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Oyku Gurpınar

Teaching the Armenian genocide: A comparative analysis of national history curriculums and textbooks in Turkey, Armenia and France

14 Feburary 2018
  • genocide of Armenians
  • historical education
  • textbooks
  • Aghed


In an attempt to explore the different historiographical and pedagogical approaches to the Armenian Genocide, from denial to recognition, from contextualization to historicism, from nationalism to human rights, this paper focuses on the national history curriculums of three countries (Turkey, Armenia and France). These three countries were selected in order to demonstrate the variety of historiographies according to the different socio-political and ideological contexts. In this sense, there exist two levels of comparison: i) the general approach towards history education, along with human rights education, framing the national history curriculum, the publications and instructions of the Ministry of Education determining its implementation; ii) peculiarities concerning the case of the Armenian Genocide (1915–16), involving the given historical context, its ideological position and interpretation, and its dis/connection to the claimed stance. By this comparative analysis, the paper aims to revisit the problems of the divergence concerning the education of history, particularly in the case of crimes against humanity.


The link between the nation-states and the education of history has been one of the much-discussed issues. From nationalist ideologies to political expediencies, from the consolidation of national identity to the formation of ideal citizens, from grand historical narratives to pedagogies of moralvalues, the nation-states are often criticized for controlling and influencing the education of history in line with their interests. Within this frame of reference, the instruction of contested and sensitive historical events represents one of the essential controversies, revealing the political intentions behind educational practices. In an attempt to comparatively analyse the different approaches to the Armenian Genocide, this paper explores the different historical narratives, contextualizations and political stances of three countries (Turkey, Armenia and France), through their national history curriculums, as well as their history teaching plans and exemplary history textbooks. For this purpose, the paper consists of three sections. First, a brief overview of the curriculums of each country is presented regarding their development and transformation, along with the intentions affecting their regulation and implementation. Second, the position of the Armenian Genocide within the national curriculums and history teaching plans is illustrated, accompanied by the political stances of each country towards the issue. Last but not least, the way the Armenian Genocide is taught in history textbooks is comparatively analysed in relation to their explanation of the causes and conditions resulting in the decision of deportation and its implementation, as well as the consequences and long-term effects that can be traced up to the present.

History education and the curriculum

The curriculum is the core of education: it consists of guidelines responding to questions such as ‘what should be taught, to whom, under what circumstances, how, and with what end in mind’ (Null 2011, 5). Curriculum is what signifies i) aims and objectives of education, ii) subjects, iii) their distribution at different levels of education, iv) educational materials and their content, v) teaching methods. In this regard, school curriculums are of the utmost importance in the formation of ‘ideal’ citizens, their apprehension of certain moral values, civic rights and duties, fundamental knowledge and, naturally, the history of their nation.1

History first appeared in the national curriculums in the 19th century when public education systems were more or less established in many countries – almost at the same time that history became a modern academic discipline. This early inception within the educational system also showed the significance of history in terms of the formation of future citizens (Carretero and Bermudez 2012, 634). Concerning the role of history in relation to the construction of national identity, there are three different approaches: the ‘romantic’ promotes social cohesion, the ‘empirical’ stresses the transmissionof historical knowledge, and the ‘civic’ concentrates on the development of civic competence (Carretero, Asensio and Rodríguez-Moneo 2012, 4). To give an individual a sense of belonging to a nation and to promote his or her self-identification as a citizen of that nation and the awareness of the responsibilities it enforces, historical knowledge and a consciousness of a common past plays an essential part.

As it is the curriculum-makers who determine which subjects should be emphasized and which should be excluded or ignored, how to represent historical events, people, facts and in which context, the curriculum is also a reflection of what constructs the national unity of a particular ‘present’ (Brehm 2014, 319). The national curriculum consolidates a uniform identity administered to all students and leads to the quest of establishing a single ‘grand narrative’ that would eliminate alternative narratives and compel the teaching of a precise interpretation of the past (Ahonen 2001, 190). However, since the circumstances that define the national unity tend to change given the politics of a certain time, so does the curriculum. Therefore, the history curriculum is one of the most unstable components of education, continuously altered depending on the transformations that occur in the socio- cultural and historical-political conditions of a specific country (Brauch 2017, 597). Consequently, a comparison of national history curriculums in Turkey, Armenia and France requires taking into account the country-specific circumstances and their transformation over time.

Approaches to national histories: comparing curriculums

To start with, in Turkey, the national history curriculum has undergone several major reforms that are mostly invoked by three political stances: nationalism, Islamism and a democratic initiative. Nationalism, as the first and foremost, contains ideological shifts and escalations that are marked by the socio-political context of the era. The 1930s witnessed the establishment of nationalist ideology of Kemalism, which introduced a series of reforms to depart from the Ottoman legacy, in particular its religious character, in order to embrace Western values, based on six founding principles of the Turkish Republic: populism, secularism, revolutionism, nationalism, republicanism and statism (Zürcher 2005, 181). In this period, as an extension of the efforts to demolish the claims of other nations over national territory, the ‘Turkish History Thesis’ claimed the roots of the Turkish nation were deeply established in Anatolia, where its early civilizations and inhabitants were originally Turk (Akpınar et al. 2017, 14). By the 1960s, as the first militarycoup in the history of the Republic took place, the nationalist tone of its history education was principally influenced by a political attempt to balance Islam and modernization, that is, the emerging ‘Turkish-Islam synthesis’, and the main objective of national education was identified as a means of forming ‘self-sacrificing and virtuous citizens who are loyal to their family, nation, country, Turkish revolutions and ideals’ (Akdağ and Kaymakçı 2011, 858). After the 1980 coup, the ‘Turkish-Islam synthesis’ became the dominant ideology in educational practices. As a result, the life and principles of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938), the founder of the Turkish Republic, were integrated into the curriculum, along with religion – that is, Sunnite Islam – becoming a compulsory subject in order to educate moral values; it reflected an attempt to reconcile Kemalism with Islam, by stripping it of its traditional connotations, particularly that of secularism (Nohl 2008, 36).

From this perspective, it can be argued that the second political stance, that of Islamism, eroded the emphasis on secularity that had been perceived as one of the pillars of national education in Turkey. Hence, the Islamization of education constitutes one of the central disputes that can be traced back to the 1950s, a period marked by the emergence of Imam Hatip schools that specialized in religious education and the training of imams (Kafadar 2002, 354). This political stance is particularly enhanced by the many educational reforms in the 2000s, initiated by the governments formed by the AKP (Justice and Development Party), the conservative political party that has been in power since 2002. Aside from the consolidation of many existing religious aspects of the national curriculum and the introduction of new elective courses, such as Kur’an-ı Kerim [Qur’an], Hz. Muhammed’in Hayatı [Prophet Muhammad’s Life] and Temel Dinî Bilgiler [Fundamentals of Religion], these reforms also seek to establish an Islamized approach to citizen formation (Kaya 2015, 58). One significant example would be the association of moral values with religious content, explaining ‘tolerance’ with ‘Muhammad’s “tolerant attitude” towards the Christians of Yemen’ or ‘human rights’ with the ‘farewell sermon [khutba] of the prophet’, followed by the argument that human rights are integral to and guaranteed by Islam (Türkmen 2009, 391, 395).

Though currently replaced by an Islamized context, the introduction of global citizenship and the education of universal values was actually an extension of Turkey’s drive for membership to the European Union (EU), and therefore the educational reforms at the beginning of 2000s prescribed a transformation of the overall system to adhere to EU standards. Thedemocratic initiative simultaneously has marked this period and has been mirrored in education as well. As the long-ignored minorities of Turkey – Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Alevis, etc., as well as oppressed groups such as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals and intersexuals (LGBTIs) – have started to voice their demands for equality and recognition, elective courses in several local languages have been introduced, textbooks have been partially cleared of discriminatory statements, and subjects concerning human rights and democracy have been added to the curriculum (Çayır 2014, 2–5; Akdağ and Kaymakçı 2011, 860–61). Despite these developments, a certain Islamized version of the Kemalist nationalism still persists, and thus, the curriculums and the textbooks ‘still portray Turkey as a country that is homogenous, monolingual, and mono-religious’ (Çayır 2014, 115).

For Armenia, the conditions leading to the educational reforms can be categorized not in the sense of the chronological transformations in political stances, but rather in terms of extending existing approaches towards educational policy: that is, of constructing a post-Soviet national identity through creating a sense of citizenship, aligning with international educational standards and the educating the diasporic communities. In the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Republic of Armenia, the reforms bore a twofold objective in shaping the curriculum: to remove Soviet ideology from education and to redefine what it meant to be Armenian. However, this did not necessarily mean that the legacy of Soviet Armenian education was excluded from the history education of the newly independent Republic. On the contrary, though ‘stripped of communist internationalism and saturated with nationalism’, the historical narrative more or less remained similar: ‘starting with ethno-genesis, followed by the struggle for national liberation and culminating, this time, in independent nationhood’, instead of the development of class consciousness directed towards communism as it was during the Soviet period (Akpınar 2017, 43).

It is also important to stress that, as asserted by the historian Ronald Suny, Armenian nationalist thinking has had a complex evolution that can be dated back to the late 18th century. It persisted even during the Soviet period, when Armenian historians successfully fought against the denationalization of their history. The nationalist tone of the historical narrative was contextualized and consolidated by using repetitive themes such as the antiquity of the Armenian people, the continuous occupation of its indigenous ‘homeland’ and the perpetual struggle for survival and freedom despite betrayals, invasionsand being abandoned by the Great Powers (Suny 2001, 885–87). Nevertheless, the attempt to construct a post-Soviet Armenian identity and the desired rupture from Armenia’s Soviet past required concrete strategies, which were founded in the transition to Western/European educational standards that would introduce the concept of global citizenship. The hopes of gaining acceptance to European Union, along with guidance and support of multiple international organizations, extensively influenced the educational reforms of the post-Soviet transition process by including democratic values such as tolerance, human rights and openness into the national curriculum (Terzian 2010, 166). Nonetheless, these global and national contexts surrounding the educational system have resulted in the development of a dual policy: the primordial myths of Armenian History, such as the Armenian Church, coexist with concepts of tolerance and civic practice (Terzian 2010, 169).

One final link that also intersects the global and national dimensions in the Armenian context would be the diaspora. Since the Armenian Genocide caused the Armenian people to be dispersed to all over the world, maintaining Armenian heritage has been a primary concern for both the diasporic institutions (political organizations, churches, schools, etc.) as well as the newly founded independent Armenian state. On an emotional level, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Armenian diaspora has hoped to reunite with the homeland, and support its transition to an independent nation-state. Nonetheless, the Armenian governments’ policies towards the diaspora, the disagreements on national priorities and the definition of the nation itself have complicated the situation and raised concerns (Ishkanian 2005, 138–39). Instead, at the beginning of the 2000s, the notion of nation was redefined in terms that exceeded the political and territorial frontiers of the state, and accordingly, merged the diaspora and the state into one nation: national unity was re-established as Armenia became a trans-nation (Barseghyan 2007, 294). This was also echoed in the educational reforms with regards to the ‘preservation of national identity’; as described in the State Programme for Education of 2011–15: ‘the educational system of the Republic of Armenia is bound to support the activities of educational centres of the Armenian Diaspora [...] thereby creating conditions for uniting the globally dispersed Armenian potential’ (Government of Armenia 2011, 16), and as suggested by the Ministry of Education and Science, history textbooks in several foreign languages were produced for the Sunday schools of the diaspora, in order to ensure that the national identity could be preserved through Armenian education (Movsissyan 2016, 3).

In France, where the national education is arguably excessively centralized (Baqués 2006, 105; Egéa-Kuehne 2003, 329), the educational system contains a tension caused by two polarized points of view: on the one end, there is the 19th-century heritage of a national identity and republican values, on the other, there is European identity and citizenship. In the course of the 19th century, France was one of the ‘historical nations’ whose history was documented in archives, causing a ‘revolution’ in historiography whereby writing history depended on archival documents. Thus, at the beginning, it was their history that was written and taught (Wallerstein 2004, 5). Education, deemed ‘secular, compulsory, and free’ was an essential part of the French Republican tradition, with a national curriculum enforced on every future citizen, no matter what their social class or where they lived.

As one of the national priorities, education had – and is still argued to have – a critical role in transmitting both historical knowledge and a sense of being French (Corbett 1996, 5). From this perspective, from the 19th century onwards, the teaching of history has been a tool for political socialization, creating French citizens by inculcating them with the republican values of democracy, freedom and equality, but at the same time imposing respect for the established order and their glorious ancestors (Lantheaume 2003, 125). As of the beginning of the 21st century, the French curriculum still put a great emphasis on national identity, and social cohesion is perceived as loyalty to essential principles of the Republic, especially that of human rights, highlighting the intolerance of racism and discrimination (Osler and Starkey 2001, 287–301). Be that as it may, since the 1980s, the reforms to the French curriculum have increasingly encouraged a sense of European identity (Baqués 2006, 106). With the institutional formation of the European Union in the last decades of the 20th century, the tendency to Europeanize the educational systems and develop the European dimension in education has resulted in a reevaluation of European history throughout the century with the aim of emerging a European consciousness. Yet, this approach has not necessarily lead to the abandonment of a nationalist perspective; instead, in the case of France, it has meant a reinterpretation of national identity as an open concept compatible with European identity. Hence, as Europe became the focus of French national education, the curriculum reforms then cultivated a sense of dual citizenship, that of both national and European (Legris 2010, 139–43).

What is striking in three of the cases is the compliance to a trend that appeared in the second half of the 20th century, whereby internationaleducational standards were adopted and a global citizenship perspective developed.2 However, as illustrated in this section, in spite of the reforms enacted in order to meet with these criteria, a certain inclination to uphold the national values and national identity as the fundamental basis of citizen formation still persists in Turkey and Armenia, as well as in France, which results in a duality of national and global policies towards educational systems.

The Armenian Genocide in the educational frame:
a brief comparison of history textbooks

One of the important outcomes of the evolution in educational systems in the second half of the 20th century can be pinpointed to the appearance of the history of the present, relying upon a disciplinary knowledge of the contemporary world, most particularly that relating to memory. Since the Second World War there has been an immense rise in human rights issues triggering memory activism, fuelled by the duty to remember and to ensure that a crime against humanity, such as the Shoah, would ‘never again’ be possible. From the 1970s, despite the enduring nationalist element in educational policies, human rights education became a principal theme, along with the memories of victims (Meyer, Bromley and Ramirez 2010, 113). Even though, from a neutral point of view, teaching the Armenian Genocide would fit into this picture, the curriculums and textbooks of each country imply that it remains much more problematic and does not easily fit into the political agendas of Turkey, Armenia and France.

In terms of curriculum design, both Turkey and Armenia have official decrees on the Armenian Genocide. In the case of Turkey, as an extension of the struggle against the ‘alleged genocides’, on 14 June 2002 the Board of Education and Instruction ordered different grades at primary and secondary schools to be taught about all the issues concerning the claims of the Armenians, along with those of the Greeks and the Assyrians, through the terms set out by the Ministry of National Education in decrees 272–73 (Ministry of National Education 2002). The teaching plans for the history courses for the tenth grade (that is, at the age of fifteen) show that the issue is taught thematically, including but not limited to, the treatment of non-Muslim minorities in Ottoman Empire, Armenian revolts and atrocities, the role and intentions of the Great Powers in these revolts, the necessity of the decision to expel Armenians, intentions behind the terrorist acts of Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), the definition of the concept of genocide and its comparison with Armenianclaims (Ministry of National Education 2011, I–VI). The history textbooks, produced or approved by the Ministry, present the issue exactly as it has been regulated by these decrees, as a subject of ‘the Ottoman Empire in the First World War’, under the subchapter ‘the Caucasian Front’, hence providing a detailed picture of the ‘Turkish thesis’3 (Tüysüz 2017, 201–8).

In the case of Armenia, with the order N925 A/C, approved by the Ministry of Education and Science on 9 July 2013, the optional course entitled ‘History of the Armenian Question’ was regulated for eleventh grade (that is, at the age of sixteen) as an introductory course on the subject. As explained in the appendix of the order, the aim of this course is to teach the Armenian Question, that is, ‘the national liberation struggle of the Armenian people for the sake of restoring the national statehood in its historical homeland and creating a free, independent, and united Armenia’, which also includes the Armenian Genocide as a subject (Ministry of Education and Science 2013, 3). According to the standards and teaching plans of history in secondary education, the Armenian Genocide is taught in the eleventh grade as a part of the compulsory Armenian History courses. The teaching plan traces the Armenian Genocide chronologically: starting with the mass murders in Western Armenia at the end of 19th century, escalating to the Young Turks’ policy in line with the Hamidian programme of the destruction of Armenians, and reaching to a total act of genocide in 1915, during the First World War. The themes also include the role of the Great Powers, the trial and punishment of those responsible, the Armenian’s ‘heroic’ self-defence and the process of recognition of the Armenian Genocide (Ministry of Education and Science Centre for Educational Programmes 2008, 17–18). This approach is evident in the history textbooks of the eleventh grade, particularly under the chapter ‘Armenia and the Armenian People during the Years of the First World War’ (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 246–68).

In the case of France, a law that recognized the Armenian Genocide was enacted in 2001, therefore increasing its visibility in history education (Falaize and Mériaux 2006, 12). The French curriculum does not contain any direct reference to the Genocide, except from one phrase appearing in the History/ Geography programme for the third class of the fourth cycle (corresponding to ninth grade in a twelve-year education system, that is, at the age of fourteen) concerning the First World War during which ‘combatants and civilians suffer extreme violence, as witnessed particularly by the genocide of the Armenians in 1915’ (Ministry of National Education 2015, 315).

The history textbooks of this grade dedicate two pages to the Armenian Genocide under the title ‘Europe, a Major Front of Total Wars (1914–1945)’, within the context of ‘the brutalization of society’ during the First World War (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46–47).

The secondary-education history textbooks of all three countries that cover the First World War discuss the Armenian Genocide to some extent, yet with a different narration of the historical events. Within the framework of this paper, in order to provide an accessible comparison, the different ways of teaching the Armenian Genocide is primarily discussed through the previously cited history textbooks.4

Escalation of events

An important subject preceding the Genocide narration is Armenian–Ottoman relations. To be precise, before the chapters concerning the First World War, history textbooks of both Turkey and Armenia briefly examine the situation of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, yet with different interpretations. The Turkish history textbook explains that, during the empire, the Armenians had flourished in every possible way – economically, socially, culturally, if not politically – thanks to the Ottoman policies towards non-Muslim minorities, particularly emphasizing the ‘harmony’ of Armenian–Ottoman relations, treating the Armenians as loyal subjects [millet-i sadıka] (Tüysüz 2017, 72–73). Whereas the Armenian history textbook does not accept any possibility of coexistence, instead reviewing Armenian–Ottoman relations in terms of discrimination, oppression and the occupation of Western Armenia, while showing the Ottoman efforts as attempts to deceive Armenians. Describing the Ottoman Empire as ‘backward’, the narration accentuates the necessity of a liberation movement, with a certain stress on the destiny awaiting the Armenians (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 182–205). In the French history textbook, there is no reference to the conditions of the Armenians, with only one phrase expressing that they were living as a minority in the Eastern parts of the empire (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46).

Regarding the Armenian involvement in warfare, the central subject consists of Armenian political movements and their actions during the First World War. Both the Armenian and Turkish textbooks confirm that the Armenians of the Caucasus sided with the Russians. In the Armenian case, participation is presented as a ‘voluntary movement’, whereby the supportof Russian military forces would bring about the liberation of Western Armenia. Though there existed different political positions amongst Armenians towards the war and the voluntary movement,5 the comprehensive interpretation of the textbook suggests that the movement stands as a triumphant part of the history of the Armenian struggle for liberation (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 250–53). From the perspective of the Turkish textbook, the Armenian actions are depicted as ‘separatist revolts’ against the Ottoman Empire, aided by the Entente Powers with the aim of expelling the Ottomans from the war. Therefore the Armenians, who were ‘backstabbing’ the Ottoman army, are accused of becoming one of the reasons for the empire’s failure on the Caucasian Front (Tüysüz 2017, 201). The French history textbook, once again, does not mention the Armenian involvement in the war, however, but it does remark on the military defeats of Ottomans and the tensions within the governance of the empire as the reasons for genocide (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46).

Decision, implementation and consequences

The narration of the genocidal process can be compared from this sequence of events: the decision of deportation, the stages of implementation and the consequences. From the perspective of the Turkish history textbook, because of the Armenian revolts and treachery, the Ottoman ruling elite had to take the decision to ‘deport’6 only after every other measure – such as the enactment of martial law or the arrests of separatist Armenians – had failed to provide a satisfactory outcome. Demonstrating the four articles of the deportation law, the decision was justified by only targeting those who had disturbed peace, who has fought with weapons and rebelled against the authorities, and who had conspired or betrayed the country. Moreover, the textbook also criticizes the representation of the deportation in Western media, followed by a long explanation about the measures adopted for the protection of the deportees (Tüysüz 2017, 203–4). The French history textbook chooses to show the decision to deport with a communiqué of Talaat Pasha, then minister of the interior, ordering the deportation of Armenians with the exception of the sick and the disabled, and the arrest of those who disobeyed. The communiqué presented also cites the prohibition of Armenians to sell their property and real estate, as their exile is only temporary7 (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46). The Armenian history textbook recounts a more politicized picture of the Genocide, concentrating principally on the Young Turk policies towards Armenians. According to this perspective, the political aspect of the Genocide was a consequence of Sultan AbdülhamidII’s plan, devised long before the war,8 to build a new homeland for the Turks that territorially involved Western Armenia. The economic factor at play was the confiscation of Armenian wealth and property in order to provide capital for the state (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 255–56).

Concerning the stages of implementation, all three history textbooks demonstrate a certain timeframe for the beginning, development and conclusion of the event. In the Turkish textbook, the precautions against Armenian uprisings start in April 1915 with the arrests of those involved, intensify with the enactment and exercise of the deportation law and conclude in October 1915, when the state decided to suspend the deportations, convinced that the objective had been achieved (Tüysüz 2017, 203–5). The French textbook, with a small timeline and a map illustrating the acts of violence against Armenians, presents the start of the Genocide with the arrests of Armenians in April 1915, followed by two waves of deportations, the first between May and July 1915 and the second between the end of 1915 and the summer of 19169 (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46). The Armenian textbook also acknowledges the commencement of the process with the arrests of the Armenian leaders, however on a different date, October 1914. Following the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the First World War, able Armenian men were first recruited into the Ottoman army to be ultimately eliminated, and then the Armenians on the Caucasian Front were massacred. By April 1915, the arrested Armenians had been hung, signifying the beginning of massacres in every region. The Armenian response to the planned massacres was self-defence, which extended the genocidal process until the end of 1916 (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 258–9).

As for the consequences, the Turkish history textbook offers plenty of numbers, as a matter of fact, it almost resembles a balance sheet. According to the textbook, out of 1.3 million Armenians living in Ottoman territory, 413,067 were deported, 400,000 to 500,000 were not, 383,000 deportees reached the final destination, 350,000 to 500,000 voluntarily ‘immigrated’ to the Caucasus, thus estimating a ‘casualty’ of 57,000 Armenians during the overall process (Tüysüz 2017, 205). In the French textbook, for which the main objective seems to be demonstrate the suffering of Armenians, the number of murdered Armenians is estimated between 1.2 and 1.5 million, without any reference to the total number of Armenians living under the Ottoman Empire, nor to the other consequences of the Genocide (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46). In the Armenian textbook, the narrativeabout regional massacres and self-defensive actions gives precise numbers. However, the number is eventually rounded up to 1.5 million victims out of 2.5 million, which also signifies the official claim. Furthermore, the textbook examines the consequences of the Genocide in a much broader sense: the destruction of Western Armenian civilization, which is portrayed as a great loss not only for Armenians but also for the whole world; the continuation of economic and cultural genocide, that is, the annihilation of Armenian cultural heritage, a process that continues up to the present day, not only in Turkey but also in Azerbaijan; the emergence of the Armenian diaspora and the destiny of the survivors, including those who were forced to convert to Islam; and the effects of the Genocide on the following generations of the Armenian nation (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 259, 262–63).

Table 1. Comparison of the Factual Differences in Textbooks

  Turkey Armenia France
Context within the First World War Caucasian Front Caucasian Front Mass violence and brutalization
Armenian involvement in warfare Armenian separatist revolts Armenian voluntary movement for liberation -
Reasons Failure on the Caucasian Front because of Armenian treachery Confiscation of Armenian properties (economics), Young Turk policies (politics) Military defeats of Ottomans, tensions within the state
Decision Deportation Massacres and Genocide Deportation and Genocide
Stages Arrests of Armenians involved in revolts
end of implementation
Arrests of Armenians
Recruitment of Armenian men
Massacres on the Caucasian Front
Hanging of Armenian leaders
Massacres in every region
Armenian self-defense
Arrests of Armenians
First wave of deportations
Second wave of deportations
Period April 1915 to October 1915 October 1914 to end of 1916 April 1915 to summer 1916
Consequences in numbers 57,000 casualties out of 1.3 million Armenians 1.5 million Armenians victimized out of 2.5 million 1.2 to 1.5 million Armenians murdered


Claims and Genocide definition

The aftermath of the Genocide constitutes an important interruption of the chronological narrative in both the Armenian and Turkish textbooks; rather they continue with different stages of recognition and/or denial, with conflicts lasting up until the present.10 The Turkish textbook jumps to the conclusion of the First World War and the treaties signed in order to establish the present territorial boundaries – a topic that is actually examined elaborately in the succeeding chapter – as means to demonstrate the irrelevance of the Armenian claims over territory, particularly according to the internationally acknowledged Treaty of Lausanne. Moreover, the textbook argues that the Armenians developed their scheme against Turkey as a strategy to protect national consciousness and prevent further the assimilation of Armenians in the diaspora. In this context, a four-stage plan was introduced to enforce the recognition of the Genocide, leading to monetary compensation and territorial restitution. For this purpose, Armenians founded terrorist organizations, such as Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), to attract international attention to the Armenian cause by killing Turkish diplomats and their families. After the independence of Armenia, the conflicts became an issue for the foreign policies of both countries, this time marked by the attempts of the Armenian lobby to influence the international community (Tüysüz 2017, 205–8).

The Armenian textbook pursues another route towards the recognition process. The aftermath of the Genocide is discussed through international reactions towards the issue, including testimonies, publications, journals, reports and condemnations of the massacres by political figures. As the first step to recognition, the textbook notices the trials of Young Turks in 1919 by Turkish court-martials, which sentenced the perpetrators to death for their crimes against Armenians. Yet, the textbook implies, since the perpetrators had already fled the country, the punishment was not carried out by Turkish authorities or the Entente Powers, but by self-sacrificing Armenians with operation ‘Nemesis’, inspired from the Greek mythological goddess of retribution, which sought the assassinations of all those responsible for the Armenian Genocide. Stating that the recognition process has entered a new phase after the Second World War, the textbook affirms the rise of international recognition of the Genocide and the persistence of Turkey’s denial, an aspect that still, after a hundred years, determines political relations between two countries (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 262–67).

Since all three textbooks provide a definition of ‘genocide’, one convenient comparison would be the purpose behind the introduction of the concept. For the Turkish and the Armenian cases, the objective seems quite obvious: the former to denounce the claims of genocide and the latter to proclaim it. The Turkish textbook, citing the definition from the UN Convention, asserts that the deportation did not aim at Armenians per se, rather those who threatened the security on the Caucasian Front, adding the fact that the intention was not their extermination, because if it were the case, then the Ottoman ‘state’ would not have made the effort to deport them, but just would have murdered the Armenians where they were (Tüysüz 2017, 208). In the Armenian textbook, the invention of the concept by Raphael Lemkin (1900–59) is explained by his overview of the Armenian case, and a full legal description of the concept is cited, along with five acts defining an event as genocide. Since the Turks carried out all of the five actions, the textbook declares the legitimacy to address the events as ‘genocide’ in accordance with the UN Convention (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 264–65). For the French textbook, however, the objective remains ambiguous, since the definition appears as an exercise in words, and the self-evaluation questionnaire demands students to count three factors that justify the events to be described as an ‘extermination’ rather than a ‘genocide’11 (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46–47).


The comparison of different approaches to teaching the Armenian Genocide clearly shows that history education continues to be exposed to political influence. In the cases of Armenia and Turkey, the instruction of the Armenian Genocide confirms the countries’ political stances towards the issue: Turkey, in denial, attempts to construct an interpretation of the historical events that refutes the claims of genocidal intentions, whereas Armenia interprets the historical significance of the Genocide in their struggle for national independence. That being said, it is important to remember that, within the framework of history education in Armenia, the Genocide holds a fundamental part of the centuries-long battle against foreign occupation and the national struggle for liberation, which persists as the central theme in the national history curriculum (Akpınar et al. 2017, 45). While in the case of Turkey, the historical significance of the Genocide cannot be viewed without considering contemporary conflicts, hence its historical contextualization contains only the elements that affirm the official thesis. Additionally, given the fact that the Turkish stance tends to alter over timedepending on the political state of affairs or the allegations, the historical narrative evolves accordingly.

The French approach towards teaching the Armenian Genocide might appear intriguing in respect to the historical neutrality of the country. However, the French position seems to involve a lot of political, historiographical and pedagogical confusions. It is political because the position tends to fluctuate according to political influence and international diplomatic relations, as demonstrated in the comparisons of the 2012 and 2016 editions of the same history textbook. Historiographical because, as ascertained by Sophie Ferhadjian in her analysis of how to teach the Armenian Genocide, the attempt is to explain the issue without addressing the essential historical context such as the history of the Armenians, the rise of nationalism in the 19th century or the Eastern Question as well as the Armenian Question (2006, 4–5). Pedagogical because, as stated by Falaize and Mériaux, multiple constraints characterize its instruction: the authors of the textbooks do not have a comprehensive knowledge of the issue; the time and place devoted to it within teaching plans are very limited; it lacks documentation to prove it as ‘genocide’, and thus the civic aim of introducing such ‘brutalization’ of society is in vain (Falaize and Mériaux 2006, 13). In this regard, including the Armenian Genocide in the French history curriculum does not seem to have any intention other than to illustrate an example of mass violence preceding the Shoah.

Briefly, the comparison of national history curriculums and history textbooks of the aforementioned countries suggest that the teaching of disputable and sensitive historical events still remains problematic. The primary concern appears not to teach about this crime against humanity in order to raise consciousness and responsibility, but to use it either to consolidate national identity as in case of Armenia, or to confirm a political position as in case of Turkey, or to reaffirm republican values with a de-contextualized example of mass violence as is the case of France.


Oyku Gurpınar is a PhD candidate in History and Civilizations at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (French: Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales; EHESS), Paris. Her studies on the Armenian Genocide include themes such as familial memory of the Genocide, transmission of memory between generations, perceptions of the Genocide among Armenian youth, as well as the historiography and pedagogies concerning the Genocide. For this purpose, Gurpınar has participated in three research projects, conducted field studies in Turkey, Armenia, France and Lebanon, published articles and presented papers at international conferences.


1 According to Anderson, nation is an imagined community in the sense that i) its members lack face-to-face interaction with most of the other members, ii) and yet it assumes a horizontal comradeship amongst its subjects, iii) these communities are distinguished from one another depending on the manner they are imagined, iv) thus, the limits of a nation define the boundaries of where one nation ends and another begins (Anderson 2006, 6–7). In this regard, Anderson asserts that nationalism indeed accords with the evolution of educational systems, since schools and universities (re)produce the most preeminent imagination of a national community (Anderson 2006, 71).

2 It is essential to underline the fact that in the context of French education what is perceived to be ‘European’ citizenship corresponds to ‘global’ citizenship in the contexts of Turkey and Armenia. However, in the case of France, since the values of the republic are considered as ‘universal’, this duality is assumed to be complementary instead of conflictual. Nevertheless, this does not absolve French education from its nationalist tendencies, especially regarding the colonial past and confrontation with it (Lantheaume 2003, 138).

3 According to Gürpınar, the ‘Turkish Thesis’ on the Armenian Genocide constitutes a complex combination of three distinct approaches: a right-wing version, a left-wing version and a centrist version. Diverging in their justification of Ottoman response to Armenian militancy, the three versions also follow a concurrent path in the development of the official thesis. The right-wing version contextualizes the issue in terms of ethnic conflicts and nationalist movements, accusing Armenians of treachery and savagery, while the left-wing version emphasizes the imperialist hegemony of the era, targeting Armenian separatism through its collaboration with the Great Powers, and thus becoming the servant of imperialism. Finally, the centrist version claims a state-centric argument, denouncing the Armenian revolts as disobedience to state sovereignty (Gürpınar 2016, 221).

4 It is also important, at this point, to point out the fact that each country has a different policy towards textbook production. In Turkey, textbooks are produced either directly by the Ministry of National Education or by private publishers, also the Ministry can set up an independent commission to write a draft or order the purchase of existing textbooks. In any case, the textbooks are subjected to inspection and approval of the Ministry of National Education before being circulated (Akpınar et al. 2017, 19). In France, however, the production of textbooks is highly regulated by a very competitive market whose primary actors are private publishers where the only constraint is to follow the national programmes (Baques 2007, 127). Armenia stands somewhere in between, having both the market-oriented system and the central commission for the selection of textbooks. In this regard, the textbooks are produced by the private publishing houses to be enlisted for the competition held by the Ministry of Education and Science, and the results are declared as the authorized textbooks of the following academic year (Zolyan and Tigran 2008, 17).

5 The textbook dedicates a whole page for the four positions apropos the voluntary movement. According to the textbook, Hunchakians, linking Armenian’s autonomy to victory, openly declared for the Entente Powers, while the Dashnakians advised Armenians to fulfil their military duties to the country of which they are subjects, resulting in a divided position depending on the region; in Western Armenia they called for the maintenance of neutrality, whereas in the Caucasus they supported reunion with Russian troops. Bolshevik Armenians, as a representative of the diasporic opposition, alleged the war as unjust and disclaimed the Armenian struggle for liberation (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 254).

6 The Turkish history textbook addresses the events only as ‘deportation’, in fact the word ‘genocide’ is only used with the adjective ‘alleged’ in front of it.

7 What is most thought‑provoking is the fact that this document, originally found in the Ottoman Archives, is frequently employed by the denialists for the rejection of genocidal intentions, as it implies the ‘return’ of the Armenians. The 2012 edition of the same history textbook prefers to give reference to the testimonies of Henry Morgenthau, which includes a quotation from Talaat Pasha explaining the deportation decision (Blanchard, Veber and Lozac’h 2012, 42). A discussion concerning the French history textbooks might help explain the reasons for such a transformation. According to an article published on a Franco-Turk website, the instruction of the Armenian Genocide in these history textbooks lacked historical objectivity and trustworthy historical evidence such as archival documents and ignored historiographical developments on the issue, therefore bypassing the Turkish position in a way that would provoke the Turkish diaspora and complicate diplomatic relations (Houssay 2014). 8 Reference to Hamidian massacres as a contextual precedent of the Genocide also appears in other Armenian history textbooks, with a specific emphasis on the ‘Turkish way of resolving issues, and that is through massacres’ (Akpınar et al. 2017, 56).

9 A curious point revealed in the comparison between the Turkish and the French textbooks would be the fact that the date considered as the completion of implementation by the former is viewed as the beginning of a new phase by the latter. Indeed, the Turkish history textbook does not mention at all what has befallen Armenians between the end of 1915 and December 1918, when a law was enacted permitting the return of Armenians (Tüysüz 2017, 205).

10 Once again, the French history textbook reports neither the conflicts, nor the recognition process concerning the Genocide. Be that as it may, the 2012 edition of the same history textbook mentions the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by both the United Nations and France, as well as the denial of Turkey (Blanchard, Veber and Lozac’h 2012, 42).

11 Another interesting comparison between the 2012 and 2016 editions of the French history textbook would be the approach to the concept concerning the Armenian case. The former redirects the reader to another page for the definition of ‘genocide’, which is to be found in the chapter dedicated to the Shoah, also in the self-evaluation questionnaire the activity is to develop arguments that justify the events in 1915–16 as ‘genocide’ (Blanchard, Veber and Lozac’h 2012, 42–43, 78).


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This article has been published in the sixth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Violence in 20th-century European History.

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Ivana Polić

Testing the limits of manipulation: Children as a propaganda tool in Serbian and Croatian media during the Yugoslav Wars (1991-95)

14 Feburary 2018
  • nationalism
  • propaganda
  • Yugoslav Wars
  • children
  • ethnic conflict


The violent break-up of Yugoslavia, which began in the early 1990s, was undoubtedly influenced by the war propaganda aimed towards the nationalistic goals of all the sides involved. This article is focused on the analysis and comparison of one specific aspect of propaganda employed by the main pro-regime media in Serbia and Croatia, whose conflict marked the beginning of Yugoslavia’s dissolution: that is of the misuse of children as a warmongering instrument. The research examines different ways in which the manipulation of children as victims was used in Croatian and Serbian media and also its consequences, especially the role it played in shaping the actions of the warring parties. While Serbian media focused on the past by emphasizing the genocidal nature of Croats in the Second World War and the need to avenge Serb victims, especially children, Croatian media presented Croatian children as personifications and ambassadors of the ‘newly born’ Croatian collective national body, which was suffering from Serbian aggression. While standard histories of ethnic conflicts, nationalism and post-war transitions focus mainly on adult actors, this project seeks to shed light on the importance of children as both subjects and agents in the conflict-ridden areas of the Balkans, including their centrality to the transition from communism to democracy, to the wars that marked that shift, and to post-communist nation building, which remains contentious and in a state of flux to this day.

As future leaders of the nation, children have undoubtedly been a group of immense importance for political elites as part of the modern nationbuilding process. This was particularly the case in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, whose statesmen and peoples took pride in the factthat they liberated the country from the Axis through the communist-led, popularly supported Partisan movement in the Second World War. Furthermore, Yugoslavia soon became the only communist state in Europe to break with the Soviet Union and establish itself as neutral. The official socialist Yugoslav line presented the country as an ideal model of multi-ethnicity, with six ethnic groups (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Slavic Muslims and Montenegrins), five official languages (Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, Macedonian, Magyar and Albanian) and three official religions (Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Islam). Therefore, the leaders of the state knew it was important to mobilize young generations for support of specific goals and ideals of the Yugoslav socialist federation and for nurturing interethnic tolerance among its different ethnic and religious groups.

In 1991, however, with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, a violent ethnic war erupted between Croatia and insurgent Croatian Serbs supported by Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA). It began to tear the country apart. Within a decade, a series of conflicts resulted in seven independent states.1 From the very beginning, the pro-regime media in the countries involved played an essential part in shaping public opinion on the war (Thompson 1994, 1). Even though the communist regime in Yugoslavia was not as restrictive as in Eastern Bloc countries when it came to the notion of media freedom, by the time the dissolution of Yugoslavia had begun, the media in Croatia and Serbia were already firmly controlled by the conservative right-wing political elites who embraced exclusive ethnonational political programmes. One element that made the Yugoslav Wars unique is the fact that they took place on the brink of the 21st century, the age that saw mass media culture thrive in Southeastern Europe. Given the extent of media coverage and ordinary citizens’ access to television, newspapers and radio, viewers could literally follow its day-to-day course, and were exposed to gruesome scenes from the war in a way unseen before in Southeastern Europe. In addition to this, ‘patriotic journalism’ and war propaganda contributed to the state-of-war psychosis in which it was extremely difficult to differentiate between fact and misinformation.

How do we define propaganda? According to Professors of Communications Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, it is ‘the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist’ (Jowett and O’Donnell 2012, 7). They further subclassify propaganda intowhite (acknowledged source, accurate information), grey (source and/or information may or may not be verified) and black (false or conceived source, incorrect information) (Jowett and O’Donnell 2012, 17–20). These classifications will be of importance for this study when comparing the media in Serbia and Croatia, the two largest and most regionally dominant of the former Yugoslav states, and two of the parties most deeply engaged in ethnic conflict during these wars.

The research proposed here will demonstrate how children were used to justify ethnic warfare and the notion of ethnic exclusivity, one of the most important strategies of nation building in post-Yugoslav Croatia and Serbia. The evidence indicates that both Croatian and Serbian pro-nationalist media overexaggerated the role of children as victims and, through manipulation and misinformation, sought to enhance the overall public sentiment of animosity and rancour towards the ‘other side’. Nevertheless, the message conveyed in such a way differs slightly in its purpose. Serbian media, while mainly resorting to grey and black propaganda, constantly overemphasized the genocidal nature of the Croats and the parallelism with their crimes committed during the Second World War against Serbs and their children. On the other hand, Croatian media used children to a lesser extent through white propaganda, and with a predisposition towards centring on the present; Croatian children were seen as critical and representative of the ‘finally united’ Croatian collective national body (referring to the establishment of the independent nation-state in 1991), which fell victim to Serbian aggression and needed international recognition.

The connection between ideology and childhood indoctrination has recently been receiving more scholarly attention, especially among scholars working on topics concerning the processes of nation building and political culture in the late 19th‑ and 20th-century. However, most of these works deal with Western Europe, the United States, the former Soviet Union and Latin America, places where the nation-building process, when compared to Southeastern Europe at least, seems better established and successful.2 As for Southeastern Europe, and the region of the former Yugoslavia specifically, one notices the predominance of one type of approach that has left us with, at best, only a very incomplete understanding of children’s central place in the cultural, social and political upheaval that marked the region. Recent historiography has produced numerous child-centred studies covering the period of the Yugoslav Wars (1991–95). However, suchworks focus exclusively on the problems of children’s war trauma and the process of rehabilitation.3 The contribution of my project lies precisely in its different approach: instead of looking at the more familiar subject of the after-the-fact personal experiences of children who suffered through the war, I am turning to the new question of how those who had taken control of post-Yugoslav societies in Croatia and Serbia after the collapse of communism used that suffering to manipulate the masses and motivate them to enthusiastically participate in the warfare.

The study revolves around selected themes and concepts crucial to the understanding of the methods and effect of utilizing children as propaganda tools by Serbian and Croatian media. The first one focuses on Serbian media, while also providing an overview of the general situation regarding its tendencies of communicating information to the Serbian public from 1991 to 1995. The second section is equally structured, but it offers an insight into the problem from the Croatian media’s perspective. Finally, the two sides are compared, with a special emphasis on similarities and differences when it comes to the intentions and techniques behind the employment of such propaganda and its consequences on the relationship between the two countries and their position within the European community.

War for the sake of Serb children

The Yugoslav Wars, marked by the worst atrocities and war crimes seen in Europe since the Second World War, were initiated by Serbia and its ultraradical nationalist leader Slobodan Milošević, who took over the Serbian Communist Party in 1987. With the enormous military power of the Yugoslav People’s Army, Milošević proclaimed himself to be the representative of the largest ethnic group in Yugoslavia (Thompson 1994, 51). The aim was to reunite all ethnic Serbs in one state, and this inevitably included the ‘liberation’ of large territories of Croatia and Bosnia where Serbs represented the majority or the significant minority, and also expel non-Serbs in order to annex those territories to ‘historical Serbia’ (Brosse 2003, 14–15). Serbian media contributed to the Yugoslav disintegration more than any other state in the federation; Serbian leadership and the insurgent Serbs in Croatia did not accept the Croatian declaration of independence in June 1991, and the war was to be fought only if the public embraced the idea that it was done to preserve the very existence of all Serbs, and was therefore a justified and divine mission (Thompson 1994, 51).

During the 1990s, Radio Television Serbia (RTS) and newspapers Politika [Politics], Politika express [Political Express] and Večernje novosti [Evening News] became the main organs of pro-regime propaganda in the state. In order to control the media institutions and their managers and staff and eliminate the possibility of any critique of the regime, those in power introduced heavy taxes for printing and the distribution of independent newspapers, and refused to issue broadcasting licences for television and radio channels outside Milošević’s influence. Journalists who refused to practice the official, ‘patriotic’ style of reporting were openly labelled as traitors, and publicly intimidated by death threats and pressure to resign their posts (Thompson 1994; Brosse 2003; Vekarić 2011).

One aspect of propaganda to which the media in Serbia undoubtedly introduced a new dimension during the war in Croatia (and later Bosnia) was the manipulation and (re)invention of myths related to Serbian people’s history and national identity. The most prominent were those connected to the genocidal crimes committed against the Serbs by the extremist groups of Croats during the Second World War, as well as the defeat by the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Therefore, the resurrected Serbian identity was endangered by the ‘other’ identities that had suppressed it in the past: Croatian, Bosnian (refers to Muslims, in relation to Turks) and Albanian (given the demands of Albanians for autonomy in Kosovo). The public was constantly reminded about those bloody episodes, which resulted in the collective spread of animosity and prejudices towards the denominated ‘others’, and the children’s role was crucial in accomplishing this goal.

Starting from 1990, Serbian media were filled with reports about exhumations and reburials of Serb victims killed in Croatia and Bosnia by the members of the Croatian Ustasha (Ustaša) movement in the Independent State of Croatia during the Second World War.4 For instance, in August 1991, RTS broadcast a lengthy report concerning the exhumation of the Serb ‘martyrs’ from a mass grave discovered in Prebilovci, a small village in the south of Herzegovina. According to the report, those victims were ruthlessly executed by the Ustashas, and the viewers could see their remains being transferred to coffins and buried properly. A separate part of the report consists of a landscape that shows a pile of very small, children’s skulls, which are then zoomed in on so as to leave the viewers no room for doubt about to whom they belonged. Dramatic music accompanying the video clip contributes to the heavy atmosphere, while the speech ofDobrica Ćosić, one of the most prominent Serb intellectuals at the time, reminded viewers of the ‘unbearable burden of the tragedy of the Serbian people’ (RTS 1991).

