back to article list

From Absence to Loss: Holocaust Commemoration in Present-day Poland

  • Print

In this article I argue that remembrance of the Jews and the Holocaust in Poland was subject to a conspiracy of silence in the local space of former Jewish communities and villages for many decades after the war. I am interested in whether and under what social conditions commemorating local Jewish communities in present-day Poland leads to coming to terms with painful memories and, by contrast, when it results in distorting such memories. I refer to the findings of qualitative research of case studies conducted in three towns: Bobowa, Dąbrowa Tarnowska and Rymanów.

The subject of my studies is commemorating Jewish communities in the local space of present-day Poland. It includes a wide variety of initiatives, from Jewish culture festivals and the restoration of former synagogues to monographs about Jewish inhabitants. Different types of memory actor – town residents, descendants of local Jews, representatives of Jewish communities – living in Poland initiate, become involved in or refer to these mnemonic practices (Olick 2008). In this article I analyse whether and under what social conditions commemoration can begin the process of confronting difficult memory of the Holocaust and its consequences, and when doing so it becomes impossible.

The dynamics of the memory of the Holocaust in Poland is determined by two facts. First, that the tragic events took place in German-occupied Poland, as evidenced by the siting of death camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka, which now function as places of memory. Secondly, it is estimated that almost 90 per cent of the three million Polish Jews, who comprised some 10 per cent of Poland’s pre-war population, were murdered in the Holocaust (Stankowski and Weiser 2011, 15). This catastrophe became associated with the territory of the Polish state by its material testimony on Polish land in the form of mass graves and memorial sites, as well as by the relics of former Jewish communities established over many centuries, such as synagogues, cemeteries, houses and items of everyday use (Kapralski 2015).

The various consequences of the Holocaust are important in determining the form that memory takes. Beginning with the demographics, entire Jewish communities, which accounted for more than half the local population in some smaller towns, ceased to exist. As a result, primarily in small towns, there was no one who could preserve any heritage that survived the war, foster remembrance of the murdered population and address or negotiate how their memory could be passed on to non-Jewish citizens after the war. The social and economic consequences of the Holocaust also need to be considered. Some among the non-Jewish population, primarily those from the lower middle class, enjoyed material benefits when, in various ways during and after the war, they took possession of the property that used to belong to local Jews (Grabowski and Libionka 2014) and occupied the now vacant social position in the social structure (Leder 2014).

From the perspective of the space where the Holocaust took place, its consequences for the identity of post-war Polish society and relations among and between various groups are extremely important. As a result of the wartime events and the emigration of Jews that followed, the two communities were separated from each other. Non-Jewish Poles were close to the events, but in Polish discourse this was described as being ‘a witness’, which is not a neutral term and does not reflect the many diverse attitudes among this population that could be observed during and after the war. In my studies I refer to Raul Hilberg’s (1992) triad: ‘perpetrators, victims, bystanders’. These categories are not clear-cut as, among others, they fail to reflect the complexity of attitudes and any changes that occurred in some individuals, and can give the impression that any given group is uniform in its attitude.

This is why I use the categories as a starting point only in order to define each one in more detail in any context. I am interested in the group of non- Jewish Poles whose position I describe as ‘bystanders’, for ‘bystanding’ (cf. Gross 2014) is the term that in Polish evokes the visibility of the Holocaust. Bystanding allowed for a variety of attitudes: active hostility, reluctant or sympathetic passivity, indifference or offering assistance (Kłoskowska1988). Different types of assistance can be distinguished, including freely given assistance and assistance at a price (Datner 1968). The heritage of difficult memory, the one that is shameful and requires that national identity be revised, includes post-war hostility towards survivors returning to their former homes, many of whom were murdered (Cichopek-Gajraj 2014, 77). The most tragic manifestation of this was the Kielce pogrom, which underlined that the Jewish minority was not welcome in post-war Poland, an otherwise almost entirely homogenous country ethnically (Gross 2008; Tokarska-Bakir 2013). Summing up, the nature of the Holocaust, including the less explored social aspects of the atrocity, such as direct, individual or mass executions carried out by the Germans and their sympathizers (Confino 2012, 127–8), involved local communities, something has not been accounted for or discussed until now and yet forms part of the memory of individual locations.

Apart from a brief post-war period when a group of intellectuals took up the subject of the Holocaust and the consequences of the anti-Semitic attitudes of the Poles (Michlic 2005), various aspects of these issues have been the subject of collective forgetting (Connerton 2008) and silence (Vinitzky- Seroussi and Tegger 2010) for a long time. There are several reasons for this. They include the nationalistic character of communism in Poland (Zaremba 2005), manifested in its policy of seeing Poland as a ‘nation of victims and heroes’ (see Huener 2004), in its sense of ethnicity and its suppression of any data that refuted it. What should be considered, however, is the marginalization of the Jewish community in the late 1940s by the communist elites, the shrinking of the population as a result of emigration, and self-censorship and concealing one’s Jewish identity in many cases. But the most important issue was the resistance of a large part of society, who treated commemoration of the Holocaust as an extrinsic or inconvenient memory.

