The Polish Narrative of World War II

Growing up, I attended St. Adalbert of Berea, the oldest Polish church in Ohio – built brick by brick in 1874. In Berea, Polish-Americans quarried sandstone alongside German and Irish laborers. One cannot blame them for wanting a religious sanctuary from that backbreaking work. They wanted to preserve their history and culture in a nation that sought to assimilate and often exploit them for cheap labor. My great grandfather was a second-generation Polish-American whose family mined coal in Gallitzin, PA before moving to Cleveland. Sergeant Joseph A. Szczelina served his country as a diesel mechanic in the U.S. Army’s 79th Infantry Division. He did his part in Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, and Central Europe. After the war, he altered the spelling of his last name from Szczelina to Selena. He made that decision because his superiors could not pronounce his name at roll call. From my own heritage, I thought that I understood the relationship between Polish history and identity. My short time in Krakow proved that I still have much to learn.

Once home to Copernicus and Chopin, Krakow was the center of Polish education, culture, and faith for centuries. Be that as it may, I was unprepared for the beauty of St. Mary’s Basilica (pictured) and Wawel Cathedral. Unlike the ones I visited in France and Germany, these cathedrals were filled with people. Even on a quiet Wednesday evening, it was evident that religion remains a powerful component of Polish identity.

Throughout the twentieth century, Poland endured cultural and political oppression from neighbors that sought to erase it from the map. Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Poland. It was not prepared (and how could it have been) for a two-front war with the most powerful war machines in the world at that time. As a result, historians sometimes diminish or even disparage the role of Poland in the war. However, one should respect the courage of Polish soldiers who scrambled through railway stations to fight a losing battle and partisans who waged guerrilla warfare at great risk to themselves.

After visiting the Oskar Schindler WWII Museum, I found myself empathizing with the Polish wartime experience. When the Wehrmacht first entered Polish villages, it pursued a vicious policy of racial extermination which saw Poles as sub-human. The Schindler Museum stressed that the Nazis deliberately annihilated most of the Polish intelligentsia, including local officials, clergy, businessowners, and intellectuals. They attempted to slaughter anyone capable of criticizing the regime or leading resistance movements. In the end, World War II claimed the lives of six million Polish citizens, half of which were Jewish, via starvation, shootings, forced labor, and the death camps. Considering the dual occupation and its aftermath, perhaps no nation in the twentieth century suffered as much as Poland.

It is important to note that native Poles participated in pogroms against their Jewish neighbors, a reality which the Museum failed to address. From class lectures, we know that the anti-Semitic myths of Judeo-Bolshevism and collective guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus fueled these gruesome beatings. The environment was ripe for these atrocities because of a foreign occupation that encouraged them and eliminated civil society. The SS, for example, executed Soviet collaborators and conducted ruthless reprisals for alleged resistance activities. Nazis manipulated popular frustration with the Soviet regime for their own advantage. Sadly, the historical memory in Poland overlooks these complexities and outlaws discussion of any Polish involvement in the Holocaust.

Churches in Krakow are filled with shrines and reliquaries to Pope John Paul II, the pride of Poland who resisted the Nazis and the Soviet Union, and Saint Maximillian Kolbe, a priest who gave his life for a Polish soldier’s in Auschwitz. These figures symbolize Poland’s resilience and spirituality in the world today.

Remembering the Holocaust: An International Responsibility

Travelling through three different countries in two weeks required a lot of grit and stamina, but it also gave me the opportunity to compare a few different cities, modes of transportation, and cultures.  It allowed me to view and compare many different museums as well, and I particularly focused on the strategies different nations used to recount the horrors of the Holocaust during WWII.  The British Imperial War Museum, the Caen Memorial Museum in France, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland each addressed the tragic history in slightly different ways depending on their proximity to the events and their perceived audience.

The Imperial War Museum offered the English perspective on the events of World War II and included a section on the Holocaust that was surprisingly larger than any other portion of the museum. This museum reminded me of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in that it provided considerable background about German history and Hitler’s rise to power before describing the different groups who were persecuted over time and the terrible fates these groups met either in civil society or  Nazi camps.  The material was engaging and offered a general idea of the experience of the victims, but the museum was clearly designed for people who had no background in studying the Holocaust and focused less on individual towns and people than on big picture statistics and ideas.

