for teachers to learn
and teach about Polish Jewry: “Today, everything depends on how teachers want to teach
the subject and how knowledgeable they are about it. During communism, almost
everything that was connected to Jews was taboo. Teachers just said that there were Jews
Robert Szuchta, “Teaching About the Holocaust: Polish Experiences on the Threshold
of the 21st Century” in Thinking After the Holocaust: Voices from Poland, ed. Sebastian
Rejak, 46 (Warsaw: Jewish Historical Institute, 2008).
and then they were gone. We have access to everything now, all the necessary
materials.”19 Stefania Wilkiel, Counselor to the Polish Minister of National Education,
and Joanna Iwaszkiewicz, Director of the Department of International Cooperation at the
Ministry of Education, shared Eva’s opinion that the quality of Holocaust education
depends on the knowledge, experience, and interest of the instructor. Wilkiel explained
that she asks teachers who attend workshops and courses on Holocaust education through
the Teacher Training Center at the Ministry of Education to train other teachers with the
materials they receive. However, training centers can only accommodate a small number
of educators and there is no guarantee that teachers who attend these courses will pass on
I know that teachers who attend courses organized by me follow the guidelines
we provide for teaching the Holocaust. They don’t only present positive facts but
also facilitate discussions on bystanders and collaborators. Everything depends on
the teacher--his personality, knowledge, responsibility, and ethic. Even now,
when the guidelines for Holocaust education are more precise. These drafts are
obligatory for all teachers but we know that teachers, like pupils, are different.20
Tych also expressed reserved enthusiasm that educators are teaching the Holocaust and
Jewish history in Poland more comprehensively and accurately than in the past: “There is
pressure from Polish academic circles to tell the truth. Some teachers are very much
engaged in teaching the Holocaust. At the Jewish Historical Institute, several hundred
teachers enroll in courses to learn how to teach the Holocaust. Of course, this is only a
drop of Polish teachers. But it is something.” Similarly, Gebert explained that, while
there are more teachers who are interested in learning about Polish Jewry, there is still
much room for improvement:
Eva, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 8, 2009.
Stefania Wilkiel, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, August 12, 2009.
Teachers under communism knew nothing about the history of Jews in Poland.
Starting in 1994, hundreds of teachers volunteered to take courses in Warsaw.
Teachers were not there because they liked Fiddler on the Roof. They knew they
were doing their jobs badly. They often came in with prejudices but were willing
to explore them openly. There aren’t enough teachers like this. If teachers are not
comfortable with teaching Jewish history because of a lack of knowledge or
prejudice, they will pick textbooks that don’t explore this topic.
Despite the fact that a small group of educators have enhanced their knowledge of the
Holocaust and Jewish history in Poland, most teachers have a limited background in these
subjects that they acquired during the communist period.
As in the past, the quality of Holocaust education today does not only depend on
an educator’s familiarity with the subject, but also on his or her ideology and attitude
towards Jews. At times, Polish students regretted that their teachers were not impartial on
the subject of Polish-Jewish relations. For example, Aga, a 26-year-old student, recalled,
“At the end of the school year, good students are rewarded with books. I chose Neighbors
by Jan Gross. My Polish literature teacher said, ‘Oh my God. How could you choose such
a book?’ She was disgusted. I have the impression that what is taught in school about
Jews depends on the attitudes of our teachers.”21 Sommers, the Auschwitz tour guide and
graduate student at Jagiellonian University, conducted extensive research on Holocaust
education in Poland. She explained:
There is still very little in school curricula about what you have to teach. It just
says to cover the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the concentration camps.
It is completely up to teachers what they do. If they didn’t study the topic
themselves, they don’t have a chance of conveying the proper information. If they
are more nationalistic or very religious Catholics, they may only talk about Polish
martyrdom and heroism. I think there is a difference between teaching these
subjects at Catholic schools and in left wing organizations.
Similarly, Sztop, the sociology professor at Białystok University, commented, “In
Aga, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 11, 2009.
schools, teachers can say a lot or very little about the Holocaust. I think there is a Polish
tradition for teachers to pay more attention to Polish martyrdom than Jewish suffering.”
While educators have more opportunities to learn about the Holocaust and Jewish history
in Poland since the fall of communism, there remains a danger that they will present these
subjects with biases and distortions.
