Between narratives: my Polish cultural upbringing and the Holocaust

By Joanna Plucinska

The FASPE fellowship is designed to train us reporters to think more ethically about our jobs. I hoped that this trip would remain for me in the purely professional realm: it was going to be about journalism, not about my Polish identity. But as we discussed Jewish identity in Poland before World War II, and how it had been largely eradicated during the Holocaust, I couldn’t help but reflect on how different the narrative I grew up with had been.

As a part of the Polish diaspora in Ottawa, Canada, we didn’t discuss Jewish identity—not at home, not at Polish Saturday school, not at church, not at community gatherings, not on my summer trips to Warsaw to visit my grandmother. I knew that the Holocaust, which I learned about at my public middle school, took place largely in Poland. But in my mind, the Holocaust and Poland’s role in World War II were separate entities. My cultural education emphasized Polish patriotism, bravery and pride.

I first realized how revised the Polish history I’d been taught was when I spoke to some of my Israeli friends. Their grandparents lived in Poland before the war and they grew up listening to stories of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943—a largely Jewish uprising. I had only ever heard of the uprising of 1944, one run mostly by the ethnic Poles remaining in the city. My Polish history classes simply did not mention the Jewish Ghetto, or any sort of Jewish history in Poland for that matter.

Warsaw ghetto uprising image

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. (Wikimedia Commons)








Professor Zdzislaw Mach’s talk on May 29 clarified these disparities in the Polish historical narrative. He explained to us that Polish identity was largely built around the Catholic Church, the Polish language and a sense of isolation from other cultures. Everyone who didn’t fall into this cultural homogeneity was not considered truly Polish, Jews included. The justification for this attitude was simple, Mach explained. Poles, who had at so many points in their history been denied their homeland thanks to invasive neighbors, had only this identity to hold onto.

But this historical justification didn’t seem sufficient to me. I’ve never understood how a group that has suffered repression would not aim to embrace another group that has faced something similar. I know from some of the discussions I had with other FASPEans that some people simply couldn’t bear the weight of such a brutal history—maybe it was just easier to ignore the atrocities towards Jews and only process the trauma that ethnic Poles had experienced. But I think it’s time for Poles to stop isolating themselves from this history and start being more open to the country’s complex past.

I do think Poland’s culture is becoming less isolationist, especially as Poland’s position in the world continues to grow. Donald Tusk, the former Prime Minister of Poland, took over as the President of the European Council last year. Poland’s economy has expanded while other European economies have struggled with recession. Without as many imminent threats to Polish sovereignty, I am hopeful that the country’s national identity will become more flexible and open—and that Poles will accept a less revised version of the nation’s history.

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