POLISH NATIONAL IDENTITY
AND DEFORMED MEMORY FROM 1945 TO THE PRESENT: MYTHOLOGIZING
THE POLISH ROLE IN THE HOLOCAUST
By Alix Landgrebe
Nationalism plays an important
role in Polish society. The discourse in and about national
paradigms is crucial even for many Polish intellectuals,
and national questions are omnipresent in everyday Polish
life. The period of Nazi occupation is often discussed
in connection with national identity. Today, we are
witnessing a revival of nationalist ideas from the 19th
century that were long taboo under socialism. Although
national ideas were strongly present during the socialist
era as well, they were articulated differently. Nationalist
thought involved an especially deformed memory of the
past; many issues could not be openly discussed. By
the end of the 1940s, Jewish history, and the Holocaust,
or Shoah, in particular, became such a forbidden topic.
Nationalism was obviously present
(as it is today) in the discourse about Polish behavior
during World War II. Nationalist arguments also occur
in the context of debates about collaboration with the
Nazis. Collaboration is currently one of the most controversial
topics in Polish society. The most important Polish
liberal newspapers ("Rzeczpospolita," 2000,
2001 and "Gazeta Wyborcza," 2000, 2001) have
published many articles on the subject. It has also
been discussed in the right-wing press, for example
in "Nasz dziennik," as well as in the most
important liberal-Catholic newspapers ("Tygodnik
powszechny," 2001). Collaboration during the war
has been the subject of much discussion among scholars
and several panel discussions. The Institute for National
Remembrance (Instytut Pamieci Narodowej) also plays
an important role in the discourse about the Holocaust.
Not only in the communist era
but also in more recent discussions about collaboration
with the Nazis, one has been, and one is still witness
to myth-building and an ideological/nationalist approach
to the problem. Memory of the Jews and the Shoah was
singularly neglected by the communist regime. Today's
liberal Polish intellectuals contend with these deformations.
National Myths And The Shoah In
Relatively little research on the problems described
above has been undertaken, although not all national
myths are new and many derive from the legacy of Polish
nationalist thought of the 19th century. A number of
studies on Jewish-Polish relations during World War
II have appeared -- although in the post-socialist period
the situation has been changing -- with more scholars
publishing works related to the problem (for example,
Checinski, 1989; Tych, 1999; Volovici, 1990; Cooper,
2000; Braham, 1994; Mushkat, 1992; Polonsky, 1992; Zimmerman,
Many questions remain unanswered. Even a superficial
examination of the Polish debate about collaboration
(the "Jedwabne debate") shows how much work
is left to be done. The need to discuss Jewish-Polish
topics in general became obvious during this debate.
As a result, books and articles not directly related
to the problem of Jedwabne have also appeared in Poland
(for example Koska 2002, Tuszynska, 2002). At the same
time, books have appeared that have been translated
from Yiddish into Polish and are now of interest to
society at large. Daily newspapers such as "Rzeczpospolita"
have published numerous articles aimed at explaining
the place of Jewish culture and life in Polish and European
history (see, e.g., "Rzeczpospolita," 13,
14, 20, and 21 January 2001).
A once-sizable Polish Jewish community is now replaced
by myths about Jews. Before the Shoah, the Jewish community
in Poland was the largest in Europe. People who remember
the country from those times often transmit familiar
stereotypes to the next generations. Cliches about Jews
can also be found, for example, in 19th-century Polish
literature; and these can no longer be verified or corrected
by reality, since that world has vanished. Under such
circumstances, even people who are basically philo-Semitic
might unwittingly contribute to mythologizing the Jewish
past in Poland.
Let me, at this point, provide a working definition
of "myth." A myth is a particular idea that
creates and sustains belief in some nonexistent reality.
A myth presents a deformed, imagined reality, but appears
real to those who believe in it. A myth lasts because
it is dynamic: It can be transformed to fit new situations
and new contexts. (see Blumenberg 2001, pp. 166-175).
This is why myths can be so useful for nationalist ideologies.
Myths are Janus-faced: They can integrate or exclude
individuals from a community (Kersten 1992, p. 13).
In short, myths are a crucial element, but not the only
element, in creating a national ideology.
