Students of the Weiss-Livnat MA Program in Holocaust studies were recently treated to an engaging and poignant lecture by Dr. Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs; Memory, Non-Memory, and Post-Memory of the Holocaust in Poland.
Dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs is a lecturer at the UNESCO Chair for Education for the Holocaust, and former Director of the Centre for Holocaust Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. She holds a Ph.D. in Humanities and Habilitation in Cultural Studies from Jagiellonian University and has been a Pew Fellow at the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University and a DAAD fellow at the memorial and educational site at the Wannsee Conference House.
With the recently enacted “Amended Act on the Institute of National Remembrance” causing waves in both academic and political spheres, Dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs’ lecture provided students the opportunity to learn first-hand about the internal politics behind the new law and how it is perceived by Polish Holocaust scholars. Although the Amended Act refers to accusations against Poland as a country, not against individuals, and provides room for artistic and academic statements, critics worry that it could make it a crime to discuss anti-Semitic acts committed by Polish individuals.
Dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs’ lecture emphasized the historical complexity leading to the Act’s creation and the intricate collective WWll memory of the Polish people. She opened her talk by citing William James Booth’s concept of Communities of Memory which views collective identity as having been created by a common recollection of history; the commonality in Poland being self-identification as victims. Communities of memory tend to be insular and not empathetic to the victims of other communities. From Dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs’ perspective, the inability of the Polish population to empathize with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust is a major factor influencing political policies today. Dr. Ambrosewicz- Jacobs identified specific historical contexts which shaped Polish Collective Holocaust Memory and help explain this lack of empathy.
The post-war communist rule over Poland lasted 45 years and under Soviet rule, many truths regarding Polish involvement or Nazi collaboration were suppressed, distorted, or falsified.
It is a natural human reaction to alter or contradict facts that challenge our self-perception of ourselves as good and decent people. For Poles specifically, the involvement of certain segments of the population in heinous crimes committed against its Jewish neighbors, challenge the widely believed idea that Poland is the Christ of Europe or Christ of Nations. This popular theme, which originated in the 19th century, compares Poland and its unsuccessful struggles for independence to a form of messianic suffering. As victims of this suffering, the sense of collective victimhood identity cannot come to terms with the fact that large segments of the population could have behaved as perpetrators against others. Additionally, the destruction of Jewish communities and the absence of their memory made it easier for Polish society to forget the communities which had once existed there.
Dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs described how in Poland, and all other Soviet-ruled countries, neither time nor space was given for proper mourning of the victims of WWII and the Holocaust. In addition to the 3 million Polish Jews murdered in the Holocaust, 1.8 million non-Jewish Poles were killed by the Nazis, and 1.5 million deported to the Reich for forced labor. These facts are not widely cited in the global Holocaust narrative and this lack has impacted the contemporary fight for Polish recognition of suffering.
Regarding contemporary external influences on Holocaust memory in Poland, Dr. Ambrosewicz- Jacobs pointed to the Europeanization of the History, which attempts to create a universal narrative of history but has, in fact, encouraged a Nationalization of History. A type of rivalry or competition as to levels of suffering endured exists in many former Soviet-ruled countries. And the concept of a “Double-Genocide” first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets, dominates many contemporary Central and Eastern European historical narratives.
Significant internal influences include an “imagined Jewish past in Poland by Poles”, which played-up Polish hospitality to Jews from the time of the Middle Ages; as well as misconstrued and false beliefs that Poles and Jews lived harmoniously during the Interwar period. Recent studies on Polish society have found that one-third of Poles hold anti-Semitic attitudes and that many more perceive Jews as a threat to Polish National identity.
Despite the active process to explain the Polish perspective behind the current legislation, Dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs and other leading Holocaust scholars in Poland have joined Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in condemning the Amended Act. She did not hesitate to share with us her concerns about the effects the legislation will have and has already begun to have on Polish society. While the law is discussed mainly in academic circles, Dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs believes the implications will strongly influence school teachers who will personally face the repercussions of the Act should they teach about the Holocaust outside mandated guidelines. Some will not even dare teach the Holocaust. Already, Polish State grants have been denied to the Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw. The POLIN Museum – the museum for the history of Polish Jewish located in Warsaw – has even been accused of being anti-Polish. This censorship, Dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs believes, will lead to an eventual public revolt. She states that “scholars are divided, teachers confused, and the general population manipulated…in two generations there will be a big revolt [against these policies]; students are so manipulated in schools.”
Recently, the Polish Parliament voted to modify the Amendment by removing the criminal penalty of imprisonment. With this change, accusing Poland of complicity during Nazi occupation would be a civil offense. Courts could still impose a fine but not a prison sentence. This is a softening of the Law, but we must continue to put our faith in existing independent educational initiatives and support their struggle to counter the effects the Amendment Act will have on future generations.