Establishing parallels between the Croatian political leadership in the 1990s and that of the pro-fascist Croatian state, led by Ante Pavelić in collaboration with Adolf Hitler in the Second World War, was one of the widely used strategies of intimidating the Serbian ethnic community and ‘inducing’ the desired attitude and sentiment towards the ‘enemies’. Croats began to be collectively called ‘Ustashas’ in the Serbian media, and what needed to become ingrained in people’s minds is the fact that history repeats itself and that the genocidal nature of the Croats was about to be manifested again by reiterating all those monstrous actions from the past. More importantly, the message of the above-mentioned television report was supposed to convince the Serbs that even their offspring would not be spared by the Croats’ newly awakened thirst for blood (Denich 1994).

In this context, it was the Serb children who emerged as symbols of the collective Serbian trauma and represent the ‘Holy Crusade’ for the Serbian ‘Promised Land’. Extremely morbid accounts of alleged atrocities against them were perpetually served to the public in Serbia, and were not restricted to reports on commemorations and reburials only. For instance, the regional newspaper Otadžbina [Homeland], published within the territory of the Republic of Serbian Krajina,5 contained a separate section entitled ‘Genocide Against Serbs (1941–45)’. On 13 May 1995, the poem ‘The Memory of Little Milena’ by Mirko Rakić appeared on the page of this section. It laments the death of a Serbian girl who was ‘impaled by the Ustasha cutthroats’. A picture of a baby girl is added to the text to make the readers’ reaction even more emotionally driven. Numerous similar testimonies of Serb children’s sufferings under the Ustasha regime found their place on television or in the press, and very explicit and suggestive language like the one in Rakić’s poem helped in creating specific symbolic narratives that glorified the sacrifice and the collective woes of the Serb peoples. The goal of such messages was to mobilize as many volunteers as possible for the war cause, and the personal motivation for many of the recruits joining Serbian troops frequently had to do with their children’s well-being and the fear they might suffer the same fate as Serb children forty-five years earlier (RTS 1991).6 ‘Liberation’ was at the centre of the political vocabulary of Serbian leaders, who knew how to play the role of liberators. They wouldvisit schools and orphanages in Croatia and promise to protect Serb children from the rampaging Croats, and their speeches would be broadcast and closely analysed.7 Therefore, even though burying past crimes was part of maintaining interethnic harmony in the multiethnic Yugoslav federation, as socialist Yugoslavia disintegrated, the Serbian and Croatian nationalist movements based on ethnic exclusivity returned these episodes to their centre-stage position (Denich 1994; Pavlaković 2013).

The case that best illustrates the extent and consequences of Serbian black propaganda unravelled in the Croatian city of Vukovar in November 1991, when Croatian forces surrendered and the YPA and other Serbian paramilitary units established control over the city. On 20 November the international news agency Reuters released information that the massacred bodies of forty-one Serbian children between five and seven years of age had been found in an elementary school basement. The news came from a Serbian freelance photographer Goran Mikić, allegedly a witness to the crime. The case became the focal point of the RTS evening news on that same day. Invited as the guest speaker, Mikić claimed he had seen the dead children’s bodies, but brought no additional evidence (Brosse 2003, 7–8). Consequently, a special forensic team consisting of medical experts from Belgrade was sent to Vukovar to look for evidence. They ransacked houses, schools, basement shelters and kindergartens, but found no traces of dead children (Baljak and Hedl 2006).

A public retraction from the YPA and Reuters was made on 21 November in the RTS evening news programme in which, ironically, war analysts discussed the connection of the murders of children in Vukovar with those by the Ustashas in the Second World War, forcing the presenter to apologise to the viewers. Serbia’s ‘most credible’ paper Politika also published the rebuttal on 23 November, but merely as a succinct statement in the back of the issue (Brosse 2003, 8).

Although the story was quickly retracted, the timing of its release and its widespread coverage in the Serbian media inevitably played a part in subsequent retaliations against Croats. The Ovčara massacre, considered one of the worst atrocities in Europe after the Second World War, is especially relevant in this context. Between 20 and 21 November, at a dairy farm in Ovčara near Vukovar, more than 260 people (mostly war prisoners and patients and staff from the Vukovar hospital) were executed by membersof the Serb militia (Nazor 2011; Ingrao and Emmert 2012). Renaud de la Brosse, an expert on political communication, considers this a case of not only black but also unlawful propaganda that violates human rights and international law for political purposes (Brosse 2003, 11–12). Also, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia acknowledged the testimony of Vesna Bosanac, the head of the Vukovar hospital, who believed that the news about the children massacre was deliberately released to justify the Ovčara crime and subsequent retaliations (Bosanac 1998).

Unverified information involving children was also often disseminated by personalities who enjoyed a high reputation among the Serbian public. In the second half of 1991, RTS broadcast a speech of the Serbian bishop Filaret, who appears behind a table on which lies a small skull, and acquaints the viewers with ‘one more instance of the Ustashas’ ruthlessness’.

“The Ustashas came to a Serbian village near Kukuruzari and captured a small [Serbian boy] Ilija and forced his mother to watch his throat being cut ... The mother ran after them and begged for her dead child, but they refused, and instead carried him away and burned him. This skull is all that’s left ...“
(Lalić 1999)

It was no secret that bishop Filaret was a passionate supporter of Milošević’s political programme. He was not only actively engaged in helping Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, but he also assisted Serbian military and paramilitary troops (Ognjević 2004). Despite the fact that the authenticity of this story was never acknowledged, he, himself, was supposed to represent a ‘credible’ and ‘sacred’ mouthpiece of the Serbian nation. Involving children provoked strong emotional reactions and dehumanized the foe as much as possible.

Media lynching and extortion were one of the most frequently employed strategies of patriotic journalists in Serbia and including crimes against children guaranteed their ‘success’. One of the most notorious such cases concerned Davor Markobašić, a Croatian guardsman who was accused by the Serbian press of butchering Serb children in Vukovar and making necklaces out of their fingers, although there was no evidence except for hearsay (Vekarić 2011, 193–202). His name and address were published in the press, and his wife was killed on an Ovčara farm by gunshots to the stomach and vagina; she was pregnant, and was murdered because of the rumoursthat stigmatized her husband as a slaughterer and rapist of Serb children (Došen 1998). There are numerous other examples of openly denouncing individuals for purportedly committing crimes against children. In his book, Deputy War Crimes Prosecutor in Serbia Bruno Vekarić mentions the testimony of one of the prisoners in the Serbian internment camp: Begejci. On his internment, Serbian soldiers removed a knife from his pocket that they considered was the weapon with which he supposedly killed five or more Serb children who were later said to be found in his bathtub. He was labelled a murderer of children (Vučenić 2003, cited in Vekarić 2011, 223).

Cases like this indicate the psychological influence of child-centred propaganda on the minds and actions of those directly engaged in warfare and treatment of the enemy. Even though in most cases it was not possible to confirm the credibility of the information in any way, the manner in which these messages were conveyed had a tremendous impact on the Serbian public, especially troops on the Croatian fronts, and it served the purpose of favouring Milošević regime’s warmongering agenda.

‘My father is a Croatian Guardsman’

In May of 1990 the Croatian Democratic Union (CDU), a new conservative right-wing party led by Franjo Tuđman, won the elections in the Socialist Republic of Croatia (at the time still part of Yugoslavia) with a surprisingly large number of votes. It based its programme on ‘the right of the Croatian people for self-determination and state sovereignty’ (Nova Hrvatska 1990, 9–11, cited in Denich 1994, 377). More importantly, the new Croatian nationalism excluded Serbs as one of the ‘constituent nations’ of Croatia (which was the case during the Titoist regime) and changed its status to that of a ‘minority’. Although the Croatian constitution from 1990 granted national minorities the right to assert their nationality and linguistic and cultural autonomy, the coexistence of Serbs and Croats was looked on as abnormal. Also, the extreme Serbian nationalism that resonated with the large number of Serbs in Croatia only intensified Croatian nationalist impulses that had been suppressed for a long time (Denich, 1994, 377–83).

Croatian nationalism, just like Serbian, had its roots and ‘justifications’ in myth and history. The new government’s rhetoric rested on the narrative that Croatia had been oppressed under foreign monarchs for too many centuries, and that Croatian people almost always were forced to sacrifice their identity and faith. The definition of war was very straightforward: Croatiahad at last achieved independence and had to defend its national body and protect its territory and freedom against the aggressor (Thompson 1994).

Up until 1990, Croatian media were known for their objectivity and multiperspectivity, which is not surprising given the country’s different regional identities. When the CDU came to power, however, it seized the monopoly over the main television and press headquarters. Croatian National Television (CRT) and newspapers Večernji list [Evening Courier] and Vjesnik [Herald] became the most important CDU mouthpieces. ‘Patriotic journalism’ in Croatia actually mirrored that of Serbia: loyal CDU people (all of them being Croats) ascended to the chief positions of the state apparatus as well as the main pro-regime media headquarters. Journalists who criticized the new government (and the majority of Serb journalists) were intimidated or instantly replaced with those ready to go along the ‘patriotic’ line, and independent or private media were continuously sabotaged and forced to stop their broadcasting or distribution (Thompson 1994; Kurspahić 2003, Malović and Selnow 2001).

In the eyes of the CDU leaders, children occupied a very important role in the process of nation building. Unlike Serbian media that used children, first and foremost, to remind the public about crimes from the past, children in Croatian propaganda assumed a very present role. They personified the victimhood of the national corpus suffering from Serbian aggression and also acted as ambassadors and future leaders of the new country on the European political map that sought recognition from Europe and the world. To begin with, children represented one of the crucial ‘pillars’ of the CDU’s political campaign. Apart from being victims in need of protection, they also symbolized the future or, better yet, young citizenry who deserved to grow up in an independent Croatia, one which would not ‘suffer for Yugoslav and Serbian interests’. As the generation of vital importance for nation building, they appeared in political campaign speeches, videos, concerts and posters, while President Franjo Tuđman acted as the nation’s ‘fatherly figure’ and protector. One of the electoral campaign posters from 1990 shows the president carrying two little girls in his arms, while the message says ‘The Safe Future of Croatia’.8 In another interesting pre-election video from 1992, Tuđman explains to a young boy that, throughout his life, he was punished for his political views (referring to his imprisonment for advocating Croatian autonomy and independence from Yugoslavia and, more importantly, against Serbian expansionism). The young boy answers by acknowledging the role of the president in the achievement of a free and independent Croatia and stating that he knows they [Croats] need to liberate the country from the occupier, and that his dad is also contributing by fighting on the front (Globus 1992, 18, 39, cited in Senjković 2002, 140–41). Hence, he represents both the newly established state and its future endangered by the occupiers.

Indeed, by the end of 1991, when nearly one-third of Croatian territory was occupied by the rebel Serbs and YPA, victimhood and suffering became the central themes of Croatia’s political vocabulary. As quintessential war victims, children fit this concept well, and their hardships were ‘usable’ for two purposes: openly denouncing the enemy and appealing to the international community to recognize Croatian independence and its ‘suffering body’. The media, when it came to children, relied on visual imagery much more than the written word. Countless reports centred on the hazards Croatian children had to confront in the war zones, and newspapers were filled with images of youngsters hiding in shelters or saying goodbye to their fathers heading to the fronts, ready to put their lives on the line for their sons and daughters’ well‑being. As with Serbian media, texts of this kind frequently referred to those responsible for children’s tragedies and trauma and, in doing so, journalists continually overgeneralized and exaggerated. For example, on 12 May 1991 the newspaper Vjesnik published an article by Marijan Vogrinec who in his political commentary wondered:

“How to understand that today, on the verge of the 21st century, in the country we thought was a homeland of civilized people, Croatian mothers ... do not let their children go to school, because they ... might get hurt ... or kidnapped and held hostage by horrifying beardos?” (Vjesnik 4)

The derogatory term at the end refers to the members of Serbian paramilitary units called Chetniks, notorious for having long beards, and who, as in this case, were literally portrayed as monsters. Some of the other common terms used to denominate the other side were, for instance, ‘Serbs’, ‘Chetniks’, ‘monsters’, ‘bands of savages’, ‘Yugo-communists’, ‘non-humans’ and ‘pure evil’. This was especially effective during the interviews of refugee children on national television during the second half of 1991, when reporters asked the children who they thought caused their hardships. The collective stigmatization of the enemy was present in both Serbian and Croatian media.

The period between 1991 and 1995 was also marked by the production of numerous patriotic song collections, performed by many prominent artists and perpetually broadcast on national television and radio. Children were one of the most frequent ‘elements’ of such songs, and their mention or appearance incited viewers’ emotions and maternal instincts. One of the most famous war songs was ‘Hrvatine’ [Croats] by Đuka Čaić. In the music video, one of the song lines, ‘Čuvaj oče majčicu, ognjište i sestricu’ [Father, protect mother, home and little sister], is depicted by the scene of a mother and child hidden in a shelter, and then a Croatian soldier carrying a baby in his lap (saving its life). However, ‘Hrvatine’ never reached the popularity of ‘Stop the War in Croatia’ by Tomislav Ivčić, a singer actively engaged in supporting the CDU Party, whose anti-war song became a symbol of Croatia’s victimhood worldwide. Accompanied by a children’s choir, he is asking Europe (in English) to ‘stop the war in the name of children’, but also to ‘let Croatia be one of Europe’s stars’. If we look at children in this context, besides appealing to Europe to act in the name of the younger generation, they also take on the responsibility of ambassadors of their young, newborn country, and therefore assume an active participatory role rather than only being passive victims. This need to demonstrate the Europeanness of Croatia was one of the crucial goals of the political elites in the early 1990s, and the international audience could hardly be left indifferent to the plight of Croatian children.

To accomplish the desired effect, exhibitions like those of children’s drawings (usually depicting YPA tanks and fighter aircraft with red stars destroying homes with Croatian flags or other national symbols, and crying parents and children) were staged not only in Croatian museums but, more importantly, abroad, in countries like Germany, Switzerland or Austria.9 Since these were often organized and/or financed by the Croatian Ministry of Education and other state institutions, reports of such events as well as charity and humanitarian concerts for children funded from abroad were reviewed in the press and shown on television. Furthermore, these drawings were also printed on postcards or food boxes intended for Croatian guardsmen on the fronts, where they were received with great enthusiasm (Šigir 1993, 46–47; Senjković 2002, 35, 45–46). Croatian war posters included images of inconsolable mothers and children in exile, and the message on them was very clear-cut: the aggressor was ‘Serbia and the Yugo-communist army’ (Reljanović 2010).

One of the most conspicuous posters (Figure 1) shows a small boy fully dressed in dark green Croatian military uniform and wearing a headband decorated with the Croatian coat of arms (chessboard emblem); he is standing with his right arm raised while his fingers form the internationally recognized V for victory sign (Reljanović 2010, 244–245). The message reads: ‘I moj tata je hrvatski vojnik’ [My father is a Croatian Guardsman too]. The concept behind this poster resembles that of the famous British war poster from the First World War: ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’ by Savile Lumley.

Although the poster designers claimed they were ‘not produced as a result of a programme within the scope of a powerful and organized propaganda machine’ (Reljanović 2012, 19), its primary purpose was to contribute to enhancing war mobilization. Interestingly, connecting children to Croatian national symbols, such as a coat of arms, flags or military uniforms and insignia worn by Croatian fighters (see boy on poster), was a very popular tendency in the pro-regime press and television, particularly in communicating with an audience beyond the state itself. By portraying a child who, again, stands for the universal war victim as well as a young citizen and patriot aware of his country’s struggle for freedom, it managed to bridge the two dimensions that Croatian political elites needed to do to promote the Croatian cause, both locally and internationally.


This study has shown that the use of children as an instrument of war propaganda represented one of the main strategies of the ‘most productive’ pro-regime media in Serbia and Croatia during their conflict between 1991 and 1995. Both incorporated children into the victim-centred war propaganda; their nationalist political leaders claimed the right of their states to victory by reiterating notions of victimhood, defence and protection, ingrained in different mythological and historical explanations and justifications.

A dominant view of Serbian history that emerged after 1986 was that of a ‘heroic, long-suffering nation, struggling for centuries against invaders and annihilation’; this specifically referred to the Ottoman Turks and the massive extermination of Serbs by members of the Croatian Ustasha movement in the Second World War. Therefore, engagement in the war against secessionist Croatia became a chance for Serbian revenge. On the otherhand, Croatian nationalism was very much fuelled by the contemporary expansionist ‘Greater Serbian threat’ posed by Milošević, even though it was also rooted in the ‘long-time oppression by foreign rulers’. The aim of the propaganda was to convince the public that Croatia must be defended from Serbian aggression and, more importantly, aided by the European powers who would recognize its independence. Hence, while Serbia and its parastate the Republic of Serbian Krajina found itself isolated in the attempt to create Greater Serbia, Croatia turned to Europe, claiming its right to become a fully fledged member of the European Union (UE).

Both Serbian and Croatian media exaggerated and overgeneralized children’s victimhood to gain the sympathies of the public by depicting the children’s vulnerability and helplessness. In-depth analysis highlights the three common ‘functions’ of children in both cases. First, children’s suffering was an effective instigator of war mobilization. Secondly, both propaganda systems used children as an embodiment of the nation and its peoples’ ‘sacrifice for the long-awaited freedom and reaffirmation’. Lastly, even though children do personify the future of a particular nation (if we look at this idea from the perspective of a natural course of the life cycle), this notion was constantly overstated in the midst of the war atmosphere to the point that its real meaning became distorted by the propaganda. The three aspects mentioned are by no means a novelty in the history of modern war propaganda; since the First and, notably, the Second World War, children have played a vital part in the mass propaganda machinery. Nevertheless, the priority was mostly given to their role as soldiers or members of massive children’s organizations such as Hitler Youth or Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Communist League of Youth). This was not the case in post-Yugoslav Croatia and Serbia, the leaders of which created their own nationalist agendas within the turbulent fall of communism and new European geopolitical reality.

When it comes to methods of dissemination through visual, audio and printed media, such as videos, photographs, war posters, war songs and newspaper articles, Serbian propaganda involving children was notorious for its unscrupulousness. It consisted of techniques such as extortion, medialynching, spreading false information, the falsification of sources and/ or a general lack of credible sources. Many of the cases described can therefore be considered unlawful and/or a combination of grey and black propaganda. Croatian child-focused propaganda was not as transparent as Serbian, but rather subtly infiltrated into white propaganda machineryorganized to maintain the status of the ‘victim of aggression’ that ‘pays the price for its independence’. Croatian media relied more on visual images than the written word, and connected children in contexts related to their inextricable connection to national Croatian political and military symbols. Consequently, their role as ambassadors of the newly independent state was much more active than that of Serbian children, who were treated exclusively as passive victims.

The consequences of such well-elaborated and widespread child-centred propaganda were no less fatal for Serbian and Croatian societies than the war itself. The psychological element at the core of this mechanism of propaganda led many to embrace the concept of war as existential and interethnic. The often exaggerated victimization of children no doubt intensified during the war. It remains a burning issue to this day; one of the barriers that still prevents the normalization of relations between Croatia and Serbia has to do with education and textbooks, and the way in which the two sides interpret this conflict and who the victims are. Ultimately, it all has to do with educating the younger generations and future leaders of these nations.

Finally, the development of their national identities in the 1990s, and especially the role of children in it, helps us better understand the current positions of Croatia and Serbia in the contemporary European order, with the former being the newest member of the European Union, and the latter, because of its isolation, finding itself wavering between an EU–NATO partnership and its traditional ally, Russia. This project is also significant to the understanding of the workings of ethnicity and nationalism in Europe as a whole, where recent events, such as those in Ukraine or the European reactions to the refugee crisis, have shown us that ethnonational exclusivities, once thought to be disappearing in the face of the European Union, are only becoming more important with the rise of an ethnonational right wing. Finally, the project has a global significance, as it explores the potential of media and new communication technologies for both using and indoctrinating children in the service of nationalism, patriotism, chauvinism and other regime-driven political purposes.



Ivana Polić is a PhD candidate in the History Department of the University of California, San Diego, where she also works as a teaching assistant for the Makingof the Modern World programme. She is interested in the modern history of Southeastern Europe, with particular emphasis on post-1945 history of Yugoslavia and its successor states. Her research focuses on topics such as popular culture, the interrelationship between gender and politics and the history of childhood. Her dissertation project deals with the importance of children and childhood in the process of nation building in Croatia after the break-up of Yugoslavia.



1 The term Yugoslav Wars refers to a series of conflicts: Ten-Day War in Slovenia (May-June 1991), Croatian War of Independence (1991–95), Bosnian (1992–95), Croat- Bosniak (1992–94), and Serbia-Kosovo (1998–99) conflict.

2 See Katriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890–1991 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007); Anna Saunders, Honecker’s Children: Youth and Patriotism in Eastern Germany, 1979–2002 (New York: Manchester University Press, 2007); Tara Zahra, Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900–1948 (London: Cornell University Press, 2008).

3 See Joseph Kerrigan and William Novick, eds., Healing the Heart of Croatia (New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1998); Vjekoslav Šaravanja, 10,000 djece bez roditelja u Domovinskom ratu [10,000 Parentless Children of the Homeland War] (Slavonski Brod: Obiteljski centar župe Duha Svetoga, 2001); Neven Šikić, Miomir Žužul and Ivan Fattorini, eds, Stradanja djece u domovinskom ratu [Suffering of children in the homeland war] (Jastrebarsko, Zagreb: Naklada Slap and Klinika za dječje bolesti Zagreb, 1994).

4 The term Ustasha (Ustaša) refers to the members of the pro-Fascist organization active before and during WWII in Croatia, which supported the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia (1941–45) as a Nazi satellite state (encompassed Bosnia and Herzegovina, part of Serbia and modern day Croatia). As part of creating ethnically pure Croatia, hundreds of thousands of people were executed or expelled, particulary Serbs, Jews and Roma.

5 The Republic of Serbian Krajina existed from 1991 to 1995 as a Serbian state within the territorial boundaries of the Republic of Croatia, but it was never recognized internationally.

6 See, for instance, interviews by RTS from August 1991.

7 See, for example, issues of Politika between 1991 and 1992.

8 Available at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb.

9 See, for instance, Djeca u ratu i poslije rata: izložba dječjih likovnih radova [Children during and after the war: exhibition of children’s art works] (Osijek: Galerija likovnih umjetnosti, 1992); Ich Habe Angst: Ausstellung der Zeichnungen der Kroatischen kinder [I am afraid: exhibition of Croatian children’s drawings] (Zagreb: Hrvatski školski muzej, 1992); Papir, boje, kist i rat: izložba likovnih iskaza hrvatske djece o Domovinskom ratu [Paper, colours, brush and war: exhibition of Croatian children’s artistic expressions about the homeland war] (Zagreb: Hrvatski školski muzej, 1992); Sanjam o miru / I Dream of Peace (Zagreb: UNICEF and Croatian School Museum, 1992/93).

10 Square brackets in the reference list and endnotes contain author’s translations of titles originally written in other languages, mostly Croatian or Serbian.


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Papir, boje, kist i rat (1992) Papir, boje, kist i rat: izložba likovnih iskaza hrvatske djece o Domovinskom ratu [Paper, colours, brush and war: exhibition of Croatian children’s artistic expressions about the homeland war]. Exh. cat. Zagreb: Hrvatski školski muzej.

Pavlaković, Vjeran (2013) ‘Symbols and the Culture of Memory in Republika Srpska Krajina’, Nationalities Papers, vol. 41, no. 6, 893–909.

Politika [Politics]. Belgrade: Politika, 1990–95.

Political Express (1991–94) Politika ekspres: večernji list [Political Express: Evening Courier]. Belgrade: NIP Politika.

Radio Television Serbia (1990–95) Evening News. VHS. Private archive. Belgrade: Radio Television Serbia.

Reljanović, Mario (2010) Croatian War Poster 1991–1995. Zagreb: Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Croatia and Croatian Homeland War Memorial and Documentation Centre.

Senjković, Reana (2002) Lica društva, likovi države [Faces of society, figures of the state]. Zagreb: Institut za etnologiju i folkloristiku.

Šigir, Mirjana (1993) ‘O ulozi dječjeg crteža u podizanju motivacijske spremnosti HV’ [‘On the Role of Children’s Drawing in Increasing Motivational Readiness of the Croatian Armed Forces’ Members’]. Ideja: Časopis za vizualnu i tržišnu komunikaciju i kulturu [Idea: Magazine for Visual and Marketing Communication and Culture], no. 5, 46–47.

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Večernje novosti (1990–95) Večernje novosti [Evening News]. Belgrade: Novinsko-izdavačko poduzeće Borba.

Večernji list (1990–95) Večernji list [Evening Courier]. Zagreb: Večernji list.

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This article has been published in the sixth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Violence in 20th-century European History.

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

Afrim Krasniqi

Control through fear - The enemy at the gates: The case of Albania

13 Feburary 2018
  • totalitarianism
  • Albania
  • Hoxha
  • communist regime
  • persecution
  • control through fear


One of the main features of the communist regime in Albania (1944–90) was the rule through intimidation and the psychosis of the ‘enemy at the gates’. More than two generations grew up and lived under such psychosis. Over the years they took such a situation for granted, by making it an essential part of their language, lifestyle, thought and vision for the future. The system of collective intimidation, ‘the enemy at the gates’ turned into a system of the rule of law. It was anchored in laws and punishments used against any critical form of resistance to the regime. In such society happiness, sovereignty, survival and success were only considered possible in a closed, isolated system guarded by vigilantes who monitored and rejected of any kind of external influence. This paper analyses the evolution of the concept of the ‘enemy’ and the system of establishing a feeling of permanent fear emanating from the top (systemic authorities) towards the bottom (citizens), through official political discourse. It looks at how these notions ‘succeeded’ and how they influenced the political formation of society. It discusses the dynamics of the creation of a collective consciousness based on the primacy of survival.


A large part of Albania’s modern political history (1945–90) unfolded under the heavy shadow of one-party rule, marked by the uncontested control of a sole leader over the party. Albanian politics of that period showed markedly totalitarian traits, shaped by the syndrome of perpetual anxiety over perceived internal and external threats. The regime built up a system capable of using violence and triggering fear, able to eradicate potential threats identified among suspect groups and individuals.

The relationship between state and citizen was built on a widely shared understanding of the state as an all-powerful entity, ultimately embodied in the dictator and his inner circle. It was able to claim and ultimately wield total control over society as a whole and on individual citizens who had no role to play in decision-making and a sacred duty to accept orders, guidance and instructions. The fear-instilling system was functional and effective. It was anchored in the constitution through severe limitations on civil rights, through complementary legislation on surveillance, through state propaganda and through a far-reaching control over an individual’s private life, family, community, workplace, career advancement and religious beliefs.

As Arendt wrote, ‘totalitarian ideologies aim to transform human nature itself, since the human condition of plurality is the greatest obstacle standing in the way of the realization of an ideologically consistent universe [...] since tyranny destroys the public realm of politics and is therefore anti-political by definition’ (Arendt 2002). Nevertheless, the state of ‘isolation’ and ‘impotence’ experienced by the individual in tyrannical forms of government springs from the destruction of the public realm of politics whereas the mobilization of the ‘overwhelming, combined power of all others against its own’ does not eliminate entirely a minimum of human contact in the non-political spheres of social intercourse and private life. Thus, if the fearguided actions of the subject of tyrannical rule are bereft of the capacity to establish relations of power between individuals acting and speaking together in a public realm of politics, the ‘isolation’ of the political subject does not entail the destruction of his social and private relations. Therefore, in all nontotalitarian forms of government, the body politic is in constant motion within set boundaries of a stable political order, although tyranny destroys the public space of political action (Ngjela, 2003, 21).

No other state in the socialist bloc was able to conceive and apply such extreme measures as in Albania, and none was as effective in eliminating dissidence, in prohibiting religion in the Constitution, and in ultimately cutting itself off from both East and West. Two generations were born and lived under this psychotic regime. As the years went by, the nature of the regime was taken for granted. Its existence and functioning was internalized. It became part of the way people lived, spoke and thought about the past, present and future.

The ‘enemy at the gates’ system of collective control through fear evolved into a method of ruling through pervasive violence that was sanctioned inlegal acts and practical measures targeting each and every form of possible and actual dissidence against the regime. Under such a system, the quest for personal happiness was overridden by the need for survival: a personal life was only possible inside a closed shell that refused to be influenced by the outside world. The fall of the regime in 1990 and the establishment of the multi-party system were understood as a departure from the regime of fear, where people could meet and speak openly.

The old concept of ‘the enemy’, as mostly associated with Western Democracy, was then superseded by the concept of ally, friend, partner and unconditional supporter of the Euro-Atlantic integration process.

‘The enemy’ as a constitutional principle and as a basis of legitimacy

Communist Albania’s prevailing concept of ‘the enemy’ was related first and foremost with the relationship between the individual and the Party1 and with the connection between the individual, state and society. The only official Albanian dictionary of that time (dictionary of today’s standard Albanian [FGJSH], 1980, 53)) describes the entry ‘enemy’ as ‘the person who stands against the interests of the class, party, motherland and socialism, by fighting and acting against them’.2

This definition is to be also found in previous academic and official papers and documents, in the official media, in public discourse and in the notes and documents of the Political Bureau, Albania’s Communist Party’s highest decision-making body from 1948 to 1990. The Communist Party’s sources mention several types of ‘enemies’, among the most notable we can list are ‘the enemy of the party’, ‘the enemy of the people’, ‘the class enemy’, ‘enemy of the people’s rule’. Marking individuals as ultimate enemies, should they engage in activities marked as harmful to ‘the interest of the [working] class and of the party’, is indicative of the core philosophy that sustained Albania’s communist system.

Under charges of ‘hostile activity’, implying acts or opinions and perceptions opposed to the Party, the communist regime executed 5,157 citizens; 9,052 more citizens died in prison; 17,990 citizens underwent prolonged imprisonment sentences; and 30,383 citizens were exiled in conditions similar to labour camps, bringing the total number of people subjected to political persecution to 65,582. With an effective population of just 1.1 million inhabitants, this resulted in 5.9 per cent of the population or 10.2 per cent ofcitizens over eighteen years of age being subjected to political persecution. Officially Albania had twenty-three political prisons and forty-eight labour camps for political detainees.

The ascent to power of the communists in Albania was later exemplified in the Constitution of 1945. It was consolidated in the Constitutions of 1950 and 1976, and supported by several pieces of secondary legislation. According to the political programme of Albania’s Communist Party of 1948, and to the Constitution of the Republic of Albania of 1950:

“in the present historical era, the Communist Party (of Albania) mobilizes and guides the working class, the peasants, and all of the country’s workmen, in their struggle against the remainders of the fascism, feudalism, bourgeoisie and reactionaries, to uphold the country’s independence and territorial integrity, to advance democracy and the people’s rule, to rebuild and to industrialize the country, to build up its electrical power grid, to develop the state sector and the cooperatives to raise the economic, cultural and technical level of knowledge of the working class and of the whole population (Labour Party of Albania [LPA] 1950)“.

The Statute of the Communist Party stated the following basic criterion with regard to its members: ‘to protect the party and its unity from the attacks of internal and external foes’ (LPA 1948, 520).

This definition creates a relationship of interdependence between the concept of the struggle against the ‘internal enemies’, including the ‘bourgeois’ identified as the urban middle and upper class, the ‘remainders of feudalism’ consisting of the landed gentry, ‘the reactionaries’ implying religious communities in general and Roman Catholics in particular, and ‘the remainders of fascism’, consisting of the individuals and the families of those directly or indirectly involved with the state administration under the German and Italian occupation in the period 1939–44.

The total war waged against the above categories, which back in 1948 represented the most educated strata of Albanian society, was justified with the struggle ‘to preserve national independence and territorial integrity’ and ‘rebuild the country’. Further to punishing or disciplining critics of theregime, the party would argue that it had ‘eliminated’ enemies of Albania’s independence and progress. This alibi seemed to work well during Albania’s post-Second World War state of exception that saw the final establishment and consolidation of communist rule further to the total eradication and suppression of any effective threat to the new regime. After that, it seemed to have been accepted without any reservation, as all dissenting voices were already effectively suppressed.

The concept of the enemy as a hallmark of ‘class struggle’, in the sense of boundless class warfare waged against all those holding differing opinions, was sanctioned in the Constitution with the following wording (Constitution ... 1976): ‘The Socialist Republic of Albania is a country ruled by the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the expression of the interests of all workers’; ‘the leading ideology being Marxism–Leninism’; ‘poised to continuously advance the revolution, the class struggle, towards the final victory of socialism over capitalism, and towards the ultimate establishment of and communism.’

Article 55 of the Constitution prohibits the establishment ‘of any organization of fascist, anti-democratic, religious or anti-socialist nature. Fascist activity, any type of anti-democratic and religious propaganda, and the instigation of racial and national hatred shall be prohibited.’

The Constitution and the Criminal Code entailed over seventy articles sanctioning the death penalty over several criminal offenses (Repishti 2017). Offences such as ‘activity directed against the party’, ‘emigration from the country’, ‘economic sabotage’, ‘religious practices’ and the establishment of organizations outside the Labour (Communist) Party were subject to harsh sanctions, further detailed in secondary legislation and in other specific measures, such as the unifying decision of 1968 to suppress the Ministry of Justice. The decision remained in force until spring 1990, leaving Albania without a Ministry of Justice for twenty-two years.

The execution of these extreme political and ideological decisions was entrusted to an extended network of informers built around the secret police, also known as Sigurimi – State Security. The State Security as approved by the Political Bureau (Decision no. 30 1954) aimed to create a system of total surveillance of Albania’s citizens, including low profile enemies of the Party, for the purpose of protecting the leader and the party ‘from internal and external enemies’.

The surveillance was carried out by the departments of the Ministry of Interior in conjunction with ‘voluntary cooperation groups’, consisting of party loyalists and members of its auxiliary organizations. The structure had a vertical line of command and a horizontal extension, covering all inhabited areas and production facilities. It controlled all mailing services, all correspondence between citizens, especially the correspondence of families with convicted and exiled members. Over one third of the Albanian citizens were covered by personal surveillance files.

‘The enemy’ as a mechanism of persecution and control

The concept of social class, entailing a regime ‘of workmen and countrymen’ in charge of ruling over the rest of the social classes is found in different forms in the Soviet models and in the ideologies of other socialist countries all over the Eastern Bloc. In Albania the class concept was at the very foundation of the country’s legal framework and at the heart of public discourse. It was the source of all legal and administrative acts. The classification of citizens into two large categories – party loyalists and enemies – marked the line of division between a totalitarian regime and the alternatives to it. The singularity of Albania’s communist regime has been widely debated, also with regard to the question whether ‘class struggle’ was ‘properly’ borrowed as a system of reference from the October Revolution, or whether it was mostly adapted to the social reality where the Albanian communists had to operate.

The critical thesis maintains that ‘class struggle’ was ‘misused as an alibi for paying lip service to the totalitarian structure’, therefore ‘the destructive war waged against the individual in Albania was wrongly referred to as class struggle ... the very definition of class struggle is an expression coming from a totalitarian mind set ... there was no class struggle in Albania, rather a war of all against all’ (Klosi 1993, 57).

As discussed by Lefort, ‘the attack against the enemies of the people was launched in the manner of a disease prevention campaign: the integrity of the body depends on the elimination of the parasites feasting upon it’ (Lefort 1994, 115). The communist regime came into being precisely through the quest for the total elimination of all potential resistance. In 1944 and 1945 Albania’s communists undertook extreme measures (arrests, executions and long sentences of imprisonment of twenty to a hundred years) against all individuals with a potential to provide political representation. Theyindiscriminately attacked high-profile political opponents, minor political associations, influential local religious leaders and the whole of the liberal elite of their time. In 1945 the communists embarked upon a far-reaching ‘agrarian reform’ that wiped out the well-to-do farmers, and created a loyal social group of peasants entitled to the use of land, totally dependent on the decisions taken by the regime. In 1948 Albania passed a law on the forced expropriation of all cattle stock (Law no. 598 1948). That law paved the way to the establishment of farming cooperatives. Those who resisted its implementation, or those found to have hidden the cattle subject to expropriation, were considered as ‘saboteurs and reactionaries’, liable to be sentenced to up to ten years’ imprisonment.

The same approach was followed with the law on the confiscation of agricultural products, with the adoption of the system of extraordinary taxation for retail traders and with the decision to confiscate monetary values saved outside financial institutions. The professed goal of the regime was ‘to crush the resistance of political opponents, to expropriate the upper class ... to safeguard the victories of the revolution’ (Omari 1977, 119). A decision of the Political Bureau identified eighteen cases that qualified an individual as ‘a hostile kulak’, liable to be put under surveillance, have their possessions confiscated and be deprived of freedom.

The description of ‘kulaks’ includes the following: ‘he/she has a nice house and extensive property’, ‘he is very active in the bazaar’, ‘he used to lend money at interest’, ‘he was connected to the regime of [King] Zog’, ‘he is opposed to the modernization of agriculture’, ‘he acted as if he were the most important and the most intelligent man in the village’, ‘he is a doublecrosser’, ‘he has family connections with rich families’, ‘he opposes womens’ participation in social life’. The same methods of classification applied to other types of enemies: religious enemies, enemies in the fields of arts and culture, enemies in the fields of sport, economy, army and so on.

The branding as an enemy affected all leaders of religious communities, urban elites, important landowners in northern Albania, and those individuals with connections in Western Europe. This ecletic mix of individuals fell into the category of ‘enemy of the people’. This category was periodically expanded to include persons holding public functions, subsequently denounced as ‘saboteurs’ and ‘collaborationists’, especially if they failed to achieve the objectives set by the central planning committee. When theworks to drain the Maliq swamp failed to be completed in 1946 within the given deadline, the communist regime arranged a ten-day trial that served to execute all the technical experts of the project, including a pregnant woman. They were accused of ‘sabotage’ and of being ‘US and British spies’. Over seventy former students of the Harry Fultz College in Albania met tragic deaths, imprisonment and confinement.

A unique case is given by the arrest, trial, sentencing and execution within the timeframe of only seventy-two hours of twenty-two well-known intellectuals in February 1951, accused of ‘hostile acts’ and ‘involvement with foreign espionage’. The review of their files in 1991 showed that the Political Bureau had decided to set an example, and to this end, it brought together and evaluated a list consisting of 170 intellectuals from different locations. At the end of the meeting, the Bureau set apart twenty-two people to be killed, and the decision was passed to the secret service, the Prosecutor’s Office and to the state police for immediate execution. Such acts of terror were meant to establish and perpetuate a climate of fear, in which every single individual would sense that his life and his survival were out of his control.

The politically motivated attack against the concept of the independence of the individual was only the first ring in a long chain of measures geared towards conditioning him, his family, friends and colleagues. If a person were to be sentenced on political charges, he would automatically relinquish his rights of citizenship including the right to vote. His family would be included in the list of those to be possibly sent to exile, in conditions very similar to the Soviet Gulags or to the Nazi labour camps. Their property could be seized at any time. The very fact of being a family member, a friend or a relative of a person found to be an enemy of the people would automatically make them guilty.

The courts decided which individual was guilty, while the decision to send his family into exile was taken by a select committee of the Ministry of Interior. Often no prior consultations with those affected were deemed necessary.

The concept of wholesale persecution and collective punishment was adequately anchored in the legal framework of that time. The legal practice of sending persons into exile started in 1949 with the first decree issued against the families of political opponents (Decree no. 649, 1949, art. 3). In 1979 the law on exile was supplemented with additional elements, laid outin a decree of the Presidium of the People’s Assembly (Decree no. 5912, 1979). More concretely: ‘The punishment by exile as an administrative measure can be given against Albanian citizens, foreign citizens and stateless persons of more than 14 years of age, have the capacity to act and are dangerous to the social order of the Republic of Albania ... exiling may be also applied against the relatives of the persons who have escaped abroad’. The law further established that ‘relatives’ are the ‘spouses, children, parents, brothers and sisters, and other persons living together with the person or who were under his custody’.

‘The enemy’ as an alibi for personal power

The justification for committing crimes ‘for public interest’ and ‘in the name of the people’ was widely in line with the regime’s Bolshevik model, which taught that ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat was to be considered as similar to a terrorist formation. The Bolsheviks considered themselves as chosen by God to bring about peace, development and equality in a world dominated by crime, therefore crime was to be fought by crime, yet crime was to be perpetrated only for a higher purpose’ (Ngjela 2011, 193). In line with these teachings, dictator Enver Hoxha was keen on acting resolutely against ‘the enemy’.

He ordered the imprisonment and execution of seventeen high-level politicians and maximum sentences against seventy important statesmen, founders of Albanian independence in 1912, former prime ministers, ministers and intellectuals, including the spouse of his own sister, Bahri Omari. The execution of Hoxha’s brother-in-law was not linked to any specific accusation or crime. It is to be rather understood as an attempt to show to everybody that the same standard applied to everyone, including the close relatives of the high party officials, who dared to criticize the dictator.

In the period 1944–48 Albania entered into a preferential relationship with Yugoslavia. As a result of this, hundreds of individuals, including high party officials, critical of the political control wielded by the Yugoslavs, were prosecuted and found guilty as internal enemies. From 1948 to 1961 upon severing its links to Yugoslavia, Albania aligned itself to the USSR. The rule remained the same: whoever was found to be a critic of the Soviets was sentenced to from four to seven years of imprisonment. After the interruption of the relationship with the USSR, and further to Albania’s alignment with Communist China (1966–75), the rule was applied once again: whoever wasfound to be critical of China was to be punished, those who were considered to be pro-Russian or trained in Moscow were prosecuted and punished.

After the interruption of the relations with China (after 1975), those who made a career during Albania’s Chinese alignment had to pay a high price. Some ministers were executed, including the ministers of defence, economy and industry. The highest profile case was related to the forced suicide of the communist Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu in 1981. He was declared as an enemy of the state after his death. The engagement of Shehu’s son with a girl from a family with a ‘bad political biography’ was used by the communist regime to ‘prove’ that Prime Minister Shehu had passed over to the enemy camp. Further to Shehu’s suicide and to the execution of several ministers, including the minister of interior and the minister of health, their families were arrested or exiled, and some of the close relatives, including the wife of the former prime minister were executed, on charges related to ‘treason’ against the party and the people. Each of the waves of massive retribution relied on the same official justification: the need to punish the enemies of the people, spies and traitors.

The punishments were followed by hefty propaganda campaigns aimed at proving the treason of those punished and at providing information on their alleged efforts ‘to overthrow the rule of the people and to eliminate the highest leaders of the state’ (Pipa 2010, 98). A wealth of archived documents and research studies of this period seems to prove the thesis that there was no actual involvement of Albanian politicians or political groupings with foreign governments. Their punishment mostly came as a result of the dictator’s fear of possible contacts between his high officials with important allied states (Yugoslavia, USSR, China etc.) that might threaten his leadership. It is clear that the war against such ‘enemies’ was instrumentalized by the dictator, always looking for ways to ensure his personal and unilateral grip on power. This also explains the system of fluid alliances and Albania’s subsequent self-isolation from both the East and the West, and the escalation of the periodic campaigns of ‘class struggle’ against ‘the enemy’.

This thesis is corroborated by the increased number of sentences after the early fifties, a period in which virtually no actual ‘enemies’ were left. Precisely in this timeframe, a new wave of punishments against all types of perceived enemies (informers, rival political formations, intellectuals critical of the regimes, dissidents, agents coming from outside Albania) was launched.

According to the official figures, from 1949 to 1953, 2,611 people escaped from Albania, or 0.3 per cent of the total population (Xhafer 2013, 187). After 1954, when Albania was able to almost fully seal its borders, it started to send growing numbers of its ‘enemies’ to exile inside its territory. In the period 1954 to 1957, the average number of families sent to exile was 300 to 500. After the break in relations with the USSR, in the period 1954 to 1957, the number of families sent to exile increased considerably, reaching 1,200 to 1,300 families per year. The same situation repeated itself after the break with China in the seventies.

Control through fear in Albania

When Dictator Hoxha died in April 1985, his obituary noted that under his leadership ‘Albania was safe’, implying that his death might turn Albania into an unsafe place. Far from being an intentionally made hint, this deliberation was closely related to a mentality created in the course of many years, according to which Albania was permanently being threatened by an impending invasion by its foes. The key slogans from this isolationist period were: ‘We build socialism with a pickaxe in the one hand and with a gun in the other’, ‘We dance on the face of danger’, ‘The enemy holds us at gunpoint, but we aim at him with a cannon’. In his memoirs, author Agim Mero mentions that in the mid-sixties, after the break with the Soviet Union, Albania’s communist regime started to bring into circulation slogans such as: ‘We will pour molten lead into the mouths of those who dare rise up against us’, or ‘We will eat grass rather than surrender’ (Mero 1997, 65). Both slogans seem to confirm the ‘enemy at the gates’ thesis, as they appeal to the ultimate sacrifice in the struggle against the enemy.

During the second half of the seventies, the Albanian communist regime built over 700,000 bunkers, as an extreme measure of protection against ‘the enemy’. The construction of the concrete pillboxes was treated as a matter of absolute priority. The pressure on the technicians and on the engineers was extreme. Quality was ‘an absolute requirement, and that was ensured to the detriment of other projects’ (Mero 1997, 129). The coastline was viewed as a potential landing area for enemy forces. Special bunkers were constructed along the whole of it. The dictator stopped all major infrastructural projects, because highways might eventually be used as airstrips for invading US armies.

In addition to fortifying its defences against its external foes, Albania waged an internal war against its religious institutions. The Labour Party was proudof its ‘systematic struggle against religion, which is a reactionary ideology and opium for the people’.3 It boasted that under its leadership, ‘people rose up in towns and in the countryside, asking for the final removal of all churches, mosques and all holy places’. The religious structures were forced to relinquish their functions, and most of the religious buildings were converted into ‘Cultural Centres’. The madness of extreme isolation was in parallel with the establishment of a system of permanent vigilance, to which all citizens were called to contribute. The former secretary of the Communist Youth in the mid-seventies, and later himself a victim of the purges made by the system, Agim Mero noted that ‘under the slogan “one citizen – one soldier” all eligible Albanians had to toil in permanent military drills. Women had to perform military drills with wooden rifles and to train in hand-to-hand combat’ (Mero 1997, 129).

