The Destruction of the Jews is a Part of Polish History

What I would actually like to discuss here is what many people have already said but has not been heard, and, at least in my intuition, has failed to become established as something that the Polish intelligentsia finds obvious – even the open-minded who have nothing in common with Endecja [pre-World War II National Democracy Party] thinking.
This is a very vivid description of a view that I am trying to convey and which Halina Bortnowska, a distinguished Catholic thinker and long-serving editor of the Znak publishing house, presented as her opinion in 2003, although changes may have started to happen since she wrote these words: I remember two things, not from books or stories, but in the way you remember a returning bad dream. The spring; the sun; April clouds, dark and rising. And black snowflakes whirling in the air – flakes of soot. ‘That’s from the ghetto’, my mother says, wiping this black snow from the windowsill, from her face, from her eyes. Obviously, during the day, and especially at night, distant explosions and shooting could be heard. It was nothing unusual in Warsaw at the time, but it always brought fear. ‘It’s nothing, it’s in the ghetto.’ ‘In the ghetto’ means: not here, not where we are, those flames won’t come here, they won’t engulf our street, my backyard (that was to happen later, and a different anniversary would be commemorated). Does anyone apart from me still remember that we used to say ‘It’s nothing, it’s in the ghetto?’ We used to say this to each other, just so, in a soothing tone of explanation, like soldiers probably do, asserting that this time the alarm is not for them. … ‘What did you feel, when the black snow was falling? Nothing. Nothing indeed?’ [1]

The simple thing is that Polish consciousness – where the word ‘consciousness’ is of great significance because in the Polish ‘subconscious’ matters are completely different, as I will shortly prove, citing a prominent expert on psychoanalysis and an excellent writer – treats the Holocaust as ‘their’, not ‘our’ history. Meanwhile – as may be shown using not just one’s knowledge of psychoanalysis and a writer’s intuition – the Holocaust is very much a part of our history. And here ‘very much’ should be taken literally, namely that nothing is more a part of 20th-century Polish history than the Holocaust.

The latest edition of the annual publication Zagłada Żydów [The Holocaust, or literally Destruction of the Jews] – probably read by several hundred people – includes a paper by Professor Andrzej Leder on the ‘Consequences of the Experience of the Holocaust for Polish Social Consciousness (and Unconsciousness)’. Its thoughts and findings should be communicated to the widest possible readership, so I have taken the liberty of quoting some here.

Leder is interested in the experience of the Holocaust – characterized by ‘universality and brutality’ – primarily among rural communities.

The revolutionary shifts in social structure that Poland experienced during the war … made the mentality of a society, which consisted 70 per cent of a peasantry that was previously only local and largely ignored, become universal and, in a way, dominant. It was peasants who were drawn away from the dilapidated villages of Małopolska, Lubelszczyzna and Mazowsze and started populating the housing estates surrounding factories, and moving to regions that had been annexed from the Germans. They built the skeleton of the party, the military and the civil service and also of the system of repression. … The common experience borne by the future members of the intelligentsia, who had come from villages and small towns … was that of the Holocaust, encountered in various ways. … Everybody knew what was going on in the neighbourhood at that time, everybody remembered where others had lived before the killing of the Jews and where they then lived after it. … The memory of mutual wrongs constitutes an extremely important element creating the structure of every traditional community. … It’s often argued that this experience did not destructively affect the bonds within ethnically Polish, Catholic society, because the Jews were treated as ‘aliens’. … I don’t think this is true. Drastic, evident and mass transgressions of the rules that regulate society, including the ‘thou shalt not kill’ commandment, affect not just conscious experience that is rationalized and categorized through certain social narratives and myths, such as, for instance, that of anti-Semitism. Scenes of killings, rapes and humiliation imprint themselves in our minds and start affecting them, irrespective of what we may think of them. … such transgressions occurred everywhere in the back country that was inhabited by the Jews, that is, practically in the whole of eastern, southern and central Poland. …

The experience of ‘the state of aberrance’ leaves a constant feeling that it might return. … it’s about the consciousness that has experienced the transgressions of all norms. The state of aberrance … can affect everyone: everyone as a victim and everyone as a perpetrator. It deprives one of the normative order’s sense of permanence. … it means that one day, without warning, your neighbours can start murdering or denouncing you ‘with lethal consequences’. [2]

