Collect and Record! Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe

By Laura Jockusch | Go to book overview

3
Writing Polish Jewry s
“Greatest National Catastrophe”
Holocaust Documentation in Communist Poland

Five weeks after Lublin’s liberation by the Soviet Army on July 24,1944, a handful of Holocaust survivors established a historical commission and began to collect testimonies from survivors in and around the city, which by then had become the temporary capital of the liberated areas of Poland under Soviet control. Their goal was to chronicle the cataclysm of Polish Jewry for future generations and to help rebuild Jewish life in Poland—a nation that had experienced not only the near total destruction of its Jewish population and culture but the devastation of the entire country wrought by the German occupation.

The Nazis used Polish territory as their central extermination site for all of European Jewry. Half of the Jews the Nazis murdered were Polish citizens—90 percent of a Jewish community which, at 3.3 million in 1939, had been the largest in prewar Europe. Of a surviving remnant estimated at 350,000 Polish Jews, some 30,000–50,000 found themselves in Polish territory upon liberation. Of these, an estimated 5,000–20,000 kept their false wartime identities and did not identify themselves publicly as Jews. In addition, of the 70,000–80,000 Polish Jews liberated from camps in Germany and Austria, 40,000 returned to Poland after the war had ended, as did 180,000 of the 230,000 Polish Jews who had survived in the Soviet Union.1 In the first years after the liberation, the Jewish population in Poland was in constant flux, due to remigration and emigration. Large numbers of Jews returned in the hope of finding surviving relatives and friends and rebuilding their lives where their families had lived for generations. Back in Poland, they encountered levels of destruction that turned their former home into one gigantic graveyard. Despairing of any hope for the future or even the likelihood of making a living, many left the country for good.2 Historian David Engel estimates that a total of 266,000–281,000 Jews sojourned on Polish territory at some point between July 1944 and July 1946, although the majority eventually chose to live outside of Poland.3

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Collect and Record! Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe
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