All students, workers and intellectuals had to perform obligatory biannual military drills. Most of the academic staff were sent to work for periods ranging from one to three years in the agriculture or industry sector, so as to strengthen their revolutionary ties with the peasants and the working class. Albania refused to have contact with most Western democracies. Albania’s football teams refused to play against certain Western teams, and had to pay the penalties imposed by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).

The system of control through fear was as brutal as it was effective. The regime undertook some steps to ease its controls in 1990. It passed legislation that changed the sanctions in force against migration from the death penalty to prison terms from three to seven years. Nonetheless, thirty-three citizens, mostly young, were killed at the border by army units and state security service. In some cases the bodies of those killed at the border were paraded across city centres so as to strike terror and fear into the population, especially among those hoping to leave the country. The relatives of the victims were not allowed to organize their burials, and their friends were prosecuted.

The system was both forthright and pervasive. Mero writes: ‘the regime was a huge and intricate machine, structured in parallel state and party structures ... a small leadership is at the top, but around and below there were many smaller pyramids of power extending down to the smallest village. Theyreached out from the ministries down to the most minuscule production units, from the army’s chief of staff down to the women’s military unit of the neighbourhood, from the central committee of the party down to the kindergartens which had their own children’s units. Guidance and instructions were passed down from the very top to the lowest structure; everybody was held accountable for their implementation’ (Mero 1997, 127). Children in the kindergartens were frequently asked what their parents talked about at home. Potentially sensitive information was passed to the security service for further investigation that could lead to arrests and imprisonments.

The security service applied similar methods in primary and high schools. For a period stretching over forty-six years, university studies were considered a political prerogative and were not linked to the talents and capacities of the applicants. No students were admitted from the families marked by the regime with ‘bad biography’. Weekly ‘political updates’ were held in all state institutions, factories, universities, schools and farms. Voluntary surveillance groups were established everywhere, in addition to combat teams, to be activated in case of invasion. All correspondence, especially all letters addressed to relatives living abroad were screened by the security services. The mail could go through only after a special clearance was issued by a special office. The lack of means of communication (personal computers, private or public phones, private cars, etc.) prevented citizens from accessing information from the outside world. That made official propaganda the only access point for the information coming in from outside the Albanian communist bubble.

At present post-communist Albania can only draw on a limited number of studies of the communist period, and even less so regarding the system of control through fear of that time. Presiding over a small country with a tiny population, highly incriminated by long years of collusion with the communist regime, Albania’s elite choose to adopt a conciliatory approach best described by its new slogan: ‘everyone suffered – everyone was guilty.’ This served to ease the tensions between the victims and their persecutors. There exist highly diverging views regarding the nature of the communist regimes around the world, and to the concepts laid out by Arendt and Huntington in this regard. It can be maintained that the definition of the key feature of a personal dictatorship as ‘the system that locates the source of power in the vicinity to the leader and to those having his trust and support’ is well suitedfor Albania (Huntington 2011, 72). Nonetheless, most researchers describe the Albanian system as an advanced model of totalitarian rule, by arguing that the key to totalitarianism is to be found in fear rather than in brute force’ (Danaj 2012). The Albanian version of 20th-century totalitarianism is best seen as a violent political regime of a single political party incapable and unwilling to accept any form of organized opposition and/or dissent, whereby the state controls the totality of societal space.

Old tyrannies only succeeded in destroying the political and organizational capacities of their opponents; they were not able to seek and destroy the networks of personal and private relationships. They did not invalidate the ‘personal self ’, in the sense of the personality of each individual, which is exactly what happened under the totalitarian experience. Arendt’s description is evocative of another rendering of the Albanian model of totalitarianism, under which the party fully identified with the state ‘as a demon that numbed the minds and souls of the people, by convincing them that it would never leave. It stretched over everything, took control of the remote corners of private lives, through surveillance and pressure, through tension and fear that reached out to everyone’ (Ngjela 2013, 21).

‘The enemy’ as an obstacle to reform

Albania was the only European country that refused to sign the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 because of its constant guard against the Western and Eastern ‘enemy’. Back in 1948 Albania had refused to publish the UN Human Rights Charter of 1948 for its citizens. Not until 1991 did Albania became a member of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), sign the Helsinki Final Act and publish the UN Human Rights Charter.

As the continent’s only atheist and anti-religious country, Albania adopted a system of propaganda that denigrated each and every element, symbol and memory of religious association. A very striking example is the treatment Albania reserved for Mother Teresa. Albanians inside Albania only learned about her winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 in the late 1980s. She was considered persona non grata by the regime because she belonged to a Christian denomination, wore religious dress and was supported by governments on unfriendly terms with the Albanian communist regime. At the close of the 1980s Albania’s political agenda remained the same, despite the initiation of several Euro-Atlantic processes aimed at changing the economies and politics of the countries of the Eastern Bloc. The endeavours of someWestern European countries to re-establish relations with Albania were met by an opaque wall of hostility of communist officials, who argued that the country’s constitution prohibited political and economic relations with the enemy.

The fall of the Berlin Wall amplified the pressure felt by the Tirana government. Nonetheless it continued not to confront the inevitability of the change to come. Its best alibi continued as before: ‘the external enemy’, the danger to which Albania would be exposed if it were to open itself, even partially, to the wider world. The regime held Albania to be ‘the world’s only truly free country, independent of US imperialism and Soviet socialimperialism, free from the Treaty of Warsaw and free from NATO ... so we should continue to be watchful so as to retain and protect our victories’ (Alia 2010). The regime considered any demand for political pluralism as a hostile act. It described pluralism as a threat to the state and to its identity, since ‘Albania’s independence and freedom are perpetually threatened. Hence, the difference of opinion and opinions directed against those of the Labour Party threaten the future of the motherland, its very freedom and independence’ (Alia 2010, 364).

In a meeting held with Albanian intellectuals only four months prior to the change of the political regime, the communist leader Ramiz Alia reiterated that Albania was ‘a special case’, compared to other Eastern Europe countries. He precluded the request for the introduction of changes in the system, by maintaining this to be a demand stemming from the enemies of Albania.


Control through fear, resulting in systematically applied pressure made up of continuous threats stood at the very foundation of communist regime in Albania. Two generations of Albanians were the helpless victims of an arbitrary despotic system that considered human life as state property. The system of control through fear managed to eradicate all potential for internal resistance. Through total self-isolation it avoided any possible external influences. Differently from the rest of the Eastern European countries, especially from the East German system of ‘the exchange of prisoners for hard currency’, or the Polish model of religious faith and Solidarity, the Albanian model constitutes the most extreme model of isolation and state violence.

Class struggle, a war against God, the fight against external influences and isolation from the possible permanent dangers coming from Western, and then later Eastern, enemies triggered a psychosis for survival among Albanians, exposed to the permanent struggle against the ‘enemy at the gates’. This study refers to the constitution, the legal framework of Albania’s communist era and to the most typical traits of the political decision-making of the regime to argue that the concept of the enemy was instrumentalized to legitimize a highly personalized type of one-man, one-party rule, highly hostile to the very idea of openness towards the outside world.

The ‘enemy at the gates’ and the ‘enemy inside us’ were prime instruments of psychological terror – they were primary mechanisms of control and also the means for providing alibies to eliminate all potential criticism towards the party and its leading clique. These concepts dominated political discourse and guided the deliberations of official propaganda. They were the primary source of reference for the slogans crafted for wide public dissemination and instrumental in distorting the people’s collective historical memory. When Albanians parted ways with communism, they also parted ways with the system of control through fear.



Professor Afrim Krasniqi is an academic researcher at the Albanian Institute of History, professor of political science at the University of Tirana and executive director of the Albanian Institute for Political Studies in Tirana. He holds a doctorate in history from the University of Tirana. He was political adviser to two Albanian presidents, and is a columnist for some important Albanian media. He has published twelve books about political parties, history, civil society, elections and democracy in Albania and in the countries of South Eastern Europe (SEE).



1 The Labour Party of Albania was, as enshrined in the Constitution, ‘the only leading force for the state and society’ from 1944 to 1990.

2 Academy of Sciences of the Socialist Peoples’ Republic of Albania (2014). Dictionary of Contemporary Albanian Language, Tirana, Albania.

3 Joint Declaration of the Central Committee of the People’s Labour Party and of the Council of Ministers of the Peoples’ Republic of Albania, 29 April 1967.



Alia, Ramiz (2010) Jeta Ime [My life]. Tirana: Toena.

Arendt, Hannah (2002) Origjinat e totalitarizmi [Origins of totalitarianism]. Pristina: DIJA.

Biberaj, Elez (2011) Shqiperia ne Tranzicion: Rruga e veshtire drejt Demokracis [Albania in transition: the hard way to democracy]. Tirana: AIIS.

Huntington, Samuel (2011) Vala e trete [The third wave]. Tirana: AIIS.

Kaba, Hamit and Ethem Ceku (2017) Shqiperia dhe Kosova ne arkivat ruse [Albania and Kosovo in Russian archives]. Tirana: Instituti i Historisë [Institute of History].

Kadare, Ismail (1991) Nga një dhjetor në tjetrin [From one December to another]. Paris: Fayard.

Klosi, Ardian (1993) Quo vadis, Shqiperi? [Where are you going, Albania?]. Tirana: Botime Albania.

Krasniqi, Afrim (2006) Partite politike ne Shqiperi [Political parties in Albania]. Tirana: UFO Press.
— (2009) Sistemet politike ne Shqiperi [Political systems in Albania]. Tirana: UFO Press.

Lefort, Claude (1994) Demokracia dhe Totalitarizmi [Democracy and totalitarianism]. Peja: Dukagjini.

Mero, Agim (1997) Vitet e endrrave te vrava [Years of dreams I killed]. Tirana: Agolli.

Ngjela, Spartak (2013) Përkulja dhe Rënia e Tiranisë Shqiptare, 1957–2010 [Decline and fall of Albania’s tyranny, 1957–2010]. Tirana: UET Press.

Omari, Luan (1977) Revolucioni Popullor ne Shqiperi dhe ceshtje e pushtetit [The People’s Revolution in Albania and distribution of power]. Tirana: ISHPJ.

Pipa, Arshi (2010) Stalinizmi shqiptar: aspekte ideopolitike [Albanian Stalinism: ideopolitical aspects]. Tirana: Princi.

Pllumbi, Zef (2006) Rrno per me tregue [Excuse me]. Tirana: Botues ‘55’.

Sadiku, Xhafer (2013) Genocidi mbi kulaket ne Shqiperine komuniste 19481990 [Genocide over kulaks in communist Albania 1948–1990]. Tirana: ISKK.

Vickers, Miranda (2008) The Albanians: A modern history. Tirana: Bota shqiptare [The Albanian world] (1st edn 1995). London–New York, NY: I. B. Tauris.

Xhafa, Luan (2000) ‘Albania’, in Libri i zi i komunizmit, kapitulli ‘shqiperi’ [The black book of communism]. Tirana: Besa.


Danaj, Koco

(2012) ‘Çfarë ishte diktatura në Shqipëri?’ [What was dictatorship in Albania like?], Gazeta Shekulli [Shekulli newspaper], 2 August.

Repishti, Sami (2017) ‘Shprehja ‘armik i popullit’ si histori dhe paralajmërim’ [Branding ‘the people’s enemy’ as a history and as a warning], Panorama, 16 March.


Decision no. 30 (1954) Operational Guidelines for the Internal Affairs Institutions, Decision no. 30, Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Peoples’ Labour Party.

Decree no. 649 (1949) Decree no. 649, dated 10 January 1949 ‘On the establishment of a special investigative committee’, Official Gazette, no. 55, 29 July 1949.

Decree no. 5912 (1979) Presidium of the Peoples’ Assembly, decree 5912. Dictionary ... (1980) Academy of Sciences of the Socialist Republic of Albania. Dictionary of Contemporary Albanian Language. Tirana.

Constitution of the Republic of Albania (1976) Kushtetuta e Republikës Popullore Socialiste të Shqipërisë [Constitution of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania] Botimi ‘8 nëntori’ [Publication, 8 November]. Tirana, 1976

Law no. 598 (1948) ‘Mbi shtetëzimin e tufave të mëdha të bagëtive’, 11 May, Gazeta Zyrtare, vol. 66. 25 June.

Labour Party of Albania (LPA) (1948) Statute of the Labour Party of Albania. Key documents of the Labour Party of Albania, vol. 2, 18 November 1948.

LPA (1950) Programme of the Labour Party of Albania. First Congress of the Communist Party of Albania. Tirana.

LPA (1967) Deklarata e KQ të PPSH dhe Këshillit të Ministrave më, 29 April.

Platform ... (1954) Platforma e Punës Operative të Organeve të Punëve të Brendshme [Operational labour platform of internal affairs bodies], Vendim, vol. 30, 8 February 1954, Byroja Politike e Komitetit Qëndror të PPSH.


This article has been published in the sixth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Violence in 20th-century European History.

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

Petra James

The trauma of 'enforced disappearance' as a topic in Central European fiction after 1989

13 Feburary 2018
  • Short Story
  • Novels
  • enforced disappearance
  • trauma studies


The article analyses various literary representations of one of the common features of 20th-century dictatorships and totalitarian political regimes: the ‘enforced disappearance’. The study focuses on several Central European novels and short stories (German, Czech, Slovak and Polish) published after 1989. The methodological framework adopted here is that of cultural memory and trauma studies that have lately received systematic scholarly interest in Central Europe (Kratochvil 2015; Lysak 2015). The study draws on the works of Paul Ricoeur (French), Michel de Certeau (French), Jacques Derrida (French), Berber Bevernage (Belgian), Alexander Etkind (Russian) and Stef Craps (Belgian), especially on the way they define and interpret trauma and the ‘work of mourning’. The mechanisms of the ‘work of mourning’ function also on a collective level and are one of the ways of dealing with a traumatic past.

Literature has played an important role in the debates on the legacy of communist dictatorships in post-communist Central Europe since 1989, and historical topics have flourished in Central European literatures. We propose to interpret them as specific ways of coming to terms with the legacy of the traumatic past of the 20th century in Central Europe, especially the long-term collective trauma caused by Nazi and communist dictatorships.

We want to address the concept of ‘lieux de mémoire’ [places of memory], its limits and dangers as it is discussed (among others) by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) in his major contribution to this theoretical debate La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli [Memory, History, Forgetting] (Ricoeur 2000; Englishtrans. 2004). Furthermore, we will pay attention to the recurring patterns that keep appearing in contemporary Central European literatures. Indeed, in our previous research, we discovered recurrent patterns and structures that allow us to read many of these texts as commemorative rituals and the ‘work of mourning’ (we draw on the Freudian terminology here) for traumatic elements of the 20th century in Central Europe. The work of Paul Ricoeur inspires us to transpose the Freudian model of trauma and mourning (used in the psychoanalysis of an individual) onto the processes put in motion in national and other communities. As our topic focuses on the connection between literary representations of history and psychoanalysis, we should mention the crucial research of the French thinker Michel de Certeau (1925–86). He was directly addressing the link between literature, historiography and psychoanalysis in several of his studies, especially L’Écriture de l’Histoire [The Writing of History] (1975) and Histoire et psychanalyse [History and Psychoananlysis] (1987). We will also call on the works of the philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) and his concept of the ‘spectral’, ‘haunting’ past and the works of scholars that Derrida’s work inspired in their reflections on historical trauma and literature: those of Berber Bevernage, Stef Craps and Alexander Etkind.

We will focus on concrete examples of such texts, dealing with the traumatic aspects of 20th-century Central Europe, especially with the topic of enforced disappearance. More specifically on novels dealing with the memory of the German presence in Central Europe and post-Second World War expulsions. This topic keeps coming back as an almost obsessive theme in German, Polish and especially Czech post-1989 literature. A link to psychological trauma seems evident with this reoccurring theme.

The authors we will pay special attention to in our interpretations will be W. G. Sebald, Paweł Huelle, Pavel Vilikovský, Jiří Kratochvil, Kateřina Tučková, Radka Denemarková and Jakuba Katalpa. All these authors and their works have received constant attention from literary theoreticians and the public. They have been awarded important literary prizes and have been taking part in the public debate on historical and social issues in their respective countries. Some of the books have been adapted for theatre or cinema. Each novel offers a critical evaluation of an individual’s encounter with dictatorship, of the massive expulsions of populations after the Second World War (especially that of the Germans from Central Europe) or of the Holocaust, topical issues and challenging topics linked to thecollective memory of today’s European society1 and even more so in postcommunist countries.

Enforced disappearance

‘Enforced disappearance’ has become an official term in international law. The United Nations (UN) established a committee on enforced disappearances that issued an official text entitled ‘International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance’, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2006 and enforced from December 2010.2 Enforced disappearance is considered a crime and, in certain circumstances, defined in international law as a crime against humanity. The convention stipulates, among other things, ‘the right of any victim to know the truth about the circumstances of an enforced disappearance and the fate of the disappeared person, and the right to freedom to seek, receive and impart information to this end’.3 It is this need and right to ‘know the truth’ and ‘seek, receive and impart information’ about the disappeared that is at the core of the literary works considered in the present article. As Berber Bevernage explains, the notion of the right to seek the truth was pioneered in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights with cases on enforced disappearance. Furthermore, it was included in two reports by UN special rapporteurs Louis Joinet and Diane Orentlicher.4 The right to know, Joinet explains:

"is not simply the right of any individual victim or closely related persons to know what happened, a right to the truth. The right to know is also a collective right, drawing upon history to prevent violations from recurring in the future. Its corollary is a ‘duty to remember’, which the State must assume, in order to guard against the perversions of history that go under the names of revisionism or negationism; the knowledge of the oppression it has lived through is part of a people’s national heritage and as such must be preserved" (Bevernage 2018).5

The enforced disappearance causes trauma to the survivors; trauma that is both personal and collective. As stated by editors of a recent collective monograph on trauma studies, the theory and concept of trauma is still evolving (Bond, Craps, Vermeulen, 2017). Indeed, trauma officially gained the status of a disease in the Western world in 1980, when it was rape, military combat, earthquake, aeroplane crash or torture. Later, various long-termstress factors were added, such as witnessing or learning of one’s family or friends being exposed to serious danger (Bond, Craps and Vermeulen, 2017).

There are several aspects that justify the interpretation of the literary texts within the methodological framework of trauma studies. The plots of the texts are constructed around an absence that implicitly points to a traumatic disappearance. The disappearance further infers a missing, disappeared body (with clear hints of its previous maltreatment or torture). The disappearance might concern an individual or a whole group. The topic of enforced disappearance can even serve as metonymy of a dictatorship or a totalitarian regime. The disappeared groups represented in the texts of our corpus might be Jews (systematically exterminated during the Second World War as one of the consequences of totalitarian fascist ideology), the bourgeois middle classes (as an integral part of the Soviet application of the Marxist theory of the class struggle in the Soviet Union and in countries of the Eastern Bloc), or the Germans expelled from Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War. All these motifs and topics can be found in the studied texts. Thanks to the crucial work of Paul Ricoeur L’Histoire, la mémoire, l’oubli (Ricoeur 2000), we can apply the Freudian model of trauma and mourning on the mourning mechanisms of groups and communities. Indeed, the texts are constructed as mourning rituals, revealing the mourning processes described by Freud and Ricoeur. Furthermore, the contributions of Berber Bevernage (Bevernage 2012), Alexander Etkind (Etkind 2013) and Stef Craps (Craps 2013) help us to see the specificities of trauma as they are expressed in the literary texts of contemporary Central European authors.

Literary texts as ‘places of memory’?

We would like to reflect on the problematic aspects, dangers and limits of the concept of ‘places of memory’ (lieux de mémoire) introduced in the 1980s by the French historian Pierre Nora. The concept is indeed closely related to our topic. Nora directed a large research project published in three volumes between 1984 and 1992 under the same title, Lieux de mémoire [Places of Memory]. His ambition was nothing less than describing the basic elements that, in his opinion, constitute French national identity.

The present paper is inspired, among others, by the methodology and theoretical concepts of Paul Ricoeur as he developed it in his book La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli [Memory, History, Forgetting] (Ricoeur 2000; English translation 2004)]. Our starting point is Ricoeur’s commentary on the work of Pierre Nora andon the concept of ‘places of memory’. Ricoeur pinpoints the major dangers and limits of Nora’s concept and shows that Nora himself changes his way of perceiving the ‘places of memory’ and that, during the preparation of the successive volumes, Nora already realizes the potential abuse of his concept:

"Nora himself complains of a similar assimilation of the theme of the ‘places of memory’ by ‘commemorative bulimia (that) has all but consumed all efforts to control it’ (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 609)".6

"The destiny of these Lieux de mémoire has been a strange one. The work was intended, by virtue of its conception, method, and even title, to be a counter-commemorative type of history, but commemoration has overtaken it ... What was forged as a tool for maintaining critical distance became the instrument of commemoration par excellence" (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 1404).7

The concept of ‘places of memory’ has been very successful and has been widely used in Central and Eastern European Studies after 1989. It has been applied also in studies dedicated to contemporary literature of this region (see for example Smorag-Goldberg and Tomaszewski 2013). Nevertheless, one needs to keep in mind that the concept of ‘places of memory’ can be used as a tool for commemorative needs for various interest groups that do not aim at historical objectivity. The notion of the problematic aspects of memory was also one of the major motivations for Ricoeur’s work as he himself admits in the introduction:

"Public preoccupation: I continue to be troubled by the unsettling spectacle offered by an excess of memory here, and an excess of forgetting elsewhere, to say nothing of the influence of commemorations and abuses of memory – and of forgetting. The idea of a policy of the just allotment of memory is in this respect one of the avowed civic themes" (Ricoeur 2009, Kindle loc. 51).

In countries that have been undergoing essential geopolitical changes, as is the case for Central European post-communist countries, the question of public memory and commemorations is an important one. Indeed, the commemorative strategies are an integral part of the identity-creating process. The fragile national identity of the new geopolitical units is also projected on the way society deals with its memory. As Ricoeur notes, the fragility of identity opens possibilities for the manipulation of memory (Ricoeur 2000, 579). This is the reason why this study focuses more on the aspects of trauma expressed in literary texts than on the way they deal with memory and commemoration.

Trauma, the work of mourning and the haunting past

In our analysis, we use the parallel that Paul Ricoeur draws between the work of mourning (‘le travail de deuil’) as it is described by Freud and used in psychoanalysis and the work of memory (‘le travail de souvenir’) and of forgetting in the collective memory of communities and societies, especially in connection to traumatic collective memory:

"It is the bipolar constitution of personal and community identity that, ultimately justifies extending the Freudian analysis of mourning to the traumatism of collective identity. We can speak not only in an analogical sense but in terms of a direct analysis of collective traumatisms, of wounds to collective memory. The notion of the lost object finds a direct application in the ‘losses’ that affect the power, territory, and populations that constitute the substance of a state. Mourning behaviours, from the expression of affliction to complete reconciliation with the lost object, are directly illustrated by the great funeral celebrations around which an entire people is assembled. In this way, we can say that such mourning behaviours constitute a privileged example of the intersecting relations between private and public expression. It is in this way that our concept of a sick historical memory finds justification a posteriori in this bipolar structure of mourning behaviours" (Ricoeur 2009, Kindle loc. 1214).8

The traumatic collective memory and traumatic ‘losses’ mentioned by Ricoeur correspond to losses put forward in numerous novels by Central European authors after 1989. The burden of history, its taboos and deformations constitute central preoccupations of the literary texts that we analyse. However, the Freudian ‘complete reconciliation with the lost object’ that Ricoeur refers to does not seem to happen in these texts, which maintain the haunting presence of the lost object.9 Indeed, the recent contributionsto the classical works of trauma studies (we mean works by Cathy Caruth, Marianne Hirsch or Dominick LaCapra) address the limits of the Freudian model (we mean Western, modernist concept of mourning) according to which a successful work of mourning is when the mourning person totally reconciles themselves with their loss. Historian Berber Bevernage (Bevernage 2012) and literary theoretician Stef Craps (Craps 2013) both draw on Jacques Derrida and his Specters of Marx (1993, English translation 1994) while addressing the limits of the Freudian model of mourning.10 Indeed, Derrida proposes against Freud’s model of a concept of ‘demi-deuil’ (semi-mourning).11 Both Craps and Bevernage bring evidence from Western and non-Western examples of mourning (be it personal or that of a community) that do not correspond in their practice to the Freudian ideal model of the final and utter ‘dismissal’ of the lost/grieved object. Instead, the traumatized individuals and communities maintain a certain way of contact and spectral presence of the grieved object, person or past. It goes with the observations of Derrida in Specters of Marx who claims that the possibility of a just future (when we talk about traumatic pasts of communities or nations) depends on our readiness ‘to learn to live with ghosts’ and ‘thinking the possibility of the spectre’. Berber Bevernage, inspired by Derrida, uses the term ‘haunting past’ in order to describe the reality of people and communities dealing with historical trauma. Instead of being able to draw a thick line over a traumatic past, the communities are faced with the necessity of coming to terms with a ‘haunting past’, which maintains its presence in the everyday lives of its members.12 Bevernage’s book pleas for a different approach to history. Inspired by Michel de Certeau and his L’Écriture de l’Histoire [Writing history] and in accord with current tendencies in historiography, Bevernage questions certain concepts of modern historiography. Many theoreticians have dealt with the link between artistic creation, historiography and the work of mourning:

"a close relationship exists between the writing of history and the work of mourning. Dominick LaCapra, for example, analyzes post-holocaust historiography by using the psychoanalytical concepts of ‘working through’ and ‘acting out’, and he has proposed that the German Historikerstreit should be interpreted as a form of collective mourning. Jörn Rüsen argues that in relation to the traumatic character of the experiences of the last century, the writing of history can be conceived as a ‘procedure of mourning’. [...] I agree with LaCapra, Rüsen, and Domanska that a closerelationship exists between mourning and historiography, and I think that these authors are right when they argue that a lot can be learned about the writing of history by analyzing it from the perspective of the practice of mourning or the discourse on death" (Bevernage 2012, 147, Kindle loc. 3595).

It is in this sense that we adhere to Bevernage’s comment:

"one can analytically distinguish between at least two profoundly different concepts of mourning and death that relate to different notions of historicity: namely, a modern (mostly Western) concept of mourning and a non-modern (but not necessarily non-Western) concept of mourning. The most important difference between the relatively young modernist theory of mourning and the much older and much more widespread non-modern concept of mourning, I will argue, can be found in different ways in which they relate the notions of ‘loss’ and ‘absence’" (Bevernage 2012, 148, Kindle loc. 3614).

This seems to be the recurrent pattern of the representation of history in the chosen corpus. The texts are full of ghosts and spectres of the past. The characters are incapable of drawing a thick line over the past that maintains a haunting presence and interferes with the lives of the characters.

The expulsion of Germans: whose trauma is that?

In the case of ‘German memory’, we suggest drawing again on the parallel made by Paul Ricoeur between the process of personal and collective ‘work of mourning’. The events linked directly or indirectly to the expulsion of Germans from Central Europe after 1945 and the loss of German cultural heritage can be viewed from this perspective: the loss that must be worked through during the process of mourning. The obsessive reoccurrence of the topic of German memory in post-1989 Polish (see Huelle, Chwin, Tokarczuk), German (see Reinhard Jirgl or Uwe Johnson) and especially Czech literature (Jiří Kratochvil, Jáchym Topol, Kateřina Tučková, Radka Denemarková and Jakuba Katalpa) seems to prove the importance and extent of this collective trauma. It is important to note that contemporary Central European writers focus almost exclusively on the topic of expulsions and not on numerous other aspects of the long history of the Germans’ presence in the culture, politics and economics of Central Europe. Interestingly enough, this omission is mirrored in the works of Czech historians. Those who focus their research on Czech-German relationships, work mostly on the post- Second World War period and the topics related to the expulsions. It is, of course, connected to the fact that Central and Eastern European historiography has undergone important changes since 1989 primarily thanks to the opening of numerous important archives that were inaccessible before 1989. It is nevertheless interesting to note that the highly relevant and significant period of Czech-German tension and armed clashes between 1918 and 1923 when many German-speaking inhabitants of the Sudeten region contested (sometimes armed) their inclusion in post-First World War Czechoslovakia.

It is surprising to discover that the Germans represented in Czech contemporary novels are mostly depicted as positive characters or as (innocent) victims described in a way that inspires compassion. This approach, whereby the honouring of a certain memory causes the amnesia of other memories, leads inevitably to certain distortions. As Václav Maidl states in his study, if we look at the literary representations of German-speaking characters and the German environment over the last 200 years, their image in Czech literature is mostly negative (Maidl 1998). For Kateřina Tučková especially, her novel The Expulsion of Gerta Schnirch has a performative function. It is her ‘duty of memory’ and ‘duty of commemoration’ that she claims to honour in the prologue because she has the impression that the political representatives do not do fulfill these duties sufficiently well. We can thus legitimately ask the question whether both historians and the writers do not take part in a process of consciously creating a new Czech post-1989 ‘European’ identity, forming what Berber Bevernage designates as ‘reconciliation historiography’ or ‘shared history’:

"Bridging can happen negatively through levelling attempts to expose myths of conflicting parties or it can happen through the construction of so-called positive histories which stress common traditions, shared values and cultural exchanges in the past. Bridging reconciliation historiographies are also often referred to as shared histories. Yet, the term ‘shared history’ is often used more broadly among scholars and practitioners focusing on reconciliation and can refer to at least three potential aspects of reconciliation historiographies: it can refer to shared methodological procedures or shared authorship, to a focus on shared events, values or actions in the past, orto the construction of a single ‘common’ narrative which claims evenhandedly to represent the different perspectives of conflicting parties" (Bevernage 2018).

These questions, however, need more space and thought than is possible within the scope of this study. But we can certainly argue that texts of contemporary Central European writers reveal much more of the circumstances of the time of the writing of the novels than about the actual historical subjects they try to present and assess.

If we apply Ricoeur’s adaptation of Freud’s psychoanalysis to the collective wounded memory, Ricoeur justifies this methodological transfer (as we have already stated) by the fact that Freud himself alluded to ‘situations that go far beyond the psychoanalytic scene, in terms of both the work of remembering and the work of mourning’ (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 1203). Furthermore, ‘all of the situations referred to in the psychoanalytical treatment have to do with the other, not only the other of the “familial novel”, but by the psychosocial other and the other, as it were, of the historical situation’ (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 1203).

The link between personal work of mourning and collective sick memory is alluded to in the very title of one of the analysed novels – Jakuba Katalpa’s novel The Germans: Geography of Loss (2012). The process of personal mourning for the loss of a mother of one of the central characters (Klara, the mother, left for Germany after the Second World War and left her baby behind in Czechoslovakia) stands here for the collective mourning for the expulsed German minority (or maybe more for the act of expulsion?). Katalpa’s novel can thus be seen as a literary transposition of a commemorative mourning ritual. Klara, the main character, of Katalpa’s novel, comes closest to the idea of a ‘pure’ German among all the Czech contemporary novels that deal with the topic of expulsions. She is born in Germany to a wealthy family and hardly questions Germany’s political orientation under Hitler. She is a teacher and refuses to intervene for one of her Jewish students when she asks for help. After a series of personal tragedies (the death of her fiancé among others), she decides to accept a placement as a teacher in the Sudeten region. She works with German-speaking children but is seen as a stranger by the local Sudeten Germans. She becomes pregnant and is welcomed at the end of the war by the family of one of her Czech friends in Prague. She gives birth to a boy and finally decides, under circumstancesthat are never totally explained in the novel, to leave the baby behind when she has to depart form Czechoslovakia as a German. The boy, Kurt, is then adopted by the family that welcomed Klara and the fact of his adoption is revealed to him by his foster mother when he becomes an adult and father of three children himself. The boy is the father of the narrator of the novel. After her father’s death, she decides to find out the truth about her real grandmother and she meets Klara’s two daughters in Germany. She even meets Klara, an old woman in an old people’s home. Klara has Alzheimer’s disease and cannot help the narrator with her quest for the ‘truth’.

Jiří Kratochvil draws a link between personal psychological trauma and a collective one in most of his novels. The metaphor of schizophrenia that structures his first novel Medvědí román (Bear’s Novel, 1985, 1990) covers both a mental breakdown of one of the central characters and a schizophrenic psychological split of people living under communist dictatorship. His novel Slib (The Pledge, 2009), which features as one of its themes the expulsion of Germans from Brno, has a subtitle: The Requiem for the 1950s. The topic of expulsions in Kratochvil’s novels is always closely connected to the questioning of the legacy of communism.

One of the dangers of obsessive insistence on the topic of expulsions as the central moment of German memory in Central Europe is the distortion of history by the feeling of the ‘duty to remember’ or ‘duty of commemoration (memory)’ as we have already stated. Ricoeur talks about the ‘devoir de mémoire’ (duty of memory) and going back to Nora’s ‘lieux de mémoire’, he evokes the potential ‘abuse of commemoration’ (Ricoeur 2000, 528).

We therefore argue that the representation of the expulsion of Germans always closely reflects the communist dictatorship in Central Europe.13 Indeed, in all analysed texts, the authors choose to present history from (or even before) the Second World War until very recent times (often up until now). In relation to the expulsion of Germans and dealing with Germans, 1945 is often interpreted like a first step in the establishment of communist rule in Central Europe (this is most strongly present in Kratochvil’s writings). The trauma of the communist past is being projected onto the topic of the expulsions of Germans. Paradoxically, the texts focus more on the Czech collective historical trauma than on the suffering of the Germans. The vision of history thus seems to fall into a narrow frame of a national trauma that it finds difficult to overcome. We conclude this part by statingthat even in the case of literary representations of German memory and especially of the expulsions, the process of mourning at work in the novels is not so much about the loss of the German community but about the long-term legacy of communism in Central Europe.

The trauma of the enforced disappearance and the figure of absence

Common to the analysed works is the use of a subjective and individual perspective to represent the enforced disappearance. In Central Europe, under both Nazi and communist regimes people were made to ‘disappear’, often leaving their families without news as to their fate. The enforced disappearance is often represented by an absence. There is an absent body, an absent person, whose loss is being mourned. Austerlitz’s trauma in Sebald’s novel (Sebald 2001) of the same name stems from the disappearance and the absence of his parents and from the lack of any precise information concerning their death. Austerlitz is a Jewish child born in Prague and sent to safety by his parents thanks to one of the trains heading from Prague to England during the Second World War. In the course of his investigation in the 1990s, he finds out that his Czech-Jewish mother was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and very probably died in a killing facility in Poland. This was most likely the fate of his father too, who went to France and was sent from Paris to one of the concentration camps in the south of France where he disappears without trace. Nevertheless, Austerlitz learns nothing certain about their fate nor can he find the place of their burial. The whole book thus seems to be constructed around this traumatic loss and absence.

In Huelle’s novella Mercedes Benz (2001), the two dictatorships (fascist and communist) and their treatment of people are juxtaposed, making the parallels between the use of enforced disappearance by both dictatorships deliberate and evident. The whole family of the central character, the Jewish photographer Chaskiel Bronstein, meets a ‘terrible end’, ‘in a mass death-pit near Buczyna’ (Huelle 2001, 101). The Jewish brothers Baczewski, whose ‘vodka and liqueur factory’ is ‘bombed by the Luftwaffe’ (Huelle 2001, 95), die from ‘no less cruel death’, ‘in the Donbas mineshafts’ (Huelle 2001, 101) in 1940 after having been deported by the Soviets. Their deaths are thus emblematic of the end of Jewish civilization in Eastern Europe during the Second World War and the way Jews have been targeted both by the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships (topics difficult to address in Polish fiction or historiography before 1989). As we will see, it is their disappearance that is interpreted as a major force behind the creation of Mercedes Benz.14

In Pavel Vilikovský’s novel The Autobiography of Evil (2009) the major character of the first part of the text, Jan Karsten, after being kidnapped by the Czechoslovak secret police during his tentative escape to Austria, decides to commit suicide when he realizes that he has adopted the same behaviour as his tormentors. He kidnaps a girl whom he believes to be the daughter of one of the agents (which she is not) and holds her prisoner. Finally, he decides to let her go. Nevertheless, his decision to stick to his humanity leads to his suicide as he does not see any other outcome of the situation he finds himself in. His body is disposed of and his family is never informed about his final fate. The disappearance and absence of his father shapes the life of his son, the central character in the second part of the novel. At the end of Vilikovský’s novel, Igor talks about the book he plans to write. Writing about the mysterious disappearance of an unknown woman dating back to the 1970s might be seen as compensating for the impossibility of discovering the truth about the disappearance of his own father. It is at the same time an act of mourning over the absent body and the missing story of his disappeared father.

In Kratochvil’s novel The Pledge (2009), the beloved sister of architect Modráček dies after being interrogated by the Czechoslovak secret police in the early 1950s. Having not been allowed to see the body of his dead sister, he does not believe that she committed suicide as the police claim. He vows to avenge his sister’s death and to punish the policeman, Láska, whom he believes to be responsible for his sister’s death. Modráček captures Láska and holds him prisoner in his underground prison alongside more and more people who could endanger his secret and destroy his plan for vengeance. At the end of the book, Láska’s daughter appears and talks about the mysterious and never-explained disappearance of her father that haunted her and her mother their whole lives. The book is thus conceived by the author as a requiem for the victims of the Stalinist era of 1950s Czechoslovakia, represented in Kratochvil’s text by his mother (herself a victim of the communist persecution to whom the book is dedicated and who appears as a minor character in the novel), Modráček’s sister, and the policeman Láska, unjustly imprisoned and punished.

The motif of traumatic disappearance also appears in the novels that deal with German memory. In Kratochvil’s novel Uprostřed nocí zpěv [In the midst of the night a song] (1989), the Germans are represented intriguingly by a couple of lesbian women who are ostracized by everyone – their Czechneighbours as well as the other Germans; they finally die during the expulsion process and their absence haunts the memory of one of the main characters of the novel, Petr, for the rest of his life.

In her novel The Expulsion of Gerta Snirch (2010), Kateřina Tučková tells the life story of Gerta Snirch, a girl from Brno, born to a mixed Czech- German family.15 After the war, she is included in the ‘death march’ of Brno Germans destined for expulsion. Gerta finally avoids the expulsion and comes back to her hometown. Her life seems to be returning to normal as she attempts to rebuild her life with her teenage love who had become a committed communist in the meantime. Nevertheless, her life is finally shattered when her lover disappears at the moment of the show-trial with the communist leader Rudolf Stránský and his collaborators in 1952. It is this traumatic disappearance that seems to shape Gerta’s life most profoundly. Each text is characterized by the absence of bodies; the people simply disappear, making the process of mourning, if not impossible, at least extremely difficult.

‘State-sponsored violence’ and the tortured bodies

The trauma of those left behind is magnified by unverifiable images of torture. Enforced disappearance can hardly be dissociated from political violence and torture. It is the ‘state-imposed violence’ that Berber Bevernage uses as part of the title of his book. Michel de Certeau wrote a decidedly relevant text on the subject ‘Corps torturés, paroles capturés’ [Tortured bodies, captured speech] included in the volume Histoire et psychoanalyse (1987). He claims that violence is systemic in the imposition of social order, especially in dictatorships: ‘Totalitarian violence needs credibility and, scientifically, it strives to produce the ersatz with living bodies’ (Certeau 1986).16

The frequent use of metonymy in the studied texts might be connected to the theme of torture, as Alexander Etkind remarked in his book Warped Mourning when he spoke about prevailing features of post-1989 Russian literature: ‘In this process, the metonymical poetics of magical historicism emulate the “piecemeal” logic of torture, which also manipulates parts of the body with the aim of changing the whole truth, integrity, and history’ (Etkind 2013, Kindle loc. 4329).

This might be also the reason why the main characters in novels dealing with the memory of expulsion of the Germans are subjected to horrible violence. Female Germans are often subjected to rape, physical torture and abuse. As if this violence suffered by individual examples of Germans was to stand in for the suffering and violence inflicted on the expelled German community.

The haunting past and rituals of mourning

How is the absence of the disappeared personified in the texts? Very often old photographs are used as a link to the missing era, person or community. Sebald and Huelle even incorporate black-and-white photos directly into their books, Huelle using authentic photographs from his family’s archive. When in 1992 Austerlitz finds his former nanny in Prague, she shows him two photographs from before 1939 (the time of Austerlitz’s early childhood), possibly depicting Austerlitz’s parents. While looking at the photos, Austerlitz affirms that it seems as if the pictures had their own memory and were remembering the dead and those who survived (Sebald 2001, 266). When Austerlitz tries to find some traces of his parents in the archives in Prague, he also watches one of the films made in Teresienstadt. Austerlitz describes the music that accompanies the film as a funeral march coming from the ‘subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths’ (Sebald 2001, 356). This description is a direct reference to the underworld of the dead and the phantoms of classical antiquity. In the archives, Austerlitz also finds a photo of a woman who might be his mother but he says that she looks rather like a phantom.17 Sebald’s writing illustrates perfectly Derrida’s semimourning and Derrida-inspired Bevernage’s term ‘haunting past’.

Indeed, photography has a close link to memory, trauma, death and forgetting18 – it also shows the limits and failings of photography to bring back the disappeared. Especially in Sebald’s work, the figures in the photos look rather like ghosts (Lachmann talks about phantasma and simulacrum, Derrida about spectres and revenants) and the found pictures problematize rather than facilitate the process of mourning (Sebald 2001, 117).19 As Carolin Duttlinger puts it:

"it is the latency and the transience of the photographic image, rather than its permanence and stability, which serve as a model for the process of memory, as the image of neither photography nor memory can be grasped or arrested, and are hence both prone to disappearance. Photography is thus figured as a model not for the permanence of memory but for the phenomenon of forgetting" (Duttlinger 2004, 158).

Whereas Sebald stresses in his use of photography the haunting character of the past, Vilikovský and Huelle are more affirmative about the charm of old photographs and their capacity to perpetuate objective memory. Igor, the protagonist of Vilikovský’s novel, contemplates the significance of the photography and what impresses him most is the lasting trace of a human life that photography saves even after the death of the portrayed person (Vilikovský 2009, 147). In Huelle’s Mercedes Benz, when the narrator’s grandfather, Karol, understands that Poland is subject to the double invasion of Hitler’s Germany and of the Soviet Union, he reacts in a surprising way – on his return from the eastern part of Poland invaded by the Russians, he starts to sort out family photographs:

"When he got home at last, instead of reporting for work at the now German factory, he spent days on looking through old photographs, putting his archive in order, writing the missing dates and names of people and places on their cardboard backing. As he unrolled it again, this particular reel of time already felt like something very different from a catalogue of ordinary memories; it felt as if those moments captured in the past by the cold shutter of his Leica now made up a completely new volume that he’d never intended to create, consisting of chance moments, twists and turns of light, bits and pieces of matter and voices that stopped sounding long ago; it was like a suddenly open, secret gate, revealing a previously unknown vista to the astonished passer-by, a wonderful spectacle of phantoms of time and space, swirling like golden pillars of dust in a dark old granary" (Huelle 2005, 96).

Photography functions in Huelle’s work as witness to history. At the same time it also works as means of transmitting cultural memory. The fact that Karol buys his rolls of film and photographic paper from the Jewish photographer Chaskiel Bronstein is particularly important. Karol pays the last visit to Chaskiel just after having sorted out the family photographs. On this occasion, the Germans have already closed down Chaskiel’s shop and Karol learns that Chaskiel’s family was sent to the ghetto. On leaving, Chaskiel gives the last rolls of film to Karol to show him his gratitude. With the means of capturing images (the rolls of film), he also transmits to Karol the duty to remember. Indeed, the memories from the past in Huelle’s book come back to life through photos that accompany the book (alongside theposter of Chaskiel’s shop, making the link between history and literature explicit). Writing is then an act of invocation of phantoms from the past through a kind of funeral ritual (Huelle 2001, 145). The commemorative aspect of Huelle’s text is thus evident.

The patterns of mourning that transpire from these texts have a clearly cathartic function – writing becomes a funeral ritual and at the same time a commemorative act (with all the dangers Ricoeur warns against). The Jewish photographer Chaskiel of Huelle’s story cannot share the story of the life and death of the Polish Jewish community, but with the remaining films delegates the task to Karol who transmits the duty of remembering and the transmission of cultural memory to his grandson (the author of Mercedes Benz). The text of Mercedes Benz is evidence of the fulfilled pledge to the narrator’s grandfather. And we can assume that it is the collection of photos sorted by Karol before his stay in the concentration camp and later transmitted to the narrator that serves as the starting point to the text of Mercedes Benz: ‘when I got home and sat at the table, I spread out the small set of photographs from Chaskiel Bronstein’s company envelope, and the first sentence rolled out all by itself ’ (Huelle 2001, 154). The texts thus have the cathartic and ‘memorial’ function assigned to literature by Renate Lachmann:

"At the beginning of memoria as art stands the effort to transform the work of mourning into a technique. The finding of images heals what has been destroyed: The art of memoria restores shape to the mutilated victims and makes them recognizable by establishing their place in life. Preserving cultural memory involves something like an apparatus for remembering by duplication, by the representation of the absent through the image (phantasma or simulacrum), by the objectification of memory (as power and ability, as a space of consciousness, or as thesaurus), and by the prevention of forgetting through the retrieval of images (the constant recuperation of lost meaning)" (Lachmann 2008, 302).

Writing as therapy to historical and personal trauma is present also in Denemarková’s book. The main character, Gita Lauschmann, dies in the middle of the process of writing her memoirs that would say and explain ‘everything’. Her last thoughts are ‘not yet’: ‘But indeed, I am not ready yet, noteven close to ready, I do not feel like dying yet, I haven’t brushed my teeth yet, I am not properly dressed, I haven’t said everything yet ...’20

Time has run out for Gita and prevented her from finishing her story. In Denemarková’s book the trauma of the past maintains its haunting presence and the wish to know the truth and to arrive at a total reconciliation with the loss is not totally fulfilled (as it is implied in models of trauma and mourning commented by Bevernage and Craps).

