The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland

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The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland. By Geneviève Zubrzycki. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 2006. Pp. xx, 277. $67.50 clothbound; $27.50 paperback.)

This is a brilliant book, both in terms of the author's insights and depth of understanding, and in terms of the coherence and logic of her presentation of her material. Geneviève Zubrzycki, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, spent more than three years doing fieldwork in Poland, interviewing appropriate persons in Cracow, Katowice, Oswiecim, and Warsaw, and visiting the sites she discusses in her book. In addition to onsite fieldwork, she also made extensive use of published materials in Polish, English, and French.The result is, she points out, "the only extensive sociological analysis of Polish nationalism that focuses on the post-Communist period" (p. 28), taking up her subject through the prism of controversies about the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The symbolic center of focus for her is the War of the Crosses of Auschwitz, as it has been dubbed in journalistic accounts, which reached its climax in 1998-99, and the differing ways in which Poles and Jews have remembered what happened at Auschwitz during World War II. For Poles, the town known to most of the world as Auschwitz is Oswiecim, and, at the first level of meaning which Poles came to assign to the camp, it was remembered that Auschwitz was originally established as a detention center for Polish political prisoners, intellectuals, professionals, and priests; indeed, partly for that reason, Poles came to think of themselves as having been the principal martyrs at the camp (pp. 102-103).

At a second level, Polish communists conflated the victims at Auschwitz into an opaque category of "Polish citizens," thereby effectively making Jews invisible among the victims. As she notes, this served to turn the camp, for Polish communists and all who went to school in communist times, into a symbol not of the Holocaust but of the martyrdom of the anti-Nazi and anti-fascist resistance. And whereas the Jews remember Auschwitz as the place where between 1 . 1 million and 1 . 5 mlllion persons were kllled, 90% of them Jews (p . …