Hearing Poland’s Ghosts

Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, Berkeley/M. Starowieska/D. Golik
‘Jewish Wedding,’ 1890s; from a display at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw

The past, in Poland, is not a foreign country; it is morality drama and passion play, combining high ideology and down-and-dirty politics. One recent manifestation of history’s significance has been the creation of several ambitious and architecturally inventive museums dedicated to central events and themes in the Polish past. Since the beginning of this century, four “houses of history” have opened in Warsaw and Gdańsk, attracting many visitors and contributing to the development of neglected neighborhoods. At the same time, the museums have inspired sharp controversies over such topics as freedom of cultural expression, the relationship of Polish to European identity, and interpretations of Polish-Jewish history.

At a time when Poland, with its unexpected hard-right turn and defiance of democratic principles, is once again a matter of European concern, these impressive institutions offer rich clues to the conflicts unsettling the Polish polity and the passions that historical disputes continue to arouse. Apart from undermining the independence of the judiciary and public media, the ruling Law and Justice party has now introduced a law making it a criminal offense to accuse the “Polish nation” of complicity in the Holocaust.

If recent debates about history have been turbulent, that is because they have followed a long period of ideological repression. In Poland, as in other formerly Soviet-dominated countries, the cold war decades were an era of censorship and deliberately falsified versions of historical events, including World War II and the Holocaust. Between 1939 and 1945, Poland was the epicenter of several violent upheavals: the Soviet invasion from the east under the auspices of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact; the Nazi conquest and occupation, which resulted in the deaths of three million non-Jewish Poles; and the attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe, perpetrated largely on Polish soil, in which three million Polish Jews—90 percent of the country’s pre-war Jewish population—were murdered. In addition, Poland lost its eastern territories, now part of Ukraine, to the Soviet Union, and the region’s Polish residents were in effect deported westward. The enormity of these events, combined with the suppression of basic truths about them, meant that their legacies were preserved covertly by their various inheritors, all with their own adamant loyalties and wrenching recollections, and that Poland in the postwar period became a place of often conflicting and fervently defended forms of collective memory.

It was only with the lifting of censorship after 1989 that the past could be investigated, reexamined, and openly debated. The museums erected since then are projects of commemoration as well as documentation, bringing fully informed historical perspectives to highly charged memories and previously taboo subjects. The museums all run lively educational programs, and they have become newly important in the face of the current…

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