The Polish sites we visited help demonstrate Poland’s desire to remember World War II in a way that coincides with their own self-image. The new Holocaust Law passed earlier this year by the Polish government represents Poland’s national claim to innocence in regards to their complicity in the Holocaust. When we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, it was evident that the Polish government wanted to control how the site was presented to the public. All tour groups needed to be accompanied by a guide inside both camps, and there was a systematic structure that predetermined what aspects of each camp were open to the public. The Poles want to make it abundantly clear that the Nazis were solely responsible for creating these death camps on Polish soil and engaging in the mass genocide of minorities the Nazi’s deemed to be inferior. It’s not difficult to understand where the Poles are coming from and their desire to separate themselves from one of the greatest atrocities in human history. As I walked through Auschwitz and saw each step of the extermination process, I just felt helpless. Each pair of empty shoes, each strand of hair, and each personal item confiscated just hit me with a new wave of despair. There are no words that completely describe the essence of that place and the horrors human beings had to endure.
Nevertheless, the Polish claim of national innocence towards the Holocaust is a fallacy. The participation of some Polish people in the Holocaust is a part of their history. Our tour guide told us that there were Polish people in the area who worked in the camps and others in nearby towns that knew about them. During the chaos of war and widespread destruction, some of the Poles were just doing what was necessary to stay alive. It’s not right, nor does it provide justification for their actions. But it is a part of Poland’s history even if the central government chooses to deny it.
On the drive to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the tour guide talked about focusing on three different aspects when touring the camps, memory, awareness and responsibility. She asked us to remember the victims as well as the oppressors of the camps, recognize the impact of the Holocaust on the rest of Europe, and try to comprehend how something like this could happen. However, if the Poles choose to ignore their roles as both victims and oppressors in the Holocaust, they lack the full awareness of what happened and will never successfully answer why something like this could happen. By putting forth their own national interests above the historical account of events, the Polish government’s emphasis on controlling how each camp is presented distracts from the meaning of each site and Poland’s war experience.