The dynamics of the memory of the tragedy of the Jews under communism was investigated, among others, by Michael Steinlauf (1997). What I emphasize though is the many levels within the memory of the Holocaust – first, those created by various group narratives, both the dominant and the minority group; and secondly, the relationship between official and unofficial vernacular memory. The latter is of interest to me in terms of the local space where the subject of Jews and what happened to them both during and after the war, including the hostile attitudes of the members of one’s own group, was raised in conversations, predominantly using anti-Semitic clichés and stereotypes, within the family, in exchanges with other residents, and sometimes in newspapers and journals. To a large extent, the vernacular memory was preserved thanks to the synagogues and cemeteries that survived, and both immovable and movable property which functioned as a perpetual link with the past, and was often the source of concern because of the possibility of property restitution, contributing to the framework of the aversion towards Jews (Stola 2007). From the perspective of official memory, a conspiracy of silence developed around the problematic aspects (Zerubavel 2006; and in the context of Polish–Jewish relations, see Tokarska-Bakir 2011). This category characterizes adequately memory in the local space where most inhabitants were aware of what had happened but their knowledge did not extend beyond the group and, what is more, was not dwelt on. The local memory of the place was characterized by ‘repetition-memory’ (Ricoeur 2007), which is confirmed by persistently high levels of anti-Semitism (Kucia 2015). There was no social space in which their memory could be challenged by alternative accounts of the past.

Today, in many places in Poland, various memory actors include the history and culture of local Jews in the official narrative of the past of a given place, but express an alternative attitude to the recognition of the Jewish memory. The phenomenon of commemoration, as I call it, which has recently come more to the fore in Polish towns, should be seen in the context of memory democratization (Ziółkowski 2001). In this process, which intensified after the overthrow of the communist regime in 1989, marginalized memory was revealed and voiced in debates about the shameful inheritance of ‘standing by’ during the Holocaust (Forecki 2013). Discussions about the Jedwabne pogrom, which introduced the Holocaust into Polish discourse on focusing attention on specific places and the attitudes of a local community, as well as the consequences of those tragic events, should be seen as symbolizing coming to terms with difficult memory (Melchior and Michlic 2013). What I am interested in is whether and in what way the initiatives related to local Jewish history and culture include or lead to reflection on the attitudes of bystanders and their consequences.

In this article I focus on whether and under what conditions commemorations in local Polish milieus make it possible to begin the process of facing up to difficult memory and, by contrast, when the opposite happens and circumstances from the past are repeated and reinforced, for example the widespread image of a Jew as a threatening Other (Michlic 2006). I allude here to Adorno (1986), LaCapra (2001) and Ricoeur (2004) on working through difficult memory. What these authors have in common is a warning against defining this as a linear process, heading towards the point when its end can be declared. They all emphasize that, sometimes, matters that seem to be resolved become subject to the conflict of memory again. What they agree on as a general rule is striving to relate the past in the most accurate way possible, without brushing aside inconvenient and shameful facts for one’s own group, becomes possible when the social space that opens up allows the memory of others to be expressed. The potential of the memory of the Holocaust in a given place is demonstrated, among others, by how its consequences are represented. If this is done through ‘absence’ (LaCapra 2001), a reference to abstract and ahistorical categories, the phenomenon comes closer to an ‘abuse of memory’, but if it is done through the ‘loss’ (LaCapra 2001) of concrete historical objects, such as people, places or events, there is then a great chance that the process of working through difficult memory can begin.

These considerations will be explored in more detail in the analysis of the phenomenon of commemoration. I will approach mnemonic practices concerning memory of the Jewish heritage from the perspective of the possibility of shaping the social space where various versions of memory may meet (see Lehrer 2014), while paying close attention to the situations when these practices lead to memory conflict (see Kapralski 2000). This is interpreted within the framework of the sociological theory of collective memory (Halbwachs 1992). I take the position that memory is not something we have but something we do (Olick 2008, 159), and I treat mnemonic practices and products as expressions of collective remembrance, which can include a reminiscence, representation, denial, apology and stories, rituals, monuments and historical studies (Olick 2008, 158). I propose that the duality of memory should be considered with reference to Giddens’ (1984) theory of structuration – the duality of memory is expressed in the mnemonic practices and products initiated or taken up by memory actors with reference to the object of memory (for example, a past event, community or an element of cultural heritage). In this way participants employ all the resources and rules at hand, which are both the means and results of actions reproducing and shaping memory structures. In this article I focus on the mnemonic practices and products and characteristics of the memory actors involved.



My material in this essay was assembled for my sociological research on three case studies determined by mnemonic practices and products related to the history and culture of the Jewish communities that lived in Bobowa, Dąbrowa Tarnowska and Rymanów before the Holocaust. I selected these three towns because of certain features they had in common: during Poland’s partition they were part of Western Galicia; under German Occupation they were all in General Government territory, a district of Kraków; and they did not experience Soviet occupation in 1939–41. Today, Bobowa and Dąbrowa Tarnowska are in the province of Małopolskie, while Rymanów is in the province of Podkarpackie, in southern Poland. What is important is that in all three locations the local synagogues have been restored in the past decade, having been left in ruins in Dąbrowa Tarnowska and Rymanów, or in the case of Bobowa used as a workshop by the vocational school there until the late 1990s. The three synagogues now have different ownership status. The one in Dąbrowa Tarnowska belongs to the municipality, in Bobowa it is owned by the Jewish Religious Community of Kraków, while the owner of the Rymanów synagogue is Rabbi Abraham Reich, leader of the Congregation Menachem Zion Yotzei Russia of Brooklyn, New York. The synagogues in Bobowa and Rymanów perform religious services and are primarily used by the Hasidic Jews who come to visit the graves of the famous tzadikim (spiritual leaders) buried in the Jewish cemeteries there (Bartosz 2015). Finally, initiatives commemorating Jewish communities have been organized in all three locations for several years now.