The narrator of Katalpa’s The Germans chooses to overcome the trauma and the depression that haunted the life of her father (and the whole family) after the revelations concerning his biological mother. If we go back to Ricoeur’s comparison of the individual work of mourning in psychoanalysis, Kurt, the father, chooses the sadness of acedia (lack of care), whereas his daughter goes through the work of mourning towards life (through the work of sublimation), very much in the sense of the short epilogue that Ricoeur adds at the end of his book:

"Under history, memory and forgetting.
Under memory and forgetting, life.
But writing a life is another story.
Incompletion" (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 7535).21

Indeed, her success at the work of mourning is due to her acceptance of the incompletion of this reconciliation and thus of the work of mourning: ‘I turn the envelope in my fingers. It came from Germany, so it is clear that it constitutes another piece of our investigation, information as useless as the previous one. What should interest us now does not lie in the past.’22

The narrator receives a letter from Germany that could give her some new information. But instead of opening it and going back to the past and the wounded, sick memory (as Ricoeur calls it), she chooses life and goes out to join her little daughter who is playing in the garden, accepting the incompletion of her quest for the truth.


All the interpreted texts have a common topic: the enforced disappearance (of an individual or that of a whole community). As we have shown, these literary works also share descriptions of historical trauma and themechanisms of the work of mourning. ‘The haunting past’ maintains its disturbing presence and does not allow the Freudian-ideal final reconciliation with the lost object or past. The successful work of mourning seems to depend rather on the capacity to accept its incompletion and to learn to live with the spectres of the past (as suggested by De Certeau, Ricoeur, Derrida, Bevernage, Craps and Etkind).

As we have disclosed, the texts only partly become ‘lieux de mémoire’, places of remembrance of the dictatorships of Central Europe and its victims. Indeed, the authors put topics that have been taboo for decades into the public realm through artistic representation. These texts are rather literary transpositions and representations of historical traumas and their possible mourning mechanisms. Indeed, we have shown the tricky limits of Pierre Nora’s concept of ‘lieux de mémoire’ as it is discussed by Paul Ricoeur. Indeed, the reserve expressed by Nora himself and shared by Ricoeur of memory being consumed and dissolved in commemoration seems to be justified in relation to these interpreted texts. By its nature, literature can be used as a tool for subjective depictions of history and contemporary writers are taking part in debates on highly sensitive political and social issues (such as the Holocaust and massive expulsions). It seems that (often unintentionally) the writers might put themselves in the service of various ‘memory activists’. In extreme cases, far from giving ‘objective’ descriptions of national history, they are not only not participating in the noble cause of the struggle against politically imposed amnesia of the communist past but might be taking part in promoting other, new political causes. The mourning in these texts could often bring back memories and reveal a point of view of a specific social group that particularly suffered under communist rule in Central Europe – for example, that of the bourgeois elites of the interwar period (the texts of Huelle and Kratochvil are the best representations of this perspective). This topic is certainly worth further analysis and examination.

The analysed literary texts show clearly common ways of expressing collective mourning. They reveal a more general pattern of dealing with the collective past, especially a traumatic one. However, this mourning is far from objective and expresses clear subjective bias. It is even more evident in the literary texts dealing with the memory of the German past. Indeed, even if the texts might be considered to a certain extent as ‘places of memory’ (as problematic as this concept might be), they are not so much places of memory as expressions of personal and historical traumas of the20th century in Central Europe. As writers have focused almost exclusively on the issue of post-Second World War expulsions from the long-standing history of the German presence in Central Europe, we feel entitled to ask whether we are not dealing here with the mourning process for the cleansed national memory? The novels dedicated to the memory of the German past would thus be less about the mourning of the loss of the cultural legacy of the lost German community and more about a way of coming to terms with the legacy of dictatorships of the 20th century in Central Europe, especially that of communism.



Petra James obtained her PhD in Comparative Literature and Slavic Studies from Sorbonne University in Paris in 2009. Since 2011 she has been chair of Czech Literature and Language and director of Centre d’Etudes Tcheques [Centre of Czech Studies] at Universite Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium [Free University of Brussels]. Her book Bohumil Hrabal: ‘Composer un monde blessant a coups de ciseaux et de gommes arabiques’ [Bohumil Hrabal: ‘Composing a wounding world with scissors and glue’] was published by Les Classiques Garnier in Paris in 2012. Her main research areas are the comparative history of the avant-garde and cultural memory topics in Central European fiction. The special issue of the Belgian magazine Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire entitled ‘How to Tell the Story?’ edited by Petra James on the relationship between history and fiction and will appear shortly.



1 Claus Leggewie, ‘Seven Circles of European Memory’, Eurozine, 20 December 2010.

2 ‘International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance’. Accessed 10 December 2017: www.ohchr.org.

3 Ibid.

4 The right to truth was eventually included in a resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 16 December 2005: ‘Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.’ Accessed 8 February 2018: www.ohchr.org.

5 ‘Question of the impunity of perpetrators of human rights violations (civil and political)’ (final report prepared by Louis Joinet pursuant to Sub-Commission decision 1996/19) [26 June 1997]. Accessed 6 January 2017: documents-dds-ny.un.org.

6 Ricoeur 2000, 528.

7 Ricoeur 2000, 523.

8 Ricoeur 2000, 95.

9 Ricoeur intuitively senses that the Freudian model is not absolutely satisfactory. He writes further: ‘as for reconciliation with the loss itself, this will forever remain an unfinished task’ (Ricoeur 2009, Kindle loc. 1365). It is also interesting to note that the final epilogue (in form of a short poem) of the book finishes with the word ‘l’inachevement’ (incompletion).

10 Derrida’s work is today considered as one of those marking the so-called ‘spectral turn’ in humanities in 1990s (see especially Peeren and Del Pilar Blanco 2013 and Peeren 2014 and Del Pilar Blanco 2014).

11 “I claimed, moreover, that the spectral figure of the desaparecido and the idea of wandering ancestral spirits have to be interpreted as reflections of particular conceptions of historicity.” (Bevernage 2012, 148; Chapter ‘History and the Work of Mourning’, Kindle loc. 3607.)

12 Bevernage is basing his conclusion on field research in South Africa, Sierra Leone and Argentina. See also the works by Esther Peeren on spectrality and the scholarship produced after the ‘spectral turn’ in humanities in 1990s.

13 To give one example, the main character of Tučková’s novel The Expulsion of Gerta Schnirch, finally escapes expulsion and comes back to her hometown Brno. Life seems to be returning to normal and she is about to reconstruct her life with her teenage love, who has become an important member of the communist party. Nevertheless, her life is finally shattered when her lover disappears at the moment of the show trial with the communist leader Rudolf Slánský and his collaborators in 1952.

14 The research on the parallels between Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism were taboo in Soviet historiography before 1989 but some writers, such as Grossmann (Life and Fate), have addressed this question (see Etkind 2013, Kindle, chapter ‘Soviet hauntology’). Central European writers address this topic in their writings and it is clearly visible in the texts by Kratochvil and Huelle.

15 According to Tučková the character is based on a real person and the story is inspired by the personal diary of this woman that the author was able to access.

16 De Certeau 2016, 343.

17 See also Jan Ceuppens, ‘Seeing Things: Spectres and Angels in W. G. Sebald’s Prose Fiction’, in J. J. Long and Anne Whitehead (eds), W. G. Sebald, A Critical Companion, 190–202 (Edinburgh, 2004, 2006), and Anne Fuchs, ‘Die Unerlösheit der Geschichte: Der Film als Fantom’ [History impossible to solve: Film as Phantom], in Die Schmerzensspuren der Geschichte: Zur Poetik der Erinnerung [To the Poetics of Remembering], in W. G. Sebald’s Prosa, 62–67.

18 See also the famous texts on photography by Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes or Susan Sontag.

19 From the vast bibliography on the use of photography by Sebald, see in particular Carolin Duttlinger, ‘Traumatic Photographs: Remembrance and the Technical Media in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz’, in J. J. Long and Anne Whitehead (eds), W. G. Sebald, A Critical Companion, 155–71, and Alexandra Tischel, ‘Aus der Dunkelkammer der Geschichte. Zum Zusammenhang von Photographie und Erinnerung in W. G. Sebalds Austerliz’, in Michael Niehaus, Claudia Öhlschläger (eds), W. G. Sebald, Politische Archaologie und melancholische Bastelei [W. G. Sebald. Political Archaeology and melancholic DIY] (Berlin, 2006), 31–45.

20 Denemarková 2009, 230.

21 Ricoeur 2000, 257.

22 Katalpa 2012, 416.


Bevernage, Berber (2012) History, Memory and State-Sponsored Violence. New York: Routledge, Kindle.
— (2018) ‘Narrating pasts for peace? A critical analysis of some recent initiatives of historical reconciliation through “historical dialogue” and “shared history”’, in The Ethos of History, ed. Stefan Helgesson and Jayne Svennungsson, Berghahn Books (in press).

Bond, Lucy, Stef Craps and Pieter Vermeulen, eds (2017) Memory Unbound: Tracing the Dynamics of Memory Studies. New York: Berghahn Books.

Certeau, Michel de (2016) L’Ecriture de l’histoire (1st edn 1975). Paris: Gallimard.
— (2016, 3rd edn) Histoire et psychanalyse (1st French edn 1987, 1st American edn 1986). Paris: Gallimard.

Craps, Stef (2013) Postcolonial Witnessing: Trauma out of Bounds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, Kindle.

Denemarkova, Radka (2009) Penize od Hitlera: Letni mozaika (Money from Hitler: Summer Mosaics). Brno: Host.

Del Pilar Blanco, Maria and Peeren, Esther eds (2013) The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Del Pilar Blanco, Maria (2014) Ghost Watching American Modernity. New York: Fordham University Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1994) Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. New York, London: Routledge (first published in French in 1993)

Etkind, Alexander (2013) Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied. Stanford: Stanford University Press, Kindle.

Huelle, Paweł (2001) Mercedes Benz: Z listow do Hrabala. Kraków: Znak.
— (2005) Mercedes-Benz: from Letters to Hrabal. English trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones. London: Serpent’s Tail.

James, Petra (2013) ‘Chasseurs de fantômes. Agrandissements sebaldiens de la prose tcheque, slovaque et polonaise’ [Ghost-Spotters. Sebaldien close-ups from Czech, Slovak and Polish literature], in Memoire(s) des lieux dans la prose centre-europeenne apres 1989 [Places of memory (memories) in Central European prose after 1989], ed. Małgorzata Smorag-Goldberg and Marek Tomaszewski: Lausanne: Les Éditions Noir sur Blanc, 2013, 293–305.
— (2014) ‘Contemporary Literary Texts of Central European Authors as Lieux de mémoire’ Central Europe, vol. 12, no. 1, 62–68. Accessed 20 March 2016: www.maneyonline.com

James, Petra, ed. (2018) Special issue ‘How to tell the Story?’, Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire [Belgian Review for Philology and History].

Maidl, Vaclav (1998) ‘Obraz německy mluvících postav a německého prostředí v české literatuře 19. a 20. století’ [The image of German-speaking characters and German milieu in the Czech literature of the 19th and 20th Century], in Obraz Němců, Rakouska a Německa v česke společnosti 19. a 20. Stoleti [The image of Germans, Austria and Germany in the Czech society of the 19th and 20th century], ed. Jan Křen and Eva Broklová. Prague: Karolinum.

Kratochvil, Alexander, ed. (2015) Paměť a trauma pohledem humanitnich věd (Memory and Trauma in the Perspective of Human Sciences). Prague: Akropolis, 2015.

Lachmann, Renate (2008) ‘Mnemonic and Intertextual Aspects of Literature’, in Cultural Memory Studies: an International and Interdisciplinary Handbook, ed. Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter GMbH, 301–10.

Lysak, Tomasz, ed. (2015) Antologia studiow nad traumą. Cracow: Universitas.

Peeren, Esther (2014) The Spectral Metaphor. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ricoeur, Paul (2000) La memoire, l’histoire, l’oubli. Paris: Seuil.
— (2004) Memory, History, Forgetting, English trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Blamey. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.
— (2009) Kindle edition of English trans. – see above.

Sebald, Winfried Georg (2001) Austerlitz. English trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Random House, 2001.
— (2008, 4th edn) Austerlitz (1st edn 2001). Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.

Smorag-Goldberg, Małgorzata and Marek Tomaszewski, eds (2013) Memoire(s) des lieux dans la prose centre-europeenne apres 1989 [Places of memory (memories) in Central European Prose after 1989]. Lausanne: Les Éditions Noir sur Blanc.

Tučkova, Kateřina (2010)Vyhnani Gerty Schnirch [The expulsion of Gerta Snirch]. Brno: Host.

Vilikovsky, Pavel (2009) Vlastný životopis zla [The autobiography of evil]. Bratislava: Kalligram.


This article has been published in the sixth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Violence in 20th-century European History.

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

Siobhan Doyle

James Connolly's bloodstained vest: Mediating death and violence in commemorative exhibtions

11 Feburary 2018
  • Museum
  • commemoration
  • Easter Rising
  • James Connolly


The actions surrounding the display of images and artefacts in museums – collection, conservation, research and exhibition – are bound up with how the past is presented and remembered. These conditions and decisions relating to exhibitions are largely invisible to viewers who are confronted with the apparent completeness of an exhibition display. By conducting a historical and visual analysis of the bloodstained vest of political leader James Connolly, this article uncovers how this artefact has become a relic of historical violence due to the way in which particular aspects of its configuration, form and trajectory have been manipulated in order to elicit powerful emotional responses from the exhibition’s viewers.

... I have done nothing but see in the National Museum of Ireland the rusty red spot of blood, rather dirty, on the shirt that was once worn on the hero who is dearest to me of them all ... (MacLean 1971, 270–71)

Sorley MacLean’s poem ‘National Museum of Ireland’, written in 1971, contemplates the display of the bloodstained shirt of political leader James Connolly that he wore during the 1916 Rising. The shirt has been on display in the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) in several exhibitions and has been subject to considerable attention and research.1 Another bloodstaineditem of Connolly’s clothing – his vest – is part of the NMI collection and was displayed publicly for the first time in 2016 as part of their centenary commemorative exhibition. Connolly’s vest, which is soiled with a bloodstain on the back of the left arm, marks the location of one of the wounds he received during this 20th century conflict.

As discussed by Mary M. Brooks, ‘garments that protected, shaped and presented the body in life can become surrogate bodies in the museum, evoking and memorialising the absent wearer’ (Brooks 2017, 20). The way in which the vest is carefully laid out in the exhibition display, creates a feeling that the vest has been untouched since Connolly last wore it and heightens its symbolic potency. This symbolism is created by the way the garment is folded in half with the arms crossed at the front. Positioning the folded arms in this way resembles the positioning of the arms of a deceased body and congeals the transfiguration of Connolly from a citizen, who took up arms with a view to achieving independence, into a martyr who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country.

Brooks also contends how careful judgements when exhibiting garments is essential as artefacts must be comprehensible as dress in order to carry the meaning selected for a specific display context, whether as a work of art, a design statement or, in this case, as a representation of its previous wearer (Brooks 2017, 22). The positioning of the vest in the display case differs from other pieces of clothing in the exhibition. Rather than putting the vest on a life‑size mannequin at eye level like all of the other forms of clothing within the exhibition, the vest has been folded and placed in a glass counter-top display case. This has been done for two reasons; firstly, in order to explicitly expose the bloodstain; and secondly, to evoke the absence of the deceased body it represents.

This article centres on James Connolly’s bloodstained vest – a valuable material artefact of the 1916 Rising, which was loaned to the NMI by his family in 1941. With its display in the ‘Proclaiming a Republic: The 1916 Rising’ exhibition, this biographic relic has become symbolic as a tangible link to the death of a principal figure in Ireland’s political history. By examining this artefact through the institutional processes of acquisition, preservation and exhibition, this article demonstrates how ordinary objects can foster particular historical understandings when they are authenticated and mediated within the museum environment. Using grounding principles of visualculture, museology and material culture to undertake a visual analysis of this artefact and its display, I direct attention to the visual processes employed when representing death in exhibitions and raise questions about the ways in which exhibition displays can perpetuate particular aspects of violent events.

James Connolly and the 1916 Rising

The 1916 Easter Rising is regarded as ‘the most controversial event in modern Irish history’ (McGarry 2010, 8). The conflict lasted for six days during which militant Republicans sought to seize political power from Britain, and declared – though unsuccessfully in the short term – an independent state (Brück and Godson, 2015, 1). At the time, the public perception of the Rising was hostile due to the unpredictability and chaotic nature of the rebellion from the outset.2 As noted by David Fitzpatrick, the determination of the leaders to stage a rebellion marked by honour and chivalry was inevitably sullied by cases of brutal or cowardly conduct, callousness towards civilians, and looting; but the leaders emerged after the surrender with impressive dignity to meet their fate (Fitzpatrick 2016, 82–83).

James Connolly (1868–1916), socialist and revolutionary leader, is a significant figure in the story of the Rising and in the history of modern Ireland. Connolly was instrumental in establishing the Citizen Army in 1913 and during the Rising he commanded military operations. As Commandant General of the Republic’s forces, he fought in the city centre where the majority of the battles took place until surrendering on 29 April. Connolly received several injuries during the six days of fighting with the most severe shattering his left ankle. He was court-martialled and was the last one of the fifteen leaders to be executed by firing squad. He was shot dead in Kilmainham Gaol on 12 May 1916 and was survived by his wife and six children.

The execution of the leaders of the Rising without trial caused widespread public consternation, encouraged sympathy and swayed public opinion in favour of the rebel forces. Darragh Gannon contends that the beatification of the dead of 1916 persisted through the publishing of obituary biographies of those who had been killed as a result of the Rising, along with photographs of the widows and children left behind that evoked natural sympathy (Gannon 2016, 218). Jack Elliott also notes how in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, there was a proliferation of images of the executed leaders that circulated widely in newspapers and on pieces of mass-produced ephemera. These visual and material representations of the executed leadersplayed a particular role in shaping sympathetic and intelligible narratives of the conflict and created a familiarity with the appearance of the leaders (Elliott 2015, 91–95).

In a time when the visualization of the conflict was limited to newspapers and material artefacts, tangible entities became extremely significant in ‘the construction of both personal and official histories’ (Brück and Godson, 2015, 1). In April 1917, a three-day gift sale compromising of relics of the Rising and souvenirs of other Irish rebellions was held in support of Republican relief organizations. Many of the items auctioned that day eventually made their way into the MMI’s Easter Week Collection, such as leader Éammon Ceannt’s imitation ancient Irish costume worn when playing the Irish warpipes before Pope Pius X in 1908. Connolly’s wife Lillie donated a pair of his gloves to the auction but their whereabouts today is not known. Material and artefacts within the Easter Week Collection associated with Connolly are mainly ephemeral, consisting of leaflets promoting his lectures, communicative documents used during the Rising and handwritten postcards and letters. Given the limited nature of his material legacy, the NMI are immensely restricted in how they represent Connolly through artefacts.

National Museum of Ireland (NMI)

The NMI has a long history of hosting exhibitions commemorating the 1916 Rising with its first in 1932. In the years following the inaugural exhibition, the NMI collected materials and objects bound together only by their association with the Rising and established what is known as the ‘Easter Week Collection’ – the first thematic collection in the institution. The NMI still stands apart as the pioneer in hosting 1916 exhibitions and its collection built around this pivotal event in Irish history set the stage for the preservation and presentation of the material culture of Ireland.

The ‘Proclaiming a Republic: The 1916 Rising’ exhibition that opened in March 2016 is the NMI’s eighth exhibition on the subject and has been the centrepiece of the NMI’s centenary programme. Housed in the Riding School at the Department of Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks in Dublin, this exhibition has been described as revealing ‘the physicalities of life in Ireland before, during and after the events of Easter Week in the form of three hundred objects, articles and images’ (Gannon, 2016, xvi). Artefacts, which have visible traces of use because of the conflict, have been mobilized by curators throughout the exhibition in order to accentuate thedistress and physicalities of war. Many of these artefacts are everyday materials, which have become extraordinary because of their association with this significant event in Ireland’s political history and illustrate how ordinary lives and actions collided during the conflict. Artefacts such as a crucifix hit by a stray bullet, a sign from the front of the burnt-out General Post Office (GPO) and James Connolly’s bloodstained vest are examples of ordinary objects whose storytelling ability is enhanced because they have visible evidence of the physicalities of violence.

Many of the exhibited objects have never been on public display before while others, such as the flags that flew over the rebel garrisons around Dublin city, were specially conserved for this display. Through the combined effect of the objects, words and imagery of the period, visitors follow the stories of those caught up in the events of that momentous week – civilians, combatants and survivors alike.

The exhibition is laid out in a series of ten zones: introduction, the proclamation of the Irish Republic and early 20th-century Ireland; establishing the rebel garrisons and the British countermoves; surrender and the scenes of destruction; courts martial and execution; widows and orphans; deportation and imprisonment; commemorating the Rising through the last 100 years; Art Ó Murnaghan’s national memorial; the legacy of 1916 and a resource room. The narrative ordering of the exhibition content presents episodes of the conflict semi-chronologically meaning that visitors get a general sense of the chronology of events, but this arrangement also allows visitors to make their own narrative connections between the different zones. For example, in the centre of ‘Zone 3: Establishing Rebel Garrisons and the British Countermoves’, there is a large glass case displaying the Irish Republic flag that flew from the GPO during the Rising. The flag was captured by British soldiers after the surrender, kept as a war trophy and entered the Royal Collection of King George V of England.3 A large-format digital photograph of British soldiers with the captured flag immediately after the Rising features prominently on a display panel in ‘Zone 4: Surrender and the Scenes of Destruction’. The displays do not refer to one another, encouraging viewers to connect both artefact and image autonomously.

Visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners are catered for using object displays, text panels, graphics, interactive touch screens, soundscapes, audio recordings and short film. Speakers in the main exhibition area play a looped audiosoundtrack, which contains noises of a street scene overwhelmed by explosions and guns. The overall mood of the soundtrack creates a sensory environment, which summons feelings of chaos and provides context for the exhibition. This soundscape is most prominent in ‘Zone 3: Establishing Rebel Garrisons and the British Countermoves’ but is phased out gradually so that ‘Zone 5: Courts Martial and Execution’ achieves a reverential mood for viewers to reflect silently and ‘empathise with the executed leaders’ (Heise and Tandem Design 2015). This is an intentional curatorial strategy implemented in order to promote intimacy and contemplation in this section of the exhibition.

‘Zone 5: Courts Martial and Execution‘

As discussed by Jane Tynan, ‘notions of tragic heroism dominate the memory of the Rising’ – a narrative which also emerges in the ‘Courts Martial and Execution’ section of the exhibition (Tynan 2015, 32). This section of the exhibition details the last moments of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising individually, by describing their last meetings with families and displaying artefacts, which were in their possession before they met their death by firing squad in the yard in Kilmainham Gaol. A generous graphic area introduces the executions, interprets the reaction of the public and the swing in public opinion that followed. The curators and exhibition designers have positioned this section in a particular way so that it is possible for visitors to bypass the display of last letters and objects if they choose. This positioning represents the exhibition makers’ consciousness of the sensitive nature of the death-related content on public display. The possible bypassing of this section is not made explicit on display panels or in a disclaimer, so that visitors can come to their own decisions on how to deal with the complex nature of displaying artefacts closely associated with death and more specifically, execution.

The central feature of this section is a long bespoke display case, where each execution is treated separately with its own grouping of objects. The ‘last objects’ are housed within the case, with the associated last letter and death certificate viewable within a drawer positioned directly underneath the case. Visitors can listen to dramatized readings of each of the last letters on a bank of listening pods that helps them to ‘decipher the letters of the often difficult to read handwriting and understand the emotions behind the words’ (Heise and Tandem Design, 2015). The objects belonging to the leaders include a button from Michael Hanrahan’s uniform, which he gave to his sisters during their last visit to him, rosary beads given by Joseph Plunkettto firing squad member Sergeant W. Hand before his execution and a silver cigarette case inscribed by John MacBride during Easter Week. The object that materially represents Connolly in this section is his bloodstained vest. As Albano has outlined, by displaying such artefacts as biographical material evidence, not only is something about the objects themselves revealed, but information about those who acted on them is also uncovered (Albano 2007, 17). The aim of this display strategy is to produce a human connection between the exhibited artefacts and the viewer.

James Scott asserts how the perception of objects can be influenced heavily by what surrounds them in displays (Scott 2015, 500). The difference between Connolly’s vest and the other objects on display within the ‘Courts Martial and Execution’ section of the exhibition is that the majority of artefacts representing the other leaders were gifted to visitors before they met their death, indicating a conscious effort to leave a material legacy of their last moments. This gifting of artefacts by the leaders before their executions is an example of what Guy Beiner refers to as ‘prememory’ – ‘the anticipations and expectations of those who are committed to predetermine how history will be remembered’ (Beiner 2016, 34). Unlike the other leaders who bequeathed material artefacts to trusted individuals during their final visits from family and final moments with others in Kilmainham Gaol, Connolly did not intentionally leave a ‘prememory’ personal possession.4 The bloodstained vest was among Connolly’s possessions, which were returned to his family after his death along with his watch and wallet.5 Perhaps if Connolly had bequeathed his watch or wallet during the final visit with his wife and daughter, curators of the exhibition may have selected those objects to represent his last moments instead of a piece of clothing that he possibly last wore two weeks prior to his execution. The watch and wallet were not donated to the museum by the Connolly family, but were instead kept as private relics of his last possessions. In fact, the vest and undershirt are the only material artefacts in the NMI collection that were donated by Connolly’s family and which can be tangibly associated with his execution.6

That said Connolly’s execution was different to that of the other leaders due to the severity of the injuries he had sustained during Easter Week. Upon arrival at Kilmainham Gaol, Connolly was removed from the ambulance in a stretcher and unlike the other leaders who were positioned on wooden boxes pending the gunshots from the firing squad, Connolly was strapped to a chair where he sat in an extended position with his head falling backwards.7It is unlikely that Connolly wore this vest during his execution as it was stated by witnesses that he was wearing only his pyjamas prior to execution and had lost a lot of blood after the shots were fired, meaning that the bloodstains on the vest do not correspond with the details of his death.8 However, the display of the vest in relation to the other last objects on display and the selective information in the accompanying display label suggest that the curators may, in fact, intend visitors to assume it was worn by Connolly during his execution. While many of the other artefacts describe how they were distinctly used or gifted during the leaders’ final moments with their loved ones, the information accompanying Connolly’s vest makes no reference to the visit but instead focuses on the injuries he received during Easter Week and how the vest was deposited in the National Museum.

Display texts in museums can provide a basic starting point for directing viewers towards the politics of exhibition – the unseen features of artefacts such as their creation, acquisition and historical background. Considering that many of the other leaders’ biographies detail their final moments prior to execution and display material evidence of those moments, the avoidance of this description in Connolly’s case may represent a conscious curatorial strategy, which is implemented in order to heighten the emotional strength of the vest. Examining such aspects of display outlines the importance of considering the invisibility of the construction of exhibition displays and exposes the extent to which museums control visitors’ engagement with the past. Focusing on the institutional acquisition of the vest after Connolly’s death can be seen as a selective manipulation of certain attributes of the artefact in order to correspond with other artefacts on display and to validate the NMI’s role in displaying this contested personal possession, despite the original owner’s unwillingness to engage in material acts of ‘prememory’.

Historical configuration of the vest

On Thursday, 27 April 1916, surrounded by burning buildings and a hail of gunfire and artillery shelling, James Connolly led 30 volunteers out into a street to erect a barricade at the rear of the GPO, which was the insurgent’s headquarters for the duration of the Rising. A few minutes later, Connolly returned to the building and asked the medical orderly, Jim Ryan, if he could speak to him somewhere in private. Behind a screen, Connolly took off his coat and revealed a flesh wound in his arm where he had just been shot. After having the wound dressed, he told Ryan: ‘Not a word about this to anyone’ and returned outside to the fighting (Nevin 2005, 654).

This sequence of events uncovers three aspects that affect the display of the vest in the museum environment. Firstly, the witness accounts of Connolly’s injury correspond with the configuration of the bloodstain, authenticating the description presented by the NMI in the exhibition display. Secondly, it reveals reluctance on the part of Connolly for his injuries to become common knowledge and demonstrates how the eventual trajectory of personal artefacts often goes beyond the control of their owners.9 Finally, they reveal how an everyday artefact can be transformed into a tangible link and a symbolic representation of a first-hand experience of a violent conflict in Irish history.

After his execution, Connolly’s daughter Nora recalled going to Dublin Castle to retrieve some of his personal items:

We went to the Castle after that, to claim his watch, his wallet, or anything they might have belonging to Daddy. We thought there might be a chance of getting his uniform; but we did not. We only got his underclothes; and they were marked with his blood, where he had been hit by a sniper. I have given them to the Museum also.10

Nora’s wish to retrieve her father’s uniform accentuates the emotional weight that is attached to personal items of clothing, particularly in the absence of their wearer. Nora loaned the bloodstained vest and undershirt to the Easter Week Collection in 1941, where they remain in the care of the NMI. The transfer of these items from a private collection to a national collection in a public institution shows an awareness, on the part of the Connolly family, of the significance and potential value of such soiled artefacts.

As outlined by Annie E. Coombes, the way an object is used, how it is moved around and its very survival is an indication of value and meaning (Coombes 1988, 89). The display label states that ‘The vest, along with the shirt he wore over it, was returned to his family after execution and his daughter Nora, kept it until she deposited in the National Museum.’ This selective information gives viewers an insight into the actions surrounding the collection and acquisition of this artefact; and offers an understanding of the range of actions that take place in order for an object to become part of a museum collection and subsequent display. There is limited information available in the NMI archives on the vest and undershirt aside from the dates of donation and a request some years later from Connolly’s other daughterIna to view the items.11 The preservation of the vest by the wearer’s family and the NMI memorializes and authenticates Connolly’s presence in the violent battles of the 1916 Rising.

Form and style of the vest

Eastop and Brooks have outlined the importance of leaving stained textiles untouched as the stains often ‘contain’ considerable historical and cultural evidence (Eastop and Brooks 1996, 688). It is a specific event in Irish history – the 1916 Rising: Connolly being shot for the first time – which caused its eventual configuration and the reason why this artefact was collected as a historic relic, loaned to the museum, conserved and now on display to the public. Like many other soiled historical artefacts, the form and style of this artefact is configured by an unintentional event – that is, the vest only looks the way it does by accident (residue of blood from a flesh wound after a stray bullet hit Connolly). Furthermore, the vest was not intended by its user to be made visible as presumably it would have been worn underneath his uniform and as already mentioned, the wearer hoped to keep his injury secret. Instead, it was the subsequent custodians of the vest – Connolly’s family – who deliberately collected and donated his bloodstained underclothes as evidence of the experience and conditions of the 1916 Rising. As the vest has remained in the care of the NMI since it was loaned in 1941, it is their institutional practices of collection, conservation and curation that now control the cultural visibility of the vest after Connolly’s death.

As discussed by Jane Tynan, the peculiar dynamics of the Rising demanded an equivocal attitude to uniform (Tynan 2015, 31). The rebel leaders for example, wore uniforms that were dark green in colour and distinct from the other Volunteer uniforms. However not all of the insurgents were noted for their elegant appearance. Due to financial hardship, lack of military experience and the chaotic unfolding of events, the majority of participants in the fighting had a casual and unmilitary appearance (Tynan 2015, 29).

Connolly was described as wearing ‘a green Volunteer uniform with rings on his arm, and a wide-awake hat’ (Nevin 2005, 665). His daughter Ina elicited the delight she felt the first time seeing her father in his green Volunteer uniform: ‘How splendid he looked! How pleased I was to see him in the uniform of Ireland’s green! Wouldn’t mother be proud of him if she could get one glace of him?’12

Connolly’s ‘splendid’ appearance was not maintained in the aftermath of the conflict as he was brought to Kilmainham Gaol to meet his death wearing ‘his pyjamas only’.13 His material legacy in the ‘Proclaiming a Republic’ exhibition is reflective of the unheroic image chosen to represent the Rising, which as Tynan has asserted ‘features what appears to be a working class man wearing civilian clothes’ (Tynan 2015, 33).14 This vest has agency as material culture as it communicates either the physical body or presence of its owner and signifies his personal identity through its traces of use, general wear and tear and personal style. The proximity to the body it represents is intensified by the presence of a visible bodily residue, which is exposed by the particular positioning of the vest in the display case.


The actions surrounding the display of images and objects in museums – collection, conservation, research and exhibition – are bound up with howthe past is presented and remembered. These conditions and decisions of exhibition display are largely invisible to viewers who are confronted with the apparent completeness of an exhibition display.

Conducting a historical and visual analysis of this bloodstained vest has uncovered how particular aspects of this artefact have been manipulated in order to be appropriate alongside other artefacts within the exhibition. Other than representing his clothing and reinforcing the casual heroism of the Rising, Connolly’s vest was not crucial to the theme of the ‘Courts Martial and Execution’ section of the exhibition. Instead its significance lies in the particular positioning of the artefact in the display case in order to make the bloodstain fully visible. This mode of display intentionally gives the vest a heightened sense of tangible connection to the violence of the Rising in an attempt to elicit powerful emotional responses from the exhibition’s viewers.



Siobhan Doyle is a PhD scholar at the Dublin School of Creative Arts in the Dublin Institute of Technology and received the Dean of the College of Arts & Tourism scholarship award in March 2016. Siobhan’s research project investigates representations of death in commemorative exhibitions in national cultural institutions and the challenges facing museums when commemorating historical conflict. Other research interests include the historiography of visual and material culture and dark tourism. Siobhan has a written a chapter ‘Funerary Traditions and Commemorative Practices in Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum’ in Grave Matters: Death and Dying in Dublin 1650–2000 (Four Courts Press, Dublin, June 2016).



1 The shirt has been on display in the ‘Soldiers and Chiefs’ exhibition at the NMI since 2006 and was featured in the History of Ireland in 100 Objects initiative which began as a column in The Irish Times by Fintan O’ Toole and culminated in an illustrated book, website and series of stamps. This collection of one hundred objects was selected to illustrate Ireland’s history and in doing so, directed readers to where each object was on public display.

2 The Rising was originally scheduled to take place on Easter Sunday, 23 April 1916 but Eoin MacNeill issued a cancellation of ‘manoeuvres’ which led to the non-participation of many potential rebels. The countermand was only partly successful and caused confusion, especially outside Dublin. Consequently there was no Rising in Cork or Limerick. The dissidents delayed their plans by 24 hours and launched the Rising on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916.

3 The flag was returned by the British state to the Taoiseach Sean Lemass as gesture of reconciliation in 1966. Lemass formally presented the flag to the NMI in the hope thatit would be ‘preserved as one of the important relics of that important event of Irish history and as a source of inspiration to all who come to this museum’. (‘Exhibition Tells Story of the Rising: Post Office Flag on View’, Irish Times, 13 April 1966, 11.)

4 Connolly gave a copy of his Court Martial statement to his daughter Nora during the final family visit the night before his execution, which is on display in the pull-out drawer underneath the glass display case.

5 Bureau of Military History (1949): Witness Statement of Nora Connolly-O’Brien (WS286). www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie. Accessed 6 November 2017.

6 The items were originally on loan to the NMI from 30 April 1941 and include a portrait of James Connolly and a shirt and vest worn by James Connolly when he was wounded during Easter Week 1916. Both are stained with his blood. The loan register lists the lender as Nora Connolly O’Brien (daughter of James Connolly), 39 The Rise, Glasnevin, Dublin. NMI Archives: NMIAS.AI.EWL.0097.003.00034. Accessed 3 November 2017.

7 Bureau of Military History: Witness Statement of Peter Paul Gilligan (WS170). www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie. Accessed 6 November 2017.

8 Bureau of Military History: Witness Statement of 2nd Lieutenant R. C. Barton (WS0979). drive.google.com. Accessed 16 January 2017.

9 Despite returning to duty immediately after receiving the wound on his arm dressed, Connolly received a much more severe injury to his ankle shortly afterwards that immobilized him for the remainder of the conflict, and up until his execution two weeks later.

10 Bureau of Military History (1949): Witness Statement of Nora Connolly O’ Brien (WS286). www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie. Accessed 6 November 2017.

11 NMI Archives: NMIAS.AI.EWL.0097.003.00034 (9). Accessed 3 November 2017.

12 Bureau of Military History (1954): Witness Statement of Ina Connolly Heron (WS0919) www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie. Accessed 6 November 2017.

13 Bureau of Military History: Witness Statement of 2nd Lieutenant R. C. Barton (WS0979). www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie. Accessed 16 November 2017.

14 Tynan, Jane (2015) ‘The Unmilitary Appearance of the 1916 Rebels’, in Making 1916: Material and Visual Culture of the 1916 Rising, ed. Lisa Godson and Joanna Bruck. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.


Published Sources:

Albano, Caterina (2007) ‘Displaying Lives: The Narratives of Objects in Biographical Exhibitions’. Museum and Society, 5, no. 1. 15–28.

Beiner, Guy (2016) ‘Making Sense of Memory: Coming to Terms with Conceptualisations of Historical Remembrance’, in Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politicsof Memory in Ireland, ed. Richard S. Grayson and Fearghal McGarry, 25–36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brooks, Mary M.(2017) ‘Reflecting Absence and Presence: Displaying Dress of Known Individuals’, in Refashioning and Redress: Conserving and Displaying Dress, ed. Mary M. Brooks and Dinah D. Eastop, 19–32. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute.

Bruck, Joanna and Lisa Godson (2015) ‘Approaching the Material and Visual Culture of the 1916 Rising: An Introduction’, in Making 1916: Material and Visual Culture of the 1916 Rising, ed. Lisa Godson & Joanna Brück, 1–11. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Coombes, Annie E. (1988) ‘Museums and the Formation of National and Cultural Identities’. Oxford Art Journal, 11, no. 2. 260–72.

Eastop, Dinah D. and Brooks, Mary M.(1996) ‘To Clean or Not to Clean: The Value of Soils and Creases’, in Preprints of the 11th Triennial Meeting of the ICOM–CC, Edinburgh, ed. Janet Birdgland, 687–91. London: James & James.

Elliott, Jack (2015) ‘“After I am Hanged my Portrait will be Interesting but not Before”: Ephemera and the Construction of Personal Responses to the Easter Rising’, in Making 1916: Material and Visual Culture of the 1916 Rising, ed. Lisa Godson and Joanna Brück, 91–8. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

‘Exhibition Tells Story of the Rising: Post Office Flag on View’ (1966) Irish Times, 13 April, 11. Accessed 29 January 2018: 0-search.proquest.com

Fitzpatrick, David (2016) ‘Instant History: 1912, 1916, 1918’, in Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland, ed. Richard S. Grayson and Fearghal McGarry, 77–98. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gannon, Darragh (2016) Proclaiming a Republic: Ireland, 1916 and the National Collection. Kildare: Irish Academic Press.

Godson, Lisa and Joanna Bruck, eds (2015) Making 1916: Material and Visual Culture of the 1916 Rising. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

MacLean, Sorley (2011) ‘National Museum of Ireland’, in Sorley MacLean: Collected Poems, ed. Christopher Whyte and Emma Dymock, 270–71. Edinburgh: Polygon.

McGarry, Fearghal (2010) The Rising: Ireland, Easter 1916. New York, Oxford University Press.

Nevin, Donal (2005) James Connolly: ‘A Full Life’. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan.

Scott, James (2015) ‘Objects and the Representations of War in Military Museums’, Museum and Society, 13, no. 4. 489–502.

Tynan, Jane (2015) ‘The Unmilitary Appearance of the 1916 Rebels’, in Making 1916: Material and Visual Culture of the 1916 Rising, ed.Lisa Godson and Joanna Brück, 25–33. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Primary Sources:

Bureau of Military History (1949) Witness Statement of Nora Connolly O’ Brien (WS286). Accessed 6 November 2017: www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie

Bureau of Military History (1954) Witness Statement of Ina Connolly Heron (WS0919). Accessed 6 November 2017: www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie

Bureau of Military History: Witness Statement of 2nd Lieutenant R. C. Barton (WS0979). Accessed 16 November 2017: drive.google.com

Bureau of Military History: Witness Statement of Peter Paul Gilligan (WS170). Accessed 6 November 2017: www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie

Heise, Sandra and Tandem Design (2015) ‘National Museum of Ireland: Easter Week Remembered Concept Design (Issue 1)’, 26 June 2015. National Museum of Ireland Archives: AI/16/111. Accessed 18 September 2017.

National Library of Ireland (1917) Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependents’ Fund: Catalogue of Gift Sale to be Held in Aid of above at the Mansion House, Dublin on Friday and Saturday, 20 and 21 April 1917: MS. 35,262/27(1). Accessed 22 November 2017.

National Museum of Ireland Archives: NMIAS.AI.EWL.0097.003.00034 (9). Accessed 3 November 2017.


This article has been published in the sixth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Violence in 20th-century European History.

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

Weronika Kann

Sound in the Silence project: Teaching method

03 September 2017
  • education

The twentieth-century history of Europe was marked by two world wars and two totalitarianisms, national socialism and communism. To pursue their objectives, these two systems - despite their ideological differences - were making use of similar means, i.e. violence and terror, incarnated as concentration and forced labour camps. (…) Apart from being a unique kind of cemeteries, museums set up on the grounds of former death and concentration camps have also become monuments to the past, commemorating victims to regimes. It was there that a new area of educational activity, unknown before, was born in a natural way: memorial site pedagogy.
Luiza Kończyk, Pedagogika (miejsc) pamięci, 2012[1]

1. Introduction

Sound in the Silence is an international interdisciplinary educational project delivered by the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity (ENRS) in cooperation with the cultural centre MOTTE from Hamburg. Its main goal is to make adolescents attending upper secondary schools familiar with some difficult aspects of Europe’s past in a way that matches their emotional sensitivity. Guided by artists and educators, the participants visit memorial sites where they explore selected events from the history of totalitarianisms in East-Central Europe. Then, referring to their own emotions and experience, they process the newly acquired knowledge during art workshops of several days. Their work finds its culmination in a public performance which combines various genres of art: dance, theatre, music and stage setting. Emotions and feelings related to visits at memorial sites – particularly those marked with violence and pain, giving rise to emotions sometimes hard to express in words – become thus externalised in an artistic message.

2. Teaching method

The place where young learners come into contact with history for the first time, the school does not always offer conditions conducive to understanding the past. Sound in the Silence is intended to fill that gap, facilitating international, interdisciplinary cooperation between schools and external experts and artists representing various disciplines. Offering young people an opportunity to directly experience memorial sites and interact with others who have different experiences, the projects stimulates sensitivity, curiosity and tolerance. Learning in an international environment, coupled with integration and dialogue of youth from different countries and marked by twentieth-century history in different ways, will help them better understand the past and broaden their horizons.

The educational process proposed by the project includes two parts: one based on learning and history and one based on arts. During the first part, the young participants are guided around a selected memorial site, a concentration or forced labour camp. They learn about its history as well individual fates of its inmates, which facilitates stepping in their shoes and thus a more in-depth understanding of the past[2]. Then the participants attend an interactive lecture and discussion staged by scientific coordinators. The lecture aims at presenting a broader historical context as well as systematising and consolidating their existing knowledge (accounting for school syllabus differences in individual countries); the discussion, in turn, provides a space for asking questions, exploration and comprehension.

The other part is art workshops of around a week, during which the final performance is prepared as a team effort. They are delivered by means of an exposing teaching method intended to activate the student’s whole personality, both intellect and emotions. The method consists in simulating situations and role-play using words, gestures, movement and sometimes props[3]. The point is not theatre, however, as the final performance is not based on a ready-made text but is an open structure where new content, actions and interpretations can be inserted. Consequently, playing a specific role requires personal engagement on the part of the student. The method allows for the emotional experience of specific problems, looking for one’s own solutions as well as making choices. It also accelerates the students’ emotional, intellectual and social growing up. It additionally teaches them understanding themselves and others at the level of feelings and emotions.

3. Project measures

Project work begins long before going to the memorial site and comprises the following stages:

3.1. Project site selection: project coordinators select a site as the axis of a given edition of the project. They also select and describe a leitmotif, closely linked to the history of the site, which helps define activities to be performed more precisely. Then materials for the students and teachers are prepared, with the subjects contained therein to be explored more in-depth and supplemented with new aspects during the historical workshop. The coordinators remain in close cooperation with the institution or museum in charge of a given memorial site.

3.2. Recruitment: it targets teachers and schools, lasts two months and is executed by means of online applications. Each year, students and teachers participating in the project are recruited by a selection team comprising ENRS and MOTTE staff. Four upper secondary schools from EU member states may select seven students and a teacher to spend eight days at a selected memorial site. The following aspects are subject to evaluation during the recruitment process: motivation (the selection team will assess the convergence between the project objectives and the teacher’s interests, expectations and personal development plans); project recruitment modalities (the way in which the teacher/school selects seven young project participants as well as the teacher’s approach to the project’s interdisciplinary nature); experience in the delivery of interdisciplinary projects (outside the school syllabus) and the knowledge of English (with the teachers and students obliged to declare it to be at least at the B2 level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages standard of the Council of Europe).
The project assumes that the teacher and the students he/she selects take part in all activities planned by the organisers, with the teachers not involved in work during individual workshops and playing mainly the roles of guardians and aides.

3.3. A trip to the memorial site: the formula – that of a momentary break from daily duties and routines – facilitates the creation of a safe space for discussion, becoming familiar with different point of views and consciously working out new perspectives. As a result, visits at memorial sites serve not just to help improve one’s knowledge of history but also as a starting point for juxtaposing various opinions in a way accessible to adolescents.

