Poland and Holocaust History

By Trew, Cressida | History Review, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Poland and Holocaust History


Trew, Cressida, History Review


Cressida Trew shows that Polish historians -- under political duress and with the need to forge a positive national identity -- have denied rather than confronted the Holocaust.

This year's Julia Wood Essay Prize competition was again very severe, with 141 entries. The Committee eventually recommended the award of prizes to one Upper Sixth entry and two Lower Sixth entries. They are pleased to announce that the winner of the first prize is Cressida Trew of King's School, Canterbury, for the essay published below. The winners of the Lower Sixth prizes are Josephine Tucker of Haberdashers' Aske's School for Girls, Elstree, for an essay entitled `How far did Luther's theology mark a clear and radical break from medieval tradition?'; and Andrew Shapland of Bristol Grammar School for an essay entitled `How European was the Renaissance?'

The question of how to interpret the Holocaust has forced historians to confront fundamental questions about the nature of human identity and indeed about the validity of history itself. Complicity in genocide sits very uneasily with national pride. Nowhere is this more so than in Poland, where so many of the death camps were located. Before the Second World War, Polish Jewry numbered 3.3 million, whereas postwar numbers totalled only 240,000 (a figure which had fallen to 9,000 by 1970). A total of around 5.5 million people were murdered in the Polish camps: of these 4 million were of Jewish origin, 3 million being Polish Jews.

Research conducted in Poland in the 1960s suggests that hundreds of Poles were executed by the Nazis for aiding Jews and that thousands more helped Jews in various ways. However, the remainder of the population of 30 million in Poland did not offer any aid to Jews, and while it is important to avoid blanket generalisations -- especially in view of the circumstances of the Nazi occupation -- this fact is a very disturbing one when placed within the context of widespread Polish anti-Semitism before, during and after the war. Thus the problems presented to Polish governments after 1945 by the Holocaust were deep-rooted. It is the argument of this essay that their `solutions' expressed political, ideological and national concerns that in many ways reflect a cross-section of the anxieties that constitute anti-Semitism.

Polish history and the Holocaust

Poland is a country whose defiant national consciousness, stemming from foreign suppression and intervention, made it susceptible to anti-Semitic influences from Russia, Austria and Germany. By the end of the 19th century, the Polish nationalist movement had split between liberal nationalists (accepting minority cultures) and conservative nationalists (dreaming of a purely Polish Poland). It was the conservatives who gained power in 1919 (the Endecja Party), and throughout the 1920s there were campaigns to deprive Jews of their livelihoods and rights. The same groups came to power in post-Yalta Poland in 1945. The new political masters proclaimed that `in resurrected democratic Poland there will be no place for anti-Semitism', but 1945-6 saw the deaths of over 800 Jews in pogroms and the emigration of another 150,000. Hence active Polish anti-Semitism before, during and after the war presented serious problems to nationalist historians writing about the Holocaust.

The Stalinist era

Initial historical enquiry into the history of the Holocaust began with Polish trials of Nazi war criminals, and in 1944 the Jewish Historical Commission was set up. In 1947 this became the Jewish Historical Institute (JHI), an independent group of Jewish historians headed by Philip Friedman and dedicated to the collection of materials relevant to the prosecution of war criminals. A Polish commission began to collect evidence for the prosecution of 12,000 war criminals.

By 1948 Poland was totally controlled by communists: the Polish United Workers' Party had eliminated all opposition parties. …

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