The towns have been used as case studies because of the nature of the past contacts within and between groups, the type of Jewish settlements and the network of relations with the neighbouring villages and other locations that characterized the former shtetls (towns with large Jewish populations before the war; Orla-Bukowska 2004; Teller 2004). The features of these intergroup relations, linked with the nature of the Holocaust, are visible and involve non-Jewish inhabitants. I do not describe the history of each town in detail but I do highlight the facts that establish the framework of these relations. Bobowa, Dąbrowa Tarnowska and Rymanów were the towns in which Jewish residents of nearby towns and villages were resettled when the Germans set up ghettos there. The type of ghetto depended on the location and the stage of the war as Jews might be forced to live in a specific part of the town, as in Dąbrowa Tarnowska, or in the houses they occupied before the war, as in Bobowa, but had to take in other displaced Jews (Kraemer 2012). In the small towns, non-Jewish residents were not completely cut off from Jews, some even lived inside the ghetto. The Holocaust, marked by deteriorating living conditions, forced labour, the brutality of the Germans and their supporters and mass executions until the final liquidation of the ghetto, was thus visible. Proximity to the events is confirmed by the accounts of survivors, local records and evidence given by Polish residents made in post-war investigations, and can be found in vernacular memory transmission in the following decades.

Importantly, it should be noted that the layout of these towns has changed little since the war. The buildings and town houses in the market square and the streets leading off it used to belong to Jews, Jewish cemeteries still exist and the synagogues have been restored. This infrastructure is testimony to the Jewish history of these towns.

My aim was to collect the material that represented various mnemonic practices and products that are part of both official and unofficial memory, and in Jewish and local memory, in order to explore the dynamics of the remembrance of Jews and the Holocaust. First, it comprises existing data, such as ethnographic studies, Jewish testimonies (located in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute, Yad Vashem and the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute’s Visual History Archive), chronicles, journals, photographs, documentaries and their documentation, online sources as well as material objects, such as artefacts, property and monuments. Secondly, I used material obtained in qualitative studies, which included in-depth interviews with sixty-three individuals and five group interviews with the interviewees representing various types of memory actors, including memory leaders (people who initiated practices and were involved in them on a permanent basis), institutional players (for example, mayors, teachers, social activists, priests), local residents (born before and after the war, then school students), descendants of Jews and experts on the Jewish heritage in Poland. In addition, I took part in many commemoration events, such as memorial days, lectures and excursions. Exploratory research was carried out in 2010 in Bobowa. The next research field studies in the three towns were made between 2012 and 2015. The sources thus obtained are used in this article to identify what is subject to silence and the likelihood of overturning the status quo, among other things, due to the presence of memory actors who reflect on the past.


A meeting, nostalgia and concealment

What I consider to be indicators of progress made in facing up to the difficult past are mnemonic practices and products, because of the way they reflect the following areas: Polish–Jewish relations, Jewish history and culture, and the place of the Holocaust in the history of Poland and Polish national identity. Taking these into account, I have identified three memory discourses that differ in terms of their attitude to the Jewish perspective: the critical, the affirmative and the ethno-nationalistic. The critical approach is characterized by recognition of and space for the expression of the Jewish memory. The affirmative approach presents a positive image of one’s own group and leaves no room for any aspects that cast a shadow over the group. What dominates the ethno-nationalistic approach is the point of view of one’s own group while emphasizing distance from the Jewish memory, which is treated as alien. In any specific place these discourses often coexist, but it is possible to identify both which is the dominant one and is the reference point for most practices and trends with regard to change, for example when the minority discourse gains in importance. Progress can also be seen in what memory actors who initiate and participate in the practices under investigation actually do. This includes their motivations, where their knowledge comes from, their ability to reflect on difficult memory, and the various resources that make it possible to change the status quo. I am particularly interested in memory leaders because when they initiate the practices related to the Jewish past of a given place. Depending on the context, they come up against areas that have been subject to collective amnesia and silence. I discerned three such areas: a Jewish presence over many centuries, the Holocaust and its consequences, and the attitudes towards Jews, including the problem of anti-Semitism (this also applies to present times). All are rooted in local space, specific people, events and places. When analysing the commemoration, I explore the diversity, and often coexistence, of contradictory attitudes to the Jewish heritage in one place. For each case, I could see the dominant trend, which is presented using the example of three major mnemonic practices that I consider represent the type of commemoration in each town.