Anti-Semitism Among Young Poles
The historian Gunnar Paulsson noted that, with the end of communism and
newfound freedom of expression, anti-Semites have opportunities to be more vocal.22 A
small group of today’s young Poles whom I interviewed harbored negative attitudes
towards Jews and expressed traditional or, more frequently, modern anti-Semitism. These
young Poles often explained that their parents warned them never to do business with
Jews because they cheat Poles in business. They often highly exaggerated the number of
Jews in Poland today and explained that they control the government, banks, and mass
media. For example, Patrick, a university student from Kraków, explained, “I think that
there are too many Jews on Polish ground. I see too many in Kraków. Jews are good in
business. They are greedy and don’t want to spend much money. Polish people are stupid
for them.”23 Like Patrick, young Polish interviewees often expressed animosity towards
Jewish survivors or their descendants who wish to reclaim their property in Poland.
Though much less frequently than older Poles, young Poles sometimes accused Jews of
conspiring with Poland’s enemies. However, while previous generations of Poles
expressed the Judeo-communism stereotype, the vast majority of today’s young Poles,
Engelking, Holocaust and Memory, xiii.
Patrick, interview by author, Kraków, PL, July 2, 2009.
including the anti-Semitic ones, never heard of this term.24
On rare occasions, young Poles expressed Nazi sympathies. These Poles
explained that Nazis were justified in murdering Jews and benefitted Poland by doing so.
Luke, a student at the University of Białystok, explained that there is a group of
skinheads in his hometown. He conveyed that, while he himself is not a skinhead, he
agrees with most of their ideas:
Only Polish people who lived here for many centuries can feel Polish. Jews
shouldn’t come back. A Jew is a Jew. Jews are everywhere greedy, clever, and
smart, with a desire to get rich without hard work. It is biological. I think that
Polish people around the world are the same as Poles here. They are fighters and
don’t give up.25
When I asked him if Jews have made any positive contributions, Luke responded,
“Einstein was Jewish. Energy came from him. But energy was used to make the atomic
bomb. Marx gave communism. That was bad too. Freud talked about children’s sexuality.
That was definitely bad. Jews gave us Jesus Christ, which was the only good thing.” Luke
paused for a moment before finishing: “But Jews killed Jesus.” Luke, like a number of
Poles from previous generations, expressed the nationalistic sentiment that Poland should
be exclusively for Poles. He asserted that Jews are more passive and weak than Polish
patriots and expressed both traditional and modern anti-Semitism. Though Luke harbored
intense aggression towards Jews, as with most of today’s young Polish anti-Semites, he
had never met a Jew before.
While a small group of young Polish interviewees expressed clear antagonism
towards Jews, a much larger number made jokes and insensitive comments about them,
2.53% of interviewees in their teens, 20s, and 30s (two out of 79 people) expressed the
“Judeo-Communism” stereotype in comparison to 41.37% of Poles in their 40s, 50s, and
60s (24 out of 58) and 50% of Poles in their 70s, 80s, and 90s (17 out of 34).
Luke, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 19, 2009.
perhaps without realizing the implications of their words. Matthew, a teenager from
Warsaw, commented why this may be the case: “Most young people don’t care about
Jews or the Holocaust. They make jokes very often. There are many jokes about Nazis
making soap out of Jews. I don’t think these jokes come from anti-Semitism because we
never met Jews before. Some people just think it is funny to laugh about the tragedy of
others.”26 In the same way young Poles frequently made jokes about the Holocaust or
Jews, they often referred to Jews negatively in conversations with one another. Michael,
the Orthodox Christian priest and teacher from Białystok, explained that he often hears
children make anti-Semitic remarks even though he believes they harbor no hostility
towards Jews and never interacted with one before:
We always hear kids telling each other ‘You are a Jew.’ This means you are
greedy and don’t want to give something away. To say ‘Kick Jewish’ means that
you are a liar. To be deceitful, means you are Jewish. To manipulate, means you
are Jewish. It is inherited in the language. I ask kids why they say this and they
have no idea.
While not always consciously or with malice, many of today’s young Poles continue to
express prejudices about Jews that were transmitted from previous generations.