3.4. Visiting the memorial site and an educational workshop: the basic objective of the substantive workshop is to make the participants familiar as to the location where the project is delivered as well as discuss selected topics from the history of totalitarianisms in East-Central Europe. The knowledge acquired in the early days of the visit will also help the participants better prepare their final performance.

3.5. Groupwork with artists: one of the project objectives is to develop new outside-the-box ways to deal with history, based, on the one hand, on the participants’ individual involvement and dialogue, and openness on the other. Hence the idea for combining visits at memorial sites with art workshops as well inviting youth, artists, experts in memory and educators from different countries and with different experience and knowledge of history to work together. The work is executed in several workshop groups, each led by a different artist. During the first workshop day, after each leader has presented their approach, the students select the genre of art that suits them best.

3.6. Final performance: the last day and a half of the project serves to combine the ideas of all groups into a coherent whole and rehearse the final performance which is then presented to the public. Emotions and feelings related to visits at memorial sites – particularly those marked with violence and pain, giving rise to emotions sometimes hard to express in words – become externalised in an artistic message.

4. Learning through arts

The combination of two apparently contradictory domains as learning and arts may be seen, encourages young people to come into contact with history and points a way towards expressing one’s views personally and critically. Using one’s intellect, emotions, imagination and senses for learning purposes facilitates looking at the past from various angles and perspectives of many parties to the very same conflict. The formula of Sound in the Silence offers both students and teachers alike the possibility to move away from traditional history teaching routines giving a voice to witnesses to past events. The project has been conceived of as basic ground preparation work, aimed at counteracting exclusion, preventing nationalist attitudes, sensitising the participants to challenges faced by the modern world as well as promoting such terms a empathy, tolerance or dialogue.

The project focuses on individualised and multidimensional experience of the past. During the workshops, the students are encouraged to critically analyse the history presented. Dates and facts are contextualised with the experiences and feelings of those who lived past events coming to the fore. This is the point of visiting memorial sites, reading witnesses’ accounts or watching feature films and documentaries. Additionally, each student is given an opportunity to select a workshop related to the type of art most suited to their sensitivity. The artists are mentors, showing various ways to interpret historical events by means of arts. They are also there to help the participants work through and understand the most difficult topics, for which there is often no time available at school. Such an interdisciplinary and multidimensional approach to complex history facilitates reflection made more in-depth by one’s own emotions and understanding of both the past and presence. Use of forms and means to which contemporary youth can relate helps them find the importance of historical events for the modern-day world. As a participant of the previous edition put it: “I have never felt so connected to history before and would never have by just looking at a picture”[4].

Facing the history of the project site in emotional terms requires ensuring a common, safe space for dialogue for participants of various ages, characters and maturity levels. Thanks to re-defining certain educational methods, Sound in the Silence is a good solution for students who find it difficult to understand the timeless universality of historical messages. The artistic techniques applied as well as direct contact with memorial sites make the process of knowledge acquisition and analysis more accessible. They also facilitate personal engagement on the part of the participants and showing links between the past and their present-day lives.

One of the key challenges as regards the delivery of Sound in the Silence is transmission of expert historical knowledge to persons of various nationalities in a language other than their native one. The coordinators communicate with the adolescent participants in English, which may hamper the understanding of specialist historical terms. Should comprehension problems appear, the participants should contact the project coordinators or their guardians.

An additional difficulty as regards working with adolescents from various countries is varied levels of knowledge of the history of the site and region visited as well as differences in their knowledge of twentieth-century European history. That is why cooperation begins long before the project implementation stage. The coordinators meet representatives of the schools or hold consultations with them over Skype. They offer them materials prepared for the young participants serving to minimise such discrepancies. From the very start, the project is consulted with school teachers, head teachers as well as artistic and substantive coordinators. The point is to define the goals and objectives of the project precisely and communicate them to all the interested parties so that misunderstandings and tensions could be avoided.

Each edition of the project is assessed by all the persons involved in it: artists, teachers and students and then subject to detailed evaluation by a team from the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity. The conclusions are used while planning is being done for successive editions of the project.

5. Summary

The idea behind Sound in the Silence is multi-track historical education delivered both at memorial sites and art workshops as well as integration and exchange of experiences between peers from various countries. Sound in the Silence makes us aware that new forms of historical education make it possible to combine individual engagement with exploring the past together. One’s own experience and sensitivity as well as understanding of views characteristic of individual countries allow for changing one’s own personal perspective and mutual contact regardless of where the participants hail from. Learning history through arts and expressing it through emotions makes it easier for adolescents to understand history and the world around them.

6. Organisers

6.1. European Network Remembrance and Solidarity
The European Network Remembrance and Solidarity is an international initiative established pursuant to the Declaration of 2 February 2005 by ministers of culture (or their equivalents) from four countries: Poland, Germany, Slovakia and Hungary. Back then, they acknowledged the need to hold a dialogue about twentieth-century history as well as engage in joint research, documentation and dissemination of most recent European history marked by wars and totalitarian dictatorships. In 2009, the intention to establish the ENRS expressed in the Declaration was repeated in letters of intent signed by the ministers of culture of Germany, Poland and Hungary. In May 2014, an annex was added to the Declaration as another country, Romania, joined the Network. The ENRS was set up as an entity active in the area of remembrance policy, an ambitious attempt at shaping international discourse about the history and memory of Europeans. An important factor that defines the nature of the initiative is the fact that there are constantly differences to be faced present at several levels of cooperation:
• level of the substance the Network deals with: various historical narratives specific to each member country;
• level of structure: various organisational or institutional solutions specific to the remembrance policy systems in the member countries;
• level of culture: different ways and experiences related to commemoration, different means of communication or interpretation of specific phenomena.

The current members of the Network are Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, while representatives of also Austria, the Czech Republic and Latvia serve on its advisory assemblies. Since the establishment of the ENRS Secretariat, i.e. 2005, the Network has delivered around 100 initiatives varied in terms of nature, theme and scope. Some of them have become flagship ENRS projects and are delivered in successive editions now.

6.2. Cultural Centre MOTTE
Established in 1976, MOTTE is a municipal centre of culture in Altona, a formerly working class district of Hamburg. From the very beginning, its main objective has been supporting its local, ethnically diverse, community through cultural education, promotion of media knowledge as well as development of vocational and social competences. The dynamics of the centre’s operation is based on cooperation with diverse institutions, i.e. schools, cultural centres, libraries as well as culture animators, journalists or artists.

Projects delivered by MOTTE target almost all age and social groups. Apart from a crèche and community centre for youngest children, the organisation offers many free programmes for adolescents aged 12 and above. Its activities cover such fields as remedial classes and advice in vocational development planning, games and cuisine workshops, or workshops for girls or persons with disabilities. Initiatives are also offered supporting schoolchildren in improving their vocational competencies in cooperation with local schools. Children aged 6-12 can benefit from a project at the intersection of black light theatre, musical play and film, where the participants learn to create their own radio broadcasts and develop their creativity. MOTTE is also planning to soon expand its operations and offer projects focusing on senior citizens.

Text has been written based on relevant literature on the subject:

Auschwitz i Holokaust : dylematy i wyzwania polskiej edukacji, edited by: Piotr Trojański, Oświęcim: Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau, 2008, s. 397.
Michael Gray, Teaching the Holocaust: Practical Approaches for Ages 11–18, Routledge, New York, 2015
Grunewald, D., A., (2003). The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place, Educational Researcher 4 (32), s. 3-12.
Grzegorz Żuk, Edukacja w miejscach pamięci – od reliktu do refleksji, [in:] Pamięć jako kategoria rzeczywistości kulturowej, red. Jan Adamowski i Marta Wójcicka, Lublin 2012
James Woodcock, History, music and law: commemorative cross-curricularity, https://www.holocausteducation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Teaching-History-2013.pdf, (accessed on 5 May 2017)
Knapp, C., L., Woodhouse, J., L., Place – Based Curriculum and Instruction: Outdoor and Environmental Education Approaches, http://www.ericdigests.org/2001-3/place.htm, (accessed on 5 May 2017)
Luiza Kończyk, Pedagogika (miejsc) pamięci, 2012, http://cejsh.icm.edu.pl/cejsh/element/bwmeta1.element.desklight-1efca15a-a273-4533-aaa4-d482a723326b/c/11.pdf (accessed on 5 May 2017)
N.H. Weber, H.-F. Rathenow, Pedagogika miejsc pamięci – próba bilansu, „Kwartalnik Pedagogiczny” 1996, nr 2, s. 3–36; I. Scheurich, NS-Gedenkstätten als Orte kritischer historisch-politischer Bildung, w: B. Th imm, G. Kößler, S. Ulrich (Hrsg.), Verunsichernde Orte. Selbstverständnis und Weiterbildung in der Gedenkstättenpädagogik, Frankfurt a. M. 2010, s. 38–44.
Victoria Nesfield, Keeping Holocaust education relevant in a changing landscape: seventy years on, University of Leeds, UK, 2015.
Theodor W. Adorno, Education After Auschwitz, http://paep.ca/doc/CIYL%20-%20Theodor%20Adorno%20-%20Education%20after%20Auschwitz.pdf, (accessed on 5 May 2017)
Wincenty Okoń, Wprowadzenie do dydaktyki ogólnej, Warsaw, 1998
Wizyty edukacyjne w Państwowym Muzeum na Majdanku Poradnik dla nauczycieli, edited by: Tomasz Kranz, Lublin, 2012


1 Luiza Kończyk, Pedagogika (miejsc) pamięci, 2012, http://cejsh.icm.edu.pl/cejsh/element/bwmeta1.element.desklight-1efca15a-a273-4533-aaa4-d482a723326b/c/11.pdf (accessed on 5 May 2017)

2 Grzegorz Żuk, Edukacja w miejscach pamięci – od reliktu do refleksji, [in:] Pamięć jako kategoria rzeczywistości kulturowej, red. Jan Adamowski i Marta Wójcicka, Lublin 2012, p. 237–244

3 Wincenty Okoń, Wprowadzenie do dydaktyki ogólnej, Warsaw, 1998

4 Mereike Fischer

The story behind the picture

24 August 2017
  • Memory
  • 20th century history
  • borders

The "In Between?" project is about stories and history, but it is also about pictures. During each study visit, the participants scan archival documents, take hunderds of photos, and record video images in order to capture the wider context of the accounts which are shared with them. In order to emphasize this dimension of the project, each event organised in connection to the "In Between?" has a separate visual identification based on one of the pictures collected by the participants.

This time, for the seminar in Berlin in 2017, it is a photograph from the archives of Ms. Maria Gavra from the Hungarian-Romanian borderland. Here is its story:

"Regarding the picture, I can only give you an approximate date on which it was taken, but I can describe the historical context in more detail.

Firstly, the characters: on the right, with a lighter coloured hat, is my maternal grandfather, with my grandmother besides him. My grandfather's name was Radosav Mircu - born in 1907, in Bătania, to a Serbian father and a Romanian mother, having moved to Romania after the border changes - and my grandmother's: Radosav Maria - maiden name Păștean, born in Curtici, in 1910, into a Romanian family. Next to them there are their friends, Lungu Ivan - half Serbian, half Romanian - and his Romanian wife, Lungu Valeria, born in Pecica.

The picture was taken in Turnu, a village [in Romania] close to the border with Hungary, approximately one or two years after the end of the Second World War. Those were still rough times, with many shortages. Almost all the people who lived in the village were poor. The situation was the same across the border, in Hungary, but there they were lacking in salt, which one could find in Romania. However, it couldn't be transported legally across the border, so my grandfather, together with his friend Ivan, decided to start to sell salt on the black market.

There was a connection in this regard, as my grandfather, who was born and spent his childhood in Bătania (Battonya in Hungarian), knew enough people in that village, especially since he had an uncle there, Soldan Traian, with whom he had very close relations. In 1907, the year when my grandfather was born, the village Bătania (Battonya), in which many Romanians and Serbs lived, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the border changes at the end of the First World War, my grandfather moved to the neighbouring village, Turnu, which had become by then a part of Romania. While there are only 6 kilometres between Bătania and Turnu, they have been separated by the border ever since.

Smuggling was very difficult, not only due to the risk of being caught, but also because carrying the salt on one's back was physically very demanding. They had to cross the border during the night, through the fields, not on the road, and when it rained, they could barely take their feet out of the mud. In the beginning, they were joined by a brother of my grandfather, also from Turnu, but he gave up quickly when he realised how difficult it was. Even I have memories from my childhood of my uncle telling the family: "I stopped going, I didn't do anything to deserve being put through this!"

At some point, my grandfather and his friend Ivan were caught and taken to the soldiers' picket of Turnu, and then they were taken back to Arad, to prison, for a short period of time (I can't tell you exactly for how long).

This picture was taken when the two of them came back from prison and were not sure what the future held in store for them. Many times peasants would take pictures of themselves in critical moments of their lives like disease, prison, when they didn't know if they would make it."

- from an account of Ms. Maria Gavra, born in 1957 in Turnu, currently teaching Romanian Language and Culture at University of Szeged.

Collected by: Anna Alexandrov, Laura Boglárka Bóka, Ana-Maria Despoiu, Šarūnas Rinkevičius, Diana Takácsova, Gabriel Vivas
Translation: Cătălina Vrabie

Ksenia Wilaszek

What can we learn from visits to "well-known" places?

24 August 2017
  • Memory
  • 20th century history
  • borders

Ksenia Wilaszek recalls her experience from the 1st edition of the "In Between?" project.

When I decided to take part in the “In Between?” project I hadn’t expected to see so many new things and experience such wonderful moments. After all, I have been living in Lubusz Land – the area which we have visited – for six years by now. But to understand the region’s phenomenon properly, one needs to explore its diverse history.

Throughout the ages, Lubusz land belonged to various countries and members of many different nations lived here. One of the most crucial phases in the history of this area was the second half of the 20th century when, as a result of post-Second World War arrangements, Lubusz land became a borderland and the furthest western area of Poland. That was the time of a great population exchange which resulted in a mosaic of cultures, religions and ethnicities that we can observe in this region till this day.

During the “In Between?” project I explored Lubusz land with: Anna Anastasiia Zubko (Ukraine), Mariya Vasylyeva (Ukraine), Karen Nikiforov (Ukraine), Christoph Jakubowsky (Germany) and Kinga Czechowska (Poland). Igor Kalina (European Network Remembrance and Solidarity) and PhD Dorota Bazuń (Zielonogórski University) were our coordinators and guides. Thanks to them we were able to spend a whole week experiencing the uniqueness of the region. During those 7 days we carried out interviews with the Locals – citizens of the post Nazi Germany declaring Polish origins – and Bukovina inhabitants, mainly Poles who migrated to Lubusz land as a result of repatriation. We also talked to the inhabitants of “the other bank of the Bug river”: Ukrainians, Romanies and Greeks. Each of these people and their families shared their life story with us, giving us a glimpse at the tremendous history of the region.

What have I learned from visiting these places that I thought I knew so well? First and foremost, that it is possible to lead a beautiful life and cultivate our tradition, culture and religion along with people of different beliefs and history. I also learned more about the problems faced by the inhabitants of Lubusz land, where people differ from each other so much. Some of them were coerced to leave their homes and settle down on a new, foreign land. This couldn’t be carried out without any conflicts or misunderstandings caused by religious, social and linguistic differences. All in all, I admire the strength of those people who – despite these difficulties – managed to succeed in life. They have become a respected community and they can be proud of the place they live in.

Another lesson coming from communing with so many incredible people is how to love and call a place home, even when it has been assigned to us without our permission. Lubusz land isn’t a land of milk and honey for everyone. Many of its inhabitants still miss their first home. Talking about times before they came to these western lands evokes nostalgia in them. However, all the interviewees underlined that Lubusz land was their home now. Here they had spent most of their lives. Sooner or later each of them came to terms with their new situation and found themselves in this reality.

There is also a second group of people living here known as the Locals. They have been in this area for ages. Their lives and environments have undergone a huge transition, even though they haven’t moved anywhere. Their neighbourhood changed as new people arrived bringing their individual views of the world and their culture along with them. It’s been quite a challenge for the Locals to meet their new neighbours halfway and adjust to living in an inhomogeneous community. Therefore, what we can all learn from the local inhabitants is how to cultivate one’s traditions and customs while learning and applying new, foreign ones at the same time; how to build new and common relations on the basis of very different histories; and, last but not least, how to forgive and ask for forgiveness. I believe that all the stories we had the chance to hear during our visit in Lubusz land show that we mustn’t forget about our roots. At the same time, we need to learn tolerance and openness, and when to compromise and back away.

One of our interviewees said: “Everyone tells their story; all the stories are very similar and yet each is unique. Things are sad because every moment, every year, about thirty people (a moment of silence) pass away... We’re passing away… We are the last generation which can tell you how it used to be in those days, and soon we will be gone too.”

This is why the most important lesson for me coming from the “In Between?” project is that we have to care for memories and pass them on to the next generations. The stories of our interviewees included variety of moments: from hard and even traumatic ones to those which were optimistic and heartwarming. All of them will stay in our minds for long, and hopefully, thanks to programmes such as the “In Between?” project, other people will get a chance to hear them as well.

Joanna Urbańska

First Impressions. In Between? in Bukovina

24 August 2017
  • Memory
  • 20th century history
  • borders

”Thoughts on how my grandfather visited Ukraine 28 years before I did.” Joanna Urbańska, one of the In Between? participants, compares her experiences from Bukovina with those of her grandfather.

My grandfather had been a teacher and as such he went on a trip to Ukraine with a group of teenage boys. For him this was not holiday time. Being responsible for these children doubled the pressure that came with his first time being so far away from home and family. Moreover, the trip took place in August 1988, a year before the Polish transformation. His wife says: “These were the times of communism. And these riots...! Do you know how nervous I was here with children while he was, you know... And here there were riots all the time. If they would come back or not... When they were leaving, there weren't any riots, they began later here!” My grandfather and his group stayed in a pioneer camp in the woods near Kharkiv and their interactions with local inhabitants were limited. In fact, he states that: “There, you understand, I think it was forbidden to leave the camp. And we would sneak out through a hole in the fence..."

My encounter with Ukraine was very different, but in some ways also similar. The aim of our “In Between?” study visit in Bukovina was to carry out ethnographic research and for that contact with the local people was necessary. We had many more opportunities for such interactions, due to the mere fact of staying in a hotel situated almost at the heart of Chernivtsi. Even though I visited Western Ukraine, many people expressed their concerns, alarmed by the on-going Ukrainian-Russian war. My grandfather went on his trip during an unsteady time for Poland and I went on mine when the situation became rough for Ukraine. Both of us also experienced a language barrier, but he dealt with it a lot easier, having studied Russian at school.

What my grandfather probably remembered the most about his visit was the train ride itself. In a postcard that he sent from Moscow he wrote: “When I'm writing this letter we've already been travelling for 36 hours. I don't know how much is still ahead of us”. In the end their journey lasted 52 hours and included a whole day of waiting for the train from Moscow to Kharkiv. Their ride back followed the exact same route and took just as much time. I cannot compare these experiences to my own, but what I want to focus on is border crossing. When asked about the border, my grandfather recalls: “At that time it was all Russia. Everything was Russia. The Russians were ruling it all. Only afterwards, 10 or 15 years ago, did it fall into pieces…” Nevetheless, I can easily relate to his stories about border crossing, even though he was referring to the former Polish-USSR border. A man he met on the train told him: "They [the officers] have even taken my socks off, but I haven't washed [my feet] in a long time, so, whatever...". The story continued, in my grandfather’s own words: “They searched him everywhere. But when it came to us, they only asked us questions. In the past they used to control everyone very thoroughly, they searched everything. It wasn't appropriate for them to do that to the youngsters. They asked me what I had. I said: this and this. They searched us in no time and they were gone." When I was crossing the Ukrainian-Polish border I felt the situation was somewhat similar. I, being a Polish citizen, received smiles and polite questions from the officers. In the meantime, my fellow travellers with Ukrainian passports were treated rudely and their possessions were double-checked.

My grandfather tends not to differentiate between Russians and Ukrainians, he even uses the terms interchangeably. He speaks as if he was under the impression that the Soviet Union was in fact populated by Soviet people (though he strongly emphasizes the differences between them and the Poles). “One time they [the pioneers] asked me if we would play football with them. I asked the boys: ‘Are we going to play?’, and they answered: "Yes, we can". I hadn’t known that all of these boys who were there, played in Warta [football team in Poznań]. So we won 2:0. They [the pioneers] couldn't get over it for a week. They said we should play again and this time we won 3:0. They stopped speaking to us. A Russian man cannot be defeated, you understand. They were teaching them [the pioneers] that. Do you know what they were doing? They were given just a bit of food and nothing more, and they went hiking for 2-3 days with their guardian. It was a sort of a survival camp.”

On one hand my grandfather speaks of Soviets as a separate nation, but on the other he has some history knowledge that lets him distinguish between Russians and Ukrainians as separate groups. "Stalin murdered half of the people of Ukraine, you understand... You know, what he did? He took away all the food. There were obligatory deliveries, and when they [the Ukrainians] didn't give enough food, he sent there the police and whatever people had hidden, he took everything away from them. And people died of famine, some people... many people died of famine."

In his stories, my grandfather presents also a different image of Ukraine. He mentions that their group was under observation, which at the time they didn’t realize: "And you know, they were watching us, I didn't know that. We were on a sort of a ground floor and there was also a basement. And one girl had a nice toy, of this remote-controlled kind, you know. And she was standing on a kind of a balcony... And the toy was riding there, downstairs... Right away, out of nowhere, a guy appeared, you know, from that basement, and wanted to catch it. A moment later, two more appeared, grabbed him and he was gone. He disappeared, I don't know where he came from.” Surprisingly enough, my grandfather does not remember being scared of being under surveillance and more importantly, he comes up with an explanation: "People there were normal, very polite, you know... Elderly... Only they were worried about us, because it was Ukraine, you know, different kinds of rebels".

Surprisingly, Polish national narration that often portrays Ukrainians as “different kinds of rebels” was also a starting point for many arguments even between Polish and Ukrainian researchers in our Bukovinian “In Between?” group. Obviously, modern day Ukraine does not follow the invigilation practices of the USSR. I think that nowadays, not only is it right to distinguish between Russians and Ukrainians, but it is necessary. Being in Ukraine it is impossible to forget which country you are in. In Chernivtsi every pole on the side of the road was painted blue and yellow, and the national colours were omnipresent on cars, doors and fences.

In the eyes of my grandfather Ukraine of late 1980s was definitely a great and rich place. He remembers that the architecture struck him as very sophisticated and more technologically advanced: "There was a golden dome, you know... Golden! I don't know how it was made, but it was really golden"; "There were 16 [underground stations] and all covered in marble. Everything in marble, everything... It was retty". He also points out a wide range of goods that some shops had to offer: "They had a lot of toys, there was a lot of toys there. If here [in Poland] there weren't such toys, they were there [in Ukraine]." With some kind of pride he exclaims: "So you see, I am a man of the world. They [his relatives] were in the West, but I was in the East!" For him, in 1988, the East was the world.

I think that after the fall of the USSR, for many eastern Europeans “the world” moved to the West – Germany, France, USA. What I observed and felt during my study visit was a very strong emphasis put on Ukraine’s bond with the western part of the world. This can be especially seen in Bukovina which used to be under the Habsburg rule. That period is cherished and often referred to, as indicated by the German language courses and summer schools, and bilingual German-Ukrainian books.

The stories that I presented are just a little part of my grandfather’s memories from his trip, but I think they are the most relevant ones. My aim was to show how some phenomena that my grandfather encountered in 1988 are still present in Ukrainian reality as seen through the eyes of the Polish visitors, even though their context is completely different now. Of course, such processes are unavoidable since the world changes every day. However, no matter how much political, geographical or social contexts get altered, the memories stay the way they were. To my grandfather, Ukraine is still the place that he visited 28 years ago: he even e keeps using present tense while describing it. For me, this is a great example of the idea of being “in between”. We, as people, are constantly trying to balance the actual, objective contexts that are thrown upon us with our own feelings and beliefs. It is not so much a clash of ideas as it is an attempt to follow official narratives without losing personal experiences. In my opinion, to be in between is to respect differences, understand reality and stay loyal to one’s values.

Joanna Urbańska - an aspiring cultural anthropologist and Hebrew student at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Passionate traditional music singer and traveller.

Cătălina Vrabie

The October Revolution

21 August 2017
  • communism
  • Eastern Europe
  • October Revolution
  • 1917

The October Revolution came to be one of the most notable events of the 20th century, with major repercussions for the political map of Europe. As the second phase of the larger Russian Revolution of 1917, the insurrection which took place on 25 October [7 November]* in Petrograd (modern day Saint Petersburg) resulted in the Bolshevik's seizure of power and subsequent establishment of the world's first communist state.

In 1917, Russia witnessed significant changes on a political level. The February Revolution brought about an abrupt end to the centuries-old rule of the Romanov dynasty with the forced abdication of tsar Nicholas II (who would later be executed). As a consequence, the so-called dual power solution was implemented, with the command of the state being divided between the Petrograd Soviet Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies and the provisional government. The escalating crisis within Russian society caused by the poor conditions of living, food shortages and mass unemployment, was only aggravated by the decision made by the provisional government to continue fighting the war against the Central Powers. Therefore, mass demonstrations began to take place whose leadership was often assumed by the Bolsheviks. Acknowledging the opportunity to take power, the Revolutionary Military Committee was born within the Petrograd Soviet, which planned to occupy strategic locations in the city.

On the day of 25 October [7 November], the Bolsheviks decided to make their move and led the uprising against the provisional government in Petrograd. The Red Guards took control over all major government facilities, including the railway stations, post and telegraph, with little to no opposition. Lenin announced a proclamation called "To the citizens of Russia!", in which he declared the seizure of power by the Military Revolutionary Committee. At night, the assault on the Winter Palace in Petrograd was launched. The insurgents surrounded the palace and some of them even managed to get in. The Bolshevik forces gave an ultimatum to surrender to the then trapped and practically defenseless members of the provisional government, who, ultimately, agreed to give up their powers.

While looking back at the 20th-century history, few events have been mythicised to such an extent as the October Revolution. This can be, in part, attributed to Sergei Eisenstein's 1928 film reenactment of the events, October, which helped perpetuate the image of a bloody struggle in the Winter Palace with thousands of casualties. Moreover, this image was further reinforced by the official Soviet historiography. In reality, the October Revolution was a small-scale event, with no blood shed during the 'storming' of the Winter Palace.

In accordance with the communist ideology, the October Revolution – later also known as the Great October Socialist Revolution – destroyed an entire social system and replaced it with a better society, far superior than anything that had existed before. As later events have shown us, this proved to be a dangerous utopian vision. The October 1917 moment marked the beginning of 70 years of rule of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, which would only come to an end with the events of 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

by Cătălina Vrabie


*October Revolution actually started in November 1917. Its name derives from an Old Style calendar used at the time in the Russian Empire. In this article Old Style dates are accompanied by the New Style dates placed in brackets.


Figes, Orlando, A people's tragedy. A history of the Russian Revolution, Penguin, 1996
S.A. Smith, The Russian Revolution. A very short introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002

Antoni Zakrzewski

The Operation 'Vistula'

21 August 2017
  • Second World War
  • Operation "Vistula"
  • 1947
  • resettlements

The resettlement of almost 150 thousand Ukrainians, as well as Boykos and Lemkos, started on 28 April 1947. Its consequences are still visible today.

After the Second World War mass deportations of civilians were a common phenomenon. One of the groups influenced by the resettlements was the Ukrainian minority living in the South and South-Eastern parts of the post-war Poland. In 1947 Polish communist authorities decided to forcefully relocate Ukrainian inhabitants of three voivodships (Krakowskie, Lubelskie and Rzeszowskie) to the so-called Recovered Territories (Polish: Ziemie Odzyskane; lands which belonged to pre-war Germany but became part of Poland after the Second World War). The deportations affected also Lemkos and Boykos communities who also lived in the area.

Officially, the main goal of the relocation was to protect civilians by toppling the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Nevertheless, the region whose Ukrainian inhabitants were destined for deportation was bigger than the area influenced by the UPA's activity. The authorities' actual aim was mostly to enforce assimilation of the Ukrainian minority by creating a rupture within the autochthonic communities.

Direct pretext for the operation was the murder of general Karol Świerczewski, the Deputy Defense Minister on 28 March. He was claimed to be shot by UPA in an ambush in Bieszczady mountains. One month later the Central Committee of the Polish Workers' Party decided to start the resettlements on 28 April. At first the operation was codenamed "East" (Polish: Wschód), but later renamed to "Vistula" (Polish: Wisła).

Suspected members of UPA or the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) were sent to camps even before the operation had officially started. The most infamous was the Central Labour Camp located in Jaworzno, on the former premises of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau. Behind barbed wires were imprisoned not only UPA members but also other people who happened to be arrested during the relocations, including children, priests and members of intelligentsia.

Relocations within the operation "Vistula" followed one established sequence. Chosen villages were surrounded by soldiers and militiamen during the night. At dawn the inhabitants were told that they had 2-3 hours to collect a limited number of their belongings and livestock. Afterwards they walked to gathering points from which they were transported west by train. The journey itself could last even a fortnight. At least 27 deaths were caused by the horrific travel conditions.
At the final destination the relocated Ukrainians often discovered that most of the post-German buildings were already inhabited by Polish settlers, while those still vacant had been plundered or destroyed. What is more, food was scarce, since the deportees had left their crops at home and usually didn't have enough resources to prepare for the relocation. Moreover, people who fell victim of the operation "Vistula" were undergoing the process of forced Polonisation: family, cultural and religious contacts were limited and discouraged, and children were punished for speaking Ukrainian in public.

During the operation "Vistula" 140 662 people were resettled. The operation was terminated on 31 July 1947 but the relocations continued also after this date. Coming back to the fatherland regions was illegal and strictly forbidden; only few individuals risked returning in the early 1950's. Even the political thaw which started in Poland in 1956 and led to a reduced oppression against Ukrainian minorities did not encourage the deportees to come back. This void can still be observed in empty villages and destroyed churches slowly but steadily falling apart in the South-Eastern part of Poland.

After 1989 operation "Vistula" was condemned by the Polish Senate, intellectuals and the Polish President.

Text by Antoni Zakrzewski



  • Documents from the archives of the secret services, Łódź, Warszawa, Kijów 2012.
  • Kazimierz Miroszewski, Zygmunt Woźniczka, Obóz dwóch totalitaryzmów Jaworzno 1943-1956. Materiały z konferencji naukowej "Historia martyrologii i obozów odosobnienia w Jaworznie w latach 1939-1956", Jaworzno 2007.
  • Miroszewski Kazimierz, Centralny Obóz Pracy Jaworzno, podobóz ukraiński (1947-1949), Katowice 2001.
  • Misiło Eugeniusz, Akcja „Wisła" Dokumenty i materiały, Warszawa 2012.
  • Ukraińcy w Polsce 1944-1989, Walka o tożsamość, Warszawa 1999.
Antoni Zakrzewski

February Revolution

21 August 2017
  • 1917
  • February Revolution
  • International Woman's Day

In 1917 a movement which started as rapid protests managed to disband the centuries-old tsardom in just a few days.


Down with the government! Down with the war! Comrades, arm yourselves with everything possible—bolts, screws, rocks, and go out of the factory and start smashing the first shops you find!
- unknown worker shouting to his colleagues day after the outbreak of Revolution


In the highly industrialized Petrograd, then capital city of the Russian Empire, workers' demonstration happened very often. And the third winter during the First World War was the harshest one yet. Due to low temperatures and snowstorms trains with food and firewood kept being delayed. It is no wonder then that during the winter months of 1916 and 1917 strikes were held in several workplaces, including the Putilov Plant where the revolution of 1905 started.

The day considered to be the beginning of the February Revolution was the International Women's Day, when female workers from the textile factory marched to the Nevsky Prospect to demand a bigger supply of bread. 23 February [8 March] began with street protests and disorders, demands for "Bread!"- recalled later Mikhail Ivanovich Tereschenko, one of the eye-witnesses of February Revolution*. – Political demands and slogans against the government were also heard: "Down with the Tsar!" and so on.

At first, it was fear of hunger which led many people to the streets, but with time their demands changed and evolved into political ones. Revolution spread and more people gathered on the streets. On the third day, protests turned into a regular fight. As Tsar was outside of Petrograd, Duma decided to replace policemen with soldiers. Most of them were young and unqualified cadets who openly agreed with protesters' demands. Instead of supporting the state, they joined the insurgents. On the next day revolutionaries managed to seize the arsenal, free prisoners and take over Petrograd Cartridge Factory which became their source of ammunition.

The situation was so serious that on 2 March 1917 [15 March 1917] Duma advised Nicholas II to abdicate. Tsar decided to cede power to his youngest brother Michael Alexandrovich who, however, declined the offer. The tsardom was dissolved. Ruling power was divided between two newly established institutions: Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies (also known as Petrograd Soviet – representatives of the workers council) and the Provisional Committee of the State Duma. The latter constituted the Provisional Government which was led by the new prime minister prince Georgy Lvov.

This dual power solution caused a constant power struggle between Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet. Russia became a republic but economic and political problems kept mounting. The second revolution, known as the October Revolution, broke out only a few months later.

by Antoni Zakrzewski


*February Revolution actually started in March 1917. Its name derives from an Old Style calendar used at the time in the Russian Empire. In this article Old Style dates are accompanied by the New Style dates placed in brackets.


Figes Orlando, Tragedia Narodu. Rewolucja rosyjska 1891-1924, Wrocław 2009.
Hasegawa Tsuyoshi, The February Revolution, Petrograd, 1917, Seattle 1981.
Lyanders Semion, The fall of Tsarism. Untold stories of the February 1917 Revolution, Oxford 2013.

Antoni Zakrzewski

Creation of the Home Army

21 August 2017
  • Warsaw Uprising
  • Armia Krajowa
  • Polish Underground State
  • Operation Tempest

Armia Krajowa (Home Army) was probably the biggest resistance movement in Europe. What are its origins?

I pledge to resolutely keep secret whatever may happen to me. So help me God!
- the last lines of oath pledged by new soldiers of Home Army

After the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and then Soviet forces in 1939, representatives of the Polish government decided to leave the country as they wanted to avoid being captured and forced to capitulate. Polish Government-in-Exile was created, based first in France and later in London.

During this time the Polish Underground State was also established. It consisted of many institutions mirroring state apparatus. The secret state, supervised by the Government-in-Exile, had its citizens, administration, press, and courts. One of the most important parts of the Underground State was its military arm which continued to fight for freedom against the occupiers.

At the beginning the military organisation was called Służba Zwycięstwu Polski (English: Service for Poland's Victory), but in 1940 the name was changed into Związek Walki Zbrojnej (English: Union of Armed Struggle), also known under the abbreviation ZWZ.

On 14 February 1942 Władysław Sikorski, the General Inspector of the Polish Armed Forces, ordered a further reorganisation of the Underground State’s military arm. Sikorski’s command is considered to be the birth of Armia Krajowa (AK – English: Home Army), though except for the new name the order did not entail any major changes in the organisation itself. The decision was supposed to help raise the profile of the service and boost coordination of all the actions conducted under General Stefan “Grot” Rowecki.

Armia Krajowa just like its predecessors remained an “umbrella organisation” which consisted of soldiers and civilians grouped in more than two hundred different political organisations and military units. In 1944, this powerful mass movement consisted of over 380 000 voluntarily soldiers – more than 10% of Polish citizens. Many historians consider it to be the biggest European partisan movement during the war.

AK soldiers made acts of sabotages like derailing trains and damaging locomotives. They were also responsible for the execution of SS general Franz Kutschera.

Special units performed verdicts of the underground court e.g. death penalty for treason. Different sections were devoted to the gathering and creating weapons, training of new members or contact with other movements.

What is more, AK had its own intelligence and counterintelligence services. One of their most spectacular actions was the interception of the V-2 rocket. It was hidden in the river Bug and later analyzed by the Polish engineers, before being smuggled in parts to London.

But the Home Army did not focus on the military actions only. A special section carried out information and propaganda activities. One of its most top secret projects was “Action N” – counterpropaganda aimed at German soldiers. To break their morals, AK published and delivered well-made fake leaflets which spread pessimistic predictions about the state of Nazi Germany signed by non-existing German underground organisations.

All this collective effort led to the most important action – Operation Tempest in 1944 with the Warsaw Rising as its apogee and a series of smaller risings against German occupiers. The aim was to defeat Wehrmacht and free Poland before the intervention of Soviet Union. On 19 January 1945, two days after Red Army took Warsaw, Armia Krajowa was dissolved by the order of last commander general Leopold Okulicki “Niedźwiadek” who officially disbanded AK and released soldiers from their oaths.

by Antoni Zakrzewski



  • Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, Courier from Warsaw, Detroit MI 1983.
  • Stefan Korboński, Polskie państwo podziemne. Przewodnik po Podziemiu z lat 1939-1945, Warszawa 2008.
  • Norman Davies, Boże igrzysko. Historia Polski, Kraków 2007.
  • Wielka księga Armii Krajowej, Kraków 2015.
  • Nr 284 gen. Sikorski do gen. Roweckiego: rozkaz o zmianie nazwy ZWZ na "Armia Krajowa" O. VI L. dz. 627/42. Dnia 14 lutego 1942 r. [w:] Armia Krajowa w dokumentach 1939-1945, t. 2, czerwiec 1941 - kwiecień 1943, Wrocław-Warszawa-Kraków 1990, s. 199.
  • scienceinpoland.pap.pl


Keith Lowe

Not a Laughing Matter: Different Cultures of the Second World War Remembrance Across Europe

14 Feburary 2017
  • Holocaust
  • Nazism
  • communism
  • European Network Remembrance and Solidarity
  • Second World War
  • fascism
  • remembrance

Remembrance should never be something cosy. Instead, it should be something uncomfortable, even painful. We need to remember not only the things that were done to us, but also the things that we did to others. We also need to remember how things look from other peoples’ points of view. Remembrance should be the bearer of truth, not of French truth, German truth, or Polish truth, but a complicated mixture of all our truths simultaneously. This is the kind of remembrance that is healthy. This is the kind of Europe that is healthy.

The following speech was delivered during the European Remembrance Symposium, Berlin 2013

Hello. Thank you. It is very nice to be here. Before I say anything else, I should, like everyone else, thank the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity. Thank you for inviting me. Some of you may know that this is not the first conference at which I have spoken about remembrance. A few months ago I addressed the Euro Clio Conference in Erfurt where I spoke about the need for open hearts and minds when dealing with a history that involves other people as well as ourselves. Unfortunately, I was only at the Euro Clio Conference for a very short time, but was there long enough to notice one rather strange thing. The conference was quite busy, with delegates from all over Europe, and everyone was speaking in English as so often happens at these things. But, there was a distinct lack of English people there. I asked one of the organisers why this should be, ‘Where are all my countrymen?’ She simply shrugged and told me that it was always difficult to get British people along to these events.

I have to say that this does not really surprise me: Britain is not really very good at remembrance, particularly when it comes to events of the 20th century. And when I say the word ‘remembrance’ it has quite a specific meaning, especially for British people. It implies something sombre, something sad; remembrance is something you do during a minute of silence. But, British people do not like to remember things like the Second World War in silence. We like to shout about them! We like to celebrate them! Give us any excuse to sweep the dust off our Spitfires and fly them around and we’ll take it. Our novels and histories about the war regularly top the bestseller lists. We make TV dramas about the war, which often get the highest viewing figures. We sing songs about it, we create exhibitions and even make jokes about it. In fact, our jokes about the war, I think, are particularly revealing because we British take our humour very seriously, if that makes sense. It’s in our jokes that we often reveal our collective subconscious.

I heard a joke about the Second World War the other day that will give you an idea of what I mean. I have to warn you this is not a particularly funny joke, but it does demonstrate the point. It goes like this: ‘How many armies does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘It’s at least six. The Germans to start it, the French to give up without really trying, the Italians to start, get nowhere and start from the other side, the Russians to do most of the work, but then smash everything up in the process, the Americans to finish the job off, but then claim credit for the whole thing, and the Swiss to pretend that nothing ever happened in the first place’.

I am quite surprised you laughed! Because actually, I think it is in many ways quite an offensive joke. You can tell immediately that this is a British joke because it criticises everybody except Britain. Everybody else has a reason to be ashamed of themselves because of the way they behaved during the war. But not us. We’re the heroes. The implication is that all of you Europeans are violent, treacherous or cowards, somehow. But, we British are superior in every way, not only because we are honourable, but because we won the war and you didn’t.

This is the way many British people, unfortunately, remember the war. Perhaps not intellectually, but it’s what we feel in our hearts. We have carefully constructed this mythology that allows us to think that we are better than everyone else. I think the equivalent joke about the British might go something like this: ‘How many British people does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘Sixty million.’ Actually, the Russians and the Americans change the light bulb, but sixty million British people sit around and congratulate themselves on a job well done.

Now, I want to tell you a story about remembrance in Britain today. Last year, in 2012, the year that the Olympics came to London, we unveiled a brand-new memorial in the centre of the city. It was a memorial to the men of a bomber command, who flew airplanes over Germany, dropped bombs and so on in the Second World War. Now, there has never been a memorial for these men before in Britain because it has always proved too controversial.

Veterans of the bombing war were understandably a bit angry about this. Why should there be memorials to our sailors, soldiers, and fighter pilots, but nothing to remember the sacrifice of the men who flew the bombers? So anyway, nearly seventy years after the war they finally built this monument. This could have been an opportunity for greater reconciliation and understanding between Britain and Germany. It could have been a memorial to the 55,000 bomber crew who died, but also to the 500,000 Germans who also died under the bombs.

It could have been an opportunity to demonstrate to today’s generation how terrible war is, particularly that war. But, there was no mention of the bombing victims at all. In the end, it was just a monument to the British airmen, as if they were the only ones who had suffered. And I have to say that this is not a small monument, it’s huge: far bigger and grander than any of the other monuments that stand close by. I was expecting, when they unveiled this monument, that there would be some kind of controversy over it, especially since this was happening while the whole world was arriving in London to celebrate the Olympics.

At such a time it seemed like a very insular way of looking at our history. Besides, in the past there has always been controversy about whether Britain’s bombing war was justified. But, to my surprise this time around there was no controversy at all. The newspapers and radio covered the story, but there was almost no mention of the German victims at all. I myself wanted to write a piece for a newspaper asking why this should be the case, but my editor advised me against it. She said: ‘You won’t win any friends, but you will make lots of enemies.’ Nobody in Britain nowadays wants to hear about the victims of the war bombing. They only want to hear about the heroes, our heroes, British heroes.

So, this is the way that we tend to remember the war in Britain today. Where once we remembered the war as a shared catastrophe, a European catastrophe, we now refuse to acknowledge anyone but ourselves. We will remember our dead, but not yours. We will celebrate our dead as heroes and will not spare a thought for the people that we ourselves killed.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against a memorial to the men of bomber command. They were brave men and deserve to be remembered. What I object to, however, is that their sacrifice has been taken out of context. This, I do not think, is remembrance – at least not the proper, soul-searching remembrance that I would like to see. This is more mythology and it makes me profoundly uncomfortable.

That is the way much of Britain, unfortunately, is beginning to remember itself. But, how do we remember others? Let me tell you another joke. It’s a British joke, but you can probably tell it anywhere in Europe, certainly Western Europe, and it will be understood. ‘How many Germans does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘Silence, Schweinhund. We are asking the questions here.’

Again, I am surprised; there is a slight titter there. I mean, that again is not a particularly funny joke. It’s quite offensive. I look at my wife over there and she looks horrified that I should come to Berlin and make a joke like that. It basically says that all German people are members of the Gestapo: this is a really offensive thing to say.

The thing about Germans is that they have had to put up with jokes like this for decades. And they have put up with them. It’s quite astonishing really. But the reason why Germans have put up with jokes like this is because, actually, they have no choice. The crimes that were committed in the name of Germany were probably the worst crimes in history. Since it is impossible to deny these historical crimes (although, as we know, there are some strange people who do actually deny them), there is really nothing that Germans can do but hold their hands up and to admit to them.

To their credit, this is something that Germans and Germany has been doing for almost seventy years now, mostly without complaint. In Germany, you call it Vergangenheitsbewältigung. In Britain, we can call it ‘taking it on the chin’. There is really something quite heroic about it. I think this quality – this willingness of Germans not to fight the subject, but to take our punches on the chin – has won Germany countless friends throughout Europe. No one in the rest of Europe can really imagine what it must have been like to live with this legacy.

I am reminded of the words of a Czech Jew interviewed by the Imperial War Museum in London. He was called Alfred Hübermann, who was liberated from Theresienstadt in 1945, and who said, I quote: ‘When I was first liberated, I thought that Germany should be wiped off the face of the map completely. There was a feeling that one would like to exterminate the whole German nation so this sort of thing could not happen again. But, as time went on, one realised that this was impossible. Whenever I met a German I thought: “What can I say to him?” I could only feel sorry to have to live with that on his conscience.’

It is no coincidence that this symposium is taking place in Germany. The last conference I went to about remembrance also took place in Germany. There are, of course, many reasons for this, but one of them is this German attitude towards remembrance. It is exactly the opposite of the British attitude. For the British, Vergangenheitsbewältigung is an irrelevance; we don’t even have an English word for it. But, for the Germans it is of supreme importance. Unlike any other country in Europe, all Germans are taught from a young age to appreciate their nation’s past sins. We are so accustomed to this that it is sometimes easy to take for granted. But, things are changing in Germany and there are now other forms of remembrance, other memories that are also emerging now.

Germans were not only perpetrators of the war; they were also victims. I was speaking a few moments ago about the British attitude towards bombings and this has begun to change. Well, the Germans’ attitude towards bombing has also begun to change. A few years ago there was quite a famous book by Jörg Friedrich called Der Brand: A History of the Bombing War, which in horrific detail described what it was like for German civilians to be bombed. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies here in Germany. It was actually on sale in Britain as well, but as you can imagine it only sold 3,000 copies. Surprise, surprise.