The French exhibit on the Holocaust in the Caen Memorial Museum was more specific and personalized than the exhibit in England was.  It offered less general background information and told many individual stories instead, making the history feel closer to home.  This is likely because the curators assumed prior knowledge of the Holocaust from the museum’s visitors.  France was occupied by the Nazis during the war, and the population was affected by deportations firsthand – presumably this history is taught to new generations in schools and through family memories.  The exhibit is also within the larger WWII exhibit in the museum, rather than having its own unique section, implying that France remembers the Holocaust as an integral part of the  war, as opposed to a separate but parallel part of world history.  This museum was more emotional than the British museum  because it was more personalized, and it still included a lot of important information about different people who were brutalized and the various methods the Nazis used in their war for “racial purity.”

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum solely revolved around the evils that occurred at the infamous death camp, and while this museum’s focus was incredibly narrow, it was by far the most heartbreaking.  Poland sponsored this state museum to allow visitors to get a glimpse into the terrible conditions that people were forced to live and work under in the concentration camp.  We were able to see where over one million people lived, worked and were killed, whether passively,  from starvation or illness for example, or actively, by torture, gassing, hanging, or any number of other cruel and unusual methods.  Walking through Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the earth itself felt calm, and I could not reconcile how the quiet area once held embodiment of human misery and evil.

The panels and tour guide were informative about the events that had occurred there, but the energy of the place, and especially the exhibits that had been set up housing the detritus left behind after the evacuation of the camp, were more telling of what had happened than any words could ever be.  A volume of suitcases, children’s clothing, prayer shawls, hygiene products, crutches and artificial limbs, and even human hair were displayed throughout the old barracks in Auschwitz I. These exhibits all spoke to the magnitude of  barbarity at Auschwitz and the sheer waste of life.

Seeing just a fraction of the  worldly possessions a few victims left behind helped me imagine the camp’s enormity.   What would have happened if those people had lived and had children? What if everyone had been allowed to work, rather than most people being systematically killed upon arrival?  So many preferable different outcomes spiraled through my head, and this was just one camp.  What about the other camps, and the ghettos, and the villages overrun by Nazis?  The mix of anger and despair and hopelessness I felt was almost unbearable, and while this museum had the  fewest words dedicated to explaining the details of the Holocaust, the remains of the abandoned camp system were enough to make me understand and loath the truth of the mass murder more than I ever had before.

Each museum was key in helping its respective audience better understand the terrible truth of the Holocaust.  Moving closer to the largest site of mass murder with each new city allowed me to better understand how the international community differs in its attempts to guarantee remembrance of the Holocaust.  It is essential to ensure that people never forget what happened to the Nazis targets of cruelty, for those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it as they say, and museums like the ones we visited help prevent people from denying or downplaying the traumatic events of the Holocaust.

Selective Exposure

As I gazed out at the entirety of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, two dominant emotions emerged: desperation and suffering. These sensations can characterize Poland’s national experience throughout much of the 20th century. Most Poles maintained a defying temperament throughout the war, operating one of the largest organized resistance movements of World War II.

Poland has suffered like few nations have in recent memory. When World War I began, the German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires still ruled over Poland after partitioning it in the late 18th century. Much of the fighting in the Eastern Front occurred in Polish territory, ravaging the land and unleashing disease and hunger. The Russian and German armies looted and destroyed Polish homes and businesses and deported hundreds of thousands of civilians to labor camps. Over one million Poles died during the First World War. Sadly, worse suffering was yet to come.

Poland regained its independence following World War I and began to rebuild itself during the inter-war period. It only had a brief twenty years, however, before Hitler and Nazi Germany invaded in September 1939. The Third Reich took the Western half of Poland while the Soviet Union laid claim to the Eastern half. The Eastern Front of World War II was located yet again in Poland when Germany and the Soviet Union ended their armistice. Besides the destruction that a combat theater provides, Poland was the site of perhaps the most reprehensible atrocities humanity has ever witnessed. The Nazi series of extermination camps situated on Polish lands, combined with the wanton violence of the Einsatzgruppen, resulted in mass murder on a scale the world had never seen. The Nazis brutally and senselessly killed millions of Poles, both Jews and non-Jews, viewing them as subhuman. As the Soviet Union pushed back starting in 1943, destruction continued. Over six million Poles perished during World War II – nearly one-fifth of its entire population; over 90% of these deaths were non-military.

