My Polish colleagues and students are understandably sensitive when the terms “Polish death camps” and “Polish concentration camps” are used to refer to such places as Auschwitz, Treblinka, Chelmno and Sobibor. With good cause, they contend that such nefarious places were located in occupied Poland and under direct Nazi control. They note that when these sites of atrocity and death were operational, they were on German – and not autonomous Polish – soil.
I’m sympathetic to this desire to place blame squarely where it belongs. The Nazi genocide was, of course, a plan that emanated from Germany under Nazism, not hatched in Poland by Poles. My Polish colleagues note that their country and their countrymen were also victims of Nazism. They’re right. Many, however, will add that the record of their countrymen toward Jews during the war was mixed. Many acknowledge that the victimization of Poland by the Nazis didn’t preclude some Poles from also acting as victimizers of their Jewish neighbours.
That mixed record has been at the heart of the struggle of Polish national memory about World War II and the Holocaust: how to talk about the suffering of Poland under German occupation, and, at the same time, not use the memory of that suffering to cover up the collaboration of many Poles.
It’s a natural, but not productive, impulse for both people and nations to shy away from shameful things in the past. In our millennium, Poland has been trying to look with honest eyes at the complexity of the historical record. Thanks to the work of pioneering historians of Poland such as Princeton professor Jan Gross, along with bold and committed researchers, educators and activists within Poland, there’s been a movement to be accountable for Polish collaboration, alongside a commemoration of Polish rescuers, resistors and victims.
A look at two Polish films about Jewish victimization during the war – one from 1989 and one from 2013 – makes the change in attitude apparent. The 1989 made-for-TV film by renowned Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski – No. 8 in his Decalogue series – features a Polish-born American woman who has come to Warsaw to confront a distinguished professor of ethics. The American interrupts a university class to ask the professor how she understands the ethical issues involving a Polish woman who had agreed to help shelter a little Jewish girl during the Holocaust, provided the girl underwent baptism, and then reneged on that commitment because the baptism entailed a false promise to God. We soon learn the ethics professor was that Polish woman and the American woman was the little girl she’d turned away. The plot centres on a challenge to Polish behaviour toward Jews during the war, but as we see the past unfold, the film vindicates the professor and the complexity of her motives.
By contrast, Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2013 film Ida dramatizes the discovery of the shameful behaviour of a Polish farmer who murders a Jewish family he’d been paid to shelter, so that he could lay claim to their property. Unlike the earlier film, Ida doesn’t soften its presentation of Poland’s ambivalent treatment of Jews during war. It emerges from a different moment in Polish culture and a willingness to examine its past.
Many of us who research and teach about the Holocaust or eastern Europe fear signs that – in the name of restoring national pride – the present Polish government is working to reverse the accountability and honesty that reshaped Polish national memory in recent years. New legislation now under consideration would make it punishable by law to “blame the Polish nation for Nazi or Stalinist crimes.” And there’s a move afoot to strip Gross of the prestigious Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit awarded to him in the 1960s.
Perhaps the attention now being focused on Poland will reverse this ominous trend. Meaningful national pride emerges from facing history, not obscuring or falsifying difficult aspects.