Poland was once a leader in Shoah commemoration

Recent alarming events in Poland, most notably a law “protecting the reputation of the Polish nation” by criminalising certain speech regarding the Holocaust, have led me to reflect on my own relationship with that country. It’s a relationship that spans three decades, dozens of visits, various negotiations — and the cultivation of many cherished friends and colleagues.

I made my first visit in the summer of 1987 as a mid-level professional working for a project to build a Holocaust museum on the National Mall in Washington DC.

Upon seeing my first communist country, I was struck that everything was grey – the buildings, the interiors, the clothing. That turned out to be a somewhat superficial impression.

No one forgets the gut-wrenching experience of their first (or any) visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. My first visit was made special by a remarkable woman, historian Teresa Swiebocka, who was my guide. In spite of the many political and cultural restraints, and all the propaganda she had been fed, she was devoted to historical truth.

She was not gray. She was deeply immersed in Holocaust history, and as she walked the blood-soaked earth of Birkenau, she seemed to know what had transpired on every inch of it. She spoke with great conviction and sensitivity.

Over the years, I witnessed Poland’s exciting emergence out of communism. Every year brought more changes. Poland became colourful.

Its people blossomed from under the weight of oppression endured throughout much of the 20th century under the domination of its two totalitarian neighbours, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. As in previous centuries, great powers saw Poland as something to be divided, occupied or destroyed.

Poland was ground zero for the post-Soviet reclamation of the truth about the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes, much of which happened on Polish soil under the brutal German occupation.

Since the fall of communism, successive Polish governments of various political parties have extended – and often expanded — the nation’s commitment to the preservation of the six German killing centres in Poland.

Then, in 2017, 30 years after my first visit, I went through a very different sort of experience.

I happened to come across a small demonstration outside the president’s palace in Warsaw, where I encountered another woman, Mrs Orlewska, who left a strong impression.

She was part of a nationalistic, religious group that regularly pays homage to the late president Lech Kaczynski. The former mayor of Warsaw, Kaczynski served  as president from 2005 until he  was killed in an aircraft crash in 2010.

This group believes he was murdered by the Russians as part of an anti-Polish conspiracy.

Out of this background, Poland’s many complexities and contradictions are on full view today. The country has changed dramatically over 30 years, and now seems to be changing again.

Perhaps my fondness for Poland and my abiding respect for so many exceptional professionals have blurred my ability to see the situation clearly.

But I remain hopeful that the many Teresa Swiebockas and Mrs Orlewskas in Poland will ultimately prevail. It may not be in the short term, and that’s why those of us who admire Poland and realise its vitally important role in the world cannot afford complacency.

On each of my future visits, I will support my friends and colleagues, confront the deniers and reactionaries, test my hope, and look for more remarkable Polish women.

  • Sara J Bloomfield director, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
About the Author
Sara is director, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
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