05 July 2013

Remembering the Ghetto Uprising

The commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April and May this year represented a major, multifaceted memory event for Poland. The commemorations were far more than the repetition of rituals according to a set tradition. Warsaw has, of course, commemorated the uprising many times, in many different forms, but this year’s events, in their scale and diversity, and in the way that they have contributed to a reshaping of Polish-Jewish memory relations, eclipse recent commemorations.

President Komorowski at the commemorations. 
The programme of events was rich, ranging from official state events to performance art, gala concerts and bicycle rides. The Presidents of Poland and Israel, Bronisław Komorowski and Shimon Perez, and the mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, attended, as did delegates from countries and cities across Europe and around the world. The world’s media was present, with the events receiving generous coverage in Israel and the US in particular.

While Poland has been making efforts for many years to come to terms with the loss of its Jewish minority as a result of the Holocaust, this year’s events in Warsaw marked a significant moment. The opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, one of the most significant museum projects in Europe in recent years, and a result of collaboration led by Poland but involving Germany, Israel, the US and others, makes a powerful statement about how Poland sees its past and the role that Jews played in it. While attitudes are, of course, diverse, that past is now accepted and displayed in the centre of the country’s capital, in what is (or will be when it is finally completed) probably the country’s most impressive museum.

16 April 2013

The Holocaust in L'viv and 'European Memory'. The two levels of Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness

Agnieszka Holland’s choice of L'viv as the setting for In Darkness (2011) raises a number of important questions about the portrayal of the Holocaust. The film, which is based on a memoir, portrays the fate of a group of Jews who are hidden and kept alive in the city’s sewers by a Pole. The Pole initially helps the Jews purely for material gain, and shows little empathy for their predicament. Yet throughout the film he begins to grow attached to his charges, eventually stopping taking payment and risking himself and his family for their sake. Some reviewers have criticized the focus on the Polish rescuer, which takes centre stage against the backdrop of the plight of the Jewish characters, much in the same way that Schindler’s List, focuses principally on a German character.

It was precisely this focus on a Pole that, understandably, dominated Polish reaction to In Darkness. The film taps into what has become the most problematic area of Holocaust memory in Poland: the exact nature of Polish role in the Holocaust – as bystander, rescuer, exploiter, denouncer. All of these roles can be observed in the film. The central character, Leopold Socha, is presented initially as an unscrupulous criminal, but progresses to show courage and empathy towards the Jews he helps. The film explores the difficult dilemmas faced by non-Jews in the Holocaust in a nuanced way, showing the fine line between decisions to help or collaborate that often depended on pragmatism, circumstance and improvisation. The character is Socha is ably played by Robert Więckiewicz, who succeeds in being by turns brutal and empathetic, and even in his seeming conversion retains a degree of ambiguity. As he gleefully celebrates saving ‘my Jews’ (a phrase he repeats several times) at the end of the film, the viewer is left wondering whether it  is human courage and kindness that are at work here, or an expression of a kind of ownership and the obsessive desire to defy the Nazis.

It is difficult not to compare In Darkness with Holland’s other famous film about the war and the Holocaust,  Europa Europa (1990). There is a stark contrast. The latter film is by turns grotesque, fantastical, funny and tragic, encapsulating the horrors of the war in a carnivalesque spirit, and underpinned by skilful and elaborate plotting and baroque, deliberately overblown aesthetics. In Darkness has more in common with a Hollywood thriller, retaining a relentless and linear tension throughout, with almost no concessions to irony and certainly not to fantasy. It retains the bleakness of canonical Holocaust films like Schindler’s List and The Pianist, but without ever getting close to their pathos. Its claustrophobic, jerky camera work and settings have more in common with the type of thriller that Holland has directed recently (The Wire; The Killing).

16 January 2013

The Prison on Lonts’kyi Street: Memory Dialogue or Memory Monologue?

