Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust

Reprinted from the Sholom Aleichem Club (Philadelphia) "News and Comment."

Prof. Michael Steinlauf, associate professor of history at Gratz College, Philadelphia, addressed the Sholom Aleichem Club in October, 1998. When Michael Steinlauf first traveled to Poland in 1983 to do research on the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz, he was astounded to find an entire country speaking Polish, the language that he had grown up with at home. Until then he had associated this “mame loshn” only with his family; now there were 30 million speakers around him. He also arrived in the midst of martial law, what turned out to be the last gasp of a dying regime. During that year he ran across small groups of people looking for the past in old books, old cemeteries, old buildings. Those people by necessity had to confront the Jewish past of Poland as well. Still, that contact and that year did not move him from his study of pre-World War I Jewish Poland.

Then in 1988 Dr. Steinlauf was invited to write an article for a collection devoted to how the peoples of Europe reacted to the Holocaust. That article grew and grew and eventually became Bondage to the Dead – Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust (Syracuse University Press, 1997). For the author, the book is a first take on the Holocaust as an event that transformed the world. He hopes for more. The rest of this article is based on Dr. Steinlauf’s presentation.

"Witnessing" and "Psychic Numbing" The major experience of Poles during the Holocaust was “witnessing.” To be sure, there were Poles who informed on Jews to the Germans; there were Poles who saved Jews; there were Poles, most of them, who stood on the sidelines. The Polish experience regarding the Jews consisted primarily of seeing the horrors around them, and for Steinlauf this experience has resulted in “death guilt” (a term taken from the psychoanalyst Robert Jay Lifton, who has written extensively on survivors).

Now Poles are seeking emancipation from “bondage to the dead.” Some societies have not been given the opportunity to work through this trauma, resulting in what Lifton has called “psychic numbing.” For example – Weimar Germany after World War I and Poland after World War I, both societies that were taken over by totalitarian regimes before the issues of the war could be worked out.

Most Poles in pre-World War II did not like Jews, but this attitude did not translate into a desire for them to be killed. They just wanted the Jews to go away. The Nazis made the Jews “go away,” and by ignoring the moral implications of what was going on around them, many Poles were able to take over the property of 10% of the population (3 million Jews). After the war many felt guilt about this takeover, but there was no way to expiate; guilt could only be repressed.

When the Russians took over control of Poland in 1944, a number of Polish Jews saw the Communists as an opportunity to ally with the forces that did not make anti-Semitism a part of their platform. The Russians were also fighting the Polish Home Army, previously tinged with Polish nationalistic anti-Semitism and now confirmed in its belief that all Jews were Communists. At the same time, Jewish survivors started to return home to find that their property had been confiscated by others, often by others who themselves had been victims of the war. The result – pogroms in various places around Poland, the most infamous in the city of Kielce in 1946. [Dr. Steinlauf did not have time to discuss the controversy now raging in Poland over this particular pogrom, wherein it is clear that Polish society regrets the pogrom. The controversy is over who instigated it, with Polish nationalists claiming that it was the Polish Communists or the KGB who lay behind the event.]

Starting in the 1940s and continuing even until today, many Poles interpreted the German invasion as an attack on Poles. They even more than the Jews – so goes this interpretation – were the victims. This attitude lies behind the current controversy over Catholic memorials at Auschwitz. 1944 – the Russians took over. 1956 – the “thaw,” which at first gave hope to Polish nationalists that they would run their own country. 1968 – repression of the intellectuals and expulsion of 20,000 Jews from Poland (“anti-Zionist campaign”). 1970 – suppression of working class strikes.

1968 marked the emergence of a nationalist wing of the ruling party, a group of men who had come of age during World War II and who now appropriated the anti-Nazi resistance as their Polish heritage. Led by General Moczar, these war veterans supported a populist, anti-intellectual program. They looked out to see a world-wide conspiracy against Poland, led by American imperialists, Germans seeking to reclaim western Poland, and Jews. In their eyes, the Holocaust was transformed into a plot against the Poles. For Steinlauf, this view of the Holocaust expressed anguish and guilt coming out of the Holocaust.

The Intellectuals Join the Workers The 1968-1970 period marked the end of the divide between the intellectuals and workers in their resistance against the regime. It also gave rise to the (false) impression that no Jews remained in Poland.

When Solidarity emerged again in the 1980s, its activists wanted to reclaim the Polish past, a liberal past of tolerance, of multi-ethnic society, of democracy. A number of young Jews emerged with no links to the Jewish past; now they and some others regarded them as honored representatives of a part of Polish history. A “fashion for the Jews” became the rage among intellectuals, and a number of Jews emerged as leading activists in Solidarity.

For the 45 years of Communist rule, there was little ability to discuss anything publicly. Since the fall of the old regime in 1989, however, Poles have been grappling with the events of their history. Now that Poland has regained its independence, the past must be worked out. Anti- Semitism is common, but it is seen as a part of the right-wing political landscape, not as a common heritage that all Poles naturally share. The upper echelons of the church oppose manifestations of anti-Semitism; the village priests often share the older ideas. It remains to be seen how “psychic numbing” will be overcome.