Day #6: The Death Camp Next Door, Confronting Poland’s View of the Holocaust

By Jacques Gallant

Photo Credit: Google Maps

At Auschwitz I, there’s a house just steps away from the gas chamber that was used to murder prisoners.

Someone still lives in it.

I was struck by the fact that there are people in Poland who still reside right next door to camps where over a million Jews were killed.

Enter Prof. Zdislaw Mach, who teaches international relations at Jagellonian University in Krakow. He spoke to all three FASPE groups about Polish identity in the 20th century, giving the fellows a quick rundown of the country’s past and how it came to inform Poles’ more or less passive reaction to the Holocaust.

Mach’s lecture came at a key time, as the fellows were preparing to visit Auschwitz, the Nazis’ most notorious extermination camp, in the Polish countryside.

Various wars and partitions over the centuries led predominantly Catholic Poland in the 20th century to develop a national identity around culture and religion, rather than citizenship, Mach explained.

But Poles also came to view themselves as victims, having been oppressed for years on all sides by Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Victimhood gave them a sense of moral superiority. “It’s difficult for us to realize that others can suffer more,” Mach said. “We are victims. We can’t be blamed for anything. Jesus was an innocent victim.”

The idea of a national identity in the 20th century was new for Poles, because for so long the country had been split into different states controlled by other countries. The Jews of Poland did not fit into this national identity, and they were not seen as loyal to the national project, Mach said.

While some non-Jewish Poles, even some who were antisemitic, helped Jews during the Holocaust, most remained passive, Mach said.

After all, Poles themselves were being victimized by Germany, the occupying power, and many non-Jewish Poles were also being killed. Thousands lost their homes with a few hours’ notice as villages were taken over by the Nazis and wood, stone and brick from the houses was used to build the death camps. Poles would continue to be oppressed under communism for decades after the war, further clouding the country’s view of the Holocaust, while at the same time strengthening Polish society with its emphasis on traditional values.

I found the lecture helpful, as it was a way for me to understand, at least partly, how generations of Poles have been able to live right next to the remnants of the death camps.

Today, Polish identity has evolved, Mach said. Increasingly, it is now considered more a question of individual choice. The Roman Catholic Church’s power in Poland has waned. But the question persists: What does it mean to be Polish?

Mach concluded by speaking about the right-wing government elected two years ago. He talked about the new government’s standoff with the constitutional court. It has passed several laws which critics have said minimizes the court’s role and function, prompting strong reactions from European leaders.

I was shocked that an institution crucial to the system of checks and-balances we expect in democracies could be so easily manipulated by the ruling party. But I was perhaps even more surprised that the term “checks and balances” doesn’t even exist in Polish.

So yes, it was good to hear that Polish identity now recognizes people other than Catholics. But a government that tries to shield itself from legal scrutiny is very much cause for concern.

 

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