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Collective Amnesia in Post-Communist Poland

“We cannot escape history,” stated President Abraham Lincoln, a month earlier than signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Or, in Desmond Tutu’s phrases, “The past refuses to lie down quietly,” and has “the uncanny habit of returning to haunt one.” Certainly, no nation’s historical past is comprised solely of the fantastic and heroic: all nations have dark chapters and sometimes precise skeletons in their closets. As historian Margaret MacMillan said, “We can still have heroes… but we have to accept that in history, as in our own lives, very little is absolutely black or absolutely white.” Just as in our personal lives, it’s troublesome for nations, spiritual establishments, and other teams to acknowledge these less superb elements of their pasts. It is notably troublesome to take action when history is mythologized and manipulated for political causes. Such a historical past isn’t just inaccurate, however dangerous, and will, in MacMillan’s words, eventually “present its bill.” This is the case with post-WWII Polish-Jewish relations. In the previous few years, Polish-Jewish previous turned politicized, obscuring and distorting a posh and centuries-old shared historical past that does not neatly match into ideological classes but is weak to politicization and abuse, as happened in 2018, in the aftermath of revision of Act on the Institute of National Remembrance established a Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes towards the Polish Nation, initially handed in 1998.

After WWII, many European nations engaged in what some students dubbed “collective amnesia.” Austria, for instance, began to redefine itself as the primary sufferer of the Nazis. France amplified the Resistance, forgetting about its Vichy days; Western Germany, after the trials of a number of high-profile Nazi leaders, allowed for silence to prevail. Beneath Communist rule, Poland also chose to mute and overlook certain elements of its previous, resulting the so-called “white stains” (białe plamy historii) that blotted out the bloodbath of Polish officers at Katyń; the September 17, 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Settlement to divide Poland; and much discussion concerning the homicide of Jews in Poland. Whereas Nazi dying camps have been inescapable, as was the memory of WWII (ever present in the panorama, in faculties, and on TV), beneath the Communist regime, the Nazi crimes have been internationalized, highlighting the nations of citizenship of the victims and infrequently mentioning that Jews have been the primary or majority victims of most of the dying camps, regardless that Poland misplaced 90 % of its pre-war Jewish population.

In August 1945, the so-called Nuremberg Charter that set tips for the prosecution of Nazi officials in Nuremberg defined three classes of crimes: crimes towards peace, struggle crimes, and crimes towards humanity. Poland’s Jewish survivors helped gather proof towards Nazis, documenting the destruction of Jews in Europe, however the Nuremberg framework of generally-conceived crimes towards humanity set a world precedent of obscuring the specificity of what happened to Jews in the course of the conflict. It additionally gave cover for European nations, including France and Poland, to give attention to presenting the devastation of the struggle as Nazi crimes (zbrodniehitlerowskie, in Polish) towards humanity, with out specifically acknowledging the Nazi obsession with Jews. For many years after the struggle, Poles have been advised concerning the six million Polish victims of the Nazis, a number given in the 1947 Nuremberg report. Jewish victims have been faraway from official memory. So when, in the late nineteen-eighties, the discussions started to disentangle numerous Jews from among these victims, breaking the quantity into three million Jews and a few two million Poles, this determine would have felt like a denial of an established history of Polish suffering, relatively than a affirmation of the information. These debates nonetheless rage, not just for political reasons but in addition as a result of territorial modifications to Poland’s borders makes it troublesome to accurately estimate the human loss. Most lately, on the seventieth anniversary of the start of WWII, the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) revised the number of human casualties, now considering the victims of both the “Nazi and Soviet occupations,” and claiming that there were 2,770,000 ethnic Poles killed through the Nazi occupation and about 2,700,000 — 2,900,000 Polish Jews. These eerily comparable numbers led to claims of both-sidism and false symmetries insensitive to each historical context and the variations between Polish and Jewish struggle experiences. Even at present, the article on “Nazi crimes in Poland” (“Zbrodnie hitlerowskie w Polsce”) in the authoritative PWN Encyclopedia mentions Jews solely in passing.

It is clear that collective amnesia didn’t end with the Communist regime. The truth is, a mirror-image course of started quickly after the top of Communist rule, when the pent-up hatred of the regime was manifested in the give attention to, and amplification of “communist crimes.” The former Principal Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland, established in 1945, was reworked in 1990 into a Essential Fee for the Investigation of Crimes towards the Polish Nation, with an expanded mandate to also examine “Stalinist and communist” crimes. Now the crimes of two regimes, Nazi and Soviet, helped defend Poles from dealing with their very own company as historic actors by identifying them as victims or passive observers as an alternative. Within the process, the concentrate on Nazi-era crimes began to recede from focus.

