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Always a Victim? Polish National Identity


Professor Zdzislaw Mach from Jagiellonian University talks to FASPE journalism and law fellows about the role that Polish national identity played during the Holocaust. Photo by Dustin Volz

Professor Zdzislaw Mach from Jagiellonian University talks to FASPE journalism and law fellows about the role that Polish national identity played during the Holocaust. Photo by Dustin Volz

KRAKOW—When the FASPE fellows arrived in Krakow, the Jews among us boosted the Jewish population of the city by 5 to 10 percent.

We were surprised to learn that there are only some 200 Jews living here today and perhaps 5,000 in all of Poland. But during the interwar period, Poland was home to an estimated 3.3 million Jews. In Krakow, the thriving community that once made up a quarter of the city’s population is gone, replaced with a handful of residents that would barely register in a census.

We were eager to meet some of those few Jews who live here, so that evening a group of us walked to Kazimierz—Krakow’s Jewish quarter by name only. The Jewish Community Center was hosting a Havdalah ceremony. The weekly event marks the symbolic end of Shabbat. I expected an intimate gathering. Instead, we were unsettled by the event that felt like a tourist attraction. We were looking for a window into a fledgling Jewish community, but left confused. There were apparently no answers to be found there.

But the next morning, we got some insight from Zdzislaw Mach—a professor of sociology and anthropology at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University. He provided a window into Poland’s complicated history and evolving sense of national identity. With the previous day’s discoveries still percolating, Mach’s lecture resonated.

The Polish identity was constructed in relation to two significant others, Mach explained. It would be impossible to define without referring to two important entities: Germany and Russia.

For much of Poland’s history of the past few centuries, it didn’t exist as an independent state. Before WWI, it was partitioned into thirds: Austrian, Russian, and Prussian. Territorial and political defeat had contributed to a sense of moral victory and superiority.

In the absence of a state, citizenship, and administrative structures, Poland was maintained as a cultural community. When an independent state was established in 1919, the three parts of Poland were integrated in one nation. For two brief decades, it enjoyed independence and emphasized unity.

The start of WWII meant a collapse of the fledgling sovereign state, Mach said. Germany and Russia had signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact in August 1939. It included a secret clause that divided Polish land between them. Nazi troops invaded on September 1, and the Soviets followed soon after. Poles were used to invasion and defeat, Mach explained, and over the years victimization became the central theme in their national identity.

The attitude of Catholic Poles toward Jews under Nazi rule was mixed. Most remained passive, Mach said, partially because of the death penalty they could face for helping Jews. So “passivity could be explained,” Mach said, “but not excused.” Some helped Jews despite the risk, while others benefitted.

Jews were, politically speaking, Polish citizens. But culturally, they were “other.”

Anti-Semitism wasn’t new in Poland, where nationalists had previously claimed there were too many Jews in prestigious positions. Some extremists suggested kicking them out, and peasants viewed them as economic competition.

The anti-Semitism was stoked by the arrival of the Nazis. At the same time, Nazis targeted Poles, murdering intellectuals and arresting political prisoners. A total of six million Poles died during the occupation. Three million of them were non-Jewish Poles, Mach said, though it’s unclear how many of those are military deaths.

“Every family was affected,” he said. Nazi ideology reduced Poles and all Slavs to a lower level of humanity, to be minimally educated and used to perform the simple tasks in society.

For a nation whose identity centered on victimization, it was difficult to view another group as being “more victimized.” It was even more difficult to conceive of helping cause it, Mach said.

The Jedwabne Pogrom, for example, stands as both a symbol of Polish involvement in the Holocaust, and a controversial event in the nation’s collective memory. In July 1941, hundreds of Jews were massacred in the town of Jedwabne in northeast Poland. Some were locked in a barn and burned with it. There are Poles today who still claim it was the Nazis’ handiwork, or that the Nazis instigated it. But most historians agree that it was the local Polish community that initiated and carried out the murders. The Polish government has acknowledged this and apologized.

Mach summed up the distinction between victims: “If you were Polish [under Nazi occupation] you had a good chance to be killed,” he said. “If you were Jewish you had to die.”

The end of the war was nothing to celebrate in the eyes of the Poles, Mach said. The Soviets installed a Communist government. The next several decades were characterized by oppression and mismanagement, a lack of civil society, and poor economic development.

Poland emerged from the Second World War as an almost completely homogenous society, said Mach, ethnically Polish and culturally the same. The two dominant institutions in Poland—Communism and the Roman Catholic Church—emphasized unity. The generations growing up in the post-war period had no knowledge or experience of “otherness”—not in terms of religion, politics, ideology, or lifestyle—until Communism collapsed in 1989. Diversity was seen as pathology. But the 1990s suddenly presented diversity as normality, Mach said, in lieu of the previous norms of unity and homogeneity.

The fall of Communism has set in motion changes in how Poles view identity, diversity, and history, including the Holocaust. There are still very few Jews and other “others” in Poland, but the Polish understanding of victimization during the Holocaust has already begun to evolve, said Mach.

“Learning how to accept diversity as normality,” said Mach, “is the single most important new aspect of Polish identity since 1989.”

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