Courtyard of the museum, photo by Uilleam Blacker

The Prison on Lonts’kyi Street: Memory Dialogue or Memory Monologue?

Uilleam Blacker

First published on the Current Ukrainian Politics Blog:

L’viv’s wartime history is complex, and demands sensitivity and an understanding that victimhood and guilt are not always exclusive categories. The history of the site of the prison on Lonts’kyi Street speaks to this complexity. It speaks of the Polish state that forcefully oppressed Ukrainian political and cultural aspirations, and also of the Poles tortured, killed and deported by the Soviets. It reminds of Ukrainian victims of the Soviets, but also of Ukrainians’ part in the L’viv pogrom of 1941; it speaks of the Jewish victims of that pogrom, and of wider anti-Semitic violence and murder. This site speaks to the history of interwar Lwów, where Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews failed to build a strong enough society to withstand the chaos that the war would bring. For these reasons, it is a good thing that there is a museum at Lonts’kyi. Its history of the tragic intertwining of the fates of various groups makes it a perfect location to examine that history and learn from it. Unfortunately, the current museum does not take advantage of this opportunity.

03 October 2012

Memory and Language in Ukraine: some reflections on a recent journey

It is hard to underestimate the usefulness of physically visiting landscapes of memory. This simple act can be just as instructive as hours spent in libraries or trawling the internet. As well as affording the opportunity to learn things that one would otherwise miss, it allows one to connect to the memories that one studies practically, rather than simply theoretically. It can also challenge many of the assumptions we make as we approach our subject, and many of the conclusions we draw as we study from afar.

Symbols of Soviet and Greek-Catholic memory co-exist in L'viv (photo: U. Blacker)
One assumption that falls apart as one walks through Ukraine’s memoryscapes is that of the ‘two Ukraines’. That is, two different territories, two different cultures, two different memories, and of course, two different languages. Observing Ukraine from a distance, through the media, it is easy to concur. East versus West, Russian versus Ukrainian, Stalin versus Bandera, etc. Ukraine’s ‘split personality’ has been sharply underlined by the recent political conflict over the language bill. Russian tries to squeeze out Ukrainian, and Ukrainian tries valiantly to resist linguistic colonization. The two languages fight each other, like deputies in the parliament, like partisans against insurgents.
Yet language is not war. One does not have to choose a side to fight for. In this case, it is quite possible to inhabit two camps at once. Languages are not ideologies, and can be combined, can co-exist. This is the case in Ukraine, as is evident to anyone who visits the country. And just as language is not unitary, neither is that other important constituent of identity, memory. Both language and memory diverge, re-converge, overlap, quarrel and even engage in dialogue. The one thing they do not do is separate out cleanly, simply and irrevocably.

27 September 2012

Understanding Katyn

Epitaph tablets honouring Katyn victims outside of Kharkiv, Ukraine

Earlier this month the National Archives of the United States released to the public a massive corpus of declassified documents related to Katyn, the massacre of nearly 22,000 unarmed Polish prisoners by Stalin's secret police in 1940. Obscured by one of the longest and most extensive cover-ups in history, Katyn has been for decades a sodden field of unanswered questions, among them: did the Allies know during the Second World War that the Soviet Union, not Nazi Germany, was responsible for the crime? 

Many of the documents made public on 10 September 2012 shed light on this question. They offer evidence that the Roosevelt Administration likely knew of Stalin's guilt as early as 1943, when the Katyn site was first discovered, and subsequently suppressed that knowledge in order to preserve a fragile wartime alliance with the Kremlin. One of the biggest revelations is a secret communiqué of September 1950 sent by US Army Intelligence to Major Donald B. Stewart, who was one of two American POWs to dispatch coded messages positing Soviet responsibility for the massacre in 1943. "Ref[erring to] Katyn massacre you are directed not to repeat, not to affirm, deny or discuss in any manner the coded report you made," the order reads. "Info pertaining to existence of such reports is highly classified."