In Leder’s view, these consequences of the Holocaust are still with us today. Continuing his argumentation further, he talks about such issues as denial, shame, trivialization and negation, as the means of dealing with this experience. He shows how the experience of the Holocaust encompassed also non-Jewish Poles – the whole of Polish society. In drawing on the historical knowledge that Polish historiography has uncovered in the last 20 years, he is seconded by Szczepan Twardoch, a great writer, who said in an interview for the Newsweek weekly: I am convinced that one of the foundations of what we could define, in working terms, as a Polish shared identity, or an ethnic consciousness, is a deeply denied knowledge of all the evil the Poles did to the Jews during the war. If it was not for this denial, Poles would not be reacting so hysterically to the phrase ‘Polish concentration camps’. No one in their right mind thinks of Treblinka or Auschwitz as being ‘Polish’ in terms of moral responsibility; the phrase is used exclusively in a geographical context. Polish responsibility for participation in the Holocaust is about something else – not the camps. …

False consciousness is a source of suffering. What has been denied, comes to the surface anyway, sooner or later, and exposes the paltriness of deluded heroism and sanctity. Poland is sick with a false consciousness, and that’s why it is rotting from the inside.

Denying the truth means moral decay. All one would need to do is read Jewish memoirs from occupied Poland. No reasonable person can call them anti-Polish propaganda, as no one writing about the death of their children, sisters and parents, about humiliation, degradation and dehumanization does so for propaganda purposes. Those are deeply emotional and very personal accounts. They tell of the fate of our Jewish co-citizens, but also of us. And the picture is not one in which only Germans killed Jews, while the Poles only helped them. No. It just isn’t like that. Every library and every bookshop have dozens of such books in Polish. All one has to do is read the witnesses: Perechodnik, Edelman, Auerbach, Pachter, Symcha Rotem, Symcha Binem Motyl and others. [3]

This is how the Holocaust has left deep scars in the consciousness of great numbers of non-Jewish Poles and it is a part of experiencing not ‘their’ but ‘our’ history.

To conclude and sum up, I would like to add several words from the perspective of a researcher of social history during the occupation and the Holocaust.

Jewish Poles, who were living mostly in Polish towns and cities, comprised one third of their inhabitants. Is it conceivable that the loss of one third of a country’s urban population should not constitute a part of its history?

What does it matter that, before their murder, the Jews were locked up in ghettos? The better part of those ghettos were quite open, in the best case separated from the rest of the town by a makeshift fence. And even if the ghetto was separated by a wall, is this not as Ludwik Hering, a witness of those events, has written: ‘The ghetto lived Warsaw’s life and Warsaw lived the ghetto’s life. Everybody knew about it, everybody benefitted from it … Warsaw lived the life of the ghetto long after it had died – until Warsaw’s own end. The ghetto was Warsaw’s heart. Its regular pulse drew in and gave out …’? [4]

Does the murder of a country’s three million citizens not belong to its history? It was carried out extremely brutally in a very short time, and before the eyes of the whole local community, because at least one million Jewish Poles were murdered not in death camps, but in situ, where they lived, or in the ghettos and their neighbourhoods – so the streets of Polish cities were literally bathed in blood. What view of communal life could make this not ‘our’ history – part of Poland’s history?

The murder of over three million Jewish Poles was a powerful impulse for the rest of the society, propelling societal change. It meant that property was acquired on a large scale and provided immediate social empowerment for hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish families. Is this process of social shifts not an integral part of Polish history?

The externalization of the Holocaust, as if it were not ‘our’ history, but ‘theirs’, is nonsense. Just as though someone tried to argue that because the vast majority of victims of the terror in France were aristocrats, the French Revolution was an experience that affected only that country’s nobility.

Jan Tomasz Gross

Translated from Polish.

[1] Halina Bortnowska, ‘Zły cień muru’ [The wall’s evil shadow], Gazeta Wyborcza, 19 April 2003.
[2] Andrzej Leder, ‘Konsekwencje doświadczenia Zagłady dla polskiej świadomości (i nieświadomości) społecznej’ [Consequences of the Experience of the Holocaust for Polish Social Consciousness (and Unconsciousness)], Zagłada Żydów. Studia i Materiały [The Holocaust. Studies and Materials], Warsaw, No. 14/2018, 496–505.
[3] Szczepan Twardoch, ‘Co nas zatruwa’ [What poisons us], interview with Aleksandra Pawlicka, Newsweek, 31 December 2018–13 January 2019.
[4] Ludwig Hering, Ślady [Traces], Czarna Owca, Warsaw, 2011, 37.

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