This is just one example. There are all kinds of other examples of the way that Germans are beginning to remember themselves as victims of the war. They remember the expulsions from other parts of Europe, they remember the rapes that took place here in Berlin when the Soviets arrived. And so on and so on. Now, this makes some people rather nervous; they don’t like the idea of Germans thinking of themselves as victims. Myself, I am not so worried. Of course, Germans suffered as a result of the war and should be allowed to remember that suffering as long as they also do not forget that they were the perpetrators. On the whole, I think that Germany generally gets the balance about right. What worries me more is the thought that some of the traditional German sincerity may be slowly draining away. Germans are tired of apologising for the war and their patience wears a little bit thinner every time outsiders like me make stupid jokes about the Germans being members of the Gestapo.

So let’s leave the Germans alone for just a moment and tell some jokes about other people. ‘How many Frenchmen does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘Two. One to run away and the other one to telephone the Americans and ask them to do it instead.’ Actually, I have a lot of offensive jokes about the French. British people love this sort of thing: ‘Why did the French plant trees along the Champs-Élysées? So that the Germans could march in the shade.’ ‘Why don’t they have fireworks at Euro Disney? Because every time they fire them off, the French try to surrender.’ And did you hear about the new French flag? It’s a white cross on a white background. I could tell you dozens more. If you’re French, please do not be too offended, because when I was a child I used to spend my holidays in Italy and heard exactly the same jokes being told about Italians then. I daresay that we British tend to say the same jokes about the Dutch, Danes or Belgians if we are ignorant of those countries.

But, the French are a particularly good target. They were one of the world’s great powers before the war, so their embarrassment by Germany was all the greater. If there is one thing that we British enjoy, it is Schadenfreude; it may be a German word but, unfortunately, we British embrace it. Remembrance in France and indeed in much of Western Europe is much more complicated, I think, than in Britain and Germany. Once again, it is not made easier by outsiders coming and making stupid jokes about them. Almost every aspect of French remembrance is controversial, so I want to look at some of these aspects, in turn.

Firstly, when the French look back at the Second World War they remember themselves as victims. Half a million French people were killed in the war. Two million French men were taken to Germany as forced labour. The Nazis humiliated and abused French people and performed countless atrocities on French soil. The most famous symbol of French victimhood is the village of Oradour-sur-Glane.

If you remember, this was the village where one of the greatest atrocities took place: a German division came through and rounded up all the men and shot them. They then herded up all the women and children into a church and set fire to it. Nowadays the village of Oradour-sur-Glane is a national monument. It has been preserved exactly as it was on the day of the massacre as a memorial to French victimhood.

Even in this archetypal symbol, things are not quite straightforward. When the French investigated this atrocity in the 1950s they discovered that some of the SS soldiers who carried it out were not quite as German as they had thought. Some of them were actually from Alsace, which is a region of France. In other words, when you look at it more closely, the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane is not only a symbol of victimhood, but also of collaboration.

Collaboration is the dark shadow that lies behind every act of French remembrance. The French collaborated with the Nazis at every level of society – sometimes involuntarily, sometimes enthusiastically. Unsurprisingly, this is something that they do not often wish to commemorate.

I want to give you an example of this reluctance, this desire to forget. As is the custom in many countries, there is a tradition in France of naming streets and squares and boulevards after famous French heroes. In 1945, there were hundreds of streets named after the war-time leader, Marshal Philippe Pétain. This is not the equivalent of the German habit during the war of renaming every town square ‘Adolf Hitler Platz’. Philippe Pétain actually was a true French hero: he was the man who saved the nation during the First World War by repelling the Germans at Verdun. But, after the Second World War he was no longer a hero; he was a collaborator. So the French no longer wanted streets named after him and began renaming all of them. Today, there isn’t a single street in France bearing his name. I think the last ‘Rue Maréchal Pétain’ was in a village called Vinrin in northern France and it was renamed just this April.

All of this is quite understandable. To have a street named after you is a great honour and if you have acted shamefully you should have this honour withdrawn. But, there is also something else going on here. The French want to remember themselves as heroes, not as collaborators. When they drive down the Boulevard Général Leclerc in Paris or study at the Lycée Jean Moulin they remember their past as the past of heroes and martyrs. The collaborators, on the other hand, have been erased from public memory. Isn’t that just a little bit convenient? By erasing their names from streets and boulevards the French are removing the things that make them feel uncomfortable. It is much easier to pretend that collaboration did not really happen if you are not reminded of it everyday when walking down a street.

So you see, commemoration of the war in France is a much more complicated matter than it is in Germany or Britain. In Britain, we are all very happy to remember ourselves as heroes, regardless of what really happened in the past. In Germany, you are more resigned to remember yourselves as the villains, but in France they are somewhere in between – and it is difficult to define exactly where. On one hand, they are indeed victims and martyrs; on the other hand, they are heroes and resisters, but also obliged to remember some of the more uncomfortable things – the crimes they themselves committed and the way that many of them collaborated.

These are the shadows that lie behind every act of remembrance, not just in France, but in all of Western Europe. Incidentally, the French as we have heard collaborated not only with the Nazis. There was enormous sympathy with communists as well, which is another subject.

Let us get back to my terrible light bulb jokes (these are all real jokes by the way; I did not make any of them up and would have tried to make them funnier if I had!). The next one is this: ‘How many Polish people does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘One. But it takes an entire Soviet division to make sure that he doesn’t go on strike.’

As you can tell, this is probably a joke from the 1980s and the first thing you notice is that it is not derogatory. The Pole in the joke is not a sadist or coward, or anything else bad. In fact, he is a hero: one Polish man holding down an entire Soviet division.

I would forgive you for thinking that this is slightly unfair. I have been rude about the French and Germans, so why can’t I also be rude about the Poles? Well, the answer is that I am not allowed to be rude about the Poles. Firstly, we British still feel guilty about what we did to Poland during the Second World War – or rather what we did not do.

When Stalin demanded the eastern part of Poland to become part of the Soviet Union, we did not stand up to him; we just rolled over and gave it to him. In compensation, of course, we then gave Poland a part of Germany and that caused all kinds of other controversies that are still raging today.

The second reason why we British cannot be rude about the Poles is that, frankly, we felt sorry for them. Not only had their country been invaded by the Nazis, but also by the Soviets. At the time when I first heard that joke in the 1980s, Poland still had to dance to the Soviet tune. Don’t worry, by the way, we no longer feel sorry for Poland and have all kinds of offensive jokes about them. But that is a different story.

My point is that if remembrance of the Second World War and its aftermath is complicated in Western Europe, it is much more complicated in Eastern and Central Europe. To begin with: what should be remembered? The problem of remembrance in Poland is not that of quality, but quantity: there is simply too much to remember. To start with, the Poles were the archetypal victims; invaded from both directions and brutally suppressed by two enemies. The entire country could be made into a memorial if we wanted to. Every street in Warsaw was the sight of some atrocity or other. All the main extermination camps for the Jews were in Poland and some of them also became infamous communist punishment centres after 1945.

But, the Poles were not only these archetypal victims. They were also archetypal heroes. Resistance to Nazi rule in Poland was massive and universal. Unlike in Western Europe, everyone really was in the resistance in Poland; there was a secret army there, a secret government, secret schools and universities. A whole network of resistance that encompassed not just thousands, but millions of people.

The Poles do not feel the need to be careful about the resistance myth like the French do. The Poles feel confident enough to shout about the resistance as proudly as they like. Of course, there was also a huge amount of resistance to Soviet rule. Not so much as against the Nazis, perhaps, but, as any Polish patriot will tell you, the last member of Armia Krajowa was not flushed out of the forest until the mid-1960s. That gives you a sense of the strength of feeling of these people.

So this is the way that Poles like to remember themselves. A bit like the British: they think they are all heroes and victims. If you go to Warsaw today, you will see a huge, brand-new museum dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising. And you’ll see the symbols of Polish war-time resistance – symbols from nearly seventy years ago – not only in the museum, but as graffiti on the walls and even stickers on the backs of people’s cars.

If the story stopped there, remembrance in Poland would be very easy. But, unfortunately, the story does not end there; of course it doesn’t. Poles were not only victims and heroes during the war, but were also perpetrators. Their treatment of Jews was nothing to be proud of and there are many places in Poland where Poles joined in with the Holocaust, sometimes enthusiastically.

Even more shamefully, this anti-Semitism continued after the war ended. In places like Kielce, for example, Jews continued to be attacked well into the late 1940s. As you can imagine, remembering this part of their history makes many Polish people very uncomfortable. Some people react to this discomfort simply by pushing it away, by trying to pretend to themselves that it did not happen or that it did not matter.

I can tell you a story that demonstrates this quite clearly. I was in Poland recently to publicise the Polish edition of my book. I must have been interviewed at least fifteen or twenty times and, as always happens with those interviews, a certain pattern began to emerge as to the sort of questions I was asked. Firstly, I was repeatedly asked by interviewers why Western historians always ignore the fate of Poland in their books. I did not really know how to answer these questions because – as far as I am aware – Western historians do not ignore Poland.

They talk about Poland all the time. In Britain alone, there are books about the invasion of Poland in 1939, books about the Warsaw Uprising, books about the Katyń massacre, the Soviet takeover, and about almost every act of the war in Poland. There are even books about individual PoIish airforce squadrons in Britain or about individual Polish army units. Some of these books are bestsellers in Britain. So, as far as I can see, in my country at least the West does not ignore Poland at all. But, for some reason this seems to be the way that Poles see things. Perhaps this is a hangover from the Cold War when Eastern Europe felt itself to be forgotten by the West. I honestly do not know. Perhaps Poles are so used to putting themselves at the centre of the story that they cannot quite under- stand why they are not at the centre of it in Britain and France and so on, too.

I think that in some ways some people feel that the West’s view of Poles is just not quite heroic enough and that our sympathy for the Poles is just not quite sympathetic enough for a nation of heroes and martyrs. The second question that I was repeatedly asked in Poland was why the West always insists on calling the Poles anti-Semitic. Again, I am not aware of any great Western belief that modern-day Poles are anti-Semitic. We do have a perception that many Poles during the war were anti-Semitic. But, even the most patriotic of Poles must acknowledge that anti-Semitism was widespread during the war and that evidence of it is overwhelming. This may not be a comfortable subject for Poles to acknowledge, but it is not an invention by Western historians.

One interview I had was particularly eye-opening in this respect. It was an interview with a national newspaper and for 45 minutes I was asked about why I talked about Polish anti-Semitism in the aftermath of the war. Didn’t I know that the Poles had helped the Jews, too? Didn’t I know that the Kielce pogrom was instigated by the communists? And so on and so on for 45 minutes.

I should explain to you that my book is not about Poles and not about Jews. It is about the whole of Europe in the aftermath of the war. It is full of atrocities, revenge killings, and stories of local civil wars that took place everywhere, from Norway in the north to Greece in the south, from France all the way through to Ukraine. The section about Polish anti-Semitism was about four pages long. Not only that, I was not particularly picking on the Poles. I actually spent far longer talking about anti-Semitism in Hungary and Slovakia, in Holland and France and so on. But this was the only thing he questioned me about for 45 minutes. That was the strangest interview I ever had.

It only dawned on me afterwards as to what really was going on here. This man was desperately trying to protect an idea. As far as he was concerned, Poles were victims and heroes during and after the Second World War; they were not the perpetrators. If some Poles were anti-Semitic during the war, it was not their fault; it was the fault of the Nazis. And if some Poles had been anti-Semitic after the war, that was not their fault either; it was the fault of the communists. I also asked this journalist at the time, who was it who beat those Jews to death in Kielce? It wasn’t the Nazis or communists, but ordinary Poles. And who were these communists who supposedly started the violence in Kielce? These communists were also Polish. This opens up a whole new problem for remembrance in Poland and indeed for the whole of Eastern Europe because Poles were not only victims and heroes, but occasionally the perpetrators of crimes. They were also collaborators.

Perhaps not collaborators with the Nazis – not so much in Poland, but certainly collaborators with the Soviets. In 1945, people in Poland joined the communist party in the hundreds of thousands. They helped the Soviets win control over the country. They even denounced resistance fighters to the authorities. This is not something that Poland particularly likes to remember now. Just like the memory of French collaboration during the Second World War, it remains a guilty shadow that simply will not go away.

Which reminds me of another joke: ‘How many communists does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘None. Because the light bulb contains the seeds of its own revolution.’ I love this joke because, of course, the word ‘revolution’ in English also means ‘to revolve, to turn’, like when you’re screwing in a light bulb. But my point is that it was not only the Soviets who changed this light bulb in Europe, in Eastern Europe. The light bulb did a small part of the job, of the work, by itself.

Every nation in Europe has a different experience of the past. Some of us were never occupied by an enemy at all. Some of us were occupied by the Nazis, the communists, or by both. Some of us experienced fascism or communism as an outside force and some of us had our own home-grown versions of it. The idea that we can all see history in the same way is really just an impossible dream. All of us are simply too different from one another.

As I hope I have shown, in some respects problems in both East and West are exactly the same. We all want to remember ourselves as heroes and martyrs, but all have to face the inconvenient truth that we were also perpetrators in one respect or another. All of us are reluctant to face this because it hurts. Our problem is that we want our history to make us feel good about ourselves. So, we create nice cosy myths like pretty bubbles floating in the air. When outsiders come and pop these bubbles with their sharp and spiteful jokes, we do whatever we can to defend them.

In other respects, however, there are some very real differences between us. Not just between East and West, but between every single country. I have used France as an example of Western Europe, but the French situation is nothing like the situation in, say, Italy, Denmark, or Belgium. I have also used Poland as an example of Eastern Europe, but in many ways, actually, Poland was exceptional. The experience of both fascism and communism was very different in Romania or Hungary.

Every nation in Europe has a different experience of the past. Some of us were never occupied by an enemy at all. Some of us were occupied by the Nazis, the communists, or by both. Some of us experienced fascism or communism as an outside force and some of us had our own home-grown versions of it. The idea that we can all see history in the same way is really just an impossible dream.

All of us are simply too different from one another. So, is there anything at all that unites us? Well, yes, I believe there is and I can demonstrate this with another joke. Please, bear with me! ‘How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘It takes six million before the rest of the world finally sees the light.’ For the past sixty or seventy years, ironically, the Jews have been the unifying symbol in Europe. The Jews were unquestionably the greatest victims of the Second World War. Not only that, but we all acknowledge that we should feel guilty for what happened to them.

While the Nazis bear the ultimate responsibility for the Holocaust, we were all complicit: the French and Dutch administrators who gave out their addresses, the Italians and Belgian police who helped round them up, the Romanian and Hungarian railway officials who transported them, and so on. Even the countries that were not occupied by the Nazis during the war cannot escape the guilt because when the Jews came to Britain or Sweden or Switzerland for sanctuary, we turned them away.

The one act of remembrance that unites us all today is Holocaust Memorial Day. Indeed, this is probably the only time when my own countrymen shut up about how brilliant we are and join everyone else in respectful silence. Even that Polish journalist who questioned me so closely about anti-Semitism must feel sombre on Holocaust Memorial Day. It is a sacred day in our calendar. For non-Jews it is unique because, unlike virtually every other remembrance day, it is not a day to remember the things that happened to us. It is a day when we remember something that happened to others. I say ‘others’ here because there are very few Jews left in Europe today; less than one percent of the population.

But, actually in some way that is the wrong word to use because Holocaust Memorial Day also invites us to put ourselves in their shoes, to imagine what it would have been for us if we too had been Jewish. It is, therefore, simultaneously an act of contrition, sympathy and empathy.

There are hundreds of memorials to the Holocaust all over Europe and I would argue that these are the most important memorials we have. Not only do they remind us that this great war was not glorious, a terrible thing, but also of the horrors of extreme nationalism. They are a warning to all of us. More importantly they are also a warning that we all listen to.

So what is this warning? What is it trying to tell us? This is where I can finally put my finger on what I feel is one of the main differences between East and West. In Eastern and Central Europe, there is sometimes a perception that fascism and communism were somehow equivalent to one another. They were both totalitarian systems. They both committed terrible crimes. The wounds of fascism are old, but the wounds of communism are still fresh. So there is a temptation sometimes to remember the crimes of communism first and foremost. In fact, some people are tempted to remember the fascists fondly: since the fascists fought against the communists, they were the good guys, right?

But fascism and communism were not the same. For all their crimes, there was no communist equivalent of Auschwitz. There was no communist equivalent of the Holocaust. Sure, we should repudiate communism and what it did to Eastern Europe. But we should always remember to repudiate fascism more. I make this point only because I think that communism is all but dead now in Europe. However, fascism, in the form of radical nationalism, is still very much alive. This is a far bigger threat today than is communism. Extreme nationalism is an ideology that blames all our problems on outsiders. It promotes stereotypes that are not helpful: the sort of stereotypes I have been demonstrating in my stupid light bulb jokes. It poisons our memories with stories and false statistics that exaggerate our own victimhood and belittle the suffering of others.

This is why I think that remembrance, real remembrance, is so important. It should never be something cosy. Instead, it should be something uncomfortable, even painful. We need to remember not only the things that were done to us, but also the things that we did to others. We also need to remember how things look from other peoples’ points of view. Remembrance should be the bearer of truth, not of French truth, German truth, or Polish truth, but a complicated mixture of all our truths simultaneously. This is the kind of remembrance that is healthy. This is the kind of Europe that is healthy. It’s a hard, messy, and painful thing to do, but it is infinitely better than the pretty myths and fairytales that we would rather tell ourselves I am afraid that this is something that is potentially being lost today. Every nation in Europe is becoming more cynical of the European Union, more dismissive of neighbours more defensive about itself. We are all retreating to our own nationalist perspectives and own nationalist myths without ever bothering to look back on what it is we are throwing away.

Which leads me to one final joke: ‘How many ultra-nationalists does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer: ‘None. Because they’d much rather sit in the dark.’

Thank you.


Keith Lowe is a British author and historian, who studied English Literature at the University of Manchester. For several years he worked as a history editor and in 2010 become a full-time writer. His first novel Tunnel Vision (2001) was shortlisted for the Author’s Club First Novel Award. Lowe has published two critically acclaimed history books about the Second World War and its aftermath. Inferno (2007) describes the firebombing of Hamburg by the British and American air forces in 1943. Savage Continent (2012), a history of Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, covers the lawlessness, chaos, and unconstrained violence that gripped the continent from 1944 to 1949. It covers a variety of controversial issues such as postwar vengeance, ethnic cleansing and the many civil wars that took place across Europe. It won Britain’s Hessell-Tiltman Prize for history in 2013 and Italy’s Cherasco History Prize the following year. His books have been translated into 20 languages.


This article has been published as a part of the publication featuring the most significant texts from the annual European Remembrance Symposium, for the period 2012-16

>> Click here to learn more about the Symposium site

Anna Czyżewska

In Between? - An Academic Introduction

24 August 2016
  • Memory
  • 20th century history
  • Conflict of Memories
  • borders

Scientific consultant: Professor Anna Engelking, Institute of Slavic Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences

“Were Europe to have its collective memory,
it is as diverse as Europe’s nations and cultures”

Claus Leggewie


The project entitled “In Between? Searching for Local Histories in Borderlands of Europe” was born out of the need to experience local histories. In terms of its objectives, it is primarily an educational measure, and indirectly also a research and documentation effort. Its aim is to search for ways in which the past functions today. It is an attempt at looking at memory of the past in its individual dimension, between members of a single family (both as an intergenerational and intercultural experience), between various families within the same community or between various groups composed of communities with their often contradictory experiences and identities shaped by them.

The framework for this pursuit will be the in between category, broadly understood as being in between in terms of identity. The search for local histories will make it possible to enter an area of identity-shaping factors and activities, which consequently have an impact on shaping relations between people as members of various groups. Stories, recollections but also daily practices which may derive from past events will be the basis for reflexion on the local dimensions of the in between phenomenon.

The project is to be a pretext for young Europeans to experience the “borderland”, both in geographical or political and cultural, social and intergenerational terms. It will also be an opportunity to discover individual and collective memories, yet primarily to meet the “Other” and to listen to their story in the context of the dramatic events of the 20th and 21st centuries, resulting in reconfigurations of individual and collective identities. The places visited saw tragic events play out in the past (e.g. repressions, forced resettlement, the Holocaust), which affected not just individuals or families but entire communities and had a vital impact on the shaping of local identities.

We believe that by linking a research-oriented approach to the reality under observation (related to the carrying out of ethnographic field studies: participant observation and biographical interview) with historical examination of the past will help the participants of the "In Between?" project better understand the people they meet on their way.

During a week-long stay in one of four regions and meetings with specific families, the participants of the "In Between?" project will, in international teams, collect preliminary documentation, to let them express their subjective understanding of the notion of in between using their own voices. In December 2016, they will all convene at a summary seminar, to yet again look at their borderland experience acquired in the field.

Project objectives

Identity and in between

Identity is one of the key terms in the “In Between?” project. Understood as a sense of belonging to a certain group, it is created when in contact with the “Other” (Eriksen 2009). It must be remembered that everyone has got a number of parallel and not mutually exclusive social identities and it is only the context that determines which ones are activated/used at any given time. And so identity is not constant, but constantly created and negotiated in contact with others. According to Fredrik Barth, for ethnic identity to survive it must be solidified in social situations in which one participates. Such areas are most frequently religion, language, work or marriage (Barth 1969). This definition can be extended from the ethnic dimension to the universal understanding of identity, which can be perceived as a constant social practice in which individuals take part and through which they define themselves, and the in between state, being in a borderland, assumes in this case the existence of two or more social groups or spaces between which one is or happens to be. Such constant negotiations as to one’s belonging can be expressed by making specific choices or by specific daily practices.

In the “In Between?” project, there are many dimensions of being in between to be discovered by the participants. First and foremost, it will be the individual level. Then the family followed by relations between individual families (but also individuals) in a given region, and then between various groups: ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic or social. The project is to be an attempt at finding an answer to the question what such being in between can be in particular local contexts. Work in international teams in specific spaces, primarily based on studying communities, their histories and contemporary practices of daily life, yet also referring to the participants’ knowledge and experience, will be an opportunity to jointly interpret the phenomenon in question. Meeting people who live in spaces “between” will not only facilitate a search for answers as regards the essence of the in between state but also show a multitude of possible interpretations, perspectives and experiences of the phenomenon in various European regions. This is also an opportunity to reflect on the “borderland” category. What can it signify today? Where can it be found in the dynamically changing reality where one has got a number of parallel coexisting and constantly negotiated identities? Whether and how can the notion of borderland be implemented in a transcultural world described by Wolfgang Welsch, where cultures are not homogenous or separate any more but constantly influence each other and merge? To what extent is transculturality a state of being in between? This is also a question concerning identity: who are we? Who are they and how do they define themselves?

Another category whose contemporary ways of functioning can be examined by implementing the “In Between?” project is “in-betweenness”[1] (Jackson II 2010), understood as a hybrid identity (Jorge 2008). It assumes that an individual with some migration experience in the post-colonial era exists between two national identities – the current one where he/she does not fully belong and the past one where he/she cannot return. The displacement experience equips the individual in recollections going beyond the narrow boundaries of national belonging. Can this term, created on the basis of post-colonial studies, serve as a tool for interpretation of the situation of individuals in Central Europe[2]? How can experiencing conflict and interaction between one culture and another (or a set of values, principles) function in heterogeneous communities? Can, and how, be this hybrid identity extended from individuals to families?

Another important notion behind the “In Between?” project is the “borderland” from its title. Europe means hundreds of various “borderland” spaces. Scholars call for a separate subdiscipline focusing on the issue (e.g. anthropology/sociology of borderlands). Researchers are moving away from the geographical meaning focusing on its cultural and social meaning. Grzegorz Babiński says that “contemporary borderlands, and now maybe only boundaries of national cultures, are often only subjective and symbolic in nature, as frequently there are not even linguistic differences there” (Babiński 1999). Andrzej Sadowski, in turn, claims that “borderlands are becoming increasingly subjective, symbolic, defined by the identities and identifications expressed by their inhabitants” (Sadowski 1999). In the context of the “In Between?” project, the perspective postulated by Justyna Straczuk is also inspiring, seeing borderland as a communication community, “which develops in the course of daily life, a cultural amalgamate which constitutes an integral entity with a wider repertoire of elements coming from traditions meeting” (Straczuk 2004). The project is going to be an opportunity to check how that “communication community” is shaped in different families. Is borderline, and how, subject to different interpretations made by members of different communities or groups? The project will also offer a chance to search for answers to the question “whether borderland man exist”. What shapes his identities6? How are relations built between borderland people? What role is played by past and current migrations, motivated by various factors, in shaping local identities?

The Past

“Each 'present' brings together movements of different origin and different rhythm. Today has its roots at the same time in yesterday, the day before yesterday, and some time ago,” wrote Fernand Braudel (Braudel 1971, p. 60) in his book Textes des ecrits sur l'histoire. The past and memories superimposed onto each other shape various identities which function in parallel. In order to discover that wealth and diversity of identities one must watch those individual and local memories in their qualitative and miniature (rather than global and quantitative) dimension.

With such objectives in mind, it seems useful to invoke the microhistorical approach postulated by Carlo Ginzburg and Carlo Poni in 1979. Trying to grasp the reality of the historical world, they were looking for the “normally extraordinary” in the lives of ordinary people (Ginzburg, Poni, 1979, after: Domańska 2005). It was, on the one hand, moving away from great narratives, and on the other exploring history from the perspective of an individual or a small community. (Domańska 2005). Microhistory “tells a story of man thrown into the world, of human existence in the world, human experience of the world and ways to experience it. It is then a history of experiences, feelings and private microcosms. Man and his fate are encountered by means of cases, “miniatures”, anthropological stories which let one enter the daily reality like a probe” (Domańska 2005). Observing all that is ordinary and mundane lets one search for answers as to being in between in its most daily but also particular dimension. Culinary practices, religious practices, one’s relation with their body, educational or professional choices, language, matters of kinship – the in between state may be manifested in these and many other areas. Depending on the history of a given person or family, they can come into being in various configurations.

When exploring or documenting individual, familial or local histories, one must be aware of the relation between history and social memory as well as individual memory. In the “In Between?” project, “memory” will be treated not just as a tool for discovering knowledge about the past and knowledge about borderlands but manly as a source of knowledge about the in between state and the identities being discovered (Kaniowska 2003)[3], as it is memory that creates one’s identity. Memory is a source of knowledge about man, as it accumulates and consolidates his/her experiences (Kaniowska 2003 after: Ingarden 1995). A study of identity is a study of the memory (i.e. narrative about the past) of those who are at the same time the main characters and authors of the story and who fill that past with meaning through the need to remember it and transfer it on (Kaniowska 2003).

This is confirmed by the postulates put forward by Maurice Halbwachs, who has claimed that memory is no mechanical remembering of facts but their reconstruction in a certain framework offered by the community[4] one is a member of. “In society, man typically acquires recollections, recognises and locates them” (Halbwachs 2008) – without a group individuals would not attach to past events meanings which would allow to ascribe them the role of events worth remembering. Individuals remember when adopting a collective point of view – they remember what the group wants to be remembered. There are as many various memories as there are groups. At the same time, social memory (as memory of a group) materialises and manifests itself in individual memories (Halbwachs 2008).


In the “In Between?” project we do not define areas – identities that we want to explore. We do not want to limit the search to one’s national, ethnic, religious or linguistic identity. This may also be an experience of migration or social roles. Assuming that identities are multidimensional and constantly constructed anew, we leave a space for the young researchers so that they can find themselves in between areas of most interest to them. While guided by the anthropological assumption of openness to what one meets in the field – we do not want to impose the study framework in advance.

The “In Between?” project will be carried out based on the “oral history” method, i.e. collecting stories about lives of ordinary people, participants of and witnesses to past events. This working method based on recording (audio or video) and making transcripts of the testimonies lets one see history and reality through the eyes of an individual. Listening to interpretations of particular facts, the researcher can appreciate the multidimensionality of phenomena which seems obvious at first. It also helps examine identity by exploring the conditions of one’s religious, cultural, territorial or social belonging. All those elements constitute the research area in the “In Between?” project.

In the case of this method, the descriptive dimension is not less important. Interviews are not merely dry declarations of belonging or participation. They are narratives, which facilitate sketching out a context and introducing reality of daily practice and actions.

One must obviously be aware of the controversy surrounding this mode of work. Memory is not just a list of facts but an internally and externally conditioned interpretation of the importance of events and individual experiences. However, what may be a disadvantage to some, should be treated as a gain in this case. Traditional historical methods based primarily on analysis of found sources appear to be less effective in search of individual experiences of the in between state than induced sources. The use of audio and video recordings will allow the project participants to work creatively on the interpretation of the materials collected.

We want to search for the essence of in between mainly in individuals and families, hence our focus on memory in these two dimensions. We are going to talk about both important events in the history of individuals and families and about daily life (also understood as annual and family festivities). We would also like to know the impact of the sense of being a cultural minority or holding the official status of a minority on the sense of being in between. What problems does it entail? What privileges? How does an individual/family function in relations with authorities (locally but also in terms of the state)?

The search for an answer as regards the ways of being in between will be a combination of the oral-history method with ethnographic and anthropologic methods. These will not be, however, classic, long-term stationary studies of a local community but rather qualitative studies based on interview (biographical, autobiographical narrative interviews and interview by questionnaire) and analysis of family memories or local/group memories, and remembrance practices. The essence of anthropology is a detailed understanding of a phenomenon through field research treated as the most important source of knowledge (Eriksen 2009). The in between state is just such a phenomenon the project participants will strive to become familiar with and comprehend.

As remembrance practices we understand various activities undertaken in order to preserve, transfer and manifest the past. In the familial dimension, this may be collected archives and keepsakes. Interesting and inspiring activities may be performed with photographs or objects attributed sentimental/personal/family value. They can be collected in albums, displayed at home or for various reasons handed over to museums, halls of remembrance or archives. They can also be symbolically destroyed in an attempt to sever one’s ties with the past. At group level, these may be various activities performed in the public space or virtual space. This is confirmed by Pierre Nora, who claims that memories are rooted in specific group contexts – in specific places, practices, gestures, images or objects (Nora 2009). Such diverse activities may also be the starting point for a search for different variations of the in between state.

In memory studies, a major role is played by the division into different types of memory – primarily that into individual and collective memories. What also matters is the role of the family and intergenerational memory transfer. This is pointed out by Jan and Aleida Assmann, German memory researchers. Jan Assmann has made the distinction between communicative memory and cultural memory, the former based on experience and biographical and factual in nature. It is shared by a single (participating or witnessing) generation which can emotionally transfer it to its children (as successive generations). So transmitted, it can last 80-100 years, with the family playing the key role in the process. In time, the need appears to institutionalise that communicative memory transferred through generations. Then its preservation in a specific form becomes important. To that end, archives and museums are set up, and various performing arts appear which lend specific forms to memory of the past. In this way, cultural memory develops (Assmann 2008).

Aleida Assmann, in turn, differentiates between individual memory and that of generations (the latter appearing as a result of experience transfer within the family, i.e. between generations) as well as collective (national-political) memory and cultural (archival) memory (Assmann 2013). The two first mentioned could be classified as communicative memory and the other two as cultural memory according to the division postulated by Jan Assmann. In the “In Between?” project, the young researchers will be able to both focus on one of the proposed memory dimensions and explore the relations developing between various memory dimensions in specific communities. This may be particularly interesting in the context of accounting for the power relations between the dominant group and a minority group which can compete or support each other in remembrance practices in many different ways.

In the case of becoming familiar with local memory/history of the twentieth century, particularly in trauma-affected communities, it is worthwhile to take into consideration the category of “postmemory” (a term coined by Marianne Hirsch). This marks an important distinction between the memory of a direct witness or participant and the memory of successive generations, not so clearly highlighted in Jan Assmann’s notion of communicative memory. In the case of postmemory, the contemporary generations are not/have not been witnesses to the most tragic events of the twentieth century. They are more of recipients and transmitters of mediated content – both in the form of direct accounts and – mainly – texts of culture/products of culture (films, books, museums, monuments, etc.). This is mediated memory, “a relation linking the generation that participated in the experience of a cultural or collective trauma with the successor, which ‘remembers’ it only thanks to stories, images and behaviours making a context for their growing up. This experience has been transferred to them in such an emotional manner that it appears to be a foundation of their own memory.”(Hirsch 1993)


For us, this physical and intellectual (research-related) discovery of borderlands and the in between phenomenon has a dimension of experiencing otherness to it. Apart from showing that life can be different, being on the periphery and meeting “Others” makes us conscious of being immersed in our own culture. In turn, microhistory – qualitative and miniature, not global and quantitative (Domańska p. 244) – lets us hear polyphonic diversity (Hans Medick). Such an approach shakes us out of the safe position of the only legitimate narrative leading on to a path of dialogue-based memory, which makes it possible to accommodate in one’s own memory not just one’s own suffering but also that of others (including that caused by ourselves) (A. Assmann 2011). This resembles the agonistic mode of remembering[5], which makes it possible to draw on experiences of many different event participants (victims and perpetrators of violence as well as observers). It offers a possibility to express the multitude of past experiences and accept them. Both approaches let us build the foundations of solidarity with others on the basis of reflexion and dialogue.

The project participants are free to choose the forms in which to eventually present their interpretations of the in between phenomenon. These may be texts, but also video-notes, audio recordings, photo documentation or animation-performance acts. Thanks to the diversity of the media and the participants’ competences, we wish to showcase the multidimensionality of experiencing the in between in individual, family, group, local, but also intercultural, intergenerational and European dimension.


Andrade Fernandes, Jorge Luis. Challenging Euro-America's Politics of Identity: The Return of the Native. London: Routledge, 2008.

Assmann, Aleida. Miedzy historią a pamięcią. Antologia [Between History and Memory. Selected Texts]. Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2013.

Assmann, Jan. Pamięć kulturowa. Pismo, zapamiętywanie i polityczna tożsamość w cywilizacjach starożytnych [original:Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination]. Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2008.

Babiński, Grzegorz. “Pogranicza etniczne i kulturowe” [Ethnic and cultural borderlands]. Marian Malikowski, Dariusz Wojakowski (eds.), Między Polską a Ukrainą. Pogranicze – mniejszości, współpraca regionalna. Rzeszów: Mana, 1999.

Braudel, Fernand. Historia i Trwanie [original: Textes des ecrits sur l'histoire]. Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1971.

Cohen, Anthony. Symbolic Construction of Community. London, NY: Routledge, 1985.

Domańska, Ewa. Mikrohistorie: spotkania w międzyświatach [Microhistories: meetings in interworlds]. Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 2005.

Eriksen, Thomas. Małe miejsca, wielkie sprawy [original: Small Places – Large Issues]. Warsaw: Oficyna Wydawnicza Volumen 2009.

Halbwachs, Maurice. Społeczne ramy pamięci [original: Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire]. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 2008.

Hirsch, Marianne. “Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning and Post-Memory. Discourse. 15, no. 2 (1992 – 1993) (1993).

Jackson II, Ronald L. Encyclopaedia of Identity. London: SAGE Publications, 2010.

Kaniowska, Katarzyna. “Antropologia i problem pamięci” [Anthropology and the notion of memory]. Konteksty. Polska Sztuka Ludowa, LVII 2/3, pp. 57-65 (2003).

Pierre, Nora. “Between the memory and history: Les Lieux de Mémoire”. Working Title: Archive, no. 2, pp. 4-12, 2009.

Sadowski, Andrzej. Tożsamość. Identyfikacja. Pogranicze” [Identity, Identification. Borderland]. Sadowski Andrzej, Mirosława Czerniawska. Tożsamość Polaków na pograniczach, Białystok: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Białostockiego, pp. 11-32, 1999.

Straczuk, Justyna. Cmentarz i stół. Pogranicze prawosławno-katolickie w Polsce i na Białorusi [The cemetery and the table. The Orthodox-Catholic borderland in Poland and Belarus]. Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, 2006.

[1]Individuals who experience „in-betweenness” face continuous negotiations between being here and there, themselves and others, thereby creating their hybrid cultural identity.

[2]Whose history can also be examined from the perspective of post-colonial criticism.

[3]According to K. Kaniowska, in anthropology memory plays various roles: of a source, a subject and a tool.

[4]A family can be perceived as a community.

[5]The modes of memory were discussed by David Clarke during the conference “Genealogies of Memory” organised by the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity in Warsaw in December 2015.

Carol Elias

Holocaust and Diaspora Survival: The Next Generations. Past, Present, Future

21 August 2016
  • Holocaust
  • Shoah
  • Jews
  • Memory
  • Second World War
  • remembrance
  • Diaspora

“The guardianship of the Holocaust is being passed on to us. The second generation is the hinge generation in which received, transferred knowledge of events is transmuted; into history, or into myth.” (Hoffman 2004, xv)


I am the child and grandchild of Holocaust, and what I call Diaspora, survivors. The effect of these traumatic events on my life is becoming more apparent as I get older until it became clear that I would have to trace their origins from the time of my parent's childhood up until now and begin to expose these hidden life-long feelings. The impetus for this journey began as an answer or explanation as to why I almost never say the words, 'I love you'. During my grandparent's war-torn generation the ability to express affection almost disappeared. It was as if expressing words of love after the horrors they had faced would somehow demean the enormity of the tragedy. If you could love again, then how bad could it have really been?

Innumerable stories have been written, and continue to be written even at this late stage, about the Holocaust and dramatic survival. As the population of original survivors is gradually disappearing, it becomes even more important for the next generations to gather as much of the factual information before it is too late. I have come to realize that not only had my mother’s family survived the Holocaust; but that my father's family had also 'survived' in pre-WWII Poland, living through anti-Semitic pogroms, emigrating to Palestine where they suffered enormously, eventually leaving for the United States, arriving in 1929 the year of the Great Depression.

All of them had experienced forced abandonment of the known to enter the unknown; changes in homeland, languages and names due to the historical, wartime events that were not in their control. These affected my parents and grandparents, and ultimately my generation as well. It is my purpose here to discuss the trans-generational traumatic effects that these experiences had had on a specific population, family being just one example. Eventually, we, the children and grandchildren will be required to come to terms with our ancestor's pasts as best as we can, incorporating them into our own lives; present and future.

It is my hope to begin this process as an intergenerational and international discussion. Many of us alive today have been affected by the Holocaust in some way; Jewish or not, survivors and their families or not, and yet we continue to relate to the Holocaust as if it had begun only recently. Unbelievably, we are a mere seventeen years from the centennial anniversary of the Nazi party's initial rise to political power in 1932. Any attempt to break the near-pervasive silence that has been the norm in war-torn, twentieth-century America, Europe and the world may hopefully yield positive results in unifying the global village of today.

Original Holocaust survivors hold a unique responsibility to continue to tell their own stories for as long as they can. One example of this is the autobiography, "Once We Were Eight" published when the author was 85 years old. In it he expresses his motivation for telling his own tragic story of survival including the loss of six out of eight members of his own family:

"'Zachor' – Remember. This has become my mission. I grab every opportunity that comes my way to share my history so that the Holocaust is not forgotten. One day, in the not too distant future, there will be no survivors to tell their stories, so it is imperative that I, and others like me, share their Holocaust experiences so that no one can ever doubt that the Holocaust happened. My goal is to educate students, and all who I encounter, so that they in turn will educate others. The history of the Holocaust must not die when survivors are not here to tell first-hand what happened during that terrible chapter in history. To me, it is still unbelievable and inconceivable that these horrific crimes were committed by civilized nations in the 20th century". (Fishler 2014, 156)

The Unter-Stanestie/ Vivos (Vivis) Pogrom: July 5-6, 1941

My mother and grandparents survived a pogrom which took place on July 5th and 6th, 1941 in the small village of Unter-Stanestie and in its tiny, neighboring, almost unknown, unmentioned village of Vivis (Vivos) in Romania (now Ukraine). A summary of the events are detailed below as part of a concise and accurate article:

“In Stanestii de Jos, a village east of Czernovitz…the locals organized a Ukrainian national committee to take control of the village ‘arresting’ the Jews and holding them in the mayor’s office or the saw mill. The Ukrainian nationalists soon began to murder their prisoners, and when the Russian army reached Stanestii de Jos, the pogrom was intensified. Upon his arrival, the Romanian gendarmerie’s commander put a stop to the blood bath, but by that time between eighty and one hundred and thirty Jews had already been killed. The fact that a local gendarmerie commander could stop a massacre underscores the fact that the impetus for pogroms often came from below... The Jews barricaded themselves in their homes, and the Ukrainians ‘patrolled’ usually armed with agricultural tools, for firearms were not widely available. The Ukrainians then decided to ‘fetch’ the Jews from their homes and concentrate them in one place. A list was compiled from which the names of the Jewish men were read out one by one, after which these were led away… Most of the Jewish men were beaten to death- only a few were shot….Chana Weisenfeld, who was …from Stanestii de Jos, related how Ukrainian neighbors rampaged through the village armed with hammers and sickles. According to Weisenfeld, more than eighty Jews were killed in the pogrom. Close to the village, local perpetrators killed a pregnant woman and beheaded her… The massacres of Jews by the local population sometimes seem especially puzzling because the perpetrators are civilians and the victims are their neighbors…. Later when it became clear that it was possible to murder with impunity, people murdered so that no one would be there to remember the stolen property.” (Geissbuhler 2014, 434-439)

The pogrom, like many others that occurred that summer of 1941, represented the Romanian's attempt to “cleanse the terrain” of its’ Jewish population. (Solonari 2010, 160) No Jews remained in Stanestie. My family’s survival was close to miraculous after my grandfather was captured and escaped. ChanaWeisenfeld, mentioned above, is my mother’s first cousin, aged 82 today. The pregnant woman, beheaded in the forest of Vivis, was my grandmother’s sister and my mother's aunt. Her name was Chaika. I am her namesake in Hebrew; Chaya, and in English; Carol.


After the pogroms, survivors travelled for several months, from July until October 1941, on foot or by wagon, surviving typhoid and horrid conditions, under constant Romanian guard until they reached the Transnistria concentration camps. My mother’s family survived. My great-grandfather did not. There, life under the harsh hands of the Ukrainian/Romanian/Nazi guards was exceedingly difficult.

Aharon Appelfeld, the prolific Israeli author, was born in Stanestie in 1932 like my mother. He survived the pogrom in which his mother perished and was sent to Transnistria. He describes life in the camp and the unendurable silence there. “During the war, one did not talk… Whoever was in the Ghetto, the camp and the forests, knows silence from within…The war is a hothouse of listening and of silences. Extreme hunger, quenching thirst, the fear of death makes words redundant. As a matter of fact, they are unnecessary. In the Ghetto and the camp only those who lost their sanity talked, explained and tried to convince. The sane did not talk.” (Appelfeld 1999, 95)

The history of the Holocaust in Romania is not well-known and even less well understood. This lack of clarity was due to the historical "unfolding of events…The fate of its Jews varied depending on the geographic areas where they lived …[and] the fact that Transnistria was not a part of the territory of Romania, but only under its administration, changing political circumstances and erratic government policies.”(Nizkor Project 1991, 1) This confusing geopolitical status ultimately led the survivors of Transnistria not to “talk about their tragedy because they were too traumatized…Their experiences were trivialized because Transnistria had not been publicly acknowledged for the tragedy it really was." (Bernhardt 1997, 1) As of 2004, a total of “between 45,000 and 60,000 Jews …were killed in Bessarabia and Bukovina by Romanian and German troops in 1941. Between 105,000 and 120,000 deported Romanian Jews died as a result of expulsions to Transnistria." There, "between 115,000 and 180,000 … Jews were killed.” (ICHR 2004, 306)

Politanki, Ukraine

Sometime soon after their arrival in Transnistria my mother's family received a reprieve of sorts that more than likely saved their lives. The Russian owner of a melon farm bribed guards to release 40-50 laborers from one of the camps. They were taken to a barn, each family to a room, and there they lived for close to three years near the tiny Ukrainian village of Politanki. They lived a mini-Schindler existence; hard labor in exchange for life, food, and advance notice if the Nazi or Romanian army approached. If they did, they were sent deep into the forest; food sent out to them and then brought back after the danger had passed. The farmer had been offered the highest award for saving Jews by the Israeli government; but he refused to accept it. Perhaps he had worried about future repercussions in his own country it became known that he had helped Jews and gone against his own government during WWII.

After the Holocaust

After the war ended, my grandparents returned briefly to Stanestie. There, killers roaming the forests were searching for and murdering any potential witnesses to the pogroms that had been carried out by local, non-Jewish villagers. Warned by a kindly neighbor, after spending a few hours at her home, they left before dawn, never to return. No wonder my grandparents left Romania as quickly as they could and ran to Germany, empty-handed. Nobody there was going to take responsibility for Jews who had survived anyway. The rapidly changing borders had made it convenient for many countries to say, ‘They aren't ours’. The lack of facts may be useful for those who say the Holocaust never happened on a large scale. As the last original survivors pass away, the voices of those who perished without gravestones will be extinguished forever. No, this concept is not new; but because of it I continue thework, to pay homage to members of my close family who I know had existed in Romania and Poland until July 1941.