The news about these archival disclosures has largely focussed our attention on the Katyn forest in western Russia that gives the tragedy its name. One article even implies that all of the 22,000 executed Polish prisoners are buried there. In reality, however, the majority of these victims perished far from the Katyn forest. They were shot outside of Kalinin (today's Tver) in northwestern Russia, near Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, and in secret prisons in cities such as Minsk, the Belarusian capital. Today the remains of these victims - the pride and promise of the Polish people - are buried in mass graves throughout Russia, Ukraine and, most likely, Belarus. They lie alongside Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian artists and civic figures; Jews, Catholics and Orthodox; men and women known and unknown. All of them were murdered by the Stalinist regime.

Katyn, in other words, is not simply Katyn. It is Mednoe near Tver and Piatykhatky near Kharkiv, where Polish families and the Polish state have spearheaded the construction of memorials to all of Stalin's victims. It is Bykivnia, the forest on the outskirts of Kyiv where, as we now know, the Soviet secret police buried Polish Katyn victims next to unknown thousands of Ukrainian and other Soviet citizens executed during the Purges. It is likely also Kurapaty, the forest near Minsk containing the remains of tens of thousands of murdered Belarusian and other Soviet citizens that has long been suspected of concealing the remains of the Katyn dead. Today these sites are places of pilgrimage for Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian families alike.

The legacy of Katyn across Eastern Europe is not only material and human. It is also deeply symbolic. Katyn has become a central referential touchstone and descriptive shorthand for other, lesser-known atrocities in the region. There is the "Ukrainian Katyn" of Vinnytsia, the city in central Ukraine where in 1937-8 Stalin's secret police tortured and executed over 9,000 Ukrainians and other Soviet citizens and built a "Gorky Park of Culture and Rest" over their bodies to cover up the crime. There are also the "Lithuanian Katyns" of Kaušėnų and Ablinga, where the Nazis killed a total of nearly 2,000 Jews and other civilians during the Second World War.

As we come to know more about Katyn in the future, as new documents emerge and new theories develop, we would do well to endeavour to understand it in full. Katyn is a Polish national tragedy, but it is also a collective Eastern European tragedy, one that has literally and figuratively touched the entire region. Already observers are bracing for political fallout from this week's discoveries, which may "reignite the intense debate over historical memory and wartime allegiances in Eastern Europe". Yet to understand Katyn is to reject "intense debates" that force easy sides, sow discord, and politicise the past for present gain. Over seventy years on, its lessons remain dialogue, empathy, and solidarity.

Rory Finnin
University of Cambridge

Originally published in the Huffington Post on 12 September 2012

04 June 2012

Eastern European Xenophobia Under Western Eyes: Euro 2012 in Poland-Ukraine

The scenes of racist and anti-Semitic behaviour among Polish and Ukrainian football fans shown in the BBC’s recent Panorama programme speak for themselves. There is little about these images that could be ‘manipulated’, as some Polish commentators have suggested, to make these supporters look worse than they are. There is a serious problem. But does it merit Sol Campbell’s warning to stay away, or risk ‘coming home in a coffin’? Luke Harding’s damning article on Ukraine certainly seems to concur with Campbell. Harding was right to point to the mess that Ukraine is in; but his analysis lumped several separate problems together, not all of which represent a threat to travelling fans: Merkel’s boycott, for one, is nothing to do with racism, but with political freedom, while the Femen group’s naked protests are, while perhaps self-defeating, raising very legitimate fears about sex tourism (though Harding’s warning’s may help to ease this problem if fans from Western Europe stay away).