An Emerging Interest and New Opportunities
While a minority of young Polish interviewees expressed blatant anti-Semitism,
others conveyed a deep interest in the vibrant Jewish history of their village, town, or
city. These Poles made conscious efforts to learn about a variety of subjects that
communist officials repressed or that their parents simply did not have opportunities to
study. Marek, a filmmaker in his thirties raised in Białystok, explained:
My parents’ generation was kept behind an iron curtain. They had to struggle with
mundane situations like where to get clothes, coffee, or toilet paper. They were
Matthew, interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 7, 2009.
not exposed to other cultures. Today, people are starting to discover the
importance of history and culture. Poland has a vibrant history but as a nation we
require a new identity. We don’t want to be perceived as an anti-Semitic country
that is controlled by the Catholic Church.27
Interviewees often condemned anti-Semitism and aggression towards Jews. They
expressed the hope that their country’s reputation will be improved in the international
community when Poles face the complex history of Polish-Jewish relations.
Young interviewees frequently conveyed admiration for the Jewish culture and
heritage in Poland. Jewish cultural events, generally organized by young Poles, are
increasingly popular throughout the nation. Hundreds of restaurants in Poland feature
Jewish cuisine and young Poles often join groups to learn Jewish music and dance. Ari,
an accountant in her thirties from Białystok, explained:
There is still anti-Semitism in Poland. On the other hand, there are many events
and initiatives that demonstrate Poles and Jews lived together in this land for
centuries. Klezmer performances are very popular. We have Hebrew courses in
Białystok, wartime exhibitions, and books on Jewish history. In almost every
town, there is an association that cares about the Jewish heritage in Poland.28
Today’s young Poles often wish to remember not only the annihilation of Polish Jewry
during the Holocaust, but also the diverse and vibrant Jewish communities that thrived in
Poland beforehand. Grzegorz, a student at the University of Białystok, described his
growing passion for Jewish history in Poland:
I understand the Jewish tradition. It fills me. The mood of this culture is somehow
very near to me. Jewish culture is part of our culture. And if I study our culture, I
must know something about theirs. A few years ago, perhaps five, this quest for
knowledge wasn’t common. We just knew basic information. Maybe now, people
like me realize that it is possible they have Jewish roots. Even if I am not Jewish,
maybe my friend has Jewish roots. Of course, this is only a possibility. But this
possibility is everything I need to be interested.29
Marek, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 7, 2009.
Ari, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 13, 2009.
Grzegorz, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 24, 2009.
The fact that Grzegorz was open and even welcoming to the possibility that he has Jewish
roots is illustrative of differences between Poles who grew up under communism and
Poles who came of age in a democratic Poland. Young Poles often expressed not only
tolerance towards Jews, but also a desire to understand the painful and positive aspects of
Jewish history in Poland and to explore Poles’ connection to the Jewish people. Carolina,
a 25-year-old graduate student in Białystok, explained, “I think it is a matter of a new
generation. Young people want to rebuild everything that was destroyed by previous
generations. We don’t have this burden. This luggage. We don’t feel guilty about Jews.
We are much more free psychologically to discover our past. Białystok is finally finding
its history.”30 Today’s young Poles often expressed a desire to explore the Jewish history
and heritage of their nation without the constraints facing previous generations.
Carolina, interview by author, Białystok, PL, August 11, 2009.
Conclusion and Possible Improvements in Holocaust Education
Today, there are guidelines on Holocaust education and teachers have
opportunities to obtain a variety of materials on subjects related to the Holocaust.
However, as the Polish educator and historian Hanna Wegrzynek explains, curriculum
guidelines for both middle and high schools on teaching the Holocaust are broad and
scanty. As they do not specify what events and issues teachers should cover at each level,
educators often do not know what their students have learned in previous courses.1
Currently, high school guidelines on teaching the Holocaust simply instruct history
teachers to “present causes and results of the Holocaust and describe examples of the
Jewish situation.”2 For high school students who select history as their area of
concentration, guidelines are slightly more detailed as teachers are instructed to teach
about the Nazis’ plan to exterminate Jews, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and Polish
society’s posture towards the Holocaust. As Wegrzynek suggests, in order to improve
Holocaust education in Poland, specific subject matter should be clearly delineated in
guidelines and students should be exposed to detailed, factual information about the
genocide both in classroom discussions and assigned readings. Educators should teach
about prewar Jewish life and culture and local Jewish history. In addition, they should
facilitate meetings between Polish and Jewish youth.
