Poland’s wartime contradictions
In August, Poland’s right-wing cabinet approved a bill that would criminalize using the phrase “Polish death camp” or “Polish concentration camp,” with punishments including fines or imprisonment.
The bill raises questions about Poland’s role in the Holocaust. It echoes the country’s communist-era stance on the Second World War – that Poland was a victim and heroically saved Jews.
Growing up, I was told the opposite by my family, my Jewish day school and the broader community – that Poland was antisemitic and complicit in the Holocaust.
But recently, I’ve come to believe that both narratives are true. As we approach the High Holy Days and Yizkor, I think it’s worth reflecting on whether we as a community can see Poland’s role in the Holocaust differently.
This summer, I visited Poland for the first time with my sister, and the trip was full of contradictions. For example, we learned that Christian Poles – including our local guide’s grandparents – were sent to concentration camps, too. The Nazis killed two to three million Christian Poles and three million Jewish Poles. In total, Poland lost one-fifth of its prewar population – more than any other European country. But, those numbers represent roughly 10% of the Christian Polish population and 90% of the Jewish Polish population.
At the POLIN Museum in Warsaw, I learned about Zegota, the Council to Aid Jews. The Polish government-in-exile created it to support and fund Jewish resistance in Poland, including the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; it was the only such organization created by a European government.
At Yad Vashem, Poland has the most Righteous Among the Nations of any country. Yet, it also lost one of the highest percentages of Jews of all European countries.
We found that Holocaust memorials were also inconsistent, dependent on local policies rather than a unified national one. In our baba’s hometown of Wlodawa, the Jewish cemetery is now a park, without a Holocaust memorial, unlike the many memorials around Warsaw, Krakow and the preserved camps. This inconsistency seems to reflect the divisions within Polish society about whether, and how much, Poland took part in the Holocaust.
In our zeyda’s (z”l) hometown of Bilgoraj, we spoke with three people (through our guide) who live near his former house, which was recently torn down to build a shopping mall. One of them, who had the same build and attire as our zeyda, recognized our family name and said that our zeyda’s next-door neighbors were rumored to have hidden Jews (including, possibly, one of our zeyda’s younger sisters). Another neighbor said her mother hid a Jewish man for three days before he fled town, and that Jews and Christians lived in peace before the war. (Our grandparents never expressed that.)
Nearby, a new development claims to recreate the town shtetl, including Isaac Bashevis Singer’s house, a Belarusian-style (not a local-style) synagogue and luxury apartments. We called it “shtetl Disney.” We didn’t see any information on display about why the real shtetl disappeared, and I only hope that no one will want to live in a place that seeks to profit from nostalgia for a lost community. But that, too, depends on how people see their country’s role in that loss.
At the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, we took a synagogue walking tour with a guide who, like a growing number of Poles, has discovered her own Jewish ancestry since communism ended. (She’s now a Yiddish lecturer at Columbia.) We learned that Polish-Jewish history dates back 1,000 years, since Jews fled the Crusades and got special protection, including freedom of religion, from a series of Polish kings. We also saw “Jewish-style” restaurants run by and for non-Jews, and “shtetl rabbi” statuettes being sold in the Old Town – we felt uncomfortable seeing people exoticize and capitalize on our culture.
We also saw a play, based on a true story, about a Jewish Torontonian with Polish roots who visits Poland for the first time, confronts the history and legacy of the Holocaust and witnesses the country’s “Jewish revival,” led by Jews and Christians. Seeing some of our experience reflected back at us emphasized, for me, that Polishness and Ashkenazi Jewishness are partly intertwined, whether or not we acknowledge it.
Realizing that our family is more Polish than we’d thought was both heartwarming and heartbreaking. On our way to Wlodawa, we bought fresh forest blueberries along a highway, and realized our grandparents would have grown up eating them, rather than discovering them in Vancouver as adults, as we’d assumed. In Wlodawa, the restaurant where we ate lunch could have been our baba’s dining room: the walls were peach, the curtains were lace and doilies covered the tables. In Lublin, flea-market stalls sold porcelain figurines just like the ones in her glass-doored cabinets. Were we in Poland, or at home?
Several times, I’ve wondered what to make of these contradictions.
The Jewish community, coming from collective trauma, can insist that Poland was a perpetrator; the Polish government, wanting to avoid collective reflection or partial responsibility, can insist it was a victim or martyr.
The truth is, some Christian Poles collaborated and killed Jews; some joined the partisans or hid Jews; most did nothing. The country was occupied and partitioned, and no one (Jewish or Christian) knew what was going to happen. There was a death penalty for resisting or hiding Jews. The truth is, societies are messy and heterogeneous, and we can’t make universal statements about them.
My question is, do Jews and Polish society want to perpetuate narratives that deny the differences within Polish society during the Second World War? Or do we want to heal?
If we want healing, I believe both communities need to accept that Poland was both perpetrator and victim, complicit and righteous – much as we may not want to, and much as that may feel difficult or even impossible. If we can accept this paradox, maybe then we can move from our respective pain to some kind of healing.
Tamara Micner is a playwright and journalist from Vancouver who lives in London, England. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Wall Street Journal and London Review of Books.