My childhood was full of magical, well-known tales of love and joy and everyday life in the shtetls of Poland, told with warmth and wit by my grandparents. Some of these characters became my childhood heroes.
As a little boy yet unaware of Auschwitz, I wondered about my grandmother’s sadness: even when telling funny stories, she seemed to laugh with one eye and cry with the other. I don’t remember when I found out that all the characters, so alive in these vivid stories, were murdered in the Holocaust.
In recent years I have had several opportunities to visit former Polish shtetls, including the town of Zamosc, where my grandmother’s family lived before the Second World War. These villages are places where memory has been turned into history.
On a one-lane street leading to a small house on Ulica Gesia in Zamosc, I found the house where the Zalcman family once lived. It was from here that my relatives were sent to the death camp of Belzec in July 1942.
My grandmother saved herself by fleeing to the Soviet Union with her parents. While taking refuge in the towns and villages of the Polish countryside throughout the daring escape, they lived in constant fear of being denounced by their Polish neighbors.
On another street in Katowice, I found the house where my grandparents found refuge after miraculously surviving the war. From here, they were expelled in 1968 following the Polish communist government’s antisemitic campaign resulting in the forced exodus of nearly all of the country’s remaining 20,000 Jews, a mere 25 years after Nazi Germany had carried out the Holocaust on Polish soil.
Although World War II ended in 1945, the past is never dead. It’s not even past, as the author William Faulkner put it. Last week Poland’s President Andrzej Duda signed into law a bill approved by the country’s senate, imposing prison terms of up to three years for anyone who acknowledges Polish complicity in the Holocaust.
In addition to the risk of infringing upon freedom of speech and academic scholarship, the legislation – spearheaded by Warsaw’s ruling right-wing populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) – may distort historical records about the complicity of segments of the country’s population in the persecution of their compatriots.
The narrative of Poles as the main victims of Nazi Germany is deeply rooted in Polish national memory. Six million of its citizens were murdered by the Germans. Of the six million Jewish Holocaust victims, half were Polish Jews, accounting for 90% of the Jewish population in the country. Poles constitute the largest national group within the Righteous Among the Nations recognized by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.
The idea of Polish national innocence is nonetheless – as pointed out by the American historian Timothy Snyder – far from innocent itself. A growing number of scholars – as the Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski – have argued that Poles took simultaneous roles as victims, perpetrators and bystanders. He documents their involvement in betraying and murdering their compatriots in The Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland (2013), while highlighting the heroism of individual Poles who risked their lives in efforts to save Jews.
The publication of Neighbors (2001) by the Polish-American historian Jan Tomasz Gross had already spurred Polish society into collective soul-searching and official state apologies. Gross details how, on July 10, 1941, under the eyes of the German occupiers, Polish Catholics murdered hundreds of their Jewish neighbors by burning them alive in the town of Jedwabne. Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance revealed, following a two-year investigation, that mass murders initiated by locals had taken place in several other villages.
Illustrative of the prevailing political sentiments in Warsaw, Poland’s Education Minister Anna Zalewska insinuated during an interview on the public broadcaster TVN in 2016 that the Jedwabne massacre was a matter of opinion. The same year, Gross was summoned to appear before Polish police for stating that Poles killed more Jews than they did Germans during the Holocaust. Gross was suspected of insulting the honor of the Polish nation.
Rather than seeking to use history to serve the imperatives of the present, those who see themselves as defenders of Poland’s good name should draw inspiration from its former president Aleksander Kwasniewski, who stressed to the Knesset in 2000 that “one cannot fake history, one cannot rewrite it, one cannot hide the truth.”
No government can rewrite historical facts and no law can erase history. Each society ought to examine historical developments and offenses, irrespective of the nationality of the perpetrators, to eradicate the ghosts of the past and safeguard a future founded upon respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. This remains our obligation to the dead and the living.
The author is a political scientist and Visiting Scholar at Columbia University’s European Institute. He has served as a Visiting Fellow at Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown University.