Three-quarters of a century have passed since the beginning of WWII and we may ponder the continuing widespread interest in the Holocaust and its outcomes. Many of us are looking for connections to our pasts by trying to fill in the empty holes of what we have never known; the truth about the histories of our own families. It could be that I, like many of the group called second and third generation survivors of the Holocaust are cursed to go on a personal quest for answers, and were so cursed the moment we were born. Discussed by Eva Hoffman in her autobiography, she describes being the child of Holocaust survivors and what this may mean to her and others like her. She proposes that, “If I wanted to understand the significance for those who come after, then I needed to reflect on my own and my peers’ link to that legacy, to excavate our generational story from under its weight and shadow-to retrieve it from that ‘secondariness’ which many of us have felt in relation to a formidable and forbidding past.”(Hoffman 2004, xi)

I can use myself as an example of one who has experienced this search for knowledge and answers; the Holocaust as a 'rumor' or word that has no meaning, turned into a black hole of silence, sadness, depression, of those around me with no explanation. How could I be completely happy? I never felt like I truly fit in; now at least I know why. I may have been born in America, but my parents and grandparents were all of Eastern European, Austro-Hungarian background, mentality and culture; most having accents. I had always been proud to be American, but my 'Jewish-ness', 'child-of-Holocaust-survivor'-ness had always held a subconscious grip off-stage.
In order to explain what had motivated me to understand my mother's experiences during the Holocaust, we can examine the groundbreaking article, “The Generation of Post-Memory", where Hirsch purports the concept that memory of the Holocaust may be transmitted almost directly into the minds of the children of survivors:

"Post-memory describes the relationship that the generation after those who witnessed cultural or collective trauma bears to the experiences of those who came before, experiences that they ‘remember’ only by means of stories, images, and behaviors. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and effectively as to ‘seem’ to constitute memories in their own right…To grow up with such overwhelming inherited memories, to be dominated by narratives that preceded one’s birth or one’s consciousness, is to risk having one’s own stories and experiences displaced, even evacuated, by those of a previous generation. …These events happened in the past, but their effects continue into the present. This is, I believe, the experience of post-memory.”(Hirsch 2010, 106)

We must continue to examine the impact that the Holocaust is having on the ‘next’ generations; how a child’s identity can become almost secondary to the heroic fact that their parent has survived the Holocaust. What achievement can rate next to that? It may come as no surprise that we, second generation Holocaust survivors, describe ourselves as such, as if wearing our own badge of courage. Self-esteem and identity have somehow been created out of their heroism. Hirsch and Miller describe the creation of the second generation’s self-identity through over-identification with the survivor parent and grandparent and reveal that “along with many other American Jews of our generation [we] have … devoted the last several years to the recovery of our own family stories and the search for lost Jewish worlds in Eastern Europe.” In addition, they suggest, “the legacies of the past transmitted powerfully from parent to child within the family…shape identity and …’post-memory’ can account for the lure of second generation’s …over-identification.”(2011, 4)
I can say that the Holocaust has had an incredible impact upon me even though I had never been part of it. I was born in a totally different country, environment and culture than my mother and my grandparents who had survived. As Hirsch explains, "post-memory describes the relationship of the second generation to powerful, often traumatic, experiences that preceded their births but that were nevertheless transmitted to them so deeply as to seem to constitute memories in their own right."(2010, 103) Yet there have been several instances in my life when I mistakenly used the first person to describe things that had happened to my mother during the Holocaust, and instead said they had happened to me. Hirsch wonders if as children of survivors we may "adopt the traumatic experiences of others as experiences that we might ourselves have lived through, inscribe them into our own life story… [and have a] frustrated need to know about a traumatic past." (2010, 114)


It could be that the ‘Second Generation Survivor Syndrome’ begins in infancy. Halasz describes how the “second generation offspring witnessed that silence… those exiled moments when he, the infant was hungering for relatedness. Instead he met the survivor parent's ‘fated exile’, a wall of silence.” He adds, "there may be unexamined danger in being named after deceased relatives, in that parents may only see the dead relatives in their children and therefore not ever really see or know their own child…For the second generation survivor, this may mean that the child in turn may grow up having a blurred or undefined identity.”(2002, 217) I began to be interested in learning about the Holocaust at an early age. I now believe that having been named after an aunt killed during the Holocaust may have been the basis for this early onset.

Post-memory may have also played a role in my early life with much of the transmission conducted in silence. There were no discussions of the events that had taken place; not at the dinner table, not in the living room, not as I grew older. It was my own personal curiosity that led me to start searching; in college, on the Internet and later, on trips to every major city in Europe which had had a Jewish history beginning after the Inquisition. For example, Lily Brett, a second generation author, describes her relationship to her mother, a Holocaust survivor, in an interview entitled "Walking Among Ghosts". She explains, "I wanted to be one of them …I didn't want to be separated from [her] by this enormous gulf." (Giles 2000, 56)

I had grown up with the loud silence of knowing that there was something out there, but what? A loud, earth shattering scream of nothingness, that reverberated in my ears from the time I was born. I knew nothing, and continued to know nothing for years. I never got the message or information from the original source itself. This now is very frustrating, because I would like to have heard my grandfather tell me the story at least once in his own words, to hear his fear and feelings. I would have liked to hear my grandmother speak, even once, about anything at all, or about the day they left their hometown without my grandfather. What this must have felt like I can only imagine. My mother has written her story, and although now she will answer questions if I ask, it is still a bit like prying open a can of sardines. Is this why I keep so much inside?

In a contribution to "Second Generation Voices: Reflections by Children of Holocaust Survivors and Perpetrators" the second-generation writer Lisa Reitman-Dobi relates her feelings, which are eerily similar to mine:

"all my life I've felt a tremendous weight on me, something that I could not understand, although I knew it had something to do with the Holocaust….I knew that the war, the Holocaust specifically, was a topic that had been relegated to the topmost shelf, something that wouldn't be addressed. By the time I was in the fifth or sixth grade, I was aching to know details… I craved more information…. I was not completely ignorant. On the contrary, it was because I knew a fair bit about the war that my curiosity was piqued. I had always known about the Holocaust. I had always known about the concentration camps. I can't say how. It's as if I were born with a degree of information that had been genetically installed, like my brown hair and brown eyes. I knew that an isolated, distant horror, something that could never happen again, mind you, had severed the past from the present without a trace. I knew that my mother's family had been shattered by the war but….I had never seen her mourn or cry or show any anger at the injustice during her childhood. I sensed that I was required to appreciate the rich childhood that had been denied my mother. But instead of happy, I felt sad. I felt sad for my mother, sad for everyone, and then guilty for feeling sad…. The reality was that I was in a perpetual state of mourning for that which I had never known, as much as there was to know." (A. Berger and N. Berger, eds. 2001,16-19)

We, the second generation, have been relegated to remember the Holocaust as if in a virtual time-machine; almost as if we had been there ourselves. This may not happen to every survivor’s child, but similar to a gene, like alcoholism or diabetes; some of us have the predisposition to be the carrier of the message. This might be set off by incidents in our own lives or perhaps this is learned behavior, gleaned from the sad, introspective, smile-less face; slow movements or hunched-over shoulders of our grandparents; physical exhibitions of their own never-released inner traumas. As our own middle age encroaches, we may be able to reveal the truth.

Yes, indeed, without a doubt, our own identities were formed by their connection to that horrible, historical anomaly; duly transcribed and reported in every tiny, minute detail by the Nazis; the Holocaust. This is what we had to compete with. Is it any wonder that we have been spoiled almost to death? We, call us what you will, the second, third, next, future generations are bearing the brunt of the anger, sadness, unknowable, untellable loss that our parents and grandparents had suffered. We, connected to them by blood and sorrow, must build on this and move forward with the same type of strength and courage as it took for them to be able to survive. Whatever has happened to them is done. They will not tell us any more than we already know. It is this silence that the second generation has endured that has made it so important to get the facts straight now before it is too late.

Alan Berger and Naomi Berger ask two simple questions; "What is the second generation's connection to the Holocaust? Their parents suffered, but what have been the effects on the offspring?" (2001, 1) The painful answers that have been shut away for decades have been seeping out slowly in books and films during the past ten or twenty years. Whatever has been locked away by the power of silence and fear of exposure is making its way to the surface. And exposing what exactly are we talking about here? My grandparent's fear of being discovered to have survived the Holocaust while millions of others had not? Hey, you guys, you were the victims here. Remember? The fact is perhaps they had not wanted to talk about being victims of the most heinous crime against humankind known to man; keeping silent for most of their lifetimes. It could be that the survivors themselves were trying to maintain their pride as well as protect us from the knowledge of what they had gone through. Hirsch adds that in their creation of a "protective shield particular to the post-generation, one could say that, paradoxically they reinforce the living connection between past and present, between the generation of witnesses and survivors and the generation after." (2010, 125)

Possibly my grandfather had felt that if he maintained his silence, it would be as if what had transpired during those terrible years during the war had never happened at all. In her extraordinary analysis of Lily Brett's autobiographical story, "Things Could Be Worse”, Catalina Botez examines the function that silence fills for Holocaust survivors. She claims "that silence can equally 'voice and hush traumatic experience', that it is never empty, but invested with individual and collective meaning. Essentially, I contend that beside the (self) damaging effects of silence, there are also beneficial consequences of it, in that it plays a crucial role in emplacing the displaced, rebuilding their shattered self, and contributing to their reintegration, survival and even partial healing." (2012, 15)

I can apply her theory to my grandfather, who never spoke about his own personal trauma to me as a child or young adult. Did Silence help him create a new life in America, raise two children, and build a successful business? I suppose that the key word is ‘partial’ when describing the amount of healing a person can go through after incredible trauma, losing half of his siblings and his parents while he, himself, survived. My grandfather was a lovely man, generous, caring and always wanted the best for his family. His children and grandchildren were proof of his strength throughout the untold horrors he had faced during WWII. But the scars were deep, and in all the years that I knew him, except perhaps toward the end of his life, his expressions of warmth were minimal. I knew that he loved me very much. He never said so.

I cannot explain even to this day what caused this withholding of information; to keep one of the major catastrophes in the history of mankind inside; not shared with members of your own family. Botez suggests that "silence is never empty or devoid of meaning, but 'inhabited' by poignant content pointing to trauma, loss and an inability to understand or cope with … loss".(Botez 2012, 17)20 Would they have been able to tell their stories without breaking?
It was that exactly; that inhabited silence; the practically void, brief, uncompleted lives of my grandparent's sisters and brothers; and the Unmentionables, the Unborn; the brothers and sisters of my mother and my uncle, who cry silently without tears. THIS is the epicenter of our sad melodrama, those almost forgotten souls. Overdramatized? I don’t think so. This is the Truth as I know it. It is what we do with the knowledge now that is essential, not only for me and individuals like me, but as a jumping off point for universal discussion and repair. As in a court case where thousands are represented; so shall it be here.

Stanestie/Vivos 2007

Something changed in me after I visited Stanestie in 2007. It is clear to me that not much has changed there; only the universal shame, guilt and pain in the local citizens has remained. The residents who were born after the war feel somehow responsible for the actions of their parents and grandparents even though they had nothing to do with them. As the book title suggests, the “sins of the fathers” have stayed with them; with tears in their eyes. (Woods 2013) One man around my age leads us through the Christian cemetery to the collective gravesite for the Jewish victims of the pogrom, shaped like a Star of David with a small commemorative plaque written in English, Romanian, Russian and Hebrew; we comfort him.

Politanki 2015

Recently, I made a personal and very difficult journey to the Ukraine, whose goal had been to reach the tiny village of Politanki where my mother had been in hiding from October 1941 until the end of WWII. I was finally able to begin to understand what Transnistria had been at that time. In the words of a middle-aged Ukrainian woman who we had met there; she described to my barely-Russian-speaking cousin what had been told to her by her grandmother many years before. “Eleven kilometers from here there were ghettoes that were run by very bad Romanian Fascists." She added, “Here, there were Romanians too, but they were not so bad”. Trying to figure out if there had once been a melon farm in the area seemed a bit too much for our language barrier to cross.

This trip made by one child of one Holocaust survivor, travelling nearly a quarter of the way across the globe, on roads that were not roads, at border crossings that could not be imagined; an impossible, impulsive drive to find the truth and see it with my own eyes. Not because I did not believe that it had happened; but because it had never been truly explained to me in words; only in shadows and sketchy outlines that left no room for imagination. Reality, in all its glory, sadness, emptiness, colors of pale green endless wheat fields, nothingness, had been registered and claimed! I had come to the most complete understanding of what my mother had gone through that any survivor’s child could; only after an incredibly hard and unusual trip, involving chance coincidences, other people, several countries, diplomatic assistance and Russian translation of information that probably couldn't even be found on the English language World Wide Web. This, I was able to do, with thanks to those know who they are. Now that I have seen first-hand where it all took place, can I say that post-memory has become my memory, too? I am not sure. But, the fact is, I was able to put in the last piece of the puzzle; and the puzzle has been solved!


Today, nearing 80 years since the beginning of the Holocaust; the largest organized mass murder in history, we continue to ponder the source of its inception; the root of the wasted intelligence on an evil plan developed only to try to eradicate one of the most ancient peoples known to mankind, and there is no end in sight to our conversations.

However well-adjusted my mother was in her adopted country of America, the shadowy phantom of Eastern Europe still lingered above her, as it did all survivors. She may have tried to escape the vestiges of the Holocaust by losing her accent; feeling at home in the United States; working; getting married and raising a family. But, "their children, whom they have proudly raised in a free country carry their parent's burden of traumatic memories, not always sure of the extent of their harmful grasp." (Botez 2012, 24) There is no question that my mother was unaware of the potential influence that her own Holocaust experiences might have had on her children. It is this late knowledge and recent understanding that we are dealing with here, and must find the correct path on which to send the message out to the world. It has taken me fifty-eight years to get to this point of self-analysis and self-understanding. It is not for the lack of trying, many times, and many ways. Is it better late than never? You bet, especially for my children's sake and perhaps others as well. Perhaps writing it all down will lead the revelations in the right direction.

One of the main reasons that I don’t say ‘I love you’ often is because it wasn’t said to me by my mother as I was growing up. It could be said that wartime isn’t exactly the proper atmosphere for giving affection. ‘Normal’ emotional involvement of a parent to a child in expressions of endearment are reduced to a minimum or eliminated completely when the threat of death hangs over you daily like a tiny dew drop dangling from the edge of a blade of grass at sunrise. You know it will fall; it’s just a matter of time.

My mother told me that what she remembers of her early childhood before the war was happy go-lucky. She didn't have any young friends, but she remembers playing with workers in the lumber mill and enjoying herself. This must have come to such an abrupt, unexplained and unexplainable stop that whatever happiness she had enjoyed as a child had been buried forever, never to be retrieved even later on in life. How can a person who has suffered trauma like this be expected to raise a child herself in a traditionally 'normal' way, and so on in the following generations? This is the question being raised here.

At a recent book-signing event for my book,“I love you, they didn’t say", (Elias 2015) in which I deal in part with the lack of verbal affection from my mother toward me as a child; my mother, for the first time, began to understand what had had happened to her during the Holocaust.She described to visitors at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. how she had experienced an almost complete emotional black-out for approximately three years, from her parents towards her, and from herself towards the outside world. It was quite a cathartic, heart-wrenching and heart-warming experience for me to hear her speak, when at first she could not understand why I had entitled my book this way.

I don’t need results from studies on psychological responses in children of Holocaust survivors; I just have to look at myself and my brother as a two-case sample study. We are two specimens of a unique twentieth-century phenomenon and whichever way we have turned out will continue on and on until we stop it or at least try to. I know where this detached demeanor comes from and even though I do, I cannot change it. Maybe this work, which started out as a way of organizing the stories of my mother’s survival, has now turned into something much, much more. Those who had lived through hell and come out on the other side could not have possibly comprehended the effect it had had at the time and would have on them later on. They could not have imagined the effect it would have on their offspring, and on the children of their offspring.

This article may open the doors for discussions, NOT necessarily for the survivors themselves, but for those who have come after them. We have to start to breathe. I am not guilty, nor is my mother, father, grandparents, nor are any of them. The world is a dangerous place and becoming more so every day. God says we are supposed to stay alive under any circumstances. Life is sacred in its most natural form; it is what matters. Without humanity we cannot continue to report the progress of mankind to each generation that follows. This is our mission; our purpose: to learn, grow, teach; to educate those that are here with us today and will pass on the memories to those who will come next; our own future generations.


1. Appelfeld, Aharon, “The Story of a Life”, Keter, Jerusalem, 1999.
2. Berger, Alan and Naomi Berger, eds. "Second Generation Voices: Reflections by Children of the Holocaust Survivors and Perpetrators", Syracuse University Press , New York, 2001,
3. Bernhardt, Zvi, 'Introduction', "Transnistria: Lists of Jews Receiving and Sending Support", Jewish Gen, 1997-2015
4. Botez, Catalina, ""The Dialectic of Silence and Remembrance in Lily Brett's "Things Could be Worse"', Babilonia Numero Especial, 2012, pp. 15-29
5. Elias, Carol, "’I Love You, They Didn't Say’- Holocaust and Diaspora Survival : the Next Generations”, Orion Books, Israel, 2015.
6. Fishler, Raymond, "Once We Were Eight", http://www.thebookpatch.com. 2014
7. Geissbuhler, Simon, "'He Spoke Yiddish Like A Jew' - Neighbors Contribution to the Mass Killings of Jews in Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia in July, 1941". "Holocaust and Genocide Studies", 28, no.3, Winter, 2014, pp. 434-449.
8. Giles, Fiona, "Walking Among Ghosts: An Interview with Lily Brett", Meanjin, Volume 59, no.1, 2000, pp. 54-69
9. Halasz, George, "Can Trauma be Transmitted Across the Generations?" in "The Legacy of the Holocaust: Children and the Holocaust", eds, Zygmunt Mazur, Fritz Konig, Arnold Krammer, Harry Brod, Wladylaw Witalisz, Jagellonian University Press, 2002, pp. 209-223.
10. Hirsch, Marianne, "The Generation of Post-Memory", Poetics Today- International Journal for Theory and Analysis of Literature and Communication, Spring 2008, Vol. 29 (1), pp. 103-128
11. Hirsch, Marianne and Nancy K. Miller, "'Introduction'- Rites of Return: Diaspora Poetics and the Politics of Memory", New York Columbia University Press, 2011
12. Hoffman, Eva, Introduction, "After Such Knowledge: Memory: History and the Legacy of the Holocaust", Public Affairs: Persus Books Group, 2004, pp. xv
13. ICHR, “Final Report of the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania”, http://miris.eurac.edu/mugs2/do/blob.pdf?type=pdf&serial=1117716572750
14. The Nizkor Project, "Shattered! 50 Years of Silence: History and Voices of the Tragedy in Romania and Transnistria: The Unknown Killing Fields of Transnistria."
15. Reitman-Dobi, Lisa, "Family Ties: The Search for Roots: Once Removed", in A. Berger and N. Berger, eds. “Second Generation Voices: Reflections by Children of the Holocaust Survivors and Perpetrators", Syracuse University Press, New York, 2001
16. Woods, James, "The Sins of the Fathers", www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/07/22/sins-of-the-father

The author about herself:
I am a fifty-eight year old woman who has been living in Israel for the past twenty-three years. I have two children, both who have served in the Israel Defense Forces. My son finished his service last year and is now studying Graphic Design. My daughter, who is an officer in her third elective year, is a liaison between injured soldiers and the Army, and regularly visits families who have lost loved ones while. I hold a Masters and Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from major universities in New York State. I worked as a Guidance counselor in New York City before moving to Israel and raising a family. I attained a permanent Teacher’s license in Israel, where I have been an educator and supervisor for over twenty years.


Stephan Stach

‘The spirit of the time left its stamp on these works ’: Writing the History of the Shoah [...]

21 August 2016
  • Holocaust
  • Shoah
  • Jews
  • Jewish Historical Institute
  • JHI
  • stalinism

‘The spirit of the time left its stamp on these works ’: Writing the History of the Shoah at the Jewish Historical Institute in Stalinist Poland



The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw was probably the only research institution in the Soviet Bloc and one of very few that undertook research on the Shoah during the 1950s. This article analyses the institute’s research and working conditions against the background of the general political regime under Stalinism in Poland. It argues that despite sometimes heavy-handed political biases in its publications, the institute made an important contribution to research on the Shoah. Its work also came to the attention of Jewish centres outside the Soviet Bloc, though it was seen through the prism of the Cold War.



Das Amt und die Vergangenheit [The Ministry and the past] (2010) summarizes the work of an international research group, which studied the involvement of the German Foreign Ministry in the mass murder of European Jews over several years. The findings, which attracted wide public attention, erased the myth that the Auswärtiges Amt [German: Federal Foreign Office] had been a clandestine refuge for Nazi opponents. Instead, it exposed the active participation of the Foreign Ministry in preparations for and its conduct during the Holocaust (Conze et al. 2010). In 1953 Artur Eisenbach had revealed the involvement of the Foreign Ministry in the Holocaust in the Nazi policy of extermination of the Jews though this work was not as comprehensive (Eisenbach 1953). His study is also one of the first monographs ever published on the Shoah. 1 Although forming the larger part of the research on the Shoah conducted at the Jewish Historical Institute (JHI: Yidisher historisher institute/Żydowski Instytut Historyczny) during the first half of the 1950s, 2 Eisenbach’s book received little attention. The reasons for this are many. The institute published in Polish and Yiddish, and both these languages were little known in the West outside East European Jewish émigré circles. Also, interest in the Holocaust had been fading after an initial phase of intense interest in the late 1940s. The most important reasons are, however, the political distortions of Stalinism and the thoroughly Marxist methodology, especially in Eisenbach’s case. 3 During the Cold War such politically biased texts were read with hostility by readers in the West. The Yiddish press in the United States and Israel thus called the Warsaw Jewish historians derogatively ‘Yevsec historians’ or ‘Stalinist slaves’ whose work consisted more of a falsification of history than of history writing. Such assessments, which neither considered the political context of the JHI’s publications in the first half of the 1950s nor assessed their scholarly value, using the political jargon of the time, found their way into the Western historiography of the Shoah4 and can still be found in recent publications. A telling example is Sven-Erik Rose’s 2011 article on the perception of Yehoshue Perle’s ‘Khurbn Varshe’ [The destruction of Warsaw] in the early 1950s. In his illuminating contribution on Perle’s radical witness account of the mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto in summer 1942, Rose refers to the JHI historians as ‘Jewish Stalinists’, 5 and so overlooks the vast literature on the situation of Jews in Stalinist Eastern Europe (Grüner 2008; Rubentstein and Naumov 2001).6

In this article I provide such a contextualization and discuss the potential and boundaries of research on the Shoah in Stalinist Poland. I begin with a short introduction on the JHI and its formation in the early post-war years. Then I shed light on the Stalinization of the institute in 1949–50 and analyse the impact Stalinism had on the activities and the publications of the JHI, against the background of general developments in Poland and how this was perceived in the West, especially in the Yiddish context. Finally, I examine the repercussions of anti-Semitism in the late Stalinist period for the JHI researchers and publications.


The emergence of the JHI

The JHI came into being in October 1947, when the Central Jewish Historical Commission [Centralna Żydowska Komisja Historyczna] was transformed into a permanent research institution. The commission had been founded in late 1944 in Lublin by the Jewish historian and Holocaust survivor Philip Friedman (Grüss 1946, 6).7 In 1945 it was relocated to Łódź and then to Warsaw in spring 1947. Its purpose was to document and research the mass murder of Polish and European Jewry. To that end, the commission began to gather and assemble ‘all printed, handwritten or other materials, photographs, illustrations, documents and exhibits’ before the end of the war.8 The commission also drew up sources that documented the Jewish perspective on the German Occupation of Poland: interviews with thousands of survivors, both adults and children, were recorded. Today, more than 7,000 testimonies are stored in the JHI archive.

The best-known and most valuable collection is the secret archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, produced by the Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum and his underground Oyneg Shabes group. It is in two parts; the first was unearthed from the ruins of the Ghetto in September 1946.9 This served as an important impetus not only for the Commission’s work but also for the transformation of the Central Jewish Historical Commission into a permanent research institute.10 A year after the first part of the Ringelblum Archive was found, the Central Committee of Jews in Poland [Centralny Komitet Żydów w Polsce],11 a self-governing body of the then quasi-autonomous Jewish community in Poland, made the decision to turn the commission into the JHI.12 This took place in a period of relative political liberalism in Poland – at least as far as the Jewish community was concerned. Many Polish Jews that had survived the Shoah in German-occupied Poland or the Soviet Union still believed it was possible to restore Jewish life in Poland. Many Jewish institutions, such as Yiddish theatres and schools, newspapers and a printing house, were established at that time.13 In this context, the JHI could have filled the role of a scholarly institution of and for the Polish Jewish community. As such it would research the whole history of Polish Jews from the early Middle Ages onwards. However, the central topic of the work would remain the documentation of the Shoah.

The first public opportunity for the JHI to present itself was the fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising in April 1948. The anniversary was an international event, attended by many Polish, Polish-Jewish and international officials as well as by delegations from Jewish institutions. The festivities, which were prepared with the support of the JHI staff, began with the opening of the institute’s Museum of Jewish Martyrdom and Fight [Muzeum Martyrologii i Walki Żydowskiej] on the eve of the anniversary, and closed with the unveiling of Natan Rapaport’s monument dedicated to the Heroes and Martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto the next day (Kobylarz 2009, 39 f.).14 Also in 1948 the JHI began to publish its Yiddish journal, Bleter far geshikhte [Folios for history],15 which addressed an international, Yiddish-speaking readership. However, in the second half of 1948, the political situation became tense. Within a year, the façade of Jewish quasi-autonomy of Jewish in post-war Poland was dismantled. Jewish activists from the Polish Workers’ Party (known from late 1948 as the Polish United Workers’ Party, PZPR) took over the Central Committee of Jews in Poland and all larger Jewish institutions. Other active Jewish parties were marginalized and subsequently dissolved (Grabski 2015, 199–202, 226–48). In summer 1949 the director of the JHI was sacked and the pre-war communist journalist and PZPR member Ber Mark was appointed to replace him.16 As a result, many former staff members, among them Nachman Blumental, the first director of the institute, and Rachela Auerbach, one of the few survivors of Ringelblum’s Oyneg Shabbes group, decided to emigrate.17


The transformation of the JHI into a Marxist‑Leninist research institute

As the Stalinist grip on Poland tightened including within the Jewish sphere, Mark speeded up the ideological redirection of the institute. The aim was to catch up with the process of ideological transformation, which had begun in Polish universities and research institutions two years earlier (Górny 2011, 43 f.). Mark quickly steered the institute on to a course that clearly followed the party line. This was characterized by an open adherence to Marxist-Leninist theory in historical research as well as the use of history as propaganda – especially of the Second World War and the Shoah – to legitimize communist rule in Poland and the position of the Soviet Bloc in the confrontation with the West. To underscore his commitment to communist ideology, Mark published a programmatic statement in the newly established Yiddish information bulletin of the JHI. In ‘Our Aims’, published in November 1949, he emphasized his ambition to transform the JHI into a Marxist-Leninist research institution: ‘The Jewish Historical Institute in Poland has the ambition not only to be the scientific centre of research on the most recent period of our history, the period of unprecedented annihilation, heroic resistance and rebirth, but also to become a centre of Marxism-Leninism applied in research on Jewish history.’18 This also meant, as the text continues, that the situation in the ghettos had to be analysed from the perspective of class struggle, and the character of the mass murder of Jews by the Germans in turn had to be explained as a consequence of the capitalist order in its imperialist guise.19

Mark’s articles suggested that his appointment as director was a radical break in the JHI’s work. However, although it was certainly a break, it was not especially radical. Mark, who was alleged to have a ‘too friendly attitude to people’ to become an influential communist functionary in post-war Poland,20 did not purge the ranks of the JHI. All staff members, including those who chose to emigrate, were allowed to keep their positions until they left and they remained on good terms with Mark after their departure. In September 1950 Mark exchanged letters with his predecessor, Nachman Blumental, and the former vice director, Józef Kermisz, who had settled in the Kibbutz Lohamei haGettaot. When they informed him of their plans to continue their research work in Israel, Mark congratulated them and assured them of his willingness to cooperate.21

Most of the historians who remained were members of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR). Besides the directors – Ber Mark and Adam Rutkowski – there were Artur Eisenbach, Fraim Kupfer and Tatjana Berenstein. The only nonpartisan senior researcher who remained at the JHI was Szymon Datner, but Danuta Dąbrowska and Albert Nirensztein (Aaron Nirenshtayn in Yiddish), who joined the institute in 1951, were nonpartisan too.

It is also worth noting that although Mark had been a member of the Communist Party of Poland (KPP; Komunistyczna Partia Polski) since 1930, he had never been considered among the ideologically unimpeachable Jewish Party activists. Especially in the Soviet Union, where he spent the war years, he had been treated with suspicion by the authorities and also by some of his Jewish comrades. Shortly after he secured a position as a staff writer at Eynikayt [Unity], the official organ of the Jewish Antifascist Committee, Mark was accused of ‘Jewish nationalism’ and fired, something that made his situation precarious.22 After he returned to Poland in 1946, holding important functions within Jewish social life, Mark faced similar accusations. The most serious was at a meeting of the Jewish Fraction of the Polish Workers’ Party in October 1948, when Szymon Zacharisz – the leading figure among the Jewish Communists and architect of the Stalinization of Jewish life in Poland – accused him of being tainted by ‘national-Jewish ideology’.23 That Mark became director of the JHI at all underscores the lack of trained personnel among the Jewish Communists. For Mark, however, it was a chance for probation; he certainly did not want to fail.


JHI Publications during Stalinism

The politicization of the institute’s publications was in line with general developments in Polish historiography at this time. Shmuel Krakowski, head of the institute’s archive from 1966 to 1968, described the situation in the 1950s:

[U]ntil 1956 there was a quite stringent interference by the Party and others, and the course this took is called Stalinist. So it is natural that tight limits were imposed on Jewish – and not only Jewish – historians. But not only were certain limits imposed, which one was not allowed to exceed, there was also a certain language and methodology [...] I would even say a certain party dialect – with very harmful ramifications for scholarly work. Another method was to simply force historians to falsify history and accept certain non-existent facts in order to exaggerate the importance of the Communists. 24

The elements mentioned by Krakowski were typical of Polish – and not only Polish –historiography during the Stalinist period. This meant quoting frequently from Stalin’s and Lenin’s works, the use of Marxist- Leninist terminology, which often appeared artificial, and drawing a clear line between ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ elements in history (Stobiecki 2007, 58 f.). Notably in works on the Second World War, the Soviet Union and especially the Red Army had to be praised as liberators and the Communists as the main pillars of resistance. Typical of the intensifying confrontation between the two power blocs were also commentaries on current political developments, such as the Korean War and the colonial conflicts.25

In its scholarly publications the JHI under Mark was under pressure to meet the political requirements. This was demonstrated in several ways. For example, in the Yiddish Bleter far geshikte translations of methodological articles by Soviet historians,26 such as Arkady Sidorov and Piotr Tretiakov, appeared, which emphasized the importance of Stalin’s works for historiography. Both had been members of a delegation to the Congress of Polish Historians in 1948.27 Szymon Zachariasz also submitted ideological articles to Bleter far geshikhte, among them a tribute to the life and struggle of Feliks Dzieryżyński, a non-Jewish Pole, who founded the Soviet secret police, the Cheka. Another emphasized the role of the KPP in the defence of Polish independence (Zakhariash 1951 and 1952). Neither article was related to Jewish history. However, the translations from Soviet scholars constituted a basic feature of East-Central European academia under Stalinism. They had also been published in Polish and many other languages spoken in the Soviet Bloc.28 Zacharisz’s contribution in turn served to emphasize the ideological reliability of the JHI and the fact that the institute was not drifting into ‘Jewish nationalism’. Equally, it was surely a concession by Mark to his critic Zacharisz.

The principles of Stalinist-style history writing were also applied to the institute’s own research publications. The communists in the ghettos were portrayed as the driving force of Jewish resistance. Uprisings in ghettos and camps were described as the Jewish contribution to the ‘great liberation war against German fascism’. The situation in the ghettos was described as a specific form of class struggle where the collaborators of the Judenrat suppressed the working masses and the resistance movement. On the Bialystok Ghetto Mark wrote: ‘There was a clear division [...] in the ghetto: Judenrat and resistance. There was [...] no compromise and no “third way” between these two forces, which were mutually exclusive’ (Mark 1952b, 4). The insurgents were, needless to say, ‘brought up in the best traditions of the workers’ movement, in the struggles of the KPP, in the revolutionary ideas of Marxism-Leninism’.29

The exaggeration of the communists’ role in the resistance is especially blatant if one compares Albert Nirensztein’s article on the resistance movement in the Kraków Ghetto, which appeared in the third issue of the Biuletyn, in 1952, and a publication of the Central Jewish Historical Commission, which had appeared six years earlier. In his article, Nirensztein claims: ‘There were two principal groups in the Kraków underground: the communist (then PPR) and the members of the Akiba; the latter recognized the indisputable political supremacy of the communists’ (Nirensztein 1952c, 184 f.). Referring to members of the underground movement, Betti Ajzenstajn described the situation somewhat differently. In The Resistance Movement in Ghettos and Camps, she writes:

The mentioned organizations [Akiba and the PPR] cooperated in a number of anti-German actions, despite the fact that there was huge ideological gap between them (which more than once produced frictions and disharmony) (Ajzenstajn 1946, 82).

The corrections, which aimed to harmonize history with the ideological foundations of the PZPR, also affected source editions, which made up a large part of Bleter far geshikhte, the Biuletyn and other JHI publications. The best known example is Emanuel Ringelblum’s notes from the Warsaw Ghetto. They appeared in a Yiddish edition in 1952 and as a Polish translation in the Biuletyn (Ringelblum 1952a).30 In both, passages critical of the Soviet Union or of Polish–Jewish relations were deleted, as well as references to religious aspects, Zionism and non-communist resistance. While data that emphasized the conflict between the Judenrat and the ‘Jewish masses’ did appear, other parts which did not fit the class-struggle paradigm were omitted, for instance, corruption in the house committees of the Ghetto. What was omitted, however, differed in the Polish and the Yiddish versions. This was especially true of what Ringelblum wrote about Poles attacking Jews, which was included in the Yiddish paper but not the Polish. But similar differences can also be found in cases that might have been disadvantageous from a Jewish perspective. While in the Yiddish version the collaboration of certain Jews with the Gestapo was noted, it was left out in the Polish version.31 In the introduction to the Polish version the editors – most probably Mark and Eisenbach – stated that ‘notes and expressions that were unclear or not significant for the topic of the research’ were omitted, 32 but to anyone willing to read between the lines, this was an indication that the significance for research might have been dependent on the political situation.

Another publication from the second part of the Ringelblum Archive, unearthed in December 1950, sparked a fierce debate within the Yiddish community and across the Iron Curtain (see below). This was Yehoshue Perle’s report ‘Khurbn Varshe’ [The destruction of Warsaw]. Perle described the situation in the Warsaw Ghetto during the mass deportations in summer 1942 and harshly criticized the Judenrat and the Jewish police for assisting the Germans. He also criticized the victims themselves for their lack of resistance (‘Khurbn Varshe’ 1951, 101–40). Whether the text, which had been published anonymously as the author had not yet been established by the JHI’s researchers, had undergone a similar editing process remains unclear.33 It appeared roughly a year after it was found in late 1951 or early 1952, as the editorial introduction mentions the ‘American aggressors, who for seventeen months have been murdering the Korean people’.34

Such comments can be found in many JHI publications, as well as in other scholarly journals in Poland between 1950 and 1954. The introduction to ‘Khurbn Varshe’ [The destruction of Warsaw] is an especially rich example, as it refers not only to the Korean War but also to the negotiations between German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Nahum Goldman, president of the World Jewish Congress, which began in December 1951 and would result in the Luxemburg Agreement in 1952 on reparations from Germany to Israel. In an allusion to this, the editorial mentions the ‘non-Jewish and Jewish agents of imperialism, who make pacts with yesterday’s Nazis [...] those who are repeating the traitorous politics of the Jewish councils’35 Elsewhere one can find critical comments on colonialism and discrimination against blacks in the United States (Mark 1951a, 25; Nirensztein 1952a, 184–89). In a similar vein, the exhibits in the JHI’s museum link the history of the Shoah and the Warsaw Uprising with a call for the struggle against imperialism (Rutkowski 1951, 127–29).

As we have seen, in the early 1950s JHI publications were punctuated with references to Marxist, and often more bluntly Stalinist, methodology and political biases. They had – especially in the case of sources – undergone a process of censorship in order to make them fit current political needs. While praise of Stalin’s genius and attacks on supposedly Western warmongers make these publications read like a caricature from today’s perspective, such a readiness to adjust the history of the Shoah to the party line was the only way possible for the JHI to publish its research at all36 and to make documents like those of the Ringelblum Archive accessible outside the institute.37


The JHI’s reception in the Yiddish world

Despite the ‘party dialect’ which dominated the publications of the JHI after late 1949, they continued to be read in the West, especially those in Yiddish. Mark’s earliest statements in the Yedies in November 1949 were closely monitored. The Wiener Library Bulletin (WLB) wrote in early 1950:

The recent far-reaching changes in the structure of Polish Jewish organizations, now taken over by nominees of the Government, are reflected in the journal of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw [...] A programmatic statement makes it clear that from now on research will be proceeding exclusively along Marxist lines [... T]he tragic story of Polish Jewry, under German occupation in particular, is now going to be presented from the point of view of ‘class warfare in the Ghetto’.38

This was nevertheless a neutral description of the institute’s work in a non- Marxist Western journal. The WLB had committed itself never to comment on political matters. Even when Albert Nirensztein attacked the WLB and accused it of ‘only pretending to be progressive, while in fact they do not unmask the true sources and forces of the neo-Nazism in Western Germany, but abide by the principle of old, bankrupt bourgeois ideology’,39 the WLB did not respond. However, it vigorously refuted Nirensztein’s assertion that the journal would ignore research literature from outside the Western hemisphere. The dispute resulted not only in an exchange of letters,40 but finally in a comprehensive report on the JHI’s activity in the next WLB issue.41 This example shows that the JHI, despite its political comments or even attacks on Western institutions, was keen to stay in contact with such institutions, as it clearly sent all its available publications and detailed information to the WLB. It stands to reason that the main intention in criticizing the WLB in Bleter far geshikhte was to justify to the Polish authorities its subscription to the Western press.42

However, in the Yiddish press in the United States or Israel, the JHI could not count on the same sensibility the WLB showed. Distrust of Jewish scholars in communist Poland was deeply rooted on the other side of the Atlantic. This is not hard to understand considering anti-communist sentiment there at the time and the pro-American orientation of the vast majority of American Jews on the one hand and the anti-American propaganda, which infiltrated the institute’s publications, on the other. When in December 1950 the second part of the Ringelblum Archive was unearthed from the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, the news soon spread around the Jewish world. But while the London-based Jewish Chronicle reported the fact in almost neutral terms,43 in New York’s Morgen zhurnal Aaron Tseytlin’s commentary was far more critical. In his view, it would have been better if the material had never been found than falling into the ‘unkosher hands’ of Warsaw’s ‘Yevsec historians’, as it would only give them fresh material for their ‘absurd horror story that a class struggle took place behind the Warsaw Ghetto Wall’ (Tseytlin 1951). Similar comments could be found in Tel-Aviv’s Di naye velt, Arbeter-vort [The new world, worker’s word] from Paris, Ha-Dor, the mouthpiece of the Israeli Mapai Party or the Bulletin of the New York Jewish Labour Committee, as ‘Arkhivarius’44 lamented in Warsaw’s Yidishe shriften [Jewish scriptures]. It made him especially embittered that, as he wrote, the critics do not even wait for the publication of material in the Bleter far geshikhte before they start to criticize the supposed falsifications of the institute (Arkivarius 1951).45

However, even when Western reviewers read the JHI’s publications and attested to their scholarly value, it did not mean that they spared criticism of the institute. This can be seen in a review of Ringelblum’s Notitsn fun varshever geto [Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto], which appeared in the Bundist Lebns-fragn [Vital Issues], Tel-Aviv. For almost half the text the author, Eliahu Shulman, dwells on the fact that ‘the [Jewish] Historical Institute has been bolshevized – and the whole history of the Jews during Nazi occupation is falsified’ (Shulman 1953, 17). He even attacked the JHI’s researchers without exception. ‘After all, Berl Mark, Efraim Kupfer, [Artur/Aaron] Eisenbach and the other staff members of the institute are Stalinist slaves – and if their communist lord commands them to falsify – they will falsify’ (Shulman 1953, 18). However, his review of the book with Ringelblum’s notes was very constructive. Shulman called it authentic and a ‘principal historical and human document of the Ghetto period in Poland’ (Shulman 1953, 18).

The review gives a good insight into the misconceptions on the part of readers, or rather reviewers, outside the Soviet Bloc, who received publications on the Shoah produced at the JHI. In the political climate of the Cold War all publications from the other side of the Iron Curtain came under a general suspicion that they were falsified. Such falsification was perceived as a complete and willful distortion of the ‘historical truth’ in order to meet the political requirements of the Polish government and Soviet camp. This, however, was based not so much on a highly critical study of the JHI’s publications but on political – mainly anti-communist – convictions. However, the falsification of sources and the misrepresentation in historical interpretation functioned differently. The publications appeared within a framework of Stalinist academic methods, censorship, self-censorship and political control. Even so, there were no fixed boundaries on what could be written and published. The publication of a source that touched politically controversial or sensitive issues – as Ringelblum’s diary did – was unfeasible without deleting or editing those parts that obviously contradicted the political ‘truths’ of the day. The aim of such manipulations was not to send a politically correct message, but to get the writing published at all. Thus, they usually did not change the author’s overall intention and remained subtle enough that any such change was not immediately apparent.46 That is why, despite many changes, the text remained ‘authentic’ for Shulman and many others. His strident condemnation of JHI staff as ‘Stalinist slaves’ who falsified whenever they had to, however, shows his inability to acknowledge that an institution he regarded as politically hostile could nevertheless make a valuable scholarly contribution.

As mentioned above, another source from the Ringelblum Archive – ‘Khurbn Varshe’ [The destruction of Warsaw] – sparked a debate in the Yiddish press in 1952. After the text, published in Bleter far geshikhte accompanied by a strongly politically biased editorial, reached the West, the Yiddish poet and journalist H. Leyvik bluntly accused the JHI of having fabricated the document. In his article in Der tog, he denounced ‘Khurbn Varshe’ as ‘blasphemous nonsense’ (Leyvik 1952).47 What angered Leyvik were the many accounts of the part the Jewish Ghetto police and the Judenrat played in the deportations. In his opinion, all Jews murdered in the Shoah were martyrs, while, as he passionately wrote, the author of ‘Khurbn Varshe’ depicted that ‘what took place in Warsaw was a thoroughly self-inflicted Jewish extermination’. 48 In his view, such a text, published in the Soviet Bloc and written by an anonymous author, must have been a forgery.49

Leyvik’s attack not only sparked a debate in the American Yiddish press,50 but also prompted a reaction from Mark himself. In a lengthy reply titled ‘Judenrat love of Israel’, Mark proved the authenticity of ‘Khurbn Varshe’ [The destruction of Warsaw], referred to a similar account of the Jewish councils by Ringelblum and others in his group and identified its author as Yehoshue Perle, a well-known pre-war Jewish writer. In Mark’s view, Leyvik’s understanding of universal Jewish victimhood had the intention of whitewashing the Jewish councils and Ghetto police, thereby concealing ‘the internal treason in the ghettos’ (Mark 1952b, 114).51 In an allusion to the Luxemburg Agreement, Mark called Leyvick one of ‘all those in the United States, who require the rehabilitation of the Judenräte [...] for their current politics’ (Mark 1952b, 114).52 Mark’s article was not only a reply to Leyvik, it also addressed the Jews in Poland and served as another proof of its political correctness. Therefore, it was published not only in Bleter far geshikhte but also as a four-part series in the Polish Yiddish newspaper Folks-sztyme [People’s voice],53 which had a much greater readership among the Jews in Poland. Only a couple of months later, the Folks-sztyme text would play a role in the denunciation of Mark and the JHI.


The JHI – a threshold of Jewish nationalism in People’s Poland?

In autumn 1952 it seemed that late Stalinist anti-Semitism, with the Soviet campaign against rootless cosmopolitism and the imminent Slánský trial in Prague, was about to reach Poland. The fear that Warsaw too could become the venue of a show trial against a supposed Zionist conspiracy was escalating among the Polish Jews, and it was not unfounded. After Slánský had been arrested in late 1951, accused of leading a ‘Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist’ conspiracy, the pressure on the Polish government to ‘uncover’ a Zionist conspiracy in its ranks increased. Although the Polish President, Bolesław Bierut, continued to resist such pressure,54 in November 1952 investigations within the power apparatus began. During these investigations, the Polish security service visited the JHI and took articles from the Western Yiddish press, written by high-ranking members of the state administration (Rayski 1987, 173–80). On 26 November, as the Slánský trial was coming to its conclusion, an employee of the Israeli Embassy was arrested, accused of espionage (Szaynok 2012, 219). All these events were not directly connected to the JHI. Nevertheless, Mark, who must have known that many of his former colleagues from the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee had disappeared in the late 1940s, was well aware that the Institute and especially he himself could soon become a target in the search for Zionist conspirators. His worries proved well founded.

