The Burden of History: World War II Memory and Polish-Jewish Reconciliation

Sep 3, 2003

Summary Report on a Meeting for a Historical Commission Project, April 3-5, 2003, Sponsored by the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture, Leipzig, Germany, the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, And Professor Elazar Barkan, Claremont Graduate University.

What role does history play in political reconciliation, and what role can historians play in public debates about the past? What can they contribute to the search for state and institutional accountability for historical injustices? Could the work of historians brought together from across the national or ethnic lines of old conflicts be a complement to the work of other institutions such as truth commissions and tribunals? Is it possible to produce new historical narratives which meet the highest standards of historical scholarship, while opening new space for discussion among former protagonists in a conflict? What might these narratives look like, how could they be publicized, and how large a spectrum of viewpoints could these narratives span, while excluding versions generally judged to be denial or the incitement of xenophobia? And does Polish-Jewish history—a relatively “cold” conflict, in that polarized public opinion, mutual mistrust, and sharply competing narratives of victimhood, rather than violence, are the key issues today--provide a promising case study to elucidate these larger questions?

On April 3, 4 and 5, an international group of historians of Polish-Jewish history met at the Simon Dubnow Institute [DI] for Jewish History and Culture in Leipzig to discuss these questions, and to decide whether they and the proposed case study warrant an academic and public history project. The proposed project is part of a larger exploration of the role of historians in political reconciliation, the International History Initiative [IHI], launched by Professor Elazar Barkan of Claremont Graduate University and the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs. The following is a summary of the major themes of the workshop and the proposed projects that resulted from the meeting. The project planners assembled in Leipzig had four general tasks to accomplish. The first was to identify thematic topics which are most controversial, both among scholars and the general public, and most in need of research. The second was to identify those parts of the proposed project which are of concern to the scholars involved and find mutually satisfactory ways to address these concerns. The third was to envisage the products which should emerge from the project. The fourth was to determine how the project can best meet its dual goals of producing objective and high-level research while communicating its findings effectively to the general public.

While many cross-cutting themes unite the potential topics for the project, the five major thematic areas fall into five historical periods. Although there was disagreement about where the project should begin, with several scholars arguing for an earlier point of departure, with the emergence of nationalism in the nineteenth century, the first generally agreed-upon period was that of the post-World War I and the interwar periods. Major themes in this period included Poles, Jews and state-building in the newly independent Poland; a comparison of Jews and other minorities (especially Ukrainians) in their relations to Poles and to each other, particularly in light of the rapid changes taking place within each group at that time and Polish concerns about national cohesion and territory; and the question of identity—race, religion and ethnicity—and conflict between the wars. Sub-themes included the development of the Polish nation-state and the expectations associated with it among different ethnic communities; the development of political communities within the new state and who was counted within the state; the relations of local communities with international and/or foreign powers; assimilation; ethnicity and territory; the changes and splits within the Jewish community; and Polish anti-Semitism, particularly within the Roman Catholic Church, a topic which has often hitherto been avoided.

The second topic area was that of the Soviet occupation (1939-1941) and interethnic relations. Of paramount interest were the topic of deportations; the meanings and implications of the concept of liberation; the two totalitarian ideologies, Nazi and Soviet, especially with regard to categories of people (social and ethnic/racial), and their differing implications for Polish and Jewish communities, and for their relationships; the questions of the Jewish presence in the NKVD and of Jewish “disloyalty”; and, on a theoretical level, an issue related to the preceding topic, that of popular perceptions (such as the wide-spread Polish identification of Jews with communism—the “zydokomuna” phenomenon) versus reality and the methodology for approaching this.

The third topic area focused on collaboration, resistance and victimhood in occupied Poland, and the role of non-Germans in the Final Solution. Questions for research and analysis include the definition of anti-Jewish violence, and how it can be placed within larger research on genocide world-wide; social versus ethnic conflict; and the effect of rapid shifts in policies and relationships between various groups and social units. This topic area is generally thought to be one of the most painful, and one of the less researched, periods.

The fourth and fifth topic areas seem to be generally less researched than the earlier three. The fourth area focuses on the immediate post-war period, the communist regime in Poland and interethnic relations, particularly the high level of anti-Jewish violence in Poland, how to define and measure anti-Semitism in Poland, the relationship between property, plunder and social conflict, and the after-effects of the existence of two distinct European zones of the Holocaust. These were Western Europe, from which Jews were deported and which remained relatively free of incidents of great violence against the Jews, and Eastern Europe, where the vast majority of killings took place and in which the local populations, both eye-witnesses and participants in the killings, were both morally compromised and reacted to the return of Jews after the war with much greater violence than non-Jewish populations in Western Europe.