The Polish national ideology that developed after World
War II has also been built on myths, including myths
about the relations of Jews to the rest of Polish society.
As already mentioned, in communist times, nationalist
ideology was quite strong, no matter how paradoxical
this might seem in light of, and in juxtaposition with,
the familiar socialist propaganda of international solidarity.
In the communist period, some people would discuss
the crimes they witnessed during the war, but only in
private. Very few books dealing with the Holocaust were
published; or if they were, they depicted the role played
by Poles during the Nazi occupation in a positive light
(Bartoszewski, 1969). In the People's Republic of Poland,
themes related to the Shoah -- and especially Polish
collaboration -- were taboo. There was a perverted understanding
of the idea of "citoyennete," i.e., the political
nation. This meant that the ideal of equal citizenship
was grasped and presented so as to leave no place for
minorities or differences of culture. A deformed notion
of equity in a so-called equal society left no room
for diversity. The fact that Jews were murdered received
little or no mention, and official doctrine taught that
most victims of the Holocaust were "antifascist
[Polish] citizens." This perception can be found
in the works of several scholars, and was even illustrated
in the exhibits displayed at the communist-erected Auschwitz
memorial. Some Polish scholars (see Mach, 1995, p. 10)
would eventually criticize these distortions, and Western
(particularly Jewish) scholars clearly distanced themselves
from them (Steinlauf, 1997). The memory of the Shoah
in general was deformed by communist propaganda, in
which Auschwitz became a symbol of antifascist martyrdom.
After the war, postcards of the Auschwitz crematoria
were being sold, but only as a symbol of general Polish
In the communists' national vision of Poland as a homogeneous
state without minorities, there was little place for
mentioning that many Jews lived in Poland before the
war, and that their culture had been an important element
of the former "Rzeczpospolita" (Polish Republic).
Although right after the war the few Jews who remained
or returned to Poland were given the chance to live
according their traditions, this remnant of Jewish-Polish
life quickly came to an end; only assimilated, "polonized"
Jews, or Jews who embraced communism, stayed in Poland
(Cala, Datner-Spiewak, 1997). Therefore, any open discourse
about what really happened during the Shoah became impossible.
Furthermore, discussion of collaboration with the Nazis
was hampered by the self-created image of Poland as
an antifascist country fighting for the new communist
Despite the official tendency not to speak about the
existence of the Jewish community in prewar Poland,
it is obvious that myths regarding Jews were still widespread
during the communist regime. The mythologizing of the
Polish role during the Shoah was mainly based on the
idea that people who fought against the Nazis were all
communists. Other victims and other fighters went unmentioned,
and the socialist press even presented the uprising
of the Ghetto as a communist-organized insurrection.
Only in recent years has this view been challenged (see,
e.g., Engelking, 2000).
Anti-Semitic policies after the war, and especially
in 1967-68, allowed no discussion of Jewish victims.
In a 1989 interview, Andrzej Wroblewski, a Polish Jew,
pointed out that the Polish government's policies of
1968 meant that an openly anti-Semitic campaign had
been launched by an European government for the first
time since the end of the Nazi regime (Wroblewski, 1992
p. 215). His view is confirmed by other sources (Soltysiak
and Stepien 1998). Wroblewski did not compare 1968 to
the Nazis overall, but noted the similarity of certain
government-sponsored measures with the early politics
of the Nazi regime. They conducted research on "Jewish
blood up to the second generation," while people
of Jewish origin were persecuted (Spiewak, 1996, pp.
259-263). It was, in fact, a campaign directed against
fully assimilated Jews, for whom their Jewish origins
virtually had no significance but who now were considered
to be Israel's "fifth column" against the
Arab world and socialist Poland. The Jews were repeatedly
and in different contexts accused of being anticommunists,
of undermining Polish society, or of collaborating with
the enemy. In fact, this was little more than the updated
myth of interwar nationalist, anti-Semitic Polish thought.
While collaboration with the Nazis was never discussed
as a POLISH problem, the Jews themselves were being
accused of "collaboration" with Poland's enemies.
Poles were thus being turned into victims of the Jews.
