Lessons on the Holocaust, From Warsaw’s No. 35 Tram

Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, honoring those who fought in the 1944 uprising. Credit Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press
Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, honoring those who fought in the 1944 uprising. Credit Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press

My grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, the generation who lived through World War II, never visited a concentration camp. Neither have I. To remember the Holocaust, it’s enough to ride the No. 35 tram through Warsaw. On its voyage from north to south, it passes sites of public commemoration, like the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes; the Umschlagplatz, where Jews from the ghetto were herded into railcars for transport to the death camps; and the Pawiak prison, the main holding place for political prisoners during the Nazi occupation. It also passes by places that have a more personal meaning: the location of what was once my great-grandparents’ house and my grandfather’s grave in Powazki Cemetery.

Some places are public and private at the same time. I don’t know how many relatives left Warsaw for the last time from the Umschlagplatz. Pawiak prison is where my grandfather’s cousin, a Jew trying to survive with Aryan papers, died when the Warsaw Uprising began, on Aug. 1, 1944. One place that always makes me shudder when I pass doesn’t even exist anymore: Ulica Gesia, or Goose Street. During the Nazi occupation, this was the location of the main prison for the ghetto. It’s also where my mother’s aunt Rose was shot to death with 14 other women on Dec. 15, 1941. According to what Rose’s sisters heard after the war, she was caught on the Aryan side of the wall. A 12-year-old boy pointed her out to the Gestapo while she was riding a tram. It’s likely that she’s buried under the Arkadia Shopping Mall, a few stops up the line.

What to make of this betrayal by a child? Should it be set against acts of kindness or heroism, like that of the Ukrainian who saved my father’s father by helping him cross the Bug River in the fall of 1939, and the similar deeds of thousands of other Poles, Ukrainians and Belarussians who saved Jews? Or should it be paired with the even greater number of horrific acts committed by Polish citizens?

The history of the Holocaust in Poland is painful and complex. A new law passed by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party aims to make it simple. Signed by President Andrzej Duda on Feb. 6, the legislation imposes punishment of up to three years in prison for those who “publicly and against the facts attribute to the Polish nation or the Polish state responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich.” In other words, in Poland it may now be illegal to blame Poles for the Holocaust.

The law is a blow to free speech and historical truth alike. It is also sure to be profoundly counterproductive. One reason is that Polish complicity in the Holocaust has been a subject of research and debate in Poland for decades. A turning point came in 2000, with the publication of the book “Neighbors” by the historian Jan T. Gross, which revealed the 1941 massacre of Jews by Poles in the village of Jedwabne. Since then, historians have uncovered dozens of other examples of mass killings committed by Poles; “Neighbors” has been the subject of conferences, documentaries, books and an award-winning play. A whole generation of Polish historians have by now investigated everything from the blackmailing of Jews by their Polish neighbors to the activities of “the Blue,” an auxiliary police force made up mostly of prewar Polish policemen thought to be responsible for tens of thousands of deaths.

But beyond works of academic history and the terms of public debate, there are stories. Thousands of families in Poland, the United States, Israel and elsewhere have stories like that of my aunt Rose. That thousands of Poles risked their lives to save Jews is true. But it is also true that in a dehumanizing war, many more found ways to profit from their neighbors’ suffering or persecuted them outright, whether for self-preservation or from malice.

It is a mark of maturity for a nation to be able to confront the darkest pages in its history. By this measure, although the process has been painful, post-Communist Poland has done rather well. This makes the new legislation all the more disappointing. Why try to stuff the historiographic cat back in the bag? What do the Law and Justice Party and its supporters hope to gain?

The answer has much to do with the currents underlying Polish political life. For 200 years, Polish politics has oscillated between two modes: the insurrectionaries and the state builders. From the 1794 Kosciuszko Uprising against Russia to the Solidarity movement of the early 1980s, a heroic confrontation with a powerful oppressor occupies the moral center of Poland’s politics. (In my family, too: My great-great-grandfather lost an arm in the January Uprising of 1863.) But while the heart of the nation lies with the insurrectionaries, most of the responsibility falls on the state builders.

The Democratic Left Alliance and the centrist Civic Platform — two of the most influential parties in Poland since the fall of Communism — belong to the camp of state builders. Despite being conservative, Law and Justice exists squarely in the insurrectionist tradition. When the party finally came to power, its leaders said it was the start of a new era, a Fourth Republic, sweeping away the Third Republic inaugurated in 1989.

Over the centuries, Polish insurrectionists fought Austrians, Prussians, Russians, Nazis and Soviets. All of these battles infected the country’s politics with a particularly fatalistic, death-seeking variety of nationalism. Nearly 30 years after the fall of Communism, a cycle of state building has come to a close. Poland is more prosperous than it has ever been. It has a creditable soccer team and makes excellent video games. In short, Poland is at last more or less a regular European country. And that may be the problem.

With few external threats to combat, Law and Justice manufactured enemies. Refugees, mostly absent, make a handy hypothetical danger. The European Union also makes a good target, but it confers too many benefits on Poland’s citizenry to take on at any level beyond rhetoric. So Law and Justice has focused its greatest energies on waging a struggle for the past. This struggle has taken on many forms: discrediting the Round Table Agreement of 1989, accusing Lech Walesa of working as a Communist agent, attempting to overhaul a new World War II museum in Gdansk, building museums and staffing historical institutes with ideological allies.

But most of all, Law and Justice has focused on presenting itself as a defender of the nation’s honor. This means exalting martyrs (the insurrectionaries of 1944, the “cursed soldiers” who fought Communism after the war) and punishing “slanderers.” A nationalism founded on glorifying collective sacrifice has curdled into a chauvinism of pain.

I wish this didn’t define Polish nationhood. There are other visions I much prefer; I’m sure Aunt Rose would, too. In 1901, the playwright Stanislaw Wyspianski created a vision of his own. It was based on a wedding he attended, where one of his friends, a fellow member of Krakow’s artistic bohemia, married a peasant girl from the countryside. In the play Wyspianski wrote about it, everyone was invited: Jews and Poles, Ukrainian bards, ghosts of insurrectionaries and cautious conservatives alike. The guests debate and philosophize, flirt and revel. Wyspianski’s Poland was plural, aware of difference and open to doubt. Best of all, it had a place for strangers.

Law and Justice’s leaders are unlikely to embrace Wyspianski’s vision. But maybe, someday, more Polish citizens will. For now, the Polish government should know that memory cannot be legislated into oblivion. In Warsaw, the very stones remember. If Poland is to regain its moral center, it will have to invite more people to the feast.

Jacob Mikanowski is a journalist and critic.

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