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.

What this year’s commemorations also demonstrate is the depth and richness of Poland’s mnemonic engagement with the history of its lost Jews and the Holocaust. The major exhibition, Polish Art and the Holocaust, which showcased art by Polish artists who survived the Holocaust as well as that by younger artists working with its post-memory, testified to the dynamism of this ongoing process. The same goes for the presence of major figures of not only Polish, but world cinema, Andrzej Wajda and Agnieszka Holland. Academic conferences discussed important texts on the Holocaust, such as those by Jan Gross and Jan Błoński – texts that have faced up to the most difficult aspects of the role that Poles played in relation to their former Jewish neighbours. These texts often face resistance, but they are always at the heart of a dynamic public debate that is infinitely preferable to silence and oblivion.

The success of popular initiatives, such as the bicycle rides through Jewish Warsaw or the campaign to wear yellow daffodils, in reference to the habit of one of the leaders of the uprising, Marek Edelman, of laying them at the uprising monument every year, also show a level of public engagement. These events engaged a whole range of actors, governmental and non-governmental; local, national and international; academic, political and cultural. In many ways the scale of the events, which were, according to media reports, well-attended, testify to the widespread acceptance of the history of the city’s Jews as one shared by all its contemporary inhabitants.

In some ways this acceptance even manages to transcend the fractures in Polish politics and society: the new museum was opened by President Komorowski, representing the liberal-conservative Civic Platform, but it was also supported from its inception by the late Lech Kaczyński, known for his centre-right, patriotic memory politics. Commentary in the press across the range of political spectrum, from right to left, accepted the commemorations as necessary and important. The scale of engagement with the memory of the ghetto uprising, and the relative consensus surrounding it, then, makes an important statement about contemporary Poland. 

Underneath the surface harmony, however, complex debates and conflicts over the exact significance of this commemoration have been taking place. Emblematic of the politicization and dissonance of the memory of the ghetto uprising was the controversy surrounding a proposed monument to Polish rescuers of Jews, which was to be placed next to the new museum. The idea was met with protests from, among others, the renowned scholar of the ghetto, Barbara Engelking, who protested against the potential use of the monument to conceal the history of Polish indifference or complicity in relation to the suffering of Jews, as well as to detract attention away from past and present anti-Semitism. Jan Grabowski claimed that the monument would be nothing more than a tribute by Poles to Poles, and would eclipse the issue of Polish denunciation of Jews and their Polish protectors. Others, such as Pawel Machcewicz, held that such a monument would fit into an established Europe-wide tradition of honouring rescuers, and would be a deserved tribute to a brave minority that deserves to be remembered, regardless of whether their actions may be appropriated for cynical aims by others.

The argument over the monument proved to be a microcosm of wider differences. For liberal commentators, as represented by Gazeta Wyborcza, the events first and foremost were about mourning the loss of the city’s Jews, and reflecting on the ambivalent attitudes of Poles towards them, past and present. The events also represented Poland’s move towards perceived European standards in terms of dealing with its past, especially that of the Holocaust. For those towards the right, the events provided the chance to commemorate the help and support provided by Poles to Jews in a general situation of terrible common suffering and oppression. These memories, in this view, are a matter for Poles and Jews, and should not be dependent on the opinions of outside bodies like the EU.

It is remarkable to note the different ways in which both sides of the debate perceive the balance of memory in this regard. Some commentators in right-leaning media warn that the suffering of the Poles, as embodied in the Warsaw Uprising, will be eclipsed by overt emphasis of the Ghetto Uprising, which, according to a commentator in the conservative website wPolityce is already becoming the ‘first Warsaw uprising’ and may soon become the only one. Warsaw’s cityscape is now dominated by the huge new museum (bigger than the Uprising Museum, although, of course, very different in its historical scope), and this has always been the case – since 1948 the city has had a major (communist) monument to the Ghetto Uprising, while the Warsaw Uprising only received a monument at the end of the 1980s. On the left, commentators bemoan the ever-present narrative of the Warsaw Uprising, which aggressively squeezes out memory of the ghetto and its fighters at every turn in the city. One notable contribution on this side of the debate has been Elżbieta Janicka’s book Festung Warschau, an exhaustive study of the predominance of the memory of the 1944 uprising and the AK (Home Army) in Warsaw’s cityscape that has attracted both praise and virulent criticism.