This combination of distortion of the past with current
political interests fully exposed the significance of
the official silence about the Holocaust and the contradictions
of socialist propaganda: The press published articles
in which "genuine Poles" accused Jews of being
ungrateful for the help they had received from Poles
during the Nazi occupation. In 1968, the important party
weekly "Zycie partii" (Party Life) cited examples
allegedly illustrating the "ingratitude of the
Jews" ("Zycie partii," March 1968). The
party tried to create a new myth: that Polish Jews were
not genuine citizens of Poland but enemies of the state.
One cannot but conclude that the role of "witnesses
and bystanders," when not that of actual collaborators,
played by Poles during the Shoah was a taboo because
official ideology was bent on exploiting anti-Semitism
for its own purposes (Soltysiak and Stepien 1998, Checinski
1989). People who opposed such policies in 1968 were
thrown out of the party or lost their jobs. This, for
example, was the case of journalist Wieslaw Gornicki,
a committed communist who came from a family with communist
traditions. Opposing official anti-Semitism, Gornicki
in 1968 wrote a letter addressed to the press bureau
of the Central Committee of the Polish United Worker's
Party. He tried to demythologize the word "Zionism,"
which the government propaganda was in fact using as
a synonym for "Jews": "[Recently] the
term 'Zionism' in our party has been arbitrarily overused.
One cannot identify Zionism with every sign of sympathy
for Israel" (Soltysiak and Stepien 1998, p. 289).
Without being aware of it, Gornicki pointed out a problem
that even today is still of great interest in Polish
society. During communism, there was a collective need
to become a nation of victims and heroes. The myth of
Poles as a nation of resistants to the Nazis is, however,
not merely just myth -- it is myth and reality combined.
The Polish government did not collaborate, and indeed
there were many people in occupied Poland who fought
against the Nazis. Others who themselves suffered under
occupation were shocked when they saw how Jews were
deported and murdered, but nevertheless remained passive
observers out of fear (author's interview with Mr. Z.,
a Polish survivor of those times, Krakow 2003).
The self-forged image of a uniform, communist-led resistance,
however, did not allow room for presenting differentiated
reactions to the occupation. Furthermore, the image
of the Polish rebel ("Polak powstaniec"),
whose roots are to be sought in the 19th-century national
mythology, would eventually be easily harnessed to fit
into the new context of patriotic socialist construction.
Although some circles in Polish society were aware
of a history of collaboration, this could not be discussed
in a country where freedom of speech was absent. Some
emigres, for example poet Czeslaw Milosz, wrote more
openly about it; but his critical views of Polish behavior
during the Shoah became a target of official -- and
not only official -- attacks. His poem "Biedni
Polacy patrza na Getto" (The Poor Poles Watch The
Ghetto) is still controversial in Poland. The poem depicts
Poles enjoying themselves on a merry-go-round funfair
in front of the Ghetto. Whether historically accurate
or not, the poem was meant as a provocation to force
discussion on the indifference of non-Jewish Poles during
Collaboration as a historical fact is even today difficult
to discuss in Polish society. The problem of not having
been merely a nation of victims and fighters against
the Nazis, but also one that produced perpetrators,
was central to the "Jedwabne debate." Prompted
by Polish-born U.S. historian Jan Tomasz Gross's book
about the July 1941 pogrom in Jedwabne ("Sasiedzi"
[Neighbors], published in Poland in 2000), the volume
focuses on the episode of the murder of the Jedwabne
Jews by their Polish neighbors. Even now, this new view
of the subject is not accepted by society at large (see
Shafir, 2002a, 2003). Although Gross points out that
the Nazis had influenced the town's inhabitants, it
is clear from his description of events that the main
responsibility for the pogrom rests with local Poles.
There has been a debate as to whether the inhabitants
of Jedwabne themselves planned the burning of the Jews
in a stable. There was also a discussion about how many
Jews were really killed, which even led to the exhumation
of the victims' corpses. Every detail of the Jedwabne
pogrom has been discussed very consciously in the written
and electronic media; and the two most important Polish
newspapers, "Rzeczpospolita" and "Gazeta
Wyborcza," did their best to remain as objective
as possible. They also tried to fight radical positions,
especially far-right, anti-Semitic opinion. Articles
whose authors went so far as to express remorse for
the Jedwabne pogrom were not absent either: for example
by Jerzy Slawomir Mac, a strong advocate of the need
to apologize for the role of Poles during the Shoah,
in the weekly "Wprost" (18 and 25 March 2001).
