A Lingering History

Even though our time in Poland was short, I absolutely fell in love with the city of Krakow. Krakow is a hub for the arts as well as academia, and is a true cultural center in Poland. It has a rich history dating back thousands of years with traditions that have persisted for centuries. Part of Poland’s history has to do with its involvement in World War II. For many Poles, this is a history that they have yet to come to terms with.

Polish history in World War II plays a large role in the contemporary issues surrounding Poland today. Recently, the Polish government passed a law making it illegal to blame Poland for crimes committed during the Holocaust. Many right-wing groups have been pushing back against talk about Polish complicity in the Holocaust ever since the end of the war. This law has become very controversial because it is seen as a Polish attempt to “rewrite history.” One of the major points in the bill that was passed is the banning of reference to Nazi camps, such as Auschwitz, as “Polish death camps.” When we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau on May 24, the importance of what the camps are called seemed to be the most notable issue. Before we even entered the camp, our tour guide made a point to tell us that UNESCO had changed the name of the Camp to Auschwitz-Birkenau, The Nazi German Concentration and Extermination Camp. While changing the name to reflect those who ran the camp seems an innocent measure, changing the name affirms the Polish government in their measures to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust. It removes the agency of the Poles that lived in the surrounding areas and even worked inside the camp, yet did nothing to help those inside or stop the atrocities from occurring.

This controversial bill passed by the Polish government caused an uproar in the international community, but from our time in Poland, its effects were not as noticeable as I thought they would be. Besides the insistence on calling Auschwitz-Birkenau a Nazi German Camp, the effects of this new bill were not really visible in the day-to-day life we witnessed in Krakow. I expected a bill as divisive as this to produce a visible outcry that we would witness during our time in Poland. The lack of voices publicly speaking out against this issue speaks to the character of Poland as a nation, and their inability to fully deal with their role in the Holocaust. Since the end of World War II, Poland has tiptoed around their own complicity in the Nazi crimes committed in occupied Poland. The silence from the public surrounding this issue further shows how the Poles have not yet been able to accept and deal with their own history.

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