Before we start cancelling our tickets, it is worth remembering that racism and anti-Semitism in football are Europe-wide phenomena. Louis Saha recently singled out Italy and Spain on Newsnight as particularly unpleasant places to play in. In the UK, West Ham fans are notorious for making gas-hissing noises at matches with Tottenham Hotspur (like Cracovia, one of the teams featured in Panorama, supposedly a ‘Jewish team’). What the scenes in Panorama show is what happens when bigoted fans are allowed to express their hatred uninhibited by police, football authorities or government. One can imagine what would happen were the English Defence League allowed to purchase black tickets for football matches and behave as they pleased. In this regard, the report was a shocking indictment of the bodies responsible for football in Poland and Ukraine, of their complacency and incompetence.

Was Panorama an indictment of Polish and Ukrainian societies at large? Many in the West have been rightly alarmed by the rise of right-wing politics in Ukraine, where the right-wing Svoboda, or Freedom Party, has become a clownish centre of attention, and won seats in local authorities. Yet while Svoboda’s rise should be a cause for concern, as yet it has no MPs in the national parliament. Recent Greek or French election results show a more alarming swing to the right than current Ukrainian or Polish politics. With regard to Poland, polls by the Anti-Defamation League in ten EU countries do show high levels of anti-Semitism in Poland, but even higher levels some Western European countries, particularly in Spain. Poland doesn’t look good in these polls, but it also doesn’t appear unique.

04 May 2012

What’s the Colour of Russian Protest?

Julie Fedor and Galina Nikiporets-Takigawa 

From the outset, the protest movement that began after the announcement of the Putin-Medvedev tandem’s ‘castling move’ in September last year claimed for itself the colour white as its key defining symbol. White was chosen for its traditional associations with purity and honesty (i.e. anti-corruption, anti-fraud), and peace (i.e. commitment to non-violent methods). Critics of the protests, on the other hand, have insisted that this is in fact an ‘orange’ movement, the heir of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. These critics generally use the label ‘orange’ to signify foreign-sponsored conspiratorial actions aimed at orchestrating fake mass street protests with a view to bringing about violent regime change and general mayhem.

27 February 2012

4 ноября как 4 февраля: к истории новейших российских протестов

Галина Никипорец-Такигава

В январе 2012, говоря об обещании Михаила Прохорова участвовать в российских митингах протеста 4 февраля, Газета.ру сделала важную ошибку«Кандидат в президенты, который побывал на митинге несогласных с итогами выборов в Госдуме, обещал принять участие в следующей акции протеста, намеченной на 4 ноября» (Gazeta.ru). Блогер тут же прокомментировал в своём посте в Живом Журнале под названием «4 февраля или 4 ноября?»Газета.ру вчера написала о Михаиле Прохорове, что он обещал принять участие в следующей акции протеста, намеченной на 4 ноября”. – С Навальным перепутали, бывает…”, – указал по этому поводу в своём твиттере гражданский активист Олег Козловский... 4 ноября, напомню, в московском Люблино проходят "Русские марши"» (igiss).

4 November as 4 February: Towards a History of the Recent Russian Protests

Russian version

Galina Nikiporets-Takigawa

In January 2012, in a report announcing Mikhail Prokhorov’s pledge to participate in the forthcoming demonstrations on 4 February, Gazeta.ru made a meaningful mistake: ‘The presidential candidate, who attended a rally of those protesting the results of the Gosduma elections, has promised to take part in the next rally, scheduled for 4 November’ (Gazeta.ru). A blogger immediately commented in a LiveJournal post entitled ‘4 November or 4 February?’: ‘Yesterday Gazeta.ru wrote that Mikhail Prokhorov had “promised to take part in the next rally, scheduled for 4 November”. – “They’ve confused him with Naval’nyi…” the civic activist Oleg Kozlovskii pointed out on Twitter… 4 November… is the day when the “Russian Marches” take place…’(igiss).

13 February 2012

On New Media, Memory and Identity in Russia by Vera Zvereva

Russia has now become the European leader in terms of the number of internet users. ComScore statistics from September 2011 indicate that there are currently around 50.8 million internet users, i.e. unique visitors aged 15 and above, in Russia. In other words, roughly one third of Russians now use the internet.