I start with Rymanów, where Days of Remembrance of the Jewish Community of Rymanów have been organized since 2008. This is a local event organized by the Association for Rymanów Encounters and the descendants of former Jewish residents. Some association founders told me they had been inspired by the Borderland of Arts, Cultures and Nations centre in Sejny and explained that ‘the word “encounters” [is included] to create the opportunity for meetings that will bring these communities closer’, and stressed that ‘we wanted it to focus on the borderland inhabited by Jews, Lemkos [a Ukrainian subgroup] and Poles and all those that lived here in this area’ (interview with author, no. R46). Apart from the initiative focusing on the Lemko culture, in 2013 all other initiatives were related to the Jewish past of Rymanów and from the very start the memory leaders involved were looking for contact with the Jewish survivors and their descendants, developing activities and participating in them together. During the first remembrance days local residents were able to meet survivors who attended with their children and grandchildren. There was also a meeting with the owner of the restored synagogue, Rabbi Reich (access to the synagogue became more difficult later). In the following years, an informal group formed round the remembrance days. Either because they had family ties with Rymanów or due to their interest in Jewish heritage, they would meet at events and develop relations in everyday life. Representatives of the Rymanów memory leaders said that the most important practice was the Remembrance March, which took place on 13 August, the anniversary of the day the Rymanów ghetto was liquidated in 1942. This is representative of commemoration in Rymanów. The participants follow the same route that Jews were forced to take from the town centre to the train station in Wróblik Szlachecki, a few kilometres away, from which they were transported to the death camp in Bełżec. The participants include the descendants of Jews from Rymanów, memory leaders, their families and local residents. This is one example of a practice anchored in space that involves the bodies of the actors who participate in it, making it possible to develop an empathetic relationship with the victims that avoids pathos while being dignified in tone. It is an opportunity to meet and talk with others. Memory becomes located and formed by details. This can be seen in a speech delivered by one of the leaders at the train station in 2008:

At 5 pm they walked out of Rymanów [...] On the way, they were beaten, humiliated and murdered. Here, in this place, a well-known physician from Rymanów, Dr Emanuel Frankel, sacrificed himself. He shouted at the Germans that they would be punished for the suffering of Jews [...] and before they managed to capture him, he took cyanide. Other people were left standing here for three days because the crowded carriages could not set off immediately. They were standing in this very place. People cried, shouted, they had no water or food.

The Rymanów commemoration takes the form of micro-history, looking at the lives of actual families, shopkeepers, daily life in the workshops and homes, events before and during the war, hiding places and the executions. All this was made possible by drawing on different perspectives from a variety of sources of knowledge, experiences and what is stored in memory transmission. What one finds here are non-Jewish memory leaders listening to family stories, collecting documents and photographs, as well as survivors and their families who want to know what happened to their relatives and what is left.

There are many memory leaders in Rymanów, among them descendants of the Rymanów Jews. One woman, a Polish-speaking Israeli citizen, is the daughter of survivors. She has become a Polish citizen and has bought a town house that belonged to her family before the war. During the 2014 celebrations a mezuzah (a piece of parchment inscribed with Hebrew verses from the Torah, and usually contained within decorative casing) was fixed to the doorframe of the ‘Jewish house’, as she calls it. She said in an interview that she thought of this house as a place to commemorate the local residents of Rymanów who died in the Shoah:

My house became my house [...] This is to remember, to understand what happened [...] Sometimes me and my family, and my brother were sitting and thinking how was it. You know all the detail. Because the detail[s] make life. I wanted to know the everyday life, how it was, how did they go to the synagogue, and what happened (R40). 1

Focusing on details leads to conversations about the most difficult subjects, such as when Jews in hiding were betrayed, help was refused or those who were murdered and their property taken after they had found shelter. These are the topics found in the vernacular memory of Rymanów. For some time now, these subjects have been added to the official memory, in a monograph on the Rymanów Jews, in which negative attitudes are described and the perpetrators referred to by their initials, or in Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz’s film There Once Was a War (2013), screened in Rymanów, which acknowledges the conspiracy of silence concerning negative attitudes to Jews. Deep consideration and a critical perspective among some memory leaders, who approach the memory of the nation making space for the Jewish perspective, remain crucial. I included the Rymanów commemoration in the category of meetings. Although the local residents who participate are in a minority and its leaders have to cope with resistance, other affirmative and ethnonationalistic memory discourses as well as various attitudes to community heritage within Jewish communities, the Rymanów commemoration creates a social space that makes it possible for diverse memory perspectives to meet.

I placed commemoration in Bobowa in the nostalgia category because of the dominating signs of its multiculturalism and the idyllic and romantic pre-war world of the shtetl. The town information board features the local synagogue alongside bobbin lace, which Bobowa is famous for; both are seen as symbolic of the town. The Jewish past is part of the town’s image here. The commemoration memory leader in Bobowa is the mayor, who has been head of the local government there for over two decades and represents the town in contacts with its Jewish visitors. The largest group are Hasidic Jews originally from Bobowa who come from all over the world, as this is where a famous Hasidic dynasty has its roots and its founder, the renowned tzadik, Salomon Halberstam, is buried. When in Bobowa, Hasidic Jews worship in the synagogue located close to the market square, which seems to take the place back in time, owing to its small size, the cultural code of Hasidim and its closed character, as well as the metaphysical nature of their relationship with the space of Bobowa. This naturally leads to a nostalgic understanding of the past.

Unlike in Rymanów, which also has ties with a famous Hasidic dynasty, the local government in Bobowa places this romantic and mythical image of pre-war Galicia at the centre of its commemoration. The best example of this is the re-enactment of the famous wedding of Nechama Gold, daughter of Rabbi Ben Cjon Halberstam, in 1931. From Ze’ev Aleksandrowicz’s photographs we know what it looked like. The event, ‘How the tzadik arranged his daughter’s marriage’, was performed during the Bobowa Days with Jewish Culture organized by the local government in June 2013. Over the next years the initiative continued in the form of lectures and concerts. Actors from Tarnów performed in the re-enactment, with school students taking the role Hasidim and an anthropology professor, a religious Jew himself, acting as celebrant of the wedding ceremony. Just as it would have been several decades earlier, thousands of people attended the wedding ceremony, which was held in the town’s streets. One of Nechama Gold’s daughters, the granddaughter of Tzadik Halberstam, was a guest. The mayor observed that ‘It was very emotional and it seems that she also left, one might say, even more joyous – happier that we, here, respect the identity of others, that there is tolerance and there is memory above all and that this has become a permanent event on our agenda’ (interview with author, no. R10).