Janicka’s book also contributes to another debate that has concentrated divergence of memory: that surrounding the exact role of Poles in relation to the Ghetto Uprising. In Janicka’s account, the Polish underground state and its soldiers were unwilling to help their Jewish counterparts. Those willing to assist appear as exceptions to a norm of anti-Semitic hostility. Other commentators have emphasised the cooperation and help provided by the AK to the Jewish insurgents. According to Uważam Rze commentator Leszek Pietrzak, accounts like Janicka’s over-emphasise the role of the left-leaning ŻOB (Jewish Combat Organization), and ignore the Zionist ŻZW (Jewish Military Union). Memory of the Ghetto Uprising, in this view, has been monopolized by Marek Edelman and his circles, who are closely linked with the dominant liberal left establishment, KOR (Workers’ Defence Committee) in the 1970s, and Gazeta Wyborcza today, while the role of the right-leaning Zionist insurgents has been forgotten.
Mural of Marek Edelman, Warsaw.

By contrast, Wyborcza relayed the opinion of the writer and journalist Marci Shore, expressed in the New York Times, that Edelman is a neglected and forgotten figure. Shore has in mind first and foremost Israel, which, she argues, rejects Edelman for his anti-Zionist politics. A large mural to Edelman was painted on a wall on the territory of the former ghetto, and his ritual of laying daffodils was replicated across the city in a mass action helped by dozens of volunteers. Whether this was the rehabilitation of a neglected hero, or the perpetuation of the dominant and distorted vision of the past depends, to an extent, on your memory politics.

There were, however, attempts to synthesise the patriotic Polish vision of the past with an overt focus on the Jewish past. Notable in this regard was President Komorowski’s commemorative speech, which cast the Ghetto Uprising as part of the Polish romantic tradition of uncompromising, often hopeless resistance and self-sacrifice. Komorowski referred explicitly to Poland’s failed uprisings of the 19th century, framing the Jewish fighters as following in the footsteps of their forebears as citizens of Poland, and, in the end, as Poles. It is no coincidence, the President noted, that this remarkable act of resistance happened precisely in Poland, and not elsewhere in East-Central Europe, where there are no such traditions of glorious martyrdom.

In one respect, it is possible to read the President’s statements as a gesture of inclusion, an attempt to integrate Jews into the most Polish of all Polish traditions, perhaps an attempt to redress the failure of integration experienced by the Jews who took part in the uprising itself, who had lived through the growing anti-Semitism of interwar Poland. Many Jews at the time did, after all, identify strongly with Poland’s cultural traditions, were deeply assimilated into them, and wanted to be able to celebrate them freely. On the other hand, President Komorowski’s dressing of the Jewish fighters in Polish romantic garb could be seen as a simplification and appropriation of their memory. By inscribing the Jewish fighters into a Polish narrative, is he turning their memory into a reflection on, and legitimating of Polishness, instead of a reflection on the complexities of what exactly it meant to be a Polish Jew at that time? Is this, as in the case of the proposed monument to the rescuers, a discussion about Poles and Polishness, where the centre of attention should be Jews?

These questions are difficult to answer. The academic Agnieszka Graff protested against the politicization of the monument to rescuers, and the way discussions over it have perpetuated divisions into ‘us’ and ‘them’, into the tallying up of victimhood and heroism. For some, the division into Pole and Jew makes no sense, since one could in 1940 and can be today both/and, not just either/or. Graff insisted that commemoration should follow this blurred pattern, and recognize Polish-Jewish relations: the ghetto, walled off during its existence, should not be walled off today in terms of the memories that are or are not allowed to be expressed there. In many ways, the commemorations this year have facilitated reflection on the artificiality of the categories of self and other in relation to cultural memory. The events of April and May have shown an explosion in cultural memory in Poland, a process that crosses over a multitude of genres and engages a multitude of actors. Most of those involved, however, have been Poles, while those they have been commemorating have been Jews. The key point to note is that, as Komorowski perhaps meant to suggest, to a large degree, these commemorations show a commemoration not of the other, but of the self, of a self that can be ethnically or religiously differentiated.

Of course, the process of commemorating such a self is delicate and fraught, and by no means universally shared. What will really be the measure of the depth of the memory of the suffering and resistance of Warsaw’s Jews will be the role it plays in the course of next year, as the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising approaches. Will public memory still include two uprisings then, or only one, to paraphrase the fear expressed by the commentator from wPolityce cited above? It will be interesting to see how the political differences and iterations of self and other are expressed next year, when the ‘Polish’ tragedy of the Warsaw Uprising takes centre stage. It is quite possible that the commemoration will closely mirror arguments surrounding the Ghetto Uprising: amidst general acceptance of the importance of commemoration, some will be disturbed by the patriotic, nationalistic tone of the overpowering memory narrative of those to the right, while others will be concerned by the undermining and lack of respect for the same narrative among liberals. Quite what – if any – role the fate of Warsaw’s lost Jews will play in all this remains unclear. 


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