In the eyes of many Christians, Jews were a prime example of the non-believers, while the national element in Poland was in turn largely based on Christianity.
The Myth of a European Memory: A Voyage to Poland and Back
Nationalism, which reached its peak in Europe at this time, also held sway in Poland. The effect that National Democracy had on many Poles should not be underestimated. Between and , anti-Semitism was widespread among most political parties and within society. The political sphere was dominated by national attributions and categories from the nineteenth century.
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It was insinuated that they wanted not only to damage Poland, but to destroy it. Jews became the subject of numerous debates and were encouraged to leave the country.
In cultural and literary circles, anti-Semitism was considered to be almost de rigueur. The language and ideas used in reference to Jews were frequently pejorative during this period. Jews were regarded as a backward mass of city dwellers who voluntarily cut themselves off from the rest of society, and who turned the cities into unpleasant places simply by their presence.
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With regard to later developments, the importance of the interwar years and the attitudes that developed during this time should not be underestimated. Many unresolved social and national problems, such as the failure to implement land reform or the minorities policy, which erupted in bloodshed during and after the war, have their origins in the Second Republic. Many Jews had hoped that, with Polish independence, they would obtain equal rights in that country that they had helped to create.
These hopes were for the most part dashed. Writer Zusman Segalowicz, for example, described the city of Warsaw as a shared achievement of Poles and Jews. The Poles still considered us aliens, but Jews helped build this city and participated enormously in its commerce, finance, and industry. Even the statues in this church represented images of Jews. The nation-state required homogeneity and clarity. Flexible notions of identity among Jews, which by no means entailed disloyalty to Poland, appeared not to fit in.
Instead, it deepened both fictitious and real divisions. Furthermore, there were, to a limited extent, some Poles who played an active part in the Holocaust. It became known that others, after being forced by the National Socialists into the highly compromising role of witnessing the Holocaust, they allowed themselves to be tempted into exploiting the situation and demanded large payments for providing hiding places for Jews or blackmailed Jews for these services.
Memories of the war period also created divisions. The memories of Jews and the Poles drifted far apart from each other. Non-Jewish Poles mourned their own, immense sacrifice. In Polish memory, the support for Communism among a small part of the Jewish community was exaggerated and generalised. Although many Jewish Communists did not see themselves as Jewish, they were nonetheless perceived precisely as such and, with that, as different from other Communists: they were considered collaborators in the Soviet annexation of eastern Poland after the Hitler-Stalin pact and accomplices in establishing the Communist system in Poland after the war.
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Remembrance of the Jewish population after the war was also difficult because almost all of the Polish Jews had been murdered, and most of the survivors had emigrated. As a result, by the early s there were relatively few bearers of collective memory. Such a collective memory usually has an appellant, trans-generational character: those who are born later commit themselves to shared memories and thus compensate for the passing of the generation that experienced the events first hand.
The non-Jewish members of Polish society failed to take on this role.
Contested Histories and Politics of Remembrance
For this reason, society was again dominated by either the adherents of anti-Semitism, who continued to invoke the arguments of the pre-war era, or their staunch opponents. This emerged from a certain sense of time: whereas the post-war era was assuming an indistinct shape for Polish youth, the war era was set apart as a closed matter. The pre-war years, on the other hand, were perceived as very much alive. The unpleasant realities of the war and the insecurities of the present were blotted out. This constellation should not be underestimated either, when it comes to the issue of remembrance.
The few Holocaust survivors who remained in Poland were either unwilling to acknowledge their Jewish origins in the light of the post-war pogroms, or they were so traumatised by their wartime experiences that they suppressed the memory of what had happened to them. There was no question of their becoming bearers of remembrance. The unimaginable could not be articulated at first. The killing of three million Poles of the Jewish faith had destroyed social structures, not just Jewish ones. The middle classes and the intelligentsia, including the Jewish intelligentsia, had been murdered, and those who had survived had lost the settings in which they acted.
