IAJGS: Echoes of the Holocaust

We’re going to have to talk about it. The Holocaust. It happened here 75 years ago and it still pervades the place. Nobody seriously contests the facts: 3.5 million Polish Jews perished, including the 450,000 who were killed when the walled Warsaw ghetto, smack dab in the city center, was liquidated in 1943. It happened because of the evil policies of the Nazi party in Germany, but many Polish citizens participated and most others looked the other way. A few took action at great risk to themselves and their families to rescue Jews. 

Equally true, the Polish people also suffered terrible losses, both by the Germans during the war and under the brutal repressions of the Communist regime that ruled the country for the 40 years following. Many Poles of Jewish extraction supported communism. and some of these played leading roles implementing Stalinist policies. 

What is a matter of never-ending debate and recrimination is the reckoning of responsibility. Counter narratives from every sector of society —by Jews and Poles, by disparate layers of officialdom, by opposing factions within the Catholic Church, and by intellectuals and the man in the street—reverberate to this day. Six months ago, the current nationalist government under Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki promulgated a controversial new law criminalizing words or actions ascribing any degree of collective responsibility to the Polish people. A worldwide outcry ensued, including a move, later rejected, to relocate this conference out of the country. Just a few weeks ago, a new agreement between the governments of Poland and Israel resulted in modest changes to the law that has defused the controversy, at least for now. 

Professor Anatoly Polonsky, the conference scholar in residence, gave his penetrating analysis of the history of the responsibility debate in Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine during his major address to the conference on Tuesday evening. He expressed discouragement that after earlier periods of liberalization and self-examination, the current moment sees populist and nationalist tendencies on the rise, especially and surprisingly among the young generation of Poles. However, Polonsky finds hope in the work of scholars and reformers that the long arc of history will bend toward toleration and pluralism. 

“As difficult as it is, the past is easier to deal with than the future,” he remarked. “I believe in the reverse of Gresham’s Law: Good history will drive out the bad.”

As an outside distant observer, I have little to contribute to the debate. However, I can do my part to commemorate the original sin. There are many wonderful resources for Holocaust research in Warsaw especially the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute named for the author and social worker who chronicled the unfolding tragedy in Warsaw between 1941 and 1944. Documentation and material objects that he and others in the Oneg Shabbos group collected were buried before the final destruction of the ghetto and were partially recovered in the aftermath of the war. These form the basis of the JHI’s collection, that also includes vast resources of records and documentation about the history of Polish Jews before, during and after the Holocaust.

There are also those organizations from around the world who memorialize Holocaust victims that are represented here. The Israeli memorial authority, Yad Vashem, which maintains the definitive list of Holocaust victims, is at the conference to solicit new testimonies from the high percentage of conference attendees whose families were impacted. 

The stories of several of my relatives are already well documented in the Names Database, but just last week I learned of a previously unknown relation, Amalie Katz, the cousin of my great grandmother, who was deported from Berlin in 1942 and perished at Treblinka, the death camp located 60 miles northeast of Warsaw. Amalie is listed in the database, but only because her name was given on a Nazi deportation list. Based on my research, I can add significant new details about her and her family history that will help to bring life and memory to this otherwise forgotten individual. Before I leave this week, I will assemble my information about Amalie (so far I have no photograph) and make an official submission to Yad Vashem.