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POLISH NATIONAL IDENTITY AND DEFORMED MEMORY FROM 1945 TO THE PRESENT: MYTHOLOGIZING THE POLISH ROLE IN THE HOLOCAUST

By Alix Landgrebe

www.rferl.org/reports/eepreport,

March 2004

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 Polish Society
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, 2003).

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 suffering.

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 order.

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 the Shoah.

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 deny this.

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 [1832], 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 Nazi occupation.

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 nation."

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.

Conclusion

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 legacy.

The author is a lecturer in history at the Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland.

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