While walking the streets of Bucharest a couple years back, an interesting conversation about history came up as my Romanian friend narrated our city tour. As a Jewish-Israeli person researching history education, I have a bad habit of digging into Second World War history wherever I go, so I was particularly interested in Romania’s history during that period. So when my friend announced with pride that “Elie Wiesel was proudly Romanian,” I quickly corrected him: “you got it all wrong,” I said, “Wiesel was a Jew living in anti-Semitic Romania.”
We agreed to disagree and continued our tour, but that moment made me realize that my friend and I relate to Wiesel differently. For my friend, Wiesel was a Romanian Nobel Prize winner, rather than a Jew living in the wrong place at the wrong time. Conversely, I think of Wiesel as first and foremost Jewish, a Holocaust survivor and human rights advocate – the fact that he was born in Romania is an afterthought.
Our disagreement spurred me to think about the problematic nature of taking national “credit” for Wiesel. How does a country that persecuted a person in the past make that same individual a national treasure some years after? Who actually “owns” Wiesel’s heritage?
These questions relate to what is known as “history wars” – public debates concerning the representation of the past in the present. Such history wars become extremely polarizing, specifically within the context of the Holocaust in eastern European countries.
In September, an interesting exhibition was displayed at McGill University’s Humanities and Social Sciences Library. Titled, Struggle and Suffering: Polish Citizens During the Second World War, the exhibition, modest in size, was curated by the Polish Foreign Affairs Ministry and set up by the Polish Consulate in Montreal. The exhibition was a part of a larger project originally designed and displayed by the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, Poland. The McGill exhibition included 14 posters presenting some central crossroads in the history of Poland during the war. One poster was dedicated to the Jewish Holocaust. It was titled: “Tragic Fate of The Jewish Community: The Shoah.”
Although modest, the exhibition encompasses a much bigger debate. During the last four years, the Polish government – led by the recently re-elected right-wing party PiS (Law and Justice) – has been ferociously fighting a narrative battle. It wishes to tell its side of the story during the war, highlighting Polish suffering. But as the Polish government tries to tell the tragic story of its people to the world, historians and journalists have been arguing that it is simultaneously and deliberately moving a dark chapter of its past to the margins of history.
This attempt to elevate Polish victimhood while minimizing Polish responsibilities for atrocities against Jews has been said to be the result of the Polish government’s political agenda.
While there is no doubt that Poland was torn and brutally abused both by the Nazi regime and the Soviet Union, this particular narrative reveals a blind spot that has been overlooked by many communities, including in Canada and Israel. Not only are we obliged to better understand the Polish context during the Second World War, but we should also acknowledge the Polish acts of heroism – people who risked their lives to save Jews, like the Zegota, the Polish Council to Aid Jews, which is rarely mentioned in official Shoah narratives and curricula.
Alongside these neglected histories, we must also grapple with the not-so flattering histories of Polish people during and after the war, such as the large-scale collaboration of Polish citizens with the Nazi regime in the persecution of Jews. Events like the Jedwabne pogrom and the Kielce pogrom are brutal symbols of violent anti-Semitism.
“Forgetting,” wrote the French historian Ernest Renan, “is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation.” He continues: “Historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations.” This is what forgetting looks like. The story of the Jewish people in Poland during the war was not some metaphysical fate. It was not something beyond human control. It was orchestrated by people who carried out bad deeds. These acts should not only be remembered but told, and retold using a responsible representation of history.
The McGill exhibition reminded me that there are other tragic stories of the Second World War to be told, which are not necessarily related to the Jewish story. At the same time, it is almost impossible to detach the Jewish story from the Polish experience, capturing both the heroic aspects as well as the darker ones. If we are to truly understand the past, we cannot afford to neglect either one.
The fact that Polish people took part in the persecution of Jews during the Shoah does not diminish from their collective memory of suffering. Rather, we must all understand that the memory of one’s suffering does not come at the expense of another. Both should be told, neither should be blurred.
By using education, we should insist on finding an original way to tell all histories. As the Holocaust moves farther away into historical oblivion and political agendas become more nationalistic once again, lines become blurred between victims and collaborators. We must treat the past with fairness and honesty – if not for us, at least for all the victims.