Hanna Wegrzynek, "The Holocaust and Jewish History as Presented in Current Polish
Textbooks," in Fact and Lies in the Common Knowledge on the Holocaust Conference
Materials 2005.11.17, ed. Daria Nalecz and Mariusz Edgaro, 158 (Warsaw: Task Force
for International Cooperaton on Holocaust Education).
“Guidelines on Holocaust Education” (printout from Stefania Wilkiel, Ministry of
Education, Warsaw, 2009), 1.
Prewar Jewish Life and Local History
Today’s young Poles should study prewar Jewish life. Both Polish and Jewish
interviewees regretted that educators often teach about Jews only in relation to the
Holocaust. Alicja, a university student from Kraków, explained, “Most of the education
about Jews in schools today is connected to the Holocaust. Only when we learn about the
Holocaust, do we realize that there were many Jews here.”3 Many young Poles conveyed
sentiments similar to Alicja’s, expressing regret that all of their knowledge regarding
Polish Jewry is connected with its annihilation. Educators and scholars frequently
objected that the subject of prewar Jewish life is generally absent from curriculums. Tych
The Minister of Foreign Affairs asked me to write a book about the Holocaust for
teachers and students. I didn’t want to write only about the Holocaust when
people here don’t know who Jews are. Memory explains who Jews are and how
they came to Poland, life for them between the wars, the Holocaust, and finally
the consequences of the Holocaust.
Gebert also regretted that Polish students lack a background on Jewish history in Poland:
The subjects of Jewish life and culture are still lacking in school curricula. Even
most Polish Jews know next to nothing about their legacy. There is resistance to
teaching about living Jews, in addition to dead ones, because of fear that
something from Polish history will have to be amputated from lessons in order to
Similarly, Kowalik asserted that both memory of the Holocaust and prewar Jewish life
must be preserved. To this aim, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw will
present the rich and complex history of Jews in Poland. Kowalik stated, “The Nazis
should not determine our identities. There was a Jewish life in Poland for over 1,000
years before the war.” Educators should present information about Jews in Poland before,
Alicja, interview by author, Kraków, PL, July 6, 2009.
during, and after the war so that the vibrant Jewish heritage in Poland is not forgotten.
Students who learn about the Jewish heritage and history in Poland will better
understand the magnitude of the loss during the Holocaust. They will also gain a deeper
understanding of the environment in which the genocide occurred and have opportunities
to discuss subjects including escalating nationalism during the interwar period and antiSemitism inspired by the Catholic Church. Teachers should explain that anti-Semitism is
still present today and discuss the dangers of intolerance, nationalism, and xenophobia. In
addition to learning about the Holocaust, students should have opportunities to analyze
the factors that facilitated the genocide and discuss their responsibility to ensure a tragedy
of this magnitude never happens again.
While learning about prewar Jewish life in general, Polish students should have
more opportunities to learn about the Jewish heritage of their respective village, town, or
city. Especially in cities, students I interviewed often had no knowledge that Jews
comprised a large proportion of their region’s population before the war. For example,
Izabela and Carolina, two 19-year-olds from Białystok, explained that they never learned
about prewar Jewish life in the Podlasie region. “We don’t know if many Jews lived in
Białystok before the war,” Izabela stated. “But we think there were more than there are
today, which is zero.” Carolina added, “In school, they never taught us about the history
of this region, just about the Holocaust in general. I don’t think our teachers know about
it.”4 Despite the fact that their city was over 50 percent Jewish less than 70 years ago,
these young Poles had no background on Jewish life in their region. Similarly, Carolina,
another teenager, asserted, “Students would be interested in learning about Jews who
Izabela and Carolina, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 24, 2009.
