Alina Skibińska: We are simply oversensitive as far as Polish honour is concerned

It is not news that Poles are passionate about the past, yet the recent debate about the movie Pokłosie [Aftermath] raised further questions about where Poles are in their understanding of history.

Foto: Creative Commons/ mryrbc

In Poland, events of the last century are still an important factor in politics, sometimes more important than the economy and taxes. History unites and divides society and families. Last year, three historical films garnered wide critical acclaim: “Róża”, about the turmoil in Mazury just after the war and the horrible fate of local women; “Obława”, about a Polish Home Army resistance unit and the difficult moral choices they faced; and “Pokłosie”, a movie presenting a contemporary Polish village resisting a horrible truth about the murder of Jews during the war. The last movie outraged some viewers.

In the following interview, Patrycja Bukalska, editor of Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, speaks with historian Alina Skibińska, the representative of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Warsaw. Skibińska is the author of several books and articles on Holocaust studies. Last year, she published a book on Gniewczyna, notorious for the Poles who tortured the village’s Jews before they turned them over to the German police for execution. Skibińska is the laureate of the Jan Karski Prize, established by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

In 2000, Poland was divided by the book “Neighbours” by Jan Tomasz Gross, which described the murder of Jews in the small town of Jedwabne in 1941. Mass murder was committed by Poles, and even though some historians say that they were pushed to it by Germans, still it was a brutal awakening for many Poles, lulled by the fact that Poles have most of the trees in the Yad Vashem garden of the Righteous among the Nations. The discussion was bitter, painful but purifying. Yet 12 years later,  the movie “Pokłosie” started the  discussion all over again. Why do issues of the past that do not concern most of us cause such emotions?

In my opinion, it is precisely because it does concern most of us! It is not directly connected to what happened in Jedwabne. It is a different story. Many people treat Jedwabne as a sort of a exception, and they refuse to accept the knowledge that Jedwabne was not unique and exceptional. It was one of many such events, and even – I dare say – not the most tragic [in Jedwabne, more than 300 Jews were locked in a barn and burnt alive – edit. note]. I know about much worse crimes – worse, if we presume that we can compare suffering and pain. Near Łomża, there were many slaughters of Jews. And in the whole of Poland there are hundreds of places where Poles murdered Jews. Such a movie as “Pokłosie” reaches to these places, and passes the knowledge of one little place presented in the movie, which is fictional, but could have been any of those hundreds of real ones.

Yet the fact that we were not only rescuers, but also killers was already discussed, described by historians, accepted, etc., even if it was painful. Why did it suddenly start all over again?

I don’t think it was accepted. The truth is that another phenomenon continues, described by (Jan Tomasz) Gross, together with Irena Grudzińska-Gross, in his latest book “Golden Harvest”. It is about Jewish property. There is nothing left of the murdered Jews – maybe some remnants buried somewhere, or some ashes. But their houses still exist. In the small towns where there were a few thousand Jews, there were hundreds of empty houses left after the war. Without Jewish inhabitants. It is estimated that 10% of Polish Jews survived the war. Out of these 10%, only a few decided to claim their rights and regain the houses. Many of the houses were taken over by the Polish state and individuals along the way, which nowadays we would describe as illegal, because the Jewish owners didn’t lose their rights. Hence, expropriation was legal in the light of communist law, which is now in certain cases discredited. Of course, after the war, for many properties there were no owners and no heirs, because they were dead. Yet, the awareness of people that they inhabited houses that didn’t belong to them, that they were using somebody else’s stuff, is difficult. Also, there are cases that they not only took over the houses, but also took an active part in the earlier process of killing the owners. This is the spot that was touched by the movie. There are still places where people live in such houses and know about their past, or are afraid to learn about it.

Do you really think that the present inhabitants are aware of the atrocities that happened in the past?