The final topic area focused on the place of the Jews in post-communist Poland and history as a political force. Sub-themes include Polish-Jewish post-war identity and assimilation; how memory is preserved (including potential studies of the role of archives, commissions, interviews and projects like the Yizker bikher, the memorial books surviving Jews produced to commemorate their largely vanished towns and villages); the significance of different loci of memory for different communities; and methodological problems like assessing documents as opposed to testimony, and the use of micro-histories of specific towns or even individuals.

Areas of potential concern and disagreement to participants about a commission-like historians’ project included how to define the temporal scope of the project; the value of local versus national, and micro- versus macro-histories; whether or not such a project could contribute to a trend of validating conceptions of identity which are too tightly bound to the past and claims of victimhood; how to assess the role of historians themselves, particularly how much influence they really have, whom are they trying to reach, and why; and how contested the narratives under discussion are among scholars, as opposed to the general public. While not all these concerns were laid to rest, it was important that they were raised, as they will be central to all the case studies undertaken by the IHI. In the Polish-Jewish case, the narratives, while not uncontested among historians, are much more so among the general public; a distinct feature of this case is probably the wide gap between the knowledge of scholars and the level of cooperation among historians of Polish and Jewish descent, on the one hand, and popular perceptions, on the other. On the topic of victimhood, it was suggested both that the relationship between history, victimhood and identity is not a new phenomenon, and that historians do not have any choice but to engage with the problem, as it emanates from contemporary public discourse. A Polish diplomat participating in the meeting urged that the project not avoid intense controversy: he felt that the project’s goal should be to reckon explicitly with prejudices and the problem of competition between victims.

Two kinds of products to emerge from the project were identified. One is a popular, synthetic history of Jews and non-Jews in twentieth-century Polish history, intended for an educated general audience, with chapters written by several authors each. The second is a more scholarly research project in which primary research is commissioned on at least one difficult and insufficiently researched period and topic, beginning with the place of Jews in Poland during the Soviet occupation (1939-1941), with later volumes possibly to consider the Jews in post-war Poland. Languages for the volumes would ideally be Polish, English and Hebrew, and perhaps German as well for the one on the Soviet occupation.

One possibility for enlarging the circle of consumers of the synthetic volume is to create a launch for the volume at the second and final workshop of authors involved in that project: invitees will be targeted to include opinion makers from the relevant ethnic communities, diplomats, journalists and civil society, cultural and religious leaders engaged in questions of reconciliation. Other strategies to fulfill the educational mandate of the project include working with creators of educational materials and textbooks to incorporate some of the project’s findings for use in high schools and universities, and organizing workshops for teachers, perhaps with the help of the Institute of Jewish History in Warsaw, which has experience in this area. Non-governmental educational institutions, such as the Auschwitz Jewish Center and the Auschwitz Memorial Museum and the Sejny-based Pogranicze, in Poland, and the U.S.-based American Jewish and the National Polish American-Jewish American Committees (AJC and NPAJAC), could be involved in educational activities as well.

In conclusion, this first case study of the IHI project raises many questions which may illuminate historical problems beyond its own scope of reference. One, of interest to the Simon Dubnow Institute, is the process by which empires were transformed into nation-states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the place of the many “imperial peoples”—including Jews and Poles—in this transformation. Another, of interest to the Brown University-based Borderlands Project (another potential collaborator), is a study of nationalism, multiethnic coexistence and outbreaks of violence in areas where empires overlapped, during and after the same shift from empire to nation-states. A third is the relationship of the Holocaust to World War II in an evolving conception of both as foundational events of the history of the twentieth century. How can the Holocaust, an understanding of which must be based on memory and narratives and for which traditional history is felt to be insufficient, be integrated into an understanding of the war, the history of which is based on more traditional ways of reconstructing events? It is these two intertwined events—World War II and the Holocaust—which clash in the memories of Poles and Jews, with the war being predominant in Polish memory and the Holocaust in Jewish memory. A study of the negotiating and renegotiating of these pasts offers valuable paradigms for other conflicting group memories. Finally, the Polish-Jewish case can help elucidate the nature of three related and wide-spread forms of mass violence: civil war, communal slaughter and genocide.

You may also like

SEP 29, 2022 Article

Long-termism: An Ethical Trojan Horse

"Long-termism," the idea that the fate of humanity should be our top moral priority, has gained prominence recently in the writings of philosopher William MacAskill ...

SEP 26, 2022 Podcast

C2GTalk: How can countries work together to tackle climate change? with Sunita Narain

Countries need to set aside their differences, recognize their interdependence, and negotiate as equals to tackle the climate crisis, says Sunita Narain, the director general ...

SEP 23, 2022 Article

Autocrats, Oligarchs, and Us: A Moment of Crisis for Responsible Internationalism

As world leaders meet in New York for the UN General Assembly, it is clear that responsible internationalism is in crisis. Carnegie Council President Joel ...