This a very good illustration of how the Jewish past was included in the local heritage, but the terms are clear – the presence of Jews in Bobowa is shown as a closed chapter of the town’s history, and evidence is presented of the harmonious coexistence of the two communities to confirm a positive image of one’s own group as non-Jewish Poles. Commemoration in Bobowa is an example of what the historian Michael Meng (2011) calls ‘redemptive cosmopolitism’, as it serves the purpose of glossing over the consequences of the problematic and shameful past.

According to the sources, and endorsed by the testimonies of non-Jewish residents, the Holocaust in Bobowa was particularly brutal as the Germans and their sympathizers shot dead a large number of the Jews there in three mass executions at sites a few kilometres outside the town (see Kraemer 2012). After the war, representatives of the Jewish community marked the graves and paid for monuments. These places, however, are not included in the local commemoration although they are present in oral memory transmission. The Holocaust is referenced during official commemorations as marking the end of the history of Jews in Bobowa. This can be seen in an excerpt from the lecture of one of the memory leaders, which was delivered during the Bobowa Days with Jewish Culture in 2013:

In our town, 14 August 1942 changed the Jewish world to such an extent that not a single one of them, the Jews from Bobowa, has returned to live in their birthplace, which for many was the only place they knew, and had been their entire world.

In this vision of the past, evil comes from outside and leaves the community unchanged morally, although Jews have been absent ever since:

Nothing could destroy our neighbourly relations, and for 207 years Jews lived in Bobowa unmolested and were left in peace, ‘on Earth as it is in Heaven’. But when ‘the masters of war’ entered the town, the old world collapsed. Nothing was as it used to be. The image of Bobowa from that era lived on only in the pages of our town’s chronicles.

I would emphasize that local memory leaders base their information on local sources that reproduce a stereotyped and one-sided image of the past. They cannot see the need to revise the image by incorporating the Jewish perspective or expert opinion from outside. By excluding the voices, experiences and faces of Jewish residents, confirmation of the positive image of one’s own group becomes the principal purpose of commemoration.

Commemoration in Dąbrowa Tarnowska is best described using the category of concealment. It is dominated by the practices of institutional actors – the mayor and representatives from the town hall – which focus on restoring the monumental synagogue in Dąbrowa, inside which the Centre for the Meeting of Cultures was established in 2012. What I considered to be typical of commemorations in Dąbrowa was a performance based on Roman Brandtstaetter’s play The Day of Wrath staged inside the synagogue in 2013 by the political Not Now Theatre. Members of Not Now explained in the performance programme why they decided to stage it:

Anger arose in response to political correctness which distorts historical truth and also from the start in recognition of the consequences of the increasingly frequent, disgraceful public references overseas to ‘Polish concentration camps’ or ‘anti- Semitism bred in the bone’.

The programme exemplifies the ethno-nationalistic memory discourse with its characteristic features, among them equating the suffering of Poles and Jews, focusing on the martyrdom of the Polish nation as a whole, presenting assisting Jews as a common occurrence and references to Christian rhetoric about Judaism from before the Second Vatican Council.

Examples of the discourse are prominent in the exhibition in the synagogue. This is an excerpt from a description of the German Occupation period:

Only about 150 Jews survived. Most of them were saved by the local population. Despite the most dire consequences that one suffered for offering any kind of help to a Jew or hiding a Jew, some people were not afraid and resolutely offered assistance. Polish priests were also involved and issued fake baptismal certificates to Jews. Many local residents of Dąbrowa Tarnowska paid for this humanitarianism with their own lives. Within just a few weeks in 1942, sixty-two people were shot in Dąbrowa Tarnowska and its vicinity for helping to hide Jews. The world war tested Polish–Jewish relations, relations between neighbours – Jews and Poles. But the attitudes of many residents of Dąbrowa Tarnowska and its vicinity demonstrated that certain rules cannot be broken but rather reinforced the bond between the two cultures that inhabited the same territory over a long period.

In the commemoration in Dąbrowa Tarnowska, the experience of ‘standing by’ during the Holocaust leaves the community of non-Jewish residents not so much unchanged, which was the case in Bobowa, but rather confirms their virtues and, it might even be said, asserts that the community is better for it. The facts quoted in the description above, which are often referred to in local publications about the German Occupation, are not confirmed by historical sources, something that Jan Grabowski (2011), among others, endorses. He documented the ‘hunt for the Jews’ in the district of Dąbrowa Tarnowska and gives the names of the Poles who took part in round-ups to capture the Jews hiding in nearby villages and forests after the ghettos had been obliterated. His book was the subject of heated debate among local residents, because it referred to people whose families still lived in the area.

Yet many of my interviewees admitted that these events had taken place and the hunt for the Jews was mentioned in the exhibition, thanks to the intervention of the exhibition’s consultant, but without giving details of who was responsible and how these hunts were undertaken.