The December 1998 Act on the Institute of Nationwide Remembrance established a Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes towards the Polish Nation (The IPN Act). The preamble to the 1998 Act talked about “the enormity of the number of victims, the losses and damages suffered by the Polish people during World War II and after it ended,” and “the patriotic tradition of the struggle of the Polish people against the occupiers, the Nazism and communism.” Echoing the language of the Nuremberg Constitution, the preamble described “the obligation to prosecute the crimes against peace and humanity and war crimes.” However examined intently, it is clear that the Institute of National Remembrance Act was primarily aimed at the Communist era, with Nazi-era crimes only as an add-on and never of central interest. The doc’s language and the chronological parameters can’t be clearer. Article 1 said that the act,

… regulates the recording, accumulating, storing, processing, securing, making obtainable and publishing of the paperwork of the state safety authorities, produced and accrued from 22 July 1944 until 31 July 1990, in addition to the paperwork of the security authorities of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union referring to the Nazi crimes, the communist crimes, different crimes towards peace, humanity or struggle crimes, perpetrated on individuals of Polish nationality or Polish citizens of other nationalities between 08 November 1917 until 31 July 1990.

In truth, the phrase “Nazi” appears solely twice in the entire document, “Third Reich” also twice, however the word “communist” appears ten occasions, together with the phrase “communist crimes” — five occasions. Whereas Article 2 was devoted in full to communist crimes, no separate article was dedicated to Nazi crimes in any respect! The dates are vital as properly, for they too sign the first give attention to communism: July 22, 1944 — when the Polish Committee of Nationwide Liberation (PKWN), a Soviet backed administration in a piece of Polish territories liberated from the Nazis, was shaped; and November 8, 1917 — a key date in the October Revolution. In the IPN Act, 1917 seems 11 occasions and 1944 10 occasions. The date 1939 — the beginning of Nazi occupation — is talked about solely twice, and 1945 by no means.

Almost twenty years later, the act was amended, causing international controversy that turned generally known as an issue over “the Polish Holocaust law.” The unique regulation included (in Article 55) the assertion “Anyone who publicly and contrary to the facts denies crimes referred to in Article 1 (1) shall be subject to a fine or the penalty of imprisonment of up to 3 years. The sentence shall be made public.” The brand new model expanded the articles and added language threatening prosecution and imprisonment for as much as three years, stating:

Whoever claims, publicly and opposite to the information, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes dedicated by the Third Reich, as specified in Article 6 of the Constitution of the International Army Tribunal enclosed to the Worldwide settlement for the prosecution and punishment of the key conflict criminals of the European Axis, signed in London on eight August 1945 (Polish Journal of Laws of 1947, merchandise 367), or for different felonies that represent crimes towards peace, crimes towards humanity or conflict crimes, or whoever in any other case grossly diminishes the duty of the true perpetrators of stated crimes.

Those that committed “the act” “unintentionally” can be liable to “a fine or a restriction of liberty.” But paragraph three specified that “No offence is committed if the criminal act specified in clauses 1 and 2 is committed in the course of the one’s artistic or academic activity.” This utilized each to Polish residents and foreigners regardless the place “the act was committed.” (The revision of the regulation upset not simply these concerned in researching the history of Jews, but in addition Ukrainians, although for very totally different causes. Article 1, which originally talked about “the Nazi crimes, the communist crimes, other crimes against peace, humanity or war crimes, perpetrated on persons of Polish nationality or Polish citizens of other nationalities between 08 November 1917 until 31 July 1990,” now also included “crimes committed by Ukrainian nationalists and members of Ukrainian units collaborating with the Third Reich.” The expanded Article 2a conflated anachronistically any “acts” committed between 1925 and 1950 by “Ukrainian nationalists” with collaboration with the Third Reich.)

In post-Communist Poland, thus, history began to be politicized once more, however in a special path. The IPN Act, in shifting its gaze away from WWII and its atrocities, played a serious position. The act emphasized a brand new collective memory of victimhood that emphasized “actions performed by the officers of the communist state.” Such an officer was defined as “a public functionary, as well as a person who was granted equal protection to that of a public functionary and in particular, a public functionary and a person who performed executive functions within the statutory body of the communist parties.”