used to live here but our local history isn’t taught when we learn about the war. I never
heard about the history of Jews in Białystok or in my own neighborhood. If someone is
interested in this subject, he has to learn about it on his own.”5 High school interviewees
from Białystok often did not know about the ghetto in their city, despite the existence of a
monument, or where Nazis took Jews from their region. While some knew about the
uprising in the Warsaw ghetto because this event was mentioned in their textbooks, most
had no knowledge regarding Jewish resistance in Białystok. Similarly, despite the fact
that the pogrom that occurred in their city is known worldwide, young Poles I
interviewed in Kielce never heard about the massacre. Conrad, a university students from
Kielce, explained, “We haven’t heard about the pogrom. There was nothing in school
about Holocaust survivors coming back. We had lessons about Poland during the Second
World War but we didn’t learn much about Kielce.”6 While today’s young Poles study
more about the Holocaust, these testimonies illustrate that educators often do not teach
about the Jewish past of their region. They are most likely to refrain from teaching about
events in local history, such as the pogrom in Kielce, in which Poles were the
Interviewees often explained that students understand the implications of the
Holocaust more fully when they discuss the stories of individuals from their region.
Lucy, a librarian from Krynki, explained:
We can’t forget about the people who created this town and built these homes.
Their legacy is still visible in many elements of our society, such as the cuisine
and the music. Small towns have the best attitude in this area. They teach about
the people who lived here. When teachers only talk about the Holocaust as a
Carolina, interview by author, Białystok, PL, July 12, 2009.
Conrad, interview by author, Kielce, PL, August 28, 2009.
whole, the important lessons are often lost in political and ideological arguments.7
The Holocaust becomes a more personal and meaningful subject to students when they
study about how the genocide impacted their neighborhood. Students should learn about
Jews from their vicinity and visit local Jewish cemeteries or synagogues. Additionally,
educators should teach how the campaign of 1968 impacted Jewish life in their region.8
Educators should facilitate meetings between Polish students and Jews,
including Jewish Americans and Israelis participating in March of the Living,9 to discuss
the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations. I met young Polish Jews, many of whom
recently discovered their Jewish roots, who were eager to engage in dialogue with ethnic
Poles on these subjects. For example, Alicja, the 24-year-old Polish Jew who worked at
the new Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Kraków, explained:
The JCC wants to show that Jews are still here. In our textbooks, it seems that all
Jews were gone by 1944. Poland is not only a cemetery, not only a place where
there are concentration camps. Maybe the Jewish community here is not so
strong, maybe Jews are from mixed marriages. But there is still a living, breathing
Jewish community here and that should not be forgotten.
Encounters with Jews would provide young Poles with opportunities to hear Jews’
perspectives on issues such as Jedwabne and Polish-Jewish relations before the war,
topics that are often absent from classroom discussions. In addition, these meetings
would illustrate differences between experiences of Poles and Jews under the Nazi
Lucy, interview by author, Krynki, PL, July 24, 2009.
No teenagers who were interviewed had heard about the campaign. Poles of all ages
who recalled the campaign could not identify the causes. There existed a number of
erroneous hypotheses for why Jews left Poland, including one that they emigrated
An educational program that brings Jewish teenagers from all around the world to visit
Auschwitz-Birkenau on Holocaust Memorial Day.
occupation. Zuzana, a woman in her twenties from Kraków, commented that such
programs would provide a more complete and nuanced picture of the Holocaust:
My generation doesn’t know Jewish people. We can be objective when studying
the Holocaust because we have memories from our grandparents as well as books
and the internet. The problem is that we don’t hear much about the Jewish
perspective. In the media, they talk about who was guilty, Germans or Poles.
Sometimes Polish historians or politicians are more interested in protecting the
good name of Poland than discovering what really happened.10
Uncensored meetings between young Poles and Jews, with a knowledgeable facilitator,
would allow participants to explore the Holocaust and history of Polish-Jewish relations
without the political and ideological constraints that hampered dialogue in the past.
In addition to filling gaps in knowledge, such discourse would combat prejudices
and stereotypes. Poczykowski explained that anti-Semitism in Poland is most effectively
addressed when young Poles meet Jews. He stated, “I think this subject should be learned
through experience. People with closed minds here usually never met a person of a
different race, religion, or nationality. It is much more difficult to hate someone who is
different if you can talk to them.” Personal interactions between Poles and Jews would
not only illustrate differences in experiences during the war, but also highlight
similarities in their cultures, traditions, and collective histories. In addition to combating
anti-Semitism, these discussions would educate Jewish students who harbor stereotypes
about Poles and are unaware of Polish suffering or cases of Polish assistance to Jews
during the war. Dialogue between young Poles and Jews would provide participants with
opportunities to understand both Polish and Jewish perspectives on this time period.
