When you meet a local in Poland, it is likely that they will speak to you about one of two subjects: the partition of their country, or the Holocaust. The latter figured more prominently in my conversations with the various people I met for obvious reasons—one of which was simply the fact that it happened just 70 years ago.
Poland once had one of the biggest Jewish populations in Europe. The Second World War and their calculated extermination by the Nazis reduced this number to a mere fraction. Since the fall of communism, it seems there has been some sort of a Jewish revival in the country. The construction of the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw is but one testament to this.
Nevertheless, the Holocaust weighs heavily on the Polish psyche. During the Communist era, the government preferred not to discuss the Jewish question because it was simply uncomfortable. Properties abandoned in the process of Jewish expulsion were redistributed after 1945. But the fall of the Communist government did not make things any easier. Jews who had left started coming back, partly to reclaim what was theirs. In Krakow, Maciek showed me some of the apartment blocks that had been occupied before they had been ghettoised. He added that many of the descendants have since engaged good lawyers in a bid to set things right. But what about the communities that have sprung up in those areas since the late 1940s and early 1950s?
Beyond the legal tussle, it is the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust that remains a difficult subject. The Nazis built six concentration camps in Poland. Some were used as transit points, others had death written all over them. I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau though initially I had decided against it. The experience was not an easy one, even if I did not get particularly emotional.
I spoke about my visit to the camps with Przemek the next night. I told him how there have been times when I questioned the Holocaust – did it really happen? Why was it necessary to keep reminding the world? Haven’t there been other genocides before and after? Think Rwanda, Armenia, Ukraine, etc. I personally believe no statistic or duration of an atrocity makes one more grave than the other. But perhaps the systematic manner and the scale with which it happened, and the world’s preference to ignore the elephant in the room, offer some answers.
A recent documentary on the History Channel deals with the ghosts of the Third Reich, as does Daša Drndić’s novel, Trieste. Both touch on the descendants of the Nazis and Jews whose lives have been shaped by the events of the Second World War. A common thread that binds them is guilt: the Germans, for what their parents or grandparents did, and the Jews for having survived the Holocaust. One German woman found out about her grandfather’s involvement at a concentration camp. Another sterilised herself for fear of passing down the poison of hate. Elsewhere, the theme of survivor’s guilt is brilliantly explored in the 2010 French film Sarah’s Key. While talking to Przemek and other people I met in Poland, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were trying hard not to betray a personal link, albeit a very distant one, to the Holocaust.
One link they definitely were distancing themselves from was the one established by US President Barack Obama sometime before his re-election. He described the concentration camps in Poland as ‘Polish’. To say this statement ruffled feathers barely scratches the surface. ‘It suggests that we had something to do with it,’ Przemek told me. ‘It was a Nazi camp, not Polish.’ I believe as much. But in this generation of bite-sized information, who takes notice? All that matters is that Poland is where a physical manifestation of Nazism stands. It is indeed unfortunate that geography was assaulted by politics and produced a history that the Poles continue to negotiate with.