In other parts of the exhibition the shameful collective past was masked by data on providing assistance to Jews, which was shown as widespread, while all the facts related to the Jewish community in Dąbrowa Tarnowska were reduced to a single image of a traditional pious man, and the Holocaust period was described in general statements, without any reference to specific people or places. What is more, the Jewish past was counterpoised with the history of the Christian residents of Dąbrowa; for example, alongside the history of the synagogue there was information about the history of local churches. The exhibition also included the debris of an aircraft shot down over Dąbrowa Tarnowska which was on its way to help the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 – an image of one’s own group, the Christians, backing the image of resistance and suffering a noble death. After negotiations, some artefacts were included in the exhibition. Among them there was the Aron Kodesh (the Holy Ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept, on the eastern wall of a synagogue) from a small prayer meeting house that was in operation until the death of Samuel Roth, a religious Jew who lived in Dąbrowa after the war with his brother and his wife, an exceptional story nationally, which cuts through the abstract narration.

In conclusion, official commemoration in Dąbrowa Tarnowska exemplifies covert silence (Vinitzky-Seroussi and Tegger 2010), when ‘what looks like commemoration may in fact be deliberate forgetting’ (Vinitzky-Seroussi and Tegger 2010, 1,117). Jewish heritage is still undesired and inconvenient: ‘There is quite strong resistance here regarding the response to Jewish culture in Dabrowa. This might be because people are still afraid that potential owners of former Jewish properties might return to the town and many of these properties have been usucapted [ownership legally confirmed by possession]’ (interview with author, no. R25), one memory leader admitted. Despite efforts to conceal the Jewish past, the practices of groups of Jewish youth or representatives of Jewish communities, among others, who come and sometimes pray in the restored synagogue, make it impossible to forget this history. There are some actors initiating memory practices in Dąbrowa Tarnowska who refer to the critical discourse, take a reflective approach to their own group’s past and maintain contact with today’s relatives of the Jews of Dąbrowa Tarnowska. But to date they have not tried to break the local conspiracy of silence and introduce reflection on the uncomfortable collective memory into public space.



The space left after the Holocaust in Poland creates obstacles to reconciliation (see Pearlman, 2013). First, the perpetrators were not Poles, although it was on their territory that these tragic events occurred, as a result of which they have been seen as ‘bystanders’ and consequences related to this have arisen. It should also be remembered that the non-Jewish Poles were also victims of the German Occupation, but their experiences were different from those of the Jewish Poles. Secondly, after the war, the two communities were separated from each other and deprived of daily contact, which is one if the key factors determining the success of reconciliation. Thirdly, the process of working through difficult memory today concerns, by and large, the generations born after the Holocaust.

Therefore, I was interested in the potential that commemoration has to offer in this context, by introducing Jewish history and culture to the official discourse of local space, increasing the recognition of Jewish communities, whose influence on the fate and practices related to the cultural heritage of their ancestors is growing, and visits of the descendants of Jewish residents interested in the past. I have been considering the conditions that enable the creation of a social space where ‘remembering well’ (Sennett 1998, 12) is possible, which is shown in a precise account of what happened during the Holocaust in the context of local space. I begin with a description of the memory actors. I focus above all on their sense of agency (Giddens 1984), which I understand as taking responsibility for the Other (Bauman 2001), and in the belief that by doing something, an actor is able to change the status quo. What is more, actors are aware of the mechanisms controlling the dominating discourses, which is why they may choose the one they prefer (Kaplan 2005) or fashion a new discourse, one that is more appropriate for the local space. The latter is related to the actors’ reflexivity, their ability to monitor their attitudes.

In this way one can overcome the models passed down by culture, such as anti-Semitism, the tradition of martyrdom that is foreign to the experiences of others, and the concept of Polishness related to it. A critical approach is possible thanks to the continual confrontation of one’s convictions from different perspectives or through contact with sources (testimonies, journals and photographs) or contact with Jews (survivors, descendants and Jewish communities living in Poland). The more diverse these voices are, the greater the chance that what is remembered will be true (Sennett 1998). There is a need to build informal relations based on everyday experiences. This makes it possible to involve ordinary people, and not only representatives of elites, in the process of coming to terms with a difficult past (Trimikliniotis 2013). This is the case with the Rymanów commemoration around which an informal group of Poles and Jews has formed who visit one another, help one another and spend their free time together.

The actors representing the non-Jewish perspective must remember that the Jewish memory should be expressed on equal terms, instead of being subordinated to the interests of their own group. This boils down to doing justice ‘through memories, to an other than the self ’ (Ricoeur 2007, 88). From the perspective of non-Jews it is important to acknowledge the asymmetry of this relationship, aware that while examining one’s own conscience one will not get a response from the other side. An important characteristic of memory actors includes what they do to confront the areas subjected to silence and collective forgetting. In order to be successful, individuals’ activities must be transformed into collective activities. This is promoted by large numbers of reflective actors as the more people discuss the subject openly, the more difficult it is to deny the facts.

Various resources available to actors are important. This concerns situations in which the actors are independent of local structures and the status of ‘epistemic authorities’ (Rydgren 2007, 24) as people typically have more faith in the practices in which those who are considered authorities are involved. In small towns, these are often priests. In Rymanów, one of the important memory actors is the parish priest who participates in ecumenical prayers organized during the remembrance days. He encourages people to take part during the masses he celebrates and maintains relations with the Jews who visit Rymanów, including the Hasidim. The more people discuss publicly the issues that so far have been subjected to silence or collective forgetting, the greater the sense of the actors’ agency becomes, which increases the likelihood of sticking to the decision made. At the same time, social pressure to maintain the status quo declines (Zerubavel 2006). It is thus important that actors representing different generations, experiences and memory are involved in commemoration. They will not all be characterized by a high level of reflexivity. I have distinguished the institutional actors whose participation in commemoration impacts local inhabitants’ approval of what they do. They are represented by the local authorities, schools, the Church and the NGOs active at the local level and beyond.

