Scholar Talks of Poland’s ‘Dark Past,’ Bright Future

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe ushered in a period of intense debate in Poland over how the nation should appropriately interpret the Holocaust, as well as the fate of Poland's lost 3 million Jews. The change in the political climate in the 1990s also set off a related debate that continues today as to exactly what that nation represents and should embody, according to a Polish Jewish scholar who was recently appointed to an academic post at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

According to Joanna Michlic, who starting this September will serve as chair of Holocaust studies and ethical values at Lehigh University, the end of totalitarianism more than 15 years ago produced a great interest among many Poles in Jews and Jewish history.

At the same time, it produced a backlash within more nationalist circles, whose adherents consider Poland a monolithic Catholic nation that should not reserve a special place in its consciousness for Jews or any other minorities.

According to Michlic, currently an assistant professor at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, the history of postwar memory in Poland is a movement from collective amnesia to a painful reawakening. She said this during a March 29 lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, which was titled "The Past and the Future of the Memory of the Holocaust in Poland." The talk was part of the Kutchin Seminar Series, sponsored by Penn's Jewish-studies program.

Michlic, who grew up in Lodz, is the author of Poland's Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present. She's served as a postdoctoral fellow at both the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Yad Vashem's institute for Holocaust research.

During her 45-minute presentation, Michlic — who tried to squeeze in as many facts and opinions as possible in such a short amount of time — first sketched in Poland's rocky relationship with its Jewish community, and then its relationship to the memory of those Jews.

Referring constantly to the Holocaust as the "dark past," the scholar began by stating that Poland's debate over its national identity heated up in the period between the two world wars. She argued that by 1939, a consensus had been reached within the political class that the country's 3 million Jews had no place in Poland, and would have to immigrate.

Michlic explained that a certain amount of postwar debate existed about Polish complicity in the Shoah, but that, by the end of the 1940s, all intellectual dissent was silenced, and the Communist party view prevailed: All Poles suffered, and no special tragedy befell the Jews.

But now the debate over Holocaust memory — one that ultimately revolves around whether Poland considers itself a multicultural or homogenous society — dominates intellectual life.

Harsh ironies have never been absent from this "national discussion," Michlic noted, since many of those same people in the interwar period who wished to rid Poland of Jews also considered Germany's Final Solution to be barbaric and un-Christian. And unlike some neighboring countries — for one, Hungary — Poland never formed a political alliance with Nazi Germany.

Time and again, she touched on other ironies in present-day Poland, even quite sad ones. For example, she said that to this day — and even following the philo-Semitism that swept through Poland in the late 1980s and '90s — citizens who saved Jews during the Holocaust are still afraid to have their stories known out of fear of harassment or attack.

Yet, at the same time, she argued that Poland, far more than any other former Communist-bloc nation, has tried to come to terms with its past, and encourage a rapprochement with the Jewish people and the nation's current Jewish community.

'A Call for Awareness'
This national conversation hit a fever pitch in 2000 with the publication of historian Jan T. Gross' Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, which recounts the 1941 murder of more than 1,600 Jews at the hands of Christian Poles. According to Gross, no Germans took part in those atrocities, although it has been said that the Nazis spurred Jedwabne's townspeople on.

"This dark past is a traumatic [period] that cannot be ignored or suppressed," she said. "The book was a call for revolution in historical awareness. It gave impetus to a desire to counter distorted repressions of the past."

Now, as intellectual life in Warsaw has undergone a tremendous resurgence, and interest in Jewish history among university students and schoolchildren increases, Michlic said that an ideological battle continues, as many Poles would like to forget that there ever was a sizable Jewish presence — and for thousands of years — in Poland.

During a lively question-and-answer session, a Penn faculty member asked what the reaction has been to plans for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which organizers hope will open its doors in Warsaw in 2010. That project is considered one of the largest manifestations of a resurgence of interest in things Jewish in Poland.

"It's very hard to say what the reception will be," she replied, adding that the Polish audience will be the most knowledgeable about the history of the period, and the most sensitive to its conclusions. "We don't know what the final product will be." 



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