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Collective Amnesia in Post-Communist Poland

Why history, not memory or mythology, is the path to Polish-Jewish reconciliation

“We cannot escape history,” said President Abraham Lincoln, a month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Or, in Desmond Tutu’s words, “The past refuses to lie down quietly,” and has “the uncanny habit of returning to haunt one.” Indeed, no nation’s history is comprised only of the glorious and heroic: all nations have dark chapters and often actual skeletons in their closets. As historian Margaret MacMillan stated, “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 own lives, it is difficult for nations, religious institutions, and other groups to acknowledge those less glorious parts of their pasts. It is particularly difficult to do so when history is mythologized and manipulated for political reasons. Such a history is not just inaccurate, but dangerous, and will, in MacMillan’s words, sooner or later “present its bill.” This is the case with post-WWII Polish-Jewish relations. In the last few years, Polish-Jewish past became politicized, obscuring and distorting a complex and centuries-old shared history that does not neatly fit into ideological categories but is vulnerable 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 against the Polish Nation, originally passed in 1998.

After WWII, many European countries engaged in what some scholars dubbed “collective amnesia.” Austria, for example, began to redefine itself as the first victim of the Nazis. France amplified the Resistance, forgetting about its Vichy days; Western Germany, after the trials of several high-profile Nazi leaders, allowed for silence to prevail. Under Communist rule, Poland also chose to mute and forget certain parts of its past, resulting the so-called “white stains” (białe plamy historii) that blotted out the massacre of Polish officers at Katyń; the September 17, 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Agreement to divide Poland; and much discussion about the murder of Jews in Poland. While Nazi death camps were inescapable, as was the memory of WWII (ever present in the landscape, in schools, and on TV), under the Communist regime, the Nazi crimes were internationalized, highlighting the countries of citizenship of the victims and rarely mentioning that Jews were the primary or majority victims of many of the death camps, even though Poland lost 90 percent of its pre-war Jewish population.

In August 1945, the so-called Nuremberg Charter that set guidelines for the prosecution of Nazi officials in Nuremberg defined three categories of crimes: crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Poland’s Jewish survivors helped gather evidence against Nazis, documenting the destruction of Jews in Europe, but the Nuremberg framework of generally-conceived crimes against humanity set an international precedent of obscuring the specificity of what happened to Jews during the war. It also gave cover for European countries, including France and Poland, to focus on presenting the devastation of the war as Nazi crimes (zbrodniehitlerowskie, in Polish) against humanity, without specifically acknowledging the Nazi obsession with Jews. For decades after the war, Poles were told about the six million Polish victims of the Nazis, a number given in the 1947 Nuremberg report. Jewish victims were removed from official memory. So when, in the late nineteen-eighties, the discussions began to disentangle a large number of Jews from among these victims, breaking the number into three million Jews and some two million Poles, this figure would have felt like a denial of an established history of Polish suffering, rather than a confirmation of the facts. These debates still rage, not only for political reasons but also because territorial changes to Poland’s borders makes it difficult to accurately estimate the human loss. Most recently, on the seventieth anniversary of the beginning of WWII, the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) revised the number of human casualties, now taking into account the victims of both the “Nazi and Soviet occupations,” and claiming that there were 2,770,000 ethnic Poles killed during the Nazi occupation and about 2,700,000 — 2,900,000 Polish Jews. These eerily similar numbers led to claims of both-sidism and false symmetries insensitive to both historical context and the differences between Polish and Jewish war experiences. Even today, the article on “Nazi crimes in Poland” (“Zbrodnie hitlerowskie w Polsce”) in the authoritative PWN Encyclopedia mentions Jews only in passing.

It is clear that collective amnesia did not end with the Communist regime. In fact, a mirror-image process began soon after the end of Communist rule, when the pent-up hatred of the regime was manifested in the focus on, and amplification of “communist crimes.” The former Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland, established in 1945, was transformed in 1990 into a Main Commission for the Investigation of Crimes against the Polish Nation, with an expanded mandate to also investigate “Stalinist and communist” crimes. Now the crimes of two regimes, Nazi and Soviet, helped shield Poles from facing their own agency as historical actors by identifying them as victims or passive observers instead. In the process, the focus on Nazi-era crimes began to recede from focus.

The December 1998 Act on the Institute of National Remembrance established a Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation (The IPN Act). The preamble to the 1998 Act mentioned “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 Charter, the preamble described “the obligation to prosecute the crimes against peace and humanity and war crimes.” But examined closely, 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 not of central interest. The document’s language and the chronological parameters cannot be clearer. Article 1 stated that the act,

… regulates the recording, collecting, storing, processing, securing, making available and publishing of the documents of the state security authorities, produced and accumulated from 22 July 1944 until 31 July 1990, as well as the documents of the security authorities of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union relating to 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.

