At the Oscar Schindler Museum in Krakow, Poland I was exposed to one of the most insightful lectures I have heard on the trip so far. Our guide took us through the museum, stopping to address each exhibit’s historical context as we covered the experiences of Germans, Poles, and Jews. At each location, she was happy to answer questions, but my group remained skeptical. We had learned that in modern Poland there was a false portrayal of the Poles as victims of the reign of Nazi tyranny during World War II. This portrayal, as we had previously learned from our readings, was incredibly far from the truth. In many instances, the Polish people were active participants in the Holocaust, massacring Jews in small towns such as Jedwabne. With this historical knowledge in mind, we expected an opportunity to challenge our tour guide and offer examples that contradicted her view.
At every stop we spoke to our guide about a multitude of issues. At one point she asked if we knew why the Germans had originally decided to establish the General Government in Poland. Based on the research I had done, I clarified that it was for resettlement of the German people. She appeared confused by my answer and declared instead that it instead was established to maintain stability in the region. At several other points my friends brought up points that were outside the scope of what the museum had to offer, leading us to believe the portrayal was at best limited in its account of how the war played out. However, she was not to admit that in many instances the Poles collaborated with the Nazis. When asked by a student, she explained that many Poles signed up to become part of the German volksdeutches, or collaborators who would be granted the ability to be “Germanized” in the New Reich in return for their betrayal. At another point, we even learned about Polish Jews known as kapos, who ruthlessly beat and tortured fellow Jews in the hopes that the Nazis would spare them.
To dialogue with another historical perspective in such a way is one of the most important aspects of this trip. Despite the fact that her perspective appeared incomplete, our conversation reflects a duality we have discussed in class centered around how human beings can act as victims and perpetrators at the same time in many instances. Conversations like this are important to forming a wholistic view of history and recognizing the gray areas in our moral understanding of the past.