The Institute of National Remembrance, which among other
tasks is in charge of uncovering and making public the
dark sides of totalitarianism in 20th century Polish
history, undertook a detailed investigation about Jedwabne
and other pogroms. The institute also examined the earlier
history of Jedwabne, including the relations between
Poles and Jews in the town during the earlier Russian
occupation. Did or did not Jedwabne Jews serve the Soviet
occupant, as has been claimed by some prominent Polish
historians? This unavoidably brought to light latent
animosities, dating back to the times of the Second
Polish Republic and which were by no means unique to
Jedwabne. The institute also examined positive aspects
Polish-Jewish life in the town. And it concluded that
the pogrom in Jedwabne could not be explained only in
terms of prewar anti-Semitism, but should be seen as
being the outcome of both Nazi encouragement and local
initiative. The fact remains that inhabitants of Jedwabne
had burned alive in a stable their Jewish neighbors,
and that only a few fanatic negationists would nowadays
The Jedwabne pogrom and its description by Gross might
be regarded as a turning point in the way the Shoah
is perceived in postcommunist contemporary Poland, although
the role played by Poles in the Shoah remains controversial.
Some speak of outright "collaboration"; others
see it as having been a Polish reaction to the role
allegedly played by Jews in supporting communism; yet
others believe the Nazis and the inhabitants of the
town committed the crime together. The impact of Polish
national myths dating back to the 19th century was also
recognizable in the debates triggered by Gross's book.
Remarkably, this mythologizing was not simply confined
to what some chose to describe as "communist"
victims, but involved the rather more extended dimensions
of "national honor." These ideas have their
roots in Polish romantic thought.
As I mentioned above, in socialist times, nationalism
persisted in distorted form; its role under communism
was nonetheless important. After the fall of the communist
regime, it enjoyed a vital rebirth. "Narod-Martyr,"
martyr-nation, is an idea forged by the Polish romantic
messianists, especially Adam Mickiewicz, the famous
Polish national poet. According to this mythology, Poland
was destined to suffer, its martyrdom leading to resurrection,
when it would become morally superior to the other nations.
At times this is linked to the notion of the Poles becoming
the new "chosen people" (Mickiewicz, 1996
, Walicki, 1982, Dopart, 1999 pp. 70-93). This
romantic myth has returned to contemporary thought (where
it is also discussed critically, one should add); indeed,
it has become a favorite topic of debate. It also plays
a prominent role in the tackling of the sensitive topic
of collaboration. Quite frequently, the Poles are presented
as having been victims of the Nazis, on par with the
Jews. In support of this perception, one would often
find the numbers of Polish victims during the war cited
in the media. This then leads to the argument that Poles
must have been innocent. The propensity is emblematic
for a phenomenon that has been termed as "competitive
martyrdom" (Shafir, 2002a, 2002b), which plays
an important role in Polish society and also in the
media. It is claimed, for instance, that Poles have
the largest number of trees planted in Jerusalem at
the Yad Vashem Memorial honoring the "Righteous"
who saved Jews during the Holocaust. This, of course,
is a myth: It is never mentioned that most of the Jewish
victims exterminated in the Holocaust were POLISH Jews,
that Poland had the largest share of Jews among European
countries, and that, consequently, the number of the
"Righteous" is but a reflection of the proportionality
of the exterminated victims.