These meetings would combat prejudices that interfere with studying the Holocaust and
history of Polish Jewry as accurately as possible.
Zuzana, interview by author, Kraków, PL, July 3, 2009.
Appendix A: Interview Questions
1. Please tell me a little about your background. When were you born? Where did
you grow up (urban/rural area)? What was your education like? What is your
2. Where did your family (or you) spend the war? Are any memories of the war
passed down in your family?
3. In your opinion, did the Nazis signal out groups of Poles to persecute or did they
persecute all Polish people?
4. Do you know much about the Jewish community in pre-war Poland?
When you were growing up, did the topic of the Jews come up?
6. Where did you learn about Jews and the Holocaust? (TV shows and movies,
school, conversations with family and friends, newspapers, commemorative
events, books, etc). Do you believe that these sources have been reliable and
accurate in portraying the Holocaust?
7. Did you learn about the Holocaust in school? At what level? Junior high, etc?
8. Based on what you have learned about the Holocaust, how do the experiences of
Jews and ethnic Poles compare?
9. For students: Do your textbooks/lessons explore Polish and Jewish resistance? Do
they mention causes of Polish collaboration with the Nazis?
10. What have you learned in school about Polish attitudes towards the Holocaust?
11. How did these various forms of media represent the Holocaust and Jews? What
did you learn? What did you think about the material?
Memory of the Holocaust:
12. In general, how did ethnic Poles react to the Nazi occupation?
13. Who do you think were the Nazis’ victims?
14. Do you think a large number of Poles resisted the Nazis?
15. Did you hear of cases or stories where Poles assisted Jews during the Nazi
16. Did you hear of cases or stories where Poles collaborated with the Nazis or helped
in the extermination of Jews?
17. Do you think the Polish Underground/Polish government-in-exile tried to save the
18. How significant was Polish resistance to the Nazis?
19. Did you hear of cases where Jews helped to resist the Nazis?
20. Have you heard of cases of Jewish resistance in Bialystok or Warsaw?
(Depending on where interview is)
21. Where were Jews taken when the Nazis first occupied your city/town/village?
Where were they taken later in the war?
22. As a whole, do you think ethnic Poles did as much as they could to save Jews or
do you think they could have done more?
23. In general, did Poles resist the occupation, collaborate with the Nazis, or do
24. In general, did Jews resist the occupation, collaborate with the Nazis, or do
25. Have you heard of cases where the Polish clergy reacted to the deportation of
Jews during the war?
26. How would you describe the hardship of Jews during the war in comparison to the
hardships of Poles?
27. Was Polish anti-Semitism widespread before the Nazi invasion? During the war?
In the years immediately after the war? (Ask if they heard about the Kielce
pogrom or the March 1968 Campaign). What caused the March 1968 campaign?
28. How involved were Jews in the post-war Polish Communist Party? What role did
29. Have you visited Auschwitz? Do you believe that it adequately memorializes the
different groups of Holocaust victims? If not, what changes would you make?
30. Do you believe the Auschwitz memorial should state the nationality and religion
of mass extermination victims?
31. Are Polish students today aware of the Holocaust? Do you think they know
enough about the Holocaust and the fate of the Polish Jews? What changes, if any,
would you make to Polish Holocaust curriculums?
32. In general, what do you think are Polish attitudes towards the Holocaust today?
33. Do you feel that you got a good/accurate history of the Holocaust during the
34. What do you think about Polish Jews returning to Poland and reclaiming their
Appendix B: Breakdown of Randomly Selected Interviewees by Age Group
Number of Interviewees
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Aga. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August, 11 2009.
Agatha. Interview by author. Kołodno, PL, July 11, 2009.
Agna. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, July 1, 2009.
Agna. Interview by author. Jasionowka, PL, July 28, 2009.
Algina. Interview by author. Bielsk, PL, August 11, 2009.
Alice. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 20, 2009.
Alicja. Interview by author. Kraków, PL, July 6, 2009.
Ana. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 30, 2009.
Andrzej. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 27, 2009.
Anna. Interview by author. Kraków, PL, July 2, 2009.
Anya. Interview by author. Oświęcim, PL, September 1, 2009.
Ari. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 13, 2009.
Brian. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 19, 2009.
Caesar. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, September 5, 2009.