In fact, the word “Nazi” appears only twice in the whole document, “Third Reich” also twice, but the word “communist” appears ten times, including the phrase “communist crimes” — five times. While Article 2 was devoted in full to communist crimes, no separate article was devoted to Nazi crimes at all! The dates are significant as well, for they too signal the primary focus on communism: July 22, 1944 — when the Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN), a Soviet backed administration in a section of Polish territories liberated from the Nazis, was formed; and November 8, 1917 — a key date in the October Revolution. In the IPN Act, 1917 appears 11 times and 1944 10 times. The date 1939 — the beginning of Nazi occupation — is mentioned only twice, and 1945 not at all.

Nearly twenty years later, the act was amended, causing international controversy that became known as a controversy over “the Polish Holocaust law.” The original law included (in Article 55) the statement “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 new version expanded the articles and added language threatening prosecution and imprisonment for up to three years, stating:

Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich, as specified in Article 6 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal enclosed to the International agreement for the prosecution and punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis, signed in London on 8 August 1945 (Polish Journal of Laws of 1947, item 367), or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes.

Those who committed “the act” “unintentionally” would 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 applied both to Polish citizens and foreigners regardless where “the act was committed.” (The revision of the law upset not just those involved in researching the history of Jews, but also Ukrainians, though for very different reasons. Article 1, which originally mentioned “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 again, but in a different direction. The IPN Act, in shifting its gaze away from WWII and its atrocities, played a major role. The act emphasized a 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 ground for the revival of the anti-Semitic trope of “Judeo-communism,” or żydokomuna, which had originally emerged within the context of the October Revolution but which was deployed in Polish nationalist propaganda as early as 1918. The myth gained power thanks to Nazi propaganda fanning fears of “Judeo-bolshevism,” and then in the nineteen-forties in Poland as part of anti-communist opposition. In fact, in post-WWII Poland, the role ethnic Poles played in the Communist regime has been minimized or explained away at the expense of Jews. “An average Pole,” as Bishop Czesław Kaczmarek of Kielce noted in his report following the horrific Kielce pogrom of 1946, when some forty Jews were 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 major stumbling block in true Polish-Jewish reconciliation and real efforts to face the past. Nazi occupation, the Communist rule, and anti-communist sentiments have effectively become shields preventing real exploration of the shared Polish-Jewish past, and reducing Polish-Jewish relations to the realm of emotions and stereotypes.

This inability to deal with the past has fed into narratives based on myth and counter-myth embraced by both Jews and Poles. One myth presents Poland as a tolerant “state without stakes” when the rest of Europe fought wars of religion, welcoming to Jews when they were persecuted elsewhere; a place where Jews flourished, but also a place where Jews remained “a people apart” from the majority of the population, living, as Isaac Bashevis Singer put it “together but not together”  — that is, they never integrated. The counter-myth presents Poland as an anti-Semitic country, a place where Jews have been persecuted for centuries; and a place where Jews remained “a people apart” for good reason — they never integrated, because they could not/were not allowed.

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

But history is far more complicated, and historians, as Michael Howard said, often “explode national myths.” It is a task filled with landmines, for challenging “comfortable assumptions” about the collective past “is painful,” but it is 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 National Remembrance (or, perhaps, “Memory”: the Polish word is pamięć).

It is not through myth and memory that we can find reconciliation. Memory tends to oversimplify the past, idealize it, clean it, to provide narratives that seek to justify what happened — good or bad. Memory tends to address the emotions. History provides a path away from idealization, albeit not an easy one. As historian Elliot Gorn poignantly said, 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 model for a way out to face and overcome the painful past, it is Jewish-Catholic reconciliation after WWII, which resulted in 1965 in the groundbreaking, if still flawed, Declaration “Nostra Aetate,” a turning point that transformed Jewish-Catholic relations, as John Connelly put it, “from enemy to brother.” This process of reconciliation required an honest look at the past, through accurate historical studies that charted centuries of animosity and violence, but joined the two 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 follow for Polish-Jewish dialogue. According to Archbishop Gądecki, “Polish-Jewish dialogue is a Poland’s dialogue with its own identity.” As such, it demands an honest look at the past, in all its colors. Not as a Polish history, or a Jewish history, but a shared history. Such an honest approach, 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 History at Fordham University.

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