It is in the same context that one reads in the right-wing
Polish press that Jews collaborated with the Soviets
after the 17 September 1939 partitioning of the country
in the wake of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or even
before that date, whereas Poles are said to have been
risking their lives for the sake of saving Jews. After
the fall of communism, the period of the Soviet occupation
itself became itself the subject of mythologizing, referred
to as the "Jewish-Bolshevik occupation." The
anti-Semitic press hardly misses an occasion to refer
to the alleged collaboration of Jews with the Stalinist
occupants, but seldom, if at all, is any reference made
in that segment of the media to the collaboration of
Poles with the Nazis. This modality of approaching the
issue has been dubbed the "symmetric" or "double
genocide" approach (Shafir, 2003). One would look
in vain in that segment of the press for mention of
the fact that for most Polish communist Jews, such as
the late former Deputy Premier Jakub Berman, their ethnic
origins were of no importance whatsoever. Berman was
an ardent supporter of a monolithic national Poland,
in which he chose to see a world in which everyone was
equal and free (Toranska, 1997 pp. 417-225). The Warsaw
sociologist Ireneusz Krzeminski, a well-known scholar
focusing his research on modern anti-Semitism in Poland,
pointed to elements of anti-Jewish attitudes by juxtaposing
"Jewish" and "Polish" remembrance
of the Shoah ("Rzeczpospolita," 19-20 July
2003.) He showed that in the anti-Semitic Polish memory
of the Jews, they are perceived as having all "collaborated
with the Stalinists" and having been themselves
"all Stalinists." The question of "guilt
-- as it is usually called in Polish society, although
what is actually meant is "responsibility"
-- is thus directed only at "others," but
never to the role played by Gentile Poles during the
Shoah. Anti-Semites -- and not only outright anti-Semites
(see Shafir, 2003) -- therefore demand that Jews apologize
to the Polish nation. The widely shared stereotype according
to which all Jews had been Stalinists, or that Jews
had dominated the communist secret service, is an exaggeration
still believed by many.
Poland might have made the greatest progress among
the former communist countries in coping with the legacy
of its role in the Holocaust. Yet it continues to be
the "norm" in that to employ a discourse that
speaks of "Jews and Poles," rather than of
"Polish Jews and Polish non-Jews." And this
discourse is unfolding in a country in which hardly
any Jews survived the Shoah.
The Road to a New Memory
Many voices can be heard in Poland calling for a change
in that discourse, however, and mainly for the demythologizing
of positive self-perceptions and of "national victimhood."
Aware of the sensitivity of the issues, some Polish
intellectuals tackled it with care, trying to avoid
ostentation and confrontation and thus pave the way
to a gradual reexamination of the Polish wartime role
that would be more acceptable to the bulk of Polish
society. When Gross's book on Jedwabne was published,
Adam Michnik, chief editor of "Gazeta Wyborcza,"
wrote that for Poles it is "a real shock"
to find themselves not only among "victims, but
also [among] collaborators in crimes" ("Gazeta
Wyborcza," 17 June 2001). This is one of the reasons
that so many old national myths resurfaced in the "Jedwabne
debate" and were used to "demonstrate"
that the story could not possibly be true. Historians
belonging to the "old school" or influenced
by it claim that Poland has always been tolerant, and
that consequently it could never have been turned into
a country of collaborators. On the other hand, the historic
"toleration" argument became a double-edged
argument. It was used by intellectuals struggling for
a change in self-perceptions to make the opposite point:
The fact that Poland was once the cradle of European
Jewry demonstrates, they argued, what a tragedy the
Holocaust was -- not only for Polish Jewry, but for
Polish society as a whole. These intellectuals were
eventually joined by simpler, older people who witnessed
what happened to the Jews during the occupation, and
for whom the debates provided an impulse to finally
deal with the trauma of the Holocaust by telling the
younger generations what really happened and what this
signifies for Polish society itself.
Under the impact of the shock, younger liberal intellectuals
became determined to demonstrate that the country, whose
multicultural past and especially its rich Jewish culture
has been destroyed by the Nazis, is a different place
-- in short, that Poland has learned to face responsibility.
They embarked on the road to create a new memory. This
is now happening in Poland. One can observe this in
the press, in panel discussions and other events organized
in Warsaw, or at the Center of Jewish Culture in Krakow,
where the Jedwabne events have frequently been discussed
in open meetings in recent years.
What really happened at Jedwabne or in other places
in Poland during the Shoah might never fully come to
light. But the Jedwabne pogrom has certainly become
a symbol for the end of the "myth of innocence"
during the occupation. Some Polish intellectuals feared
that the Jedwabne debate might have a boomerang effect,
encouraging the emergence of "neo-anti-Semitism"
as a result of creating new myths -- this time around
anti-Polish myths. Such anxieties, for example, were
expressed by anti-Nazi underground fighter and former
Radio Free Europe Polish Service Director Jan Nowak-Jezioranski
("Rzeczpospolita," 26 January 2001). According
to Nowak-Jezioranski, debates perceived as being "anti-Polish"
threatened to provoke negative reactions in response.