Warsaw is a clear example of the lack of ability to articulate grief over the murder of Jews. The fact that the entire Jewish quarter around Nalewki Street and the , Jewish inhabitants of Warsaw were simply no longer there, was not discussed. This was due not only to the traumas that they had experienced, but also to the fact that Warsaw was an empty city after the war. All that remained was rubble. Warsaw had to integrate thousands of people who had never lived there.
The Polish capital changed dramatically as a result. When it comes to remembering Polish-Jewish relations, Warsaw is almost a paradigm. Remembrance of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of was overshadowed by remembrance of the Warsaw Uprising of , during which , people died and thousands of Warsaw families lost their relatives. In official Communist propaganda, no mention of the Warsaw Uprising was permitted, yet this ban on remembrance tended to have the opposite effect in the memories of many Polish families.
That the Ghetto Uprising was the first armed conflict involving street-by-street, house-to-house fighting in a German-occupied city in Europe, or that the Ghetto Uprising could have provided inspiration for the Warsaw Uprising, was not an interpretation of events that came from Polish historians. However, the Bulgarian-born writer Tzvetan Todorov has shown that the arguments presented by Jewish and Polish underground leaders were strikingly similar. According to historian Tomasz Szarota, the tragedy of their murdered Jewish fellow citizens did not provoke the same kind of response as the crimes that Germans committed against non-Jewish Poles in the Pawiak prison.
Due to the influx of immigrants to Warsaw from the countryside after the war, the memory of the Holocaust was lost. The city was no longer multinational. There was hardly anyone left to keep alive the memory of the old Warsaw. With its mythologised, proletarian figures depicted in a mix of Romanticism and Socialist Realism, the monument is saturated in proletarian ideology, thus successfully eradicating the religious affiliation of the insurgents as a mark of their identity. Jews were not to be recognised as such; they were instead instrumentalised as the fighting proletariat.
In this way, the monument contributed more to forgetting than to remembering. These two memories were not reconciled after the war, not in Warsaw, nor anywhere elsewhere in Poland. On the contrary: until the s, Jewish memory simply did not exist. This is one of the reasons why there remains to this today only limited knowledge of the fact that Warsaw was also a Jewish city before the war. Possibly, this empty space can be filled to some extent by the Museum of the History of Jews in Poland, which is currently under construction.
Those who participated in the atrocities or made money from Jews during or after the war had a vested interest in this suppression. Furthermore, many Poles were ashamed of their negative attitude towards Jews. At any rate, the events of WWII left deeply wounded memories. The way in which the Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising have been treated is an example of competition among victims.
At times, this competition has dominated the dialogue between Poles and Jews and contributed to the failure to remember Jewish life in Poland as well as Jewish suffering. The competitiveness between Poles and Jews goes back a long way. It can already be found in the messianic ideas of Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz. Both peoples, he claimed, were chosen by God. Feelings of inferiority could thus be tempered and reinterpreted as strengths.
Here, parallels can be seen in the concepts of identity and the memory of both Poles and Jews. Under the influence of growing nationalism, an identity competition emerged from these parallels. It manifested itself in debates on how much Jewish blood was flowing in the veins of certain Poles: in the interwar years, several court cases were held that aimed to prove that the individual in question was not of Jewish origin.
The issue was discussed with regard to Mickiewicz himself and the composer Chopin. After , presidential candidate Tadeusz Mazowiecki had to field questions in public as to whether he was a Jew. Since , the competition of victims has been expressed by the fact that many Poles, given their own suffering, find it difficult to acknowledge the victim status and unique nature of Jewish suffering during the Shoah.
Here, a distinction was made between concentration camps and extermination camps, with Treblinka and Birkenau being included in the latter. According to this logic, the history of the Polish Jews should not be granted a unique status. The competition of victims was repeatedly reflected in the way the symbolic site of the concentration camp and killing centre Auschwitz was treated.
The Communist government made Auschwitz a symbol of the persecution and resistance of the Polish nation, while the murder of Jews was to a large extent ignored.