Maybe with the exception of the grandchildren. They may not know if the things in the houses of the grandparents belonged to them, or they are strangers’ legacies, out of a strange culture, religion. But such things as strange books, and unknown signs or symbols, suggest that they belonged to somebody else …

There are people in the young generation who know that they live in the houses located on streets that before the war were Jewish streets. They start to suspect that the house may also be Jewish. I have met personally a person, who learned not only that her house was a Jewish house, but also that a pogrom took place on this street, and the Jewish inhabitants of “her” house were then killed. Now this person is really traumatized by this knowledge, trying to learn if relatives also took part in it …

It seems that there are two kinds of fears in such cases. One is the fear that the heirs of former owners may arrive and try to reclaim the property. The other fear is fear of the truth that may be too horrible: about participation in the crime.

It happened several times that I was contacted by young people who suspect that the members of their families took part in such shameful events. But these people don’t reject the truth – they search for it and ask for help in their search.

It must be underlined that we judge the reactions to the “Pokłosie” movie only by a certain sample of opinions expressed in certain media. The result is the present reaction.

There are some historians and commentators who believe that any critical information about the Polish nation is a sign of “anti-Polishness”, and harmful to opinion about Poles, and our duty is to prevent it.

This is going too far, but I must admit that constant “mistakes” of the Western press writing about “Polish concentration camps” is, in my opinion, outrageous, and needs to always be corrected.

The question is if “Polish concentration camp” is a kind of a mental shortcut used, or is it a proof of the ignorance of these authors? I think that it is only an awkward abbreviation, and they know that Poland was occupied by Germans and the war started in 1939, etc., and it is not a denial of historic facts. We are simply oversensitive as far as Polish honour is concerned.

In your experience, it is the young generation which tries to learn all facts from the past. Shall we assume that it is just a matter of time, maybe one more generation, before those dark spots in our history will be worked over? Or is a Jewish issue especially sensitive in Poland – because I don’t remember such fury in reaction to movies about communist collaborators, etc. ? Any approach to Jewish issues in Poland seems to be high risk. The word “Jew” seems to be even risky …

It is because the word “Jew” has a negative connotation in the Polish language. Calling someone a Jew is for many people considered offensive – for example, pseudo-football fans use it as an offensive word, addressing the supporters of the opposite team.

I have heard even about a situation where a judge dictating the protocol during a trial asked an expert if writing down the word “Jew” would be offensive or not. It was a trial connected with a case of antisemitism. To understand what it means we would have to imagine that suddenly the word “Pole” is considered offensive.

It shows the strength of negative stereotype of Jewishness … To change this, we still need a few generations.

There was strong antisemitism in Poland before the war, and it was fuelled by the economic situation. Is this negative stereotype of a Jew rooted in prewar times?

A stereotype is a stereotype – it is simply present. At the same time, social psychologists and historians try to determine what caused such strong antisemitism in Poland in the first years after the war. The conclusion is that antisemitism is not despite what happened during the war, despite the Holocaust, but it is because of the Holocaust. Witnessing the Holocaust and the behaviour of the witnesses in relation to the crimes are the factors. Denial of the participation of Poles in some of the atrocities caused aversion.  From the psychological point of view, it is not a surprising phenomenon.

But what are we supposed to do? Confess guilt as a nation? Then we will deny so many cases when Poles were rescuing Jews and helping them …

I am not talking about confessions of collective guilt. There is no need for such things. We are talking now about the shape of the public debate and the denial of historical facts. The important thing is to acknowledge that a substantial part of Polish society that behaved inappropriately towards Jews. I don’t mean only murders and denunciations, but also such behaviour like taking advantage of the tragic situation of Jews. Especially after 1942, when they had no choice but to hide. Jews hiding in forests and caught by Poles were sometimes robbed of the last shirt – is this not vile? Testimonies of those who survived are full of such stories.

But these memories change with time. Jacek Leociak compares in his book “Ratowanie” [“Rescuing”] testimonies written during the war with those which were submitted later on to Yad Vashem, with a request to grant the title of the Righteous among the Nations. The same people were described as drunk and cruel, but with time the conclusion occurred that even if drunk and ruthless they saved Jewish lives.