This shift away from Nazi-era crimes to “communist crimes” prepared floor for the revival of the anti-Semitic trope of “Judeo-communism,” or żydokomuna, which had initially emerged inside the context of the October Revolution however which was deployed in Polish nationalist propaganda as early as 1918. The myth gained power because of Nazi propaganda fanning fears of “Judeo-bolshevism,” and then in the nineteen-forties in Poland as part of anti-communist opposition. In truth, in post-WWII Poland, the position ethnic Poles performed in the Communist regime has been minimized or explained away at the expense of Jews. “An average Pole,” as Bishop Czesław Kaczmarek of Kielce famous in his report following the horrific Kielce pogrom of 1946, when some forty Jews have been killed, “thinks (whether it is accurate or inaccurate) that among the only true and sincere supporters of communism in Poland are primarily Jews, because the vast majority of communist Poles are — according to this general opinion — only opportunists, without ideology, who are communists only because it is worth for them [że im się to sowicie opłaca].”

This obsession with communism, along with the trope of żydokomuna, has been a serious stumbling block in true Polish-Jewish reconciliation and actual efforts to face the previous. Nazi occupation, the Communist rule, and anti-communist sentiments have effectively develop into shields preventing real exploration of the shared Polish-Jewish past, and decreasing Polish-Jewish relations to the realm of emotions and stereotypes.

This incapability to cope with the past has fed into narratives based mostly on fantasy and counter-myth embraced by both Jews and Poles. One fable presents Poland as a tolerant “state without stakes” when the remainder of Europe fought wars of religion, welcoming to Jews once they have been persecuted elsewhere; a spot the place Jews flourished, but in addition a spot where Jews remained “a people apart” from nearly all of the inhabitants, dwelling, as Isaac Bashevis Singer put it “together but not together”  — that’s, they never integrated. The counter-myth presents Poland as an anti-Semitic nation, a spot where Jews have been persecuted for centuries; and a place the place Jews remained “a people apart” for good purpose — they never integrated, as a result of they might not/weren’t allowed.

Both the parable and counter-myth paradoxically attain the same false conclusion affirming the alienation of Jews from Poland and Polish society and culture. This conclusion served a number of purposes after the Shoah. For Jews, it helped explain why their Polish neighbors typically stood by or, worse, participated in murders. For Poles, it helped contextualize the destruction of Polish Jews as a definite experience, a separate part of WII, disconnected from the Polish experience. Even the thought of bystanders has served to strengthen the narrative of separate pasts, with Jews as victims of Nazis and Poles, also as victims of Nazis, observing from a distance.

However historical past is way extra difficult, and historians, as Michael Howard stated, typically “explode national myths.” It is a activity full of landmines, for difficult “comfortable assumptions” concerning the collective previous “is painful,” however it’s also “a mark of maturity.” It is perhaps telling that lawmakers in post-Communist Poland chose to create not an Institute of National History but an Institute of Nationwide Remembrance (or, perhaps, “Memory”: the Polish phrase is pamięć).

It isn’t via fable and memory that we will find reconciliation. Reminiscence tends to oversimplify the previous, idealize it, clean it, to offer narratives that seek to justify what occurred — good or dangerous. Reminiscence tends to deal with the feelings. History supplies a path away from idealization, albeit not a simple one. As historian Elliot Gorn poignantly stated, history is comprised of “knowledge of painful things, painfully arrived at,” and memory of “notions of the past that flatter us with easy myths and cheap emotions.” Historians, he argued, “occupy a tiny space where richness of the past is kept alive, where competing voices can still be heard. One of the most important things historians do is to bear witness to the past, including its horrors in order to battle amnesia that would sweep away all that is difficult or repugnant.”

If there is a mannequin for a means out to face and overcome the painful previous, it is Jewish-Catholic reconciliation after WWII, which resulted in 1965 in the groundbreaking, if still flawed, Declaration “Nostra Aetate,” a turning point that reworked Jewish-Catholic relations, as John Connelly put it, “from enemy to brother.” This strategy of reconciliation required an trustworthy take a look at the past, by way of accurate historical studies that charted centuries of animosity and violence, however joined the 2 communities in friendship and dialogue. As Polish Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki noted, “The dialogue with Judaism required a lot of courage; its commandment was a rule: do not be afraid of difficult dialogue, in which we will discuss — respectful of the truth and in the spirit of kindness — difficult matters; a dialogue in which a path to accord leads at times through contention.” This is the commandment to comply with for Polish-Jewish dialogue. In response to Archbishop Gądecki, “Polish-Jewish dialogue is a Poland’s dialogue with its own identity.” As such, it calls for an trustworthy take a look at the past, in all its colors. Not as a Polish history, or a Jewish historical past, however a shared historical past. Such an trustworthy strategy, as historian Margaret MacMillan noted, “can be healthy for societies struggling to deal with past horrors.”

Magda Teter is the Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies and Professor of Historical past at Fordham University.

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