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Poland's Perception Problems

This summer, Convivium Editor-in-Chief Fr. Raymond de Souza's itinerary includes a visit to Auschwitz. Fr. de Souza reflects on how Auschwitz respects and honours vast memories through its exhibitions. On the other hand, he writes, the Polish government is approaching the practice of memory in a different fashion.

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Poland's Perception Problems July 12, 2018  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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KRAKÓW, Poland – I visit Krakow every summer to teach in a seminar for students from North America, Poland and Eastern Europe. Part of the itinerary is a visit to Auschwitz, the heart of the depravity of the twentieth century. This year’s visit follows a year in which the way we speak about Auschwitz and other such death camps has been a burning issue in Poland and abroad.

Earlier this year, Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party made it illegal to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in the Holocaust, and to use the term “Polish death camps.” The law, aside from violating free speech, was a foolish and clumsy attempt to legislate how the Holocaust should be remembered. Late in June, facing an international firestorm from friends and allies, the Polish parliament stripped out the criminal penalties from the law, rendering it purely symbolic.

How the Holocaust and the Second World War should be remembered in Poland is a matter of great sensitivity. One sixth of all Poles – 6 million out of 30 million – were killed in the Second World War. Half of those were ethnic Poles, and half Polish Jews; Poland had Europe’s largest Jewish community. Poles often feel that the attention given to the three million Jewish Poles who were murdered in the Holocaust overshadows the equivalent number of ethnic Poles. 

But especially galling to them is any use of the term “Polish death camps.” President Barack Obama used the term in 2012, and it elicited a blistering denunciation from the then Polish prime minister. Poland never had a collaborationist government during the Second World War; the Nazis built death camps in territory that they occupied. 

The Holocaust law was a mistaken attempt to make the historical record more clear. Instead, it gave the impression that Poland was trying to control how the Holocaust was remembered in order to defend the role of Polish citizens. One hopes that in time the entire law will be set aside.

Keeping all that in mind, a visit to Auschwitz is to see how memories shape nations and nations shape memories. The main buildings at Auschwitz tell the story of the camp itself, how it began as a concentration camp for Polish resisters to the Nazi occupation; the most famous of which was Saint Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan priest who was killed in August 1941. It then became a place for Russian prisoners of war, after Germany invaded Russia. It was on Russian prisoners that the Nazis first carried out mass killings with poison gas. Later, Auschwitz and its neighbouring camp at Birkenau became a place of mass killing for Jews.

But there is a secondary row of buildings at Auschwitz that tell the story of Auschwitz from the perspective of different countries. These national exhibitions reflect how Auschwitz is remembered in various ways with different emphases.

At the official website, it is possible to see something of these national pavilions. The website makes clear the position of the Polish museum authorities. The homepage reads: “Auschwitz-Birkenau: Former German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp.”

The Polish exhibition is entitled: “The Struggle and Martyrdom of the Polish Nation 1939-1945.” It situates Auschwitz into the darkest period of the Polish nation, when it was eliminated from the map of Europe, divided up and occupied by its two totalitarian neighbours, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

There is also an Israeli exhibition, entrusted to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. It is simply entitled “Shoah” and situates Auschwitz in the context of the “final solution” for European Jewry. 

So there are the two stories. Is Auschwitz about what happened in Poland, of which the Jews were an important part? Or is Auschwitz about what happened to European Jews, of which part took place in Poland? The two stories are both true, and complementary. But they can also be made into rivals, which was the effect of the Polish Holocaust law. 

There is an exhibition about the Roma people, which follows the pattern of the Shoah exhibition, telling a broader European story about the Nazi genocide of the Roma. 

The Slovak exhibition focuses on the fate of Slovakian Jews sent to Auschwitz, while the Czech exhibition includes Jews along with Czech resisters to Nazi occupation. The Dutch exhibition focuses on Jews; the Belgian on the entire national experience of the Second World War. 

The most surprising exhibition for a Canadian visitor is the Russian one, entitled “Tragedy. Valour. Liberation.” It begins with Russian prisoners of war killed at Auschwitz and then details the German occupation of Russian territories, and the treatment of civilian populations. But the most prominent part of the exhibition is the liberation of the camp by the Red Army in January 1945. The celebratory nature of the exhibition is jarring; but for Russia the memory of their role in liberating the camp is primary.

Auschwitz thus tells many stories, and not without controversy. Even the execution bunker of the death block where Maximilian Kolbe died raises a question. Should this death be remembered more than the million others? But it is marked in a special way.

Memories are never only about the past. They shape the present. Which is why they need to be respected and honoured. Auschwitz still does that admirably well, despite the missteps of the past year by the Polish government.


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