On 24 November, A. Sztark Wrocław, a correspondent of Folks-sztyme in Lower Silesia, obviously encouraged by the newspaper coverage of the Slánský trial, sent a hand-written letter and a densely typed eight-page report on the ideological foundation of the JHI to President Bierut. Sztark wrote that after lengthy consideration, he had decided it was his duty as a party member to inform him about the ideological transgressions of the JHI.55 In the report, however, it became clear that Sztark’s motivation was personal not political: Mark had reviewed and rejected a manuscript written by Sztark for the publishing house Yidish bukh [Jewish book]. The principal point of Mark’s critique was that the Jewish Council and its chairman were referred to in Yiddish terminology as Yidn rat and Yid elterer, which he considered was wrong, as Sztark quoted the opinion that ‘this institution was not Jewish but an enemy agency’.56 Sztark presented this to Bierut as proof of Mark’s ideological deviation: in his view, the Jewish councils had been as Jewish as the Pétain government in France was biased, both representing a certain sector of their respective societies.57

Referring to Mark’s answer to Leyvik in Folks-sztyme, he wrote:

The dispute between comrade Mark and the American Jewish reactionary H. Leyvik is limited to the following: while the reactionary Leyvik embraces all Jews murdered by the Nazi occupants with a holy Tallit [prayer shawl ...] Mark shows in his four articles mentioned above that the members of the Yidnrat and Jewish policemen in the ghettos were heinous traitors of the Jewish people, and this is why we have to denounce them and throw them out from among the holy Jewish Tallit. 58

Sztark thus accused Mark of adopting only a slightly modified model for interpreting the Shoah than Leyvik. In his view, a proper analysis of the class struggle in the ghettos would include the role of other bourgeois Jewish parties and non-communist actors. According to Sztark, Mark also ‘tries to featherbed the fight of Zionists against the communist resistance and reduces its importance’. 59 In his view, the most important task in the history of Polish Jews and Jewish ghettos in Poland during the Nazi occupation is to bring to light the full activity of Jewish bourgeois parties of all hues, with their clerical, Zionist and Bundist ideologies and their mercantilist, brutally egoist world views. They prepared the ground among the Polish Jews before the occupation and during the occupation they made millions of Polish Jews walk to the slaughter with their wives and children under the guidance of the Yidn-rat and without offering resistance, despite the heroic fight of the communists and the groups they mobilized. 60

Sztark accused Mark of being unable to correctly analyse the situation in the ghettos from a Marxist point of view and even more dangerous for the latter, of Jewish nationalist views and pro-Zionist sympathies. There is no doubt that he was aware of the serious implications this could have for Mark during a show trial against alleged Zionist conspirators in Prague.

Sztark’s attempt nevertheless failed to initiate a purge in the JHI. The office of President Bierut forwarded his letter to Szymon Zachariaz, who worked in the organizational department of the Central Committee of the PZPR and was responsible for Jewish affairs. Though Zachariasz had also been critical of Mark’s proximity to Zionist views in the past, he had decided to protect him. He replied to Sztark in a long letter, dismissing his critique in detail. Zachariasz however did add: ‘We don’t want to say that there had not been any mistakes in the works of the authors grouped around the JHI, including those of comrade B. Mark’, 61 but,

the publications [...] which have appeared in recent years are constantly aligning the old, false [political – St. St.] line [...] An important step forward in correcting the falsifying mistakes [falszywych bledow] will be the new work on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which will appear on its tenth anniversary. 62

When Zachariasz wrote to Sztark – on 22 December 1952 – he was taking care that Mark’s new book on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising would fulfil this promise. It is unclear how much Zachariasz told Mark about what was going on. The publications of Mark and the JIH, which appeared in spring 1953, however, are proof that he at least passed on the reality of a serious threat. Abruptly, in no time, the JHI had been added to the anti-Zionist propaganda of the Soviet Bloc, at least in its Polish publications. In the second issue of the institute’s Bulletin of 1952, which appeared in early 1953, the density of anti-imperialist key words, references to Stalin and Lenin and attacks on the ‘American supporters of the Jewish councils’63 and ‘the Zionist government of Israel [...] supporting the genocidal plans of the Anglo-American Aggression Bloc’ are apparent (Eisenbach 1952, 304). One article in the journal, F. Kupfer’s ‘On the Genesis of Zionism. A Contribution to the Problem: Zionism in the Service of Imperialism’, 64 was a condemnation of Zionism. From the correspondence between Mark and Szymon Datner, it becomes clear that Mark put pressure on his employees to introduce such phrases into their articles, 65 just as he was under pressure from Zachariasz and recent developments. On 13 January 1953 the Soviet News Agency TASS had announced the arrest of ‘murderer-physicians’ which, on behalf of the ‘foul Zionist espionage organization’66 Joint, had attempted to assassinate members of the Soviet government, 67 it alleged; the Warsaw Folks-sztyme reported the news on 14 January. 68 So Mark added Joint to the list of those to be attacked and included such an assault on Szymon Datner’s article, without the author’s knowledge or consent. 69 When Datner protested and demanded a correction in April 1953, he was immediately fired from the JHI with a note stating that, regarding his ‘ideological strangeness’, he was incapable of intellectual work. 70

Mark’s book on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had been copy-edited by Szymon Zachariasz and went to print on 15 January 1953, 71 two days after the doctors’ conspiracy had been made public. Its lengthy introduction not only contained portrait photographs of Stalin and Bierut, 72 it is also full of praise of Stalin, who, as the text suggests, almost single-handedly defeated Nazi Germany. At the same time it vehemently condemned Israel and Western Jewish organizations, especially the Luxembourg Agreement:

One of the most disgusting scenes [...] is the rehabilitation of the neo-Nazi regime of Konrad Adenauer by the World Zionist Organization, by the Jewish-nationalist organization Joint and by the reactionary government of the State of Israel. The leaders of global Zionism and the reactionary government of Israel desecrate the memory of six million victims, murdered by the genocidal Nazi murderers and disgrace the holy memory of the Ghetto insurgents, acting as lackeys of the American imperialists (Mark 1953, 12 f.).

Throughout the text all references to Zionist activists in the underground movement were deleted, even though they were known to Mark. In the Yiddish edition of the book, which appeared in 1955 and which has an identical structure, their names do appear, while the strident attacks on the Israeli government and the Joint, as well as the many references to Stalin and his character, disappeared from the Yiddish edition. It contains only one insignificant quotation from Stalin in the introduction (Mark 1955). 73

It seems that Mark intentionally withheld the Yiddish edition of his book until it became possible to publish it without anti-Zionist remarks, not least because the JHI’s contribution to the anti-Zionist propaganda of 1952–53 is restricted to its Polish publications. The last issue of Bleter far geshichte of 1952 does not contain any such statements. In order to express the JHI’s loyalty, it contains a Yiddish translation of Stalin’s article on economic questions (Stalin 1952). The article was obviously added to the issue only after typesetting had begun, since it uses Roman numerals in its pagination. The first issue of 1953 in turn is dedicated to a Yiddish translation of the minutes from the Warsaw trial of Jürgen Stroop, who had commanded the German forces during the Uprising. 74 It seems that Mark was attempting to withhold the anti-Zionist slogans of Western Jews, who did not understand the political situation in Poland at the time.

This is mirrored in the reaction of a foreign visitor to the JHI’s exhibition of the Uprising, which had also been reorganized in early 1953. The last part of the exhibition was meant to present the ‘ideological legacy of the insurgents’, which Adam Rutkowski, co-curator of the exhibition, characterized as ‘the hate of genocidal imperialism, the struggle for a free, powerful and independent People’s Poland [Polska Ludowa], the fight against warmongers for permanent peace’ (Rutkowski 1953b, 224). When in 1954 Ian Mikardo, a British Labour MP, visited Warsaw, he also went to the JHI. He described his tour of the museum for the Jewish Chronicle:

At the moment the two top floors at the Jewish Historical Institute are occupied by a magnificent exhibition recounting the story of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Uprising. When you get to the end of it there is a series of panels (which the director did not appear anxious for me to see) based on the theme that the post-war warmongers are behaving in exactly the same way as the pre-war warmongers. In juxtaposition with pictures of the Nazi leaders, Franklin Roosevelt, and Neville Chamberlain there are pictures of Eisenhower, Churchill, Ben- Gurion, and Sharett. The centrepiece is a mural representing ‘warmonger’ Harry Truman receiving the gift of a Sefer Torah from warmonger Chaim Weizmann. 75

Soon after Mikardo’s visit, and possibly even before his report in the Jewish Chronicle appeared, this part of the exhibition had been removed after a formal complaint by the Israeli embassy, because it had become ‘politically obsolete’ (Szaynok 2012, 266 f.). Taking Mikardo’s report into account, Mark was not unhappy about this. Indeed, when in the second half of 1954 the political situation in Poland was relaxed – the anti-Zionist campaign had stopped soon after Stalin’s death – politicized comments disappeared from the institute’s publications altogether. In the revised Polish edition of his book, which appeared in 1958, Mark even made a vague allusion to its political bias in the introduction: ‘However, the spirit of the time left its stamp on these works. Some insufficiencies and ground topics gave the works of 1953 and 1954 a certain one-sidedness’ (Mark 1958, 9).



There is surely no period in the history of Socialist Poland when history – and scholarly research in general – were more politicized and politically exploited than during Stalinism. Many of the writings that appeared in this period contained severe political distortions, which from the outside can even seem absurd. In Poland during the early 1950s, however, everyone, even those who had not been committed communists, knew how to read the texts, written in the ‘party dialect’ and sometimes containing ‘non-existent facts’, as Shmuel Krakowski put it. Even after Stalinism ended, Polish researchers knew how to handle texts written in this period. In 1957 the historian K. M. Pospiechalski from Poznań’s West Institute (Instytut Zachodni) wrote to Artur Eisenbach that for one of the publications, he wanted to refer to a passage from Eisenbach’s Hitlerowska Polityka Eksterminacja Żydow. However, since he suspected that Eisenbach would have written this passage differently now, after the end of Stalinism, he decided to ask him to, removing the strong political bias. 76 Readers outside Poland often did not know about the situation of Polish academia and lacked an understanding of the political demands placed on historical research. For that reason, the reputation of the JHI had been severely undermined by its publications of this period, which has been reproduced in historiography and even today compromises researchers like Ber Mark.

When evaluating the historiographic value of the JHI’s publications, the political circumstances should be taken into account. Despite many shortcomings and biases, these works are an important contribution to early Holocaust historiography. Without using classic Stalinist propaganda their works could not have been published. This is also true for important sources on the Shoah, originating in the Ringelblum Archive and other sources. Furthermore, if Mark and his colleagues had not adapted to the political situation, it would probably have placed the existence of the institute at risk. Without the JHI, however, its archives would have been uncertain and it is doubtful that they would have been made accessible to the public.



The research for this article was supported by grant no. 16–01775Y, ‘Inclusion of the Jewish Population into Postwar Czechoslovak and Polish Societies’, funded by the Czech Science Foundation.



Stephan Stach

Stephan Stach is a postdoctoral researcher and member of a research group at the Institute for Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague which is examining the reintegration of Jews into Czechoslovak and Polish society after the Second World War. He is currently preparing a monograph on the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and knowledge about the Shoah between 1947 and 1989. In 2015 he presented his PhD thesis on interwar Polish nationality policy at Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg. He co-edited Gegengeschichte. Zweiter Weltkrieg und Holocaust im ostmitteluropäischen Dissens [Counter-history. Debates on the Second World War and the Holocaust in the dissent of East Central Europe] (with Peter Hallama, Leipzig, 2015) on the recollections of East and Central European dissidents.




1 The first was Leon Poliakov, Le Bréviaire de la haine. Le IIIe Reich et les Juifs [The harvest of hate. The 3rd Reich and the Jews] (Paris, 1951).

2 Inter alia on the role of the Wehrmacht, the exploitation of Jewish workers in the ghettos or on the Holocaust in the Reichsgau Wartheland, see Datner 1952, 86–155; Brustin-Berenstein 1953, 3–52; Dąbrowska 1955, 122–84; Pohl 2010, 165 f.

3 Eisenbach’s Hitlerowska polityka eksterminacji Żydów was based on his dissertation, supervised by Stanisław Arnold, chairman of the Marxist Historians’ Union.

4 See Dawidowicz 1981, 100 f.

5 Rose 2011, 184 f. Similarly, David Roskies ignores the political situation in Poland, calling Ber Mark a ‘loyal servant’ of the Polish communist regime, see Roskies 2012, 89.

6 On Poland, see Grözinger and Ruta 2008.

7 On the commission, see Jockusch 2012, 84–120; Aleksiun 2007, 74–97.

8 Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego [Archive of the Jewish Historical Institute, hereafter AŻIH], signature 303/XX, folder 1, n.p.

9 On Ringelblum and Oyneg Shabbes, see Kassow 2007.

10 Such plans had already been launched by Philip Friedman in the early days of the commission, see AŻIH, 303/XX, folder 3, Statut Centralnej Żydowskiej Komisji Historycznej w Polsce przy Centralnym Komitecie Żydów Polskich [Statute of the Central Jewish Historical Commission at the Central Committee of Jews in Poland], § 6.

11 On the committee, see Grabski 2015.

12 AŻIH 303/I, folder 8, minutes of the board meeting of the Central Committee of Jews in Poland, 27 September 1947.

13 On the Jewish cultural life in post-war Poland, see Grözinger and Ruta 2008.

14 AŻIH, signature 310, folder 8, n.p., minutes of the JHI board meeting, 9 January 1948. The archive collection of the JHI is currently being reorganized. The files referred to in this text with the signature AŻIH 310 might now be found in another folder.

15 The title Bleter far geshikhte [Folios for history] is a reference to a journal edited by Emanuel Ringelblum before the war, which bore that title.

16 AŻIH, signature 303/1, folder 17, minutes of the board meeting of the Central Committee of Jews in Poland, 29 July 1949.

17 For more details on this period, see Stach 2008, 402–14.

18 ‘Undzere tsil’ [Our aims], Yedies: Byulletin fun yidisher historisher institut in poyln [News: Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland], November 1949, 1. The statement is not signed, however, there is little doubt that it was by Mark.

19 Ibid.

20 Sommer Schneider 2014, 244.

21 Kibbutz Lohamei haGettaot Archive, holdings registry 14859,6, Mark’s letter to Blumental and Kermisz, 30 September 1950.

22 Nalewajko-Kulikov 2010, 205–26, on the Soviet Union, 211–15.

23 Ibid., 218.

24 Interview with Stefan [Shmuel] Krakowski, Oral History Archives of the Oral History Department of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry, Hebrew University Jerusalem (0050)0031, 7.

25 Such elements were also present in the exhibition at Auschwitz-Birkenau, see Hansen 2015, 208–22.

26 These were Sidorov 1950, 3–28; Pankratova 1950, 135–61; Tretiakov 1950a, 162–86 and Tretiakov 1950b, 187–97.

27 Górny 2011, 82.

28 Kwartalnik Historyczny [Historical Quarterly] published extensive digests of Tretiakov’s articles, regretting that these texts had already been published elsewhere in Polish; see Kwartalnik Historyczny 1950–51b, 3–12; Kwartalnik Historyczny 1950–51b, 13–38.

29 Ibid., 267.

30 In Polish ‘Notatki z warszawskiego getta’ [Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto], BŻIH, vol. 2 (1951), 81–208 and BŻIH, vol. 3 (1952), 46–83.

31 On the differences between the Polish and the Yiddish versions see Person 2012, 59–76, especially 70–4; Nalewajko-Kulikov 2013, 385–403.

32 Translation: Person 2012, 69.

33 The editorial introduction noted that the document could often not be deciphered; see ‘Khurbn Varshe’ 1951, 101.

34 As the Korean War was declared in late June 1950, the editorial must have been written in December 1951; ‘Khurbn Varshe’ 1951, 101, English translation, Rose 2011, 186.

35 Ibid. Contrary to Sven-Erik Rose’s assertion that the Jewish parties involved in the Luxemburg Agreement reiterated the policy of the Jewish councils, this was not unique to communist propaganda, but was widely used in Israeli politics, including by the political right parties; see Michman 2010, 316.

36 As Katarzyna Person points out, some of these publications are still the only accessible ones on these matters available in Polish; see Person 2012, 68.

37 The available English and French translations of Ringelblum’s diary are both based on the Institute’s Yiddish edition of 1952 and not on the more comprehensive and less censored edition of 1961–63. Furthermore, Jacob Sloan’s English translation (on which the French is based) contains many unnecessary errors.

38 ‘Jewish Historical Research in Communist Poland’, Wiener Library Bulletin, vol. IV, no. 1 (January 1950), 4.

39 Nirensztein 1952b, 169–75. Quote from the English abstract at XIV.

40 See criticism from the East, Wiener Library Bulletin, vol. VII, nos. 3–4 (May–August 1953), 16; ‘The Wiener Library Bulletin under Fire. Strictures in a Warsaw Learned Journal’, Wiener Library Bulletin, vol. VII, nos. 3–4 (May–August 1953), 127.

41 ‘The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw’, Wiener Library Bulletin, vol. VII, nos. 5–6 (September–December 1953), 39.

42 A similar article appeared in the Polish Biuletyn, Rutkowski 1953a, 53–72.

43 It only briefly acknowledged that the material might have been distorted for political reasons; ‘The Warsaw Ghetto Archives. List of Traitors Found’, Jewish Chronicle (6 January 1951).

44 The pen name Arkhivarius was apparently used by one of the institute’s employees. It might have been Artur Eisenbach, then director of the institute’s archive.

45 Thanks to Agnieszka Żołkiewska for drawing my attention to this text.

46 Kermish (1953) and Blumental (1953) recognized the changes only due to their broader knowledge of the original. Both had taken part in the preparation of Ringelblum’s diary before their emigration from Poland in 1950.

47 English translation of the quote is from Rose 2011, 187.

48 Ibid., 209.

49 On the controversy, see ibid.; for a shorter but more balanced portrayal of Mark’s role in the dispute, see Schwarz 2015, 118–20.

50 For a discussion, see Rose 2011.

51 Translation: Rose 2011, 188.

52 Ibid., 188.

53 Mark, ‘Yudenratishe “ahaves yisroyl” (an entfer oyfn bilbl fun H. Leyvik)’ [Judenrat ‘Love of Israel’ (A reply to H. Leyvik’s Defamation)], Folks-sztyme, vol. 125 (6 August 1952), 127, (9 August 1952), 128, (12 August 1952), 129, (13 August 1952). The text appeared in both the journal Bleter far geshikhte and the newspaper Folks-sztyme under the same title. In Folks-sztyme it appeared in four parts.

54 Shore 2004, 42 f.

55 Archiwum Akt Nowych [Archive of New Documents – AAN], Komitet Centralny PZPR, Kancelaria Sekretariatu, 237/V-98, 73.

56 Ibid., 74.

57 Ibid.

58 Ibid.

59 Ibid., 77.

60 Ibid., 78 f.

61 Ibid., 87.

62 Ibid.

63 Datner 1952, 153.

64 Kupfer 1952.

65 AŻIH, Szymon Datner, personal file, 76.

66 This description was used by Izvestiya in her article of 13 January 1953; Rapoport 1991, 79.

67 An English translation of the TASS statement can be found in ibid., 74 f.

68 Folks-sztyme, 14 January 1953.

69 AŻIH, Szymon Datner, personal file, 74.

70 Ibid., 79 and information supplied by Datner’s daughter, Helena Datner.

71 This date is mentioned in the imprint, see Mark 1953, 4.

72 Stalin is situated between pp. 8 and 9, Bierut between pp. 12 and 13.

73 The only Stalin quote is on p. 10.

74 The trial was held in Warsaw in July 1952 and ended with a death sentence, which was carried out on 6 March 1953.

75 Jewish Chronicle, 22 October 1954.

76 AŻIH 310/184AR, 201–300 K. M. Pospiechalski, letter to Eisenbach, 16 February 1957, n.p.

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Joachim Tauber

‘Purchasing and bringing food into the ghetto is forbidden’: Ways of Survival [...]

21 August 2016
  • Holocaust
  • Shoah
  • world war ii
  • Jews
  • Second World War
  • Lithuania
  • ghetto

‘Purchasing and bringing food into the ghetto is forbidden’: Ways of Survival as Revealed in the Files of the Ghetto Courts and Police in Lithuania , 1941–44


The article focuses on the importance of work in the supply of food into the ghettos of Lithuania. Files of the ghetto courts and police reports used in this paper shed light on the reality of ghetto life and illustrate how individuals dealt with the situation and tried to get additional food. It is obvious that micro-networks (family, neighbourhoods and co-workers) were an important means of support for the individual within the context of ghetto societies. Normality and everyday life therefore reflect the reality of a forced society whose social differentiation was primarily based on a single criterion: access to food.

The idea of a ghetto still connotes the idea of a zone hermetically sealed off from the outside world, where people are fully separated from their previous environment. It has been repeatedly pointed out in recent decades that a special form of everyday life and normality existed in this extreme situation (Dieckmann and Quinkert 2009, 9–29). Research has increasingly followed this approach in recent years, as several publications have been added to existing memoirs of everyday experience, which are devoted in the form of anthologies to daily life in the German Reich (Löw 2014) and Eastern Europe (Hansen 2013). Monographs have also been added: Andrea Löw describes the situation in the ghetto of Litzmannstadt (Löw 2006), while this author has dealt with everyday work in the ghettos of Lithuania (Tauber 2015). The following may prove the potential of addressing such everyday issues and once again show that the history of the ghettos in Eastern Europe still has certain gaps that need filling. The genesis of this particular form of normality is closely tied to work of the Jewish population provided for its German masters. In most ghettos such work was performed outside the ‘Jewish district’, so it was possible for many Jews to establish contact with non-Jewish people in the immediate vicinity. At the same time, Jewish councils, appointed by the Germans or selected by the Jews on Germans’ orders, formed an infrastructure to regulate and control labour and its internal management within ghettos.

This development also took place in the three major ghettos in Lithuania. Since extensive resource materials exist in Yiddish, Lithuanian and German, traditions can be described relatively well (except for the ghetto in Šiauliai). Deep insights into ghetto life can also be found in the diaries of Herman Kruk in relation to Vilnius (Kruk 2002) and Avraham Tory with regard to Kaunas (Tory 1990). In addition, early reports and accounts (Fun letztn Churbn 7 and 8; Gar 1948; Balberyszki 1967; Dworzecki 1948; Shalit 1949) have particular significance and contributions in a two-volume memoir (Sudarsky 1951) are also important. There are complete histories of the three ghettos in the encyclopedias of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem. They contain research on the ghettos in Lithuanian, Israeli and German (e.g. Bubnys 2014a and b; Kaunas 2014; Vilnius 2013; Porat 2009; Levin 2014; Dieckmann 2011; Tauber 2015). The histories of the Jewish councils by Isaiah Trunk (Trunk 1972) and the emergence of the ghettos by Dan Michman (Michman 2011) remain the seminal works on this subject.

After the mass murders of late 1941, survivors were put to work in the ghettos in Kaunas, Vilnius and Šiauliai where the interests of the German administration and armed forces, as well as those of the Jewish councils, were mutually dependant: the former were interested in labour of all kinds by those willing and capable, whereas the latter, in turn, saw work as a means of survival, guaranteeing the ghettos’ continuing existence. Moreover, Jewish labourers in Lithuania had to be paid by their ‘employers’, enabling Jewish councils to provide at least some form of rudimentary aid through taxes or direct salary deductions to those who were either too old or too ill to work.

Work also offered a way for those in forced labour to improve their own wretched living conditions. Naturally everyone was interested in obtaining more food or goods for their families or themselves through official allocations in order to relieve their misery. Inevitably activities clashed with the regulations of the occupying forces; sometimes they involved fraudulent behaviour or sparked conflicts with Lithuanians or other ghetto residents. Such incidents are evident in the criminal investigations of the ghetto police or in the files of internal ghetto courts that meticulously documented their inquiries and judgements in German, Lithuanian and Yiddish. These materials, which are now housed in the Lithuanian Central State Archive, shed light on the reality of ghetto life and illustrate how individuals sought to cope with the situation. Here I present some of these files, supplemented with memoirs and documents, and place them in a broader context.

All ghetto inhabitants were, as I stated, keen to work because the evidence of activity increased an individual’s food-ration entitlement, e.g. in Kaunas the ration was doubled (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 35, p. 236). Especially desirable were positions in work brigades that allowed you to leave the ghetto because you could then transact with locals. However, it did not always go as planned. In the spring of 1943, the head of the investigation section of the ghetto police, Giršas Volpertas, wrote a report on a related incident involving fraud. Baruchas Kovenskis, a member of a work brigade in Kaunas, reserved 5 kilograms of butter with a Lithuanian woman and wanted to pay and take it the next day. When he appeared on 1 May she stated that his colleague, who she believed had come on his behalf, had already picked up the butter. Since the woman did not want to issue the goods, Kovenskis’s supposed colleague finally left her RM 325 and disappeared with the butter (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 145, p. 35). The Lithuanian woman believed the claim of the man because he personally knew Kovenskis and his statement that Kovenskis could not come because he had to work that day at Aleksotas airport was a commonplace occurrence in the assignment of brigades. Often, people from city brigades were indeed divided up at short notice for hard work at Aleksotas outside the city (Tauber 2015, 190–95). On the basis of a testimony by Ilija Kaganas, a member of Kovenskis’s work brigade, it turned out that the fraudulent buyer was Arkadijus Buršteinas, who Volpertas summoned for interrogation (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 145, p. 35).

Buršteinas, who was questioned on 4 May, did not deny the incident, but believed to be in the right as he had already negotiated with the Lithuanian woman in front of Kovenskis, but failed to agree on a price: he offered RM 62 per kilogram, whereas she demanded RM 65. Having failed to force down the price, he left. Kovenskis witnessed this and ultimately paid the woman her desired price, but only because he wanted to snub Buršteinas. Enraged, Buršteinas had then taken a portion of the butter, but stated that he could not recall whether he had claimed to have come on Kovenskis’s behalf. However, he was only able to sell 2 kilograms in the ghetto and make a profit of RM 40, which he donated to a good cause.

The investigator recorded his findings and conclusions. Kovenskis had bought a total of 15 kilograms of butter in Kaunas, but only took 10 kilograms and wanted to pick-up the remaining 5 kilograms the following day (despite bribable German, Lithuanian and Jewish ghetto guards, the smuggling of food into the ghetto was officially forbidden and entailed considerable risks, as discussed below). Even if Buršteinas had to pay the purchase price owed to the suspicious Lithuanian, it was nevertheless assumed that he had wanted to acquire the goods fraudulently. This assumption is also supported by the fact that it was very difficult to find food in the city in the week of the incident between Easter and 1 May. The fraudster also made a profit. The investigators reached the conclusion that what mattered to Buršteinas was his own enrichment rather than settling a personal score with Kovenskis (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 145, p. 35 f.).

These events provide initial insights into ghetto reality. The quantities reveal that the above incident not only concerned the purchase of food for the buyer’s own use, but that the butter was bought with the intention to resell it in the ghetto (Gar 1948, 119 f.). The fact that the Lithuanian seller was not prepared to budge from her price showed there was a demand. Finally, it seems that Kovenskis was able to smuggle 10 kilograms into the ghetto in a single day, even though returning work gangs were searched at the ghetto gate. The way Buršteinas’s fraud was recorded shows that such events were by no means an exception, but reflected an everyday aspect of food procurement and survival strategy. The fact that trade between Jewish workers and the Aryan populace was a mass phenomenon is evidenced by urgent instructions of the German civil administration passed through the Kaunas ghetto police to work gang leaders in July 1943, that is for ‘workers not to leave their work places and engage in trade und hoarding’ (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 19, p. 126). The regularity of purchasing additional food is also clear in memoirs written after 1944:

Early in the morning, after the night shift, they ordered us to walk back to the ghetto [...] farmer wives sold their own grown vegetables there [at the former Jewish fish market outside the ghetto]. Whenever the opportunity arose, we stole away from the column, disappearing quickly between the stalls and grabbing a cabbage or other vegetables in exchange for some money before rushing back into the procession’ (Faitelson and Widerstand, 53).

M. Chevasztein in Vilnius had similar experiences:

I used the lunch break or other free moments to make purchases. For this purpose, we ran into the next Polish huts. We bought bread, cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, etc. at a fairly high price [...] After work, we returned home with these purchases. We gradually got to know the guards and they allowed us to buy something (EK 3 Legal Proceedings, vol. 4, p. 1571, German translation of the book Geopfertes Volk – der Untergang des polnischen Judentums [Sacrificed people – the demise of Polish jewry] by M. Chevasztein).

Jozif Gar, who already reported on the events in Kaunas in the 1940s, emphasized that work outside the ghetto was the best and safest of all possible ways of procuring cheap ‘food’ (Gar 1948, 103, 118). In the summer, there was another option, as work in the countryside gave opportunities to forage for food and procure fresh vegetables and fruit (Gar 1948, 118). In this respect, the call for reflection at harvest time published in late September 1942 in an editorial of the Vilnius ghetto newspaper In diesem Moment has a special double meaning: ‘We should not stop lifting our eyes to the sky’ (Feldshtein 1997, 137).

While such procurement practices were commonplace, they could quickly lead to trouble. Even when Salomon Baron had permission to make purchases from the Local Commissioner of Kaunas, something soon went wrong:

On my arrest on 12 December the [...] Kaunas police took my money – approximately Rbl. 1,200 – as well as a brown leather wallet, pocket knife and a pocket watch. On my release from prison on 20 December, these things should have been returned to me, but the officer was not there at the time and I could not have them.

Baron was not the only one affected, which he made clear in his request to the chief of the ghetto police: ‘the money is from aircraft wage [meaning: work at the airfield in Aleksotas] for my family. I kindly ask you to fulfil my request because we have been left without money’ (LCVA R-973, ap. 1, b. 9, p. 24, front and back page). Such family networks were an important structural feature of the ghettos, as only cooperation and loyalty within a narrow (family) circle gave people the strength to cope with life in the ghetto. Tight communities were also formed through forced cohabitation with others in crowded houses or working closely in a brigade.

At times, people received small rewards or gifts from supervisory personnel within the ghetto, as did Ida Kaganaitė, who nevertheless had the misfortune of being found with two loaves of bread and a lemon during a check at the ghetto gate by her German masters. Meticulous findings of the ghetto police eventually led to the following conclusion:

I established that she is engaged in clean-up work at the airfield. Above all, this is laundry work for workers or general construction foremen [...] it has repeatedly come to the fore that also soldiers [...] brought her laundry for washing [sic.] and that she received bread or small packets of baking soda – lemons – as a reward’ (LCVA R-973, ap. 2. b. 19, p. 124).

Thus, the Jewess was spared the punishment imposed on other apprehended smugglers, which was usually work on Sunday (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 19, p. 129). Also, the 47-year-old Pesė Perkienė fell into the hands of the ghetto police under German security police’s orders because she had brought food several times at a shop in Kaunas and was denounced. Not only were Jews forbidden to visit a ‘normal’ food store, but it seems that Perkienė was not wearing the Star of David. In another case, a Jewess was punished by being held under arrest for four days or fined RM 20 for merely ‘walking without a Star of David’ (LCVA R-973, ap. 3, b. 52, p. 340). When questioned on 12 May 1942, Perkienė claimed not to have taken off the Jewish star or to have paid anything for the food. Rather, she repeatedly referred to her former Lithuanian neighbour, Dainauskienė: ‘She sold me no [food], but out of pity gave my children some potatoes, cereals, bread and cabbage. I have no money to buy food and was therefore forced to beg from my previous neighbours’ (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 69, fol. 90). A Jewish woman under arrest summed up the reality of food procurement in a single sentence: ‘I only know that my children are starving and that I had to get some food for them’ (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 69, p. 90, back page). The woman questioned by the ghetto police had four children, the youngest an eight-year-old boy, a fourteen year old, and two over the age of sixteen who were obliged to work.

The treatment of people from the ghettos varied, as the examples of Ida Kaganaitė and Pesė Perkienė show, depending on their place of work and how they were supervised. Access to food and trade with the local populace were directly linked. Bolt, an engineer at the construction company Grün und Bilfinger in Kaunas, made a name for himself as a Jew hater: ‘There was very heavy work and people could exchange things only under extremely difficult conditions, as Bolt always watched and then took food away from the people or notified the Sicherheitsdienst (SD; Security Service) or City Commissioner’ (EK 3 Legal proceedings, vol. 3, 817). In turn, Oskar Schönbrunner, a paymaster at Field Headquarters 814 in Vilnius, was honoured as a Righteous Among the Nations in 1977, as two survivors testified after the war: ‘Schönbrunner helped the Jews working for him by providing benefits that were punishable by the SD; these included support through food, wood and other items of daily use. Schönbrunner also improved the living conditions of the Jews by building additional factory kitchens’ (EK 3 Legal proceedings, vol. 4, p. 1455). Another way of food procurement associated with work in cities was particularly dangerous. As the people’s misery was immense, there were those such as Jona-Dovydas Rubinas, who was caught stealing at the army-catering store on 30 December 1942. The upper paymaster of the army-catering store in Kaunas reported the theft to the SD (Security Service) and the ghetto police and requested that the thief be punished (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 19, p. 243). In his interrogation, Rubinas outlined the reasons for what he did:

I have worked at the army-catering store for about two weeks. I previously worked at the airfield. During my entire time at work I have never done anything wrong. I have performed heavy work the whole time and had to support myself with my primary and supplementary rations. Today, I worked at my job as usual [...] loading food. Given the poor nutrition of my family, I succumbed to the temptation to take two tin cans from the load. I did not know what was in them. I just knew that there was food’ (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 19, fol. 244).

Nothing more is known about the punishment of Rubinas, but in similar cases beatings, additional work and the temporary withdrawal of reference cards were imposed (Tauber 2015, 294–313).

Finally, the attempt to provide food could also prove fatal as in the case of Nachmanas Srokas (aged twenty-six) and Joselis Fridas (aged forty-five), who were shot at Aleksotas airport by German guards on 23 May 1942. They ostensibly sought to leave the area in order to buy food (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 33, p. 15, back page). It was also life threatening to smuggle food through the ghetto fence, and not through the ghetto guard post. On 28 February 1942, the Jewish ghetto police reported in its daily report to the chairman of the Jewish Council: ‘I report to you that yesterday, on 27 February at 20:00, citizen Balkindas Jankelis was shot at the intersection of Stulginskis and Linkuva Streets outside the ghetto limits, as facts show, while pulling a small sledge with food.’ The Lithuanian guard justified his action by stating that the deceased fled after his call and also that he did not respond to several warning shots (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 33, fol. 300, p. 305).

However, a contact zone at the ghetto fence was soon created. The situation in Vilnius was especially pragmatic because here the ghetto was in the middle of the city:

an agreement was reached with non-Jewish neighbours whose windows faced the ghetto and trade began. Initially, this trade was very simple: a noose was lowered from a window and ghetto inhabitants tied money, valuables or clothes to it. The neighbours took it on themselves and lowered goods [meaning: food] on the same rope into the ghetto [...] Later the trade was done on a larger scale. Dozens of loads were smuggled night after night with all kinds of goods through the attics of 21 Dajtsche Street [...] through the Maline [underground hideout] on 3 Straschun Road (Sutzkever 2009, 97).

Also, in Kaunas, a kind of professional trusteeship evolved: anyone who wanted could give goods to middlemen, who then sought to sell them to the Lithuanian population at the fence. Berelis Migancas was one of the negotiators. He was sentenced in the autumn of 1941. The 21-year-old was withdrawn from work at Aleksotas airport as well as in a city brigade because he drifted elsewhere: ‘when questioned in court he admitted that he used free time when he was neither at the airfield nor in the city to trade items for food for other people at the fence and for profit’ (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 51, p. 65). This example shows that individual trade was punished within the ghetto when it conflicted with the ghetto community’s group obligation to work. The German masters punished such offences less than the ghetto authorities. In the case of Migancas, the ghetto court gave a harsher punishment, since the young man lived alone and did not have to provide for a family.

Such trade was also brisk in Vilnius, hence, the officer for Jewish affairs of the Lithuanian city administration proposed resuming strip corridor patrols along the ghetto to the German occupiers at the regional station in December 1941: ‘it has also been noticed that the Jews even use twilight [sic.] for the receipt and delivery of different goods from unauthorized persons through the insulation [meaning: the fenced-off ghetto border]’ (LCVA R-643, ap. 3, b. 194, p. 167). Shalom Eilati, born in 1933, watched in Kaunas as his mother traded with a Lithuanian woman:

across from us [...] stood a Lithuanian woman, seemingly without purpose. My mother would wave her hand or flap a woollen skirt or a colourful towel up and down to arouse her interest [...] The gentile woman would [...] begin waving her own items of trade – eggs, butter and meat. Then the vocal transaction would begin. They haggled over the terms of exchange. When they agreed, both would look hastily left and right, spring simultaneously to the fence, trade the goods in their hands in an instant and retreat to their starting corners. Sometimes the lengthy bargaining would end without a result (Eilati, River 32 f.).

Such form of ‘intermediary trade’ between the ghetto and the ‘Aryan’ environment was no exception. During the first months of the ghetto, a certain kind of ‘working from home’ also developed in Kaunas. Its success depended on goods being transported backwards and forwards between their ‘manufacturer’ and non-Jewish customers. It was based on demand for most basic commodities, such as headscarves, aprons and hats that the Lithuanian population lacked. Bed sheets or white linen, which had often been dyed to make them more attractive, were sought after. Repairs and alterations were also common (Tauber 2015, 251 f.; Gar 1948, p. 121). Another possibility was the skilled craft works of German and Lithuanian masters, which led to a warning sign being posted in the ghetto on 13 May 1943:

Lately, Jewish workers have taken various items from their work posts such as shoes, watches and other items for repair in the ghetto [...] Jewish workers are forbidden to take any items from their work posts into the ghetto for repair. If such repairs are proposed, Jewish workers are to be politely told that the acceptance of such work is strictly prohibited (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 1, fol. 22).

The early involvement of young people in the work process had special strategic importance. The Jewish Council in Kaunas reported in its ‘overview of the activities of the council of elders’ in June 1942: ‘a new development in work is the presence of more than 200 young workers gardening outside the ghetto [...] This young group has proven itself and does a good job’ (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 40, p. 73). It was crucial that also one half of these children received additional food as workers. Since work offered the possibility to trade and to better food, there were also volunteers such as the fourteen-year-old son of the aforementioned Pesė Perkienė, who was hired at the dreaded Aleksotas airfield.

No one was immune to terrible consequences, even those who supposedly had easier access to food. This was the case of the Jewish cart-driver Jankelevitz, who on 1 May 1942 was reported missing by his wife after being arrested fourteen days earlier in the courtyard of the Lithuanian meat cooperative Maistas. The 36-year-old, as told by a ghetto resident who accompanied her husband, reported that the stolen meat was discovered during a cart search and that her husband was then arrested. In reality, the other riders wanted to exchange the meat for a dress and that her husband had nothing to do with the entire affair. However, interrogations of the Jews involved in the ride to Maistas painted a rather different picture. The meat was bought from an unknown Lithuanian, who was also at the court with his team. Three kilograms were traded, as there was not enough money for more. The deal went smoothly until Jankelevitz was denounced and accused of theft by a Lithuanian employee at Maistas (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 69, fol. 39 f.).

Jankelevitz and his colleagues were in a privileged position because they were officially allowed to leave the ghetto regularly and move about to provide social welfare for the ghetto, with the permission of the German ghetto guards. It was certainly part of their regular activity to procure additional food by visiting Maistas, especially to meet Lithuanian farmers, who were not averse to trade, in the courtyard. Also interesting in this context was the task of the Jewish drivers. They brought feathers to Maistas (there was a feather-sorting section at the ghetto) and exchanged them for bones, which were then brought into the ghetto to make soup for the needy (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 69, fol. 41). All ghettos in Lithuania had soup kitchens and other social institutions – albeit makeshift – to provide warm soup or essential material resources (e.g. firewood in winter; Tauber 2015, 285–6).

Cooperative relationships existed beyond the already-noted micro-networks found within a family environment, as with the soup kitchens, but they were mostly limited to those belonging to the same status group or class. The work brigades entrusted one person to execute large orders on behalf of them all. The advantage of this large-scale food procurement was usually a lower unit price, less risk of discovery and being able to rely on the middleman’s good contacts. But disagreements could also arise, as recorded in documents of the ghetto police. The 37-year-old worker Dovydas Tamše, who offered to buy sugar for members of his brigade, was considered suspect in the autumn of 1942. An investigation revealed that Tamše was likely to have embezzled money because Tamše’s claim that his Lithuanian partners hit him on the ear was hardly credible. The initiation of proceedings by ghetto authorities took place under the force of the Criminal Procedure Code of the Republic of Lithuania with the telling note that such offences must be especially prosecuted under ‘current ghetto conditions’ (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 145, p. 92 f.).

The benefits of work for individuals outside the ghetto meant that it was hard to be a permanent member in a city brigade. It was the brigadier who decided on who worked in the group, and thereby had access to obtaining food; he was the ‘spokesman’ and foreman of the group, who was the primary contact for Germans and Lithuanians at a workplace as well as for the internal ghetto organization. Isak Rozalsky, a merchant in Kaunas before the war, noted that the brigadier of a well-established brigade for constructing garages in Kaunas often selected even more workers for his group at the ghetto gate (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 69, fols 77 ff.):

In September 1941, I noticed Tomašauskas at the ghetto gate [...] who came from town. At my request, he temporarily hired me as a worker at the garage building in Kauen [...] Since I always wanted to work in this brigade, I offered Tomašauskas my brand new suit that I estimated to be worth RBL 1,500 for a price of RBL 600. Tomašauskas agreed, took my suit and gave me two RBL 200 notes. He has not paid me the rest to the present day.

Testimony gathered by investigating bodies in the ghetto repeatedly showed that Tomašauskas did not only cheat Rozalsky, he initiated a change of workers in order to receive payment to work in the brigade (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 69, fols 80 ff.). Such behaviour was far from the rule. On the contrary, many brigadiers were willing to accommodate their workers and also to cover for them. The incensed Kaunas ghetto police summed it up: ‘Inspections revealed that persons listed as not working on given days showed a note from the column head or a work card as evidence that they did indeed work on such days. Such evidence cannot reflect reality’ (LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 52, p. 141). Evidence of work was vital for every ghetto resident: better accommodation and remuneration depended on entries in work documents and the employer payroll (Tauber 2015, 226–48).

The above networks for transporting food to the ghetto were of great importance. Passing the ghetto gate was always a gamble: smuggled goods could be confiscated here. The situation was particularly problematic if Germans inspected the Jewish ghetto guards. This always had direct impact on the precarious economics of the ghetto. In good times, the price difference between ghetto and city goods was relatively small so that many people gave up smuggling and bought directly in the ghetto (Gar 1948, 118 f.). However, goods from outside the ghetto usually came via the ghetto gate. Officially, representatives of the Jewish labour office aided by the ghetto police were responsible for the collection and control of departing work columns. Jews, as already mentioned, were not allowed to return to the ghetto with any food or other items (Gar 1948, 340). As a result Jewish gate guards played an essential role and could keep some of the goods back for themselves. This limited smuggling opportunities for individuals: they could only hide food on their body and in their clothing (body-binding, so-called compresses, or hiding items in their shoes were popular in their attempt to bypass a superficial search). Dishes that were allowed to into the ghetto for on-site feeding could have a double bottom in which a piece of bacon, butter or margarine could be concealed (Gar 1948, 103). The great number of returnees each day (several thousand in Vilnius and Kaunas) made it impossible to search every individual (Gar 1948, 103, 340 f.). The Jewish councils were well aware of the occasional questionable behaviour of Jewish gate guards. In April 1942, Fried, the chairman of the Jewish council in Vilnius, filed a fiery complaint against the ghetto police chief, Gens: ‘Incidents occur during ghetto entry involving gate guards and those entering. Frequently, they are not caused by formal matters, but by careless dealings and improper edginess of gate guards’ (Balberyszki 1967, 430). However, smuggling opportunities made city work particularly appealing. Such work, as Jozif Gar states, ‘made the ghetto Jews privileged and secure [...] allowed them to eat better and to always have a few spare Marks [in the sense of freely available]’ (Gar 1948, 104).

Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that professional smugglers soon organized themselves in the ghetto, offering their services for a commission. A black market thus developed, which now operated on a grand scale in which all ghetto institutions, including the Jewish council (for the soup kitchens), as well as German and Lithuanian guards participated (Tauber 2015, 257 f.). Hermann Kruk, the chronicler of the ghetto in Vilnius, summarized it succinctly: ‘So, the smuggler has the possibility of smuggling and the ghetto has the possibility of getting bread’ (Kruk 2002, 287).

A certain grey area appeared in the context of ghetto societies, which was a constant cause of great distress and danger to individuals. The acquisition of food outside the ghetto was so important as a strategy of survival that it always entailed many uncertainties: this could be a denunciation or the intervention of a zealous Lithuanian police officer, German engineer or employee of a meat cooperative. Or, it could be a close inspection at the ghetto gate, in particular, by German ‘authorities’ or it could involve fraud or theft inside or outside the ghetto. Normality and everyday life, therefore reflected the reality of a forced society whose social differentiation was primarily based on a single criterion: access to food.

Translated from German into English by Edward Assarabowski



Joachim Tauber

Joachim Tauber obtained his PhD from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in 1989. He has served as the director of the Nordost-Institute Lüneburg (IKGN) at the University of Hamburg since 2010. He read modern history at the University of Hamburg, where he was appointed as a private lecturer upon completion of his postdoctoral qualification with a monograph about the Jewish working force in Lithuania 1941–44. His research interests include the history of German–Lithuanian relations, the German occupation of Eastern Europe in the First and Second World Wars and the Holocaust in the Baltic States. He has published many articles, and his most recent book is: Arbeit als Hoffnung. Jüdische Ghettos in Litauen 1941–1944 [Work as hope. Jewish ghettos in Lithuania 1941–1944] (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2015).



List of References


Hauptstaatsarchiv Wiesbaden. Dept. 461.32438, EK 3 (Legal proceedings).

LCVA R-626, ap. 1, b. 4, p.12 (Quote in the title of this article)

LCVA R-643, ap. 3, b. 194 (City administration of Vilnius, correspondence with Jewish councillors).

LCVA R-973, ap. 1, b. 9 (Correspondence of the Kaunas ghetto police).

LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 35 (Weekly reports of the Jewish ghetto police in Kaunas).

LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 19 (Enforcement orders of the Jewish ghetto police – Central Office, Kaunas).

LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 33 (Weekly reports of the Kaunas ghetto police).

LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 52 (Correspondence of Kaunas ghetto work brigades).

LCVA R-973, ap. 3, b. 52 (Work area of the Kaunas ghetto).

LCVA R-973, ap. 2, b. 145 (Interrogation logs of the head of the investigative section, ghetto police of Kaunas, May 1942–July 1943).


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