Dr. Edyta Gawron from Jagiellonian University in Krakow is visiting the Weiss-Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies this week, offering one-on-one time with students who are particularly interested in her research, as well as giving two lectures to our students. She is an assistant professor at the Department of Jewish Studies, as well as the Head of the new Centre for the Study of the History and Culture of Krakow Jews.
In her first lecture, she discussed Jewish survivors in Poland and Jewish life in Poland after the Holocaust. Before the war, there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland who made up about 10% of the population; only 10% of the Jewish population survived the Holocaust. Approximately 250,000 Jews returned and stayed in Poland, after the war, while roughly 100,000 survivors found homes elsewhere. The majority (50-60%) of Polish Jews survived by fleeing to the USSR, which was by no means a safe haven, however it offered more security for Polish Jews during Nazi occupation. An additional 10% of Polish Jews survived German Nazi camps. 10-18% survived among Poles, meaning they could pass as Aryan, however they needed access to forged identification papers and they needed to remain anonymous: Jewish leaders or any other recognizable or renown Jew could not have survived among Poles. Another minority survived as partisans living in makeshift villages in the forests of Poland, such as the Bielski Otriad. After the war a minority of survivors fled Europe entirely to Asia, South America, Australia, Palestine, and more.
When Jewish survivors returned to Poland, they returned to a culture of survivors: six million Poles died in WWII, meaning that, on average, every Polish family lost as least one family member in the war, while among Jewish survivors on average only one family member survived the war. These survivors of war-torn Poland made for a hostile community for those returning to Poland.
There were challenges in identifying Jewish survivors returning to Poland. Among the surviving community, there was an extreme fear of registering with any Jewish organization because these registries were used by Nazis to round up Jews prior to the Holocaust. Furthermore, many of the survivors were forced to change their names with new identification papers, and giving up what had been their lifeline was difficult and sometimes impossible.
Within the Jewish survivor community there were further challenges of dissonance: those who survived camps felt their suffering was greater than those who had hid or those who were forced laborers in Gulags, and visa versa. Many Jews who were in the USSR had no knowledge of the gas chambers, and those who survived in Poland had no clear idea of the torture of the Gulags. These comparisons and lack of knowledge led to challenges in the organization of Jewish welfare groups and the revival of religious life after the war.
Yet, these organizations were desperately needed. All survivors, children and adults, had no one left; there were boarding houses full of children as well as adults, a phenomenon known as “adult orphans.” The Jewish organizations in Poland were needed to provide shelter, as well as food and government representation, all of which were sorely lacking. These organizations also started the important work of starting the initial database of survivors and those who had perished.
These organizations also provided documentation for post war trials, which were held locally, nationally and internationally depending on the crimes and sometimes perpetrators were tried three times. These trials attempted to offer a sense of justice, which introduced the thought of normality through closure. The perpetrator’s punishment for these trials varied but the most common was exile from the community. Factors of normality included age, whether family members had survived, and the establishment of Jewish religious life. Still, the road to normality was long, and upon return to Poland most Jews still found anti-Semitism prevalent among their communities, and pogroms continued even after the war. (Dr. Gawron spoke more on this in her second lecture, which you can read here.)
After WWII, some 250,000 Jews returned and remained in Poland, and after several mass waves of immigration, only approximately 8,000 Jews remain in Poland today. Despite the numbers, the Jewish community is active within Poland, with many synagogues specifically in Krakow, Warsaw or Lodz hosting Jewish visitors every week, making the community seem larger than it is.
The Jewish Holocaust wasn’t at the forefront of discussion in Poland until after the collapse of communism in 1989, and as a result, Holocaust education was decades behind other perpetrating countries. Scholars, like Dr. Edyta Gawron and her research, continue to better Holocaust education in Poland. We were happy to host her and glean from her knowledge.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website