Instead of reconciliation, he wrote, instead of easing
out nationalism, such debates might entrench anti-Semitism
at the core of Polish nationalist thought. For Nowak-Jezioranski
and other Polish intellectuals who play a prominent
role in the Polish media, the most important lesson
of the Jedwabne debate has less to do with Polish-Jewish
relations per se and more to do with the necessity of
doing away with the nationalist elements in Polish historical
and contemporary political thought. This extends, but
is not limited to, the role played by Poles during the
The Roman Catholic Church also played an important
role in the Jedwabne debate and influenced public opinion.
At first, rejection of Polish responsibility for Jedwabne
was widespread in church circles. In Catholic publications,
Jedwabne was discussed mostly in theological, but also
nationalist, terms -- as for example the idea of the
"guilt of the Polish nation." Liberal Roman
Catholics denounced anti-Semitism and wanted the people
to accept Jedwabne as a "Polish crime," but
this was done in the conventional "nationalist"
manner, which is entrenched in the concept of "national
collectivity." For most nationalists, however,
collective guilt meant an "offense of the Polish
As a matter of fact, not only the church but most Poles
claim that the notion of "collective guilt"
is inadequate to cope with the problem. This came to
be also illustrated in President Aleksander Kwasniewski's
speech in Jedwabne, delivered on the occasion of inaugurating
a new monument for Jewish victims. Kwasniewski, while
indirectly referring to collective guilt by repenting
"as a [Polish] citizen and as president of the
Republic of Poland," nonetheless apologized for
the POGROM. Furthermore, the new memorial (the old one
placed the blame on the Nazis) still failed to identify
the Polish perpetrators of the crime, with reference
made only to the "men, women and children...murdered
and burned alive at this site on 10 July 1941"
(Shafir, 2002a). And although Pope John Paul II (setting
an example for all Poles) said he felt guilty as a "Pole
and a Christian" ("Tygodnik Powszechny,"
6 November 2002), it was difficult for Polish society
to accept this message, since his mention of his personal
Polish identity in this context was totally unexpected
for the average Pole. It was emblematic of the Polish
Jedwabne debate that only the notion of "collective
guilt" was used, instead of applying the idea of
"collective responsibility," which would have
signified a change of mentality for Poland.
Under socialism, mythologizing was the outcome of taboos
created by the government but largely accepted by the
population: old stereotypes about Jews combined with
new ones. Any positive memory of a Jewish presence in
Poland was either unimportant or even counterproductive
for the purpose of the official public discourse, which
was engaged in making up and preserving the myth of
a culturally monolithic country. In the wake of the
communist collapse, the mythologizing referring to Polish
behavior during the Nazi occupation changed its form.
An overt discussion of the old "Polish Republic"
became possible, and especially of its multicultural
past. While mythologizing did not disappear, it now
embraced new forms and reference terms, mainly in the
resurrection of 19th-century Polish messianism. These
old-new myths, in turn, intertwined with new ones, prominent
among which was the myth of Jewish large-scale collaboration
with communism in general and with Stalinism in particular,
The combination was a powerful indication of the deeply
rooted ethnocentric-nationalist thought in Polish self-perceptions.
Side-by-side, national-liberal traditions based on
the idea of "citoyennete," which had been
a strong current in 19th-century Polish thought, persisted
as well. This latter stream of thought strove to break
with aggressive national myths and to find alternative
perspectives for the Polish nation that might lead to
a new understanding of the older, multinational Poland.
But there is an even more important perspective that
can be found in contemporary Poland. Triggered by the
Jedwabne debates, it ventures the proposition of a radical
transformation of the Polish discourse about the nation's
past. Some intellectuals have argued that Poles should
learn from that debate and turn their collective back
on archaic national myths. What these intellectuals
advocate is not a denial of the Polish past but a different
perspective in looking at it. In other words, they seek
the forging of a new memory -- one that no longer is
distorted by an ideological perspective, be it left-wing
or right-wing ideology. This new memory, they believe,
might, offer Poland the chance to become a modern "European
country," one no longer dominated by its nationalist
The author is a lecturer in history at the Jagellonian
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