Carolina. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 12, 2009.
Carolina. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 24, 2009.
Carolina. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 11, 2009.
Cecilia. Interview by author. Krynki, PL, July 24, 2009.
Conrad. Interview by author. Kielce, PL, August 28, 2009.
Daimon. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 21, 2009.
Dorota. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, July 7, 2009.
Dorota. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 17, 2009.
Eddy. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 14, 2009.
Eva. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, July 8, 2009.
Frank. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 20, 2009.
Grażyna. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 24, 2009.
Grzegorz. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 6, 2009.
Grzegorz. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 24, 2009.
Horacy. Interview by author. Narew, PL, August 4, 2009.
Igor. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, July 10, 2009.
Igor. Interview by author. Narew, PL, August 4, 2009.
Igor. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 17, 2009.
Irena. Interview by author. Knyszyn, PL, August 8, 2009.
Izabela. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 24, 2009.
Janek. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 15, 2009.
Janina. Interview by author. Tarnow, PL, August 26, 2009.
Jarosław. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, June 30, 2009.
Jen. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 27, 2009.
Jolanta. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 22, 2009.
Józefa. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 14, 2009.
Luba. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 29, 2009.
Lucy. Interview by author. Krynki, PL, July 24 2009.
Ludwik. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 16, 2009.
Lukas. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, July 10, 2009.
Luke. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 19, 2009.
Magda. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 16, 2009.
Magda. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 11, 2009.
Marc. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, August 13, 2009.
Marek. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 7, 2009.
Maria. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 20, 2009.
Maria. Interview by author. Łódź, PL, August 29, 2009.
Mariana. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 27, 2009.
Marie. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August, 24, 2009.
Mariosh. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, July 1, 2009.
Marzena. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 21, 2009.
Matthew. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, July 7, 2009.
Michael. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 20, 2009.
Monika. Interview by author. Kraków, PL, July 3, 2009.
Natalie. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 21, 2009.
Nicholas. Interview by author. Kraków, PL, July 2, 2009.
Patrick. Interview by author. Kraków, PL, July 2, 2009.
Patrick. Interview by author. Kraków, PL, July 4, 2009.
Piotr. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, July 1, 2009.
Piotr. Interview by author. Kraków, PL, July 4, 2009.
Piotr. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, July 9, 2009.
Piotr. Interview by author. Kielce, PL, August 28, 2009.
Richard. Interview by author. Dębica, PL, August 27, 2009.
Teresa. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 28, 2009.
Tyk. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 8, 2009.
Victor. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 23, 2009.
Wojtek. Interview by author. Kraków, PL, July 3, 2009.
Wojtek. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, September 5, 2009.
Zofia. Interview by author. Kraków, PL, August 25, 2009.
Zosia. Interview by author. Łomża, PL, August 14, 2009.
Zuzana. Interview by author. Kraków, PL, July 3, 2009.
Bilewicz, Michal. Interview by author, Warsaw, PL, July 9, 2009.
Czykwin, Elżbieta. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 10, 2009.
Dobroński, Adam. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 10, 2009.
Fikus, Joanna. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, July 9, 2009.
Gebert, Konstanty. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, July 7, 2009.
Janowicz, Sokrat. Interview by author. Krynki, PL, July 24, 2009.
Kowalik, Piotr. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, July 1, 2009.
Lechowski, Andrzej. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 22, 2009.
Obstarczyk, Mirosław. Interview by author. Oświęcim, PL, September 2, 2009.
Orla-Bukowska, Annamaria. Interview by author. Kraków, PL, August 25, 2009.
Parafianowicz, Halina. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 20, 2009.
Setkiewicz, Piotr. Interview by author. Auschwitz, PL, September 2, 2009.
Siwiński, Zbigniew. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, September 6, 2009.
Sommers, Anna. Interview by author. Kraków, PL, July 4, 2009.
Sosna, Aleksander. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, July 15, 2009.
Sztop, Kate. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, August 14, 2009.
Szyndler, Artur. Interview by author. Oświęcim, PL, September 2, 2009.
Tych, Feliks. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, July 8, 2009.
Wilkiel, Stefania. Interview by author. Warsaw, PL, August 12, 2009.
Wiśniewski, Tomasz. Interview by author. Białystok, PL, September 8, 2009.