An important factor that influences the form commemoration takes is the absence of some types of actor; for example, the local priests do not take part in Dąbrowa Tarnowska. The participation of institutional actors is also important to ensure that the activities undertaken will be sustained as well as being comprehensive in nature. It is important to involve various institutions as they have to confront problems within their own structures. Practices related to difficult memory should focus on the details: specific events, places and people. Above all, they should include inconvenient and shameful facts from one’s own group past. Thanks to historical details and where the events took place, the fallout of the Holocaust is presented as a loss, which makes it possible to establish an empathetic relationship, while distinguishing between the experiences of the victims and those of the bystanders (LaCapra, 2001). The consequences of the Holocaust must also lead to a consideration of contemporary attitudes, including anti-Semitism. Commemoration that fulfils these requirements may lead to the creation of a public space in which confronting difficult memory becomes possible.

When we turn to the case studies analysed here, in Rymanów an opportunity emerges for practices related to the Jewish heritage. While commemoration in Bobowa and, even more so in Dabrowa Tarnowska, is used to affirm the positive image of one’s own group. The practices related to the culture and history of local Jews make it possible to conceal the areas subjected to collective forgetting and silence, which leads to dissonance between the vernacular memory and what is publicly accepted as true. Despite the fact that commemoration has established a new relationship between local residents and Jewish cultural heritage, the circumstances of the past, such as the image of a Jew as a threatening Other, are repeated.



This study was undertaken in part thanks to a grant from a faculty fund (DS) to develop young scholars and doctoral students in the Faculty of Philosophy, Jagiellonian University in 2011–12 and as part of the ‘Commemorating Pre-War Jewish Communities in Contemporary Poland as a Manifestation of the Cultural Trauma of the Holocaust’ project, 2014–16, financed by the National Science Centre under decision DEC-2013/09/N/HS6/00422.

Translated from Polish into English by Mikołaj Sekrecki



Marta Duch-Dyngosz

Marta Duch-Dyngosz obtained a MA in Sociology (2007) and European Studies (2009) at the Inter-Faculty Individual Studies in the Humanities at Jagiellonian University, Kraków. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Institute of Sociology, Jagiellonian University. She was awarded a Fulbright Junior Advanced Research Award (2012–13) and a research grant funded by National Science Centre in Poland (2014–16). She was appointed editor of the monthly journal Znak in 2011.



1 The interview was conducted in English and is quoted verbatim.

List of References

Adorno, Theodor W. (1986) ‘What does coming to terms with the past mean?’ in Bitburg in Moral and Political Perspective, ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 114–29.

Bartosz, Adam (2015) Galicyjskim szlakiem chasydów sądecko-bobowskich [Galician trail of Bobowa and Nowy Sącz Hasidic communities], Kraków and Budapest: Wydawnictwo Austeria.

Bauman, Zygmunt (2001) Modernity and the Holocaust. New York, NY: Cornell University Press.

Cichopek-Gajraj, Anna (2014) Beyond Violence: Jewish Survivors in Poland and Slovakia in 1944–48. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Confino, Alon (2012) Foundational Pasts: The Holocaust as Historical Understanding. New York, NY: Cambridge University of Press.

Connerton, Paul (2008) ‘Seven types of forgetting’, Memory Studies, vol. 1, 59–71.

Datner, Szymon (1968) Las sprawiedliwych: Karta z dziejów ratownictwa Żydów w okupowanej Polsce, 1939–1945 [The Forest of the Righteous: pages from the history of the rescue of Jews in Occupied Poland, 1939–1945]. Warsaw: Książka i Wiedza.

Forecki, Piotr (2013) Reconstructing Memory: the Holocaust in Polish Public Debates, transl. Marta Skowronska. Frankfurt-am-Main, Berlin, Bern, Brussels, New York, Oxford, Vienna: Peter Lang.

Giddens, Anthony (1984) The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkeley, Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Grabowski, Jan (2011) Judenjagd. Polowanie na Żydów 1942–1945. Studium dziejów pewnego powiatu [Hunt for the Jews: betrayal and murder in German-Occupied Poland]. Warsaw: Association of the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research.

Grabowski, Jan and Dariusz Libionka, eds (2014) Klucze i kasa. O mieniu żydowskim w Polsce pod okupacją niemiecką i we wczesnych latach powojennych 1939–1950 [Keys and cash. The fate of Jewish property in Occupied Poland and during the early post-war years 1939–1950]. Warsaw: Association of the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research.

Gross, Jan (2008) Fear. Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz: An Essay in Historical Interpretation. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Gross, Jan (2014) ‘Sprawcy, ofiary, inni’ [Perpetrators, victims and others], Zagłada Żydów. Studia i materiały [Holocaust. Studies and materials], vol. 10, 885–88.