I know this case. It was Marian Berland, rescued by the Krzeczkowski couple. There is gratitude felt by many Jews, and the decision to help rescuers, when in turn they are in need. Weighing death and life, life is always worth more.

The picture that you describe is a very dark one. I have always believed that although there were crimes, there were also acts of bravery, unlimited help.

This is because we judge the past by our current standards. It turns out that many Jews did not expect disinterested help from Poles. They wanted to pay for it, and as long as they were able to pay for food or a hiding place, it was acceptable. When they did not have money they promised to pay later. What is unacceptable, in my opinion, are cases of taking advantage of the difficult situation of Jews.

Jews were also aware of the fact that there was nothing more risky than helping them. Even those Poles who were fighting in partisans units were not in such danger of being denounced as those who were hiding Jews. Those who decided to help Jews were literally afraid of their own shadow.

The dangers of war can help us to understand some attitudes towards Jews. But after the war? Why did they face such hostility, coming back home?

In the average Polish town, from 20 up to even 70% of the population was Jewish. Let’s take Szczebrzeszyn, as I have conducted a thorough research there. Before the war more than 40% of inhabitants were Jewish. They lived in the very center of the town. Then such a visible social group “disappears”, as a matter of fact most of them were murdered on the spot. The houses were empty and very quickly other people moved in. After the war, they did not feel any obligation to move out, just because an old owner came back. To make it worse, Jews who managed to regain property in the courts, regained it together with the inhabitants. What were they supposed to do with them, when they refused to move out? They could go to court again, but it led to further tension and conflicts. What happens when in such a small town, where everyone know each another, suddenly a few dozens of people come back and want their property back?

The atmosphere must have been horrible, and it is difficult to imagine that they would choose to stay there … 

It is obvious that the new inhabitants would prefer that the previous owners never come back, because they were facing either conflict and court or a need to pay for the house. It was often the case – a property regained in court was immediately sold to the inhabitants.

Those Jews who decided to stay stayed in the same town but in different houses or flats. In Szczebrzeszyn, there was the case of Jankiel Grojser, who inherited two houses. He regained the houses and sold them. He stayed in Szczebrzeszyn until his death in 1974, but never had his own place again.  I have wondered for a long time why he sold the houses and I reached conclusion that he had no choice, as the houses were already inhabited. Otherwise, he would face conflicts or even physical violence.

Such a return of a Jew after the war was very difficult – especially when, like in Szczebrzeszyn, relatively many Poles were involved in the war hunting for Jews and murdering Jewish. There were very few cases when Jews decided to solve and end all their matters, also in court. Many decided never to come back.

Definitely this is not a common knowledge in Poland. Yet – in comparison with other countries – I think that Poles are doing their homework concerning the difficult past. The public discussion about the issues of our responsibility is much more advanced than, for example, in Lithuania.

Yes, but this is because the research in Poland is much more advanced, the archives are open and the knowledge is simply there. The creation of the IPN [Institute of National Memory] was crucial as it comes to the access to documents, also from courts, they become available to historians and public. Also, I have no doubt that Jan Tomasz Gross and his book “Neighbours” is a factor. It was a shock for Poles and opened the most difficult discussion that we had.

But it was in the year 2000. “Pokłosie” was shown in cinemas last autumn, and still seems not acceptable for part of the audience.

This is because the public debate on the past mostly is carried out among historians, commentators maybe. But most people do not read books, especially scientific ones. A movie is a part of popular culture, and reaches a wide audience. If “Pokłosie” was a documentary and shown in chosen cinemas, we wouldn´t have this discussion. This is the strength of the feature movie.

This year, we expect some more movies about the past: about our fight at Westerplatte, and about Lech Wałęsa. No doubt more discussion will follow.

Patrycja Bukalska

Patrycja Bukalska

is editor of the V4Revue and editor of Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny; writes for „Green Town” („Zielone Miasto”) magazine.