Halbwachs, Maurice (1992) On Collective Memory, trans. and ed. Lewis Coser. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hilberg, Raul (1992) Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933–1945. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Huener, Jonathan (2003) Auschwitz, Poland, and the Politics of Commemoration, 1945–1979. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Kaplan, E. Ann (2005) Trauma Culture. The Politics of Terror and Loss in Media and Literature. New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers University Press.

Kapralski, Sławomir (2015) ‘Amnesia, nostalgia, and reconstruction. Shifting modes of memory in Poland’s Jewish spaces’, in Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland, ed. Erica Lehrer and Michael Meng. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 149–69.

Kapralski, Sławomir (2000) ‘Battlefields of memory: landscape and identity in Polish–Jewish relations’, History and Memory, vol. 13, no. 2, 35–58.

Kłoskowska, Antonina (1988) ‘Polacy wobec zagłady Żydów polskich. Próba typologii postaw’ [The attitudes of the Poles toward the Holocaust. An attempt to establish typology], Kultura i Społeczeństwo [Culture and Society], vol. 4, 111–27.

Kraemer Jolanta (2012) The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933–1945. vol. II, s.v. ‘Bobowa’, ‘Dabrowa Tarnowska’, ‘Rymanow’. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press and USHMM.

Kucia, Marek (2015) ‘Auschwitz in the perception of contemporary Poles’, Polish Sociological Review, vol. 190, 191–206.

La Capra, Dominick (2001) Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Leder, Andrzej (2014) Prześniona rewolucja. Ćwiczenie z logiki historycznej

[The dream revolution. Exercise in historical logic]. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej.

Lehrer, Erica (2014) Jewish Poland Revisited. Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Melchior, Małgorzata and Joanna B. Michlic (2013) ‘The memory of the Holocaust in post- 1989 Poland: Renewal – its accomplishments and its powerlessness’, in Bringing the Dark Past to Light. The Reception of the Holocaust in Postcommunist Europe, ed. John-Paul Himka and Joanna Beata Michlic. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 403–50.

Michlic, Joanna B. (2006) Poland’s Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Michlic, Joanna B. (2005) ‘The Holocaust and its aftermath as perceived in Poland: Voices of Polish intellectuals, 1945–1947’, in The Return of Jews to Europe, 1945–1949, ed. David Bankier. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 206–30.

Meng, Michael (2011) Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Olick, Jeffrey K. (2008) ‘From collective memory to the sociology of mnemonic practices and products’, in Cultural Memories Studies. An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook, ed. Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 151–61.

Orla-Bukowska, Anna Maria (2004) ‘Maintaining borders, crossing borders: Social relationships in the shtetl’, Polin. Studies in Polish Jewry, vol. 17, 171–96.

Pearlman, Laurie Anne (2013) ‘Restoring self in community: Collective approaches to psychological trauma after genocide’, Journal of Social Issues, vol. 69, no. 1, 1111–24.

Ricoeur, Paul (2006) Memory, History, Forgetting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sennet, Robert (1998) ‘Disturbing memories’, in Memory, ed. Patricia Fara and Karalyn Patterson. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stankowski, Albert, and Piotr Weiser (2011) ‘Demograficzne skutki Holokaustu’ [The demographic impact of the Holocaust], in Następstwa Zagłady Żydów. Polska 1944–2010 [The consequences of the Holocaust. Poland 1944–2010], ed. Feliks Tych and Monika Adamczyk- Garbowska. Lublin: Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, 15–38.

Steinlauf, Michael C. (1997) Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Stola, Dariusz (2007) ‘The Polish debate on the Holocaust and the restitution of property’, in Robbery and Restitution: The Conflict over Jewish Property in Europe, ed. Martin Dean, Constantin Goschler and Philipp Ther. New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 240–56.

Teller, Adam (2004) ‘The shtetl as an arena for Polish–Jewish integration in the 18th century’, Polin. Studies in Polish Jewry, vol. 17, 25–40.

Tokarska-Bakir, Joanna (2011) ‘How to exit the conspiracy of silence? Social sciences facing the Polish–Jewish relations’, East European Politics and Societies, vol. 25, 129–52.

Tokarska-Bakir, Joanna (2013) ‘Communitas of violence. The Kielce pogrom as a social drama’, Yad Vashem Studies, vol. 41, 23–61.

Trimikliniotis, Nicos (2013) ‘Sociology of reconciliation: Learning from comparing violent conflicts and reconciliation processes’, Current Sociology, vol. 61, no. 2, 244–64.

Vinitzky-Seroussi, Vered and Chana Tegger (2010) ‘Unpacking the unspoken: Silence in collective memory and forgetting’, Social Forces, vol. 88, 1103–22.

Zaremba, Marcin (2005) Komunizm, legitymizacja, nacjonalizm. Nacjonalistyczna legitymizacja władzy komunistycznej w Polsce [Communism, legitimation, nationalism. Nationalistic legitimization of communist power in Poland]. Warsaw: Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Wydawnictwo TRIO.

Zerubavel, Eviatar (2006) The Elephant in the Room. Silence and Denial in Everyday Life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Ziołkowski, Marek (2001) ‘Pamięć i zapominanie: trupy w szafie polskiej zbiorowej pamięci’ [Remembering and forgetting: skeletons in the closet of the Polish collective memory], Kultura i Społeczeństwo, [Culture and Society] vol. 3–4, 3–22.


logo studies

This article has been published in the fifth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Holocaust/Shoah.

>> Click here to see the R&S Studies site





related content

© ENRS 2011-2018 | Design: m.jurko | Code: feb