After the Second World War, Poland, despite all of its suffering, did not regain its independence. The Soviet Union continued to imprison, deport, and execute Poles as they established a Communist government that joined their bloc of nations. Today the Polish claim national innocence during the Second World War, maintaining that they played no part in the Holocaust or other tragedies. That is simply not true, as there are examples of Polish groups murdering and maiming Jews. While Poland should take responsibility and acknowledge their actions, it is easy for us to urge them to do so. Americans’ knowledge of Polish history is very limited, and we are privileged in having not experienced the unspeakable tragedies the Polish endured throughout the 20th century. We tend to overlook the courage and resiliency of the Poles and their resistance movements and fail to recognize their suffering through our own biased lens.

Bearing Witness to Brutality

Walking through the notorious gate of Auschwitz I was an experience I’ll never forget. The sky above was dark and gloomy, and the series of brick buildings in front of me, surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence, emanated a sense of evil and menace.  As we made our way through these cramped buildings, quickly ushered along by our tour guide, a mixture of profound sorrow, anger and disbelief at the number of individuals who suffered and died here weighed heavily in my chest.

All that I have learned about the Nazi death camps in my classes, even the harrowing pictures and personal narratives from survivors that I have read, could not compare to walking the grounds in person and really understanding the scale of the events that took place there. 1.1 million dead are an unfathomable number, which the exhibits and tour guide sought to help us visualize and comprehend. There was a room filled with 100,000 pairs of shoes, and these were just some of the shoes that were deemed to be unwearable. Shoes in better condition were shipped back to Germany to be worn again, as were other articles of clothing and more personal items such as hairbrushes or pots and pans. Most upsetting for me was the room filled with 2 tons of human hair, or the equivalent of 40,000 women. Some of it was still carefully braided, exactly as it was 75 years ago. This hair would also be sent back to Germany, to be weaved into cloth or to stuff pillows and mattresses.

While the two camps we visited did feel a bit more touristy than I was expecting, with bookshops, several snack stands and groups of people taking selfies outside, I believe that it is important for people to see these places in person. It is our responsibility to preserve the memory of the millions who suffered and died in the Holocaust, and to prevent it from happening again. Understanding what happened and seeing the place in which it occurred in person, where it is impossible to ignore the brutality, is the most powerful way to accomplish this. I believe that given the chance, it is an important place to visit and also to preserve for generations to come.

Recognizing the Gray Areas

 

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.

Auschwitz: Healing the Past and Educating the Future

When we first got to Auschwitz, we all knew it would be an emotional day. From accounts of Comrades in previous years of the WWII trip and the disclaimers given by Professors Steigerwald and Breyfogle, we expected to be shocked. However, nothing could’ve prepared me for the trip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II Birkenau.

Upon arrival, I felt uneasy and had an uncomfortable feeling that we were not alone in this camp. It wasn’t the other schools’ groups and visitors that I had felt, but it was instead the raw emotion, trauma, and evil that was left behind by the Nazis when they fled Auschwitz in January 1945. Walking into the main tour building to receive our headsets through which we would listen to our tour guide, you see a sign before the entrance that reads, “Prepare for Inspection.” For a moment I felt uncomfortable that I was to be “inspected”, and if I am completely honest, saw it as a slight inconvenience. It was then that I realized: while I was just being inspected for a brief moment heading to the museum, the Jewish and other minority prisoners here before me were forced to endure a much harsher form of “inspection”. Those inspections stripped them of their dignity, dehumanized them, and sent most of to their almost immediate deaths.

As we moved on into the camp, this feeling of guilt washed over me. I felt as if I shouldn’t have been there. Not out of disinterest, but I felt as if I was disrespecting the victims who died here by taking a tour of the camp; walking the same roads they were forced to march down and passing the shooting blocks and hanging posts in which so many were murdered. I grappled with whether I should even take any pictures, as I didn’t want to offend the people that had passed nor their families. I decided not to enter the cellars in which prisoners were beaten by the Gestapo and the gas chambers that took the lives of so many, because of this guilt and overall sadness. I couldn’t shake this feeling as we continued onto the Auschwitz II Birkenau camp. At this camp, we could really see on such an enormous scale just how large this death camp operation was, from the rows and rows of barracks that held all of these prisoners to the many watchtowers and fences of barbed wire that line either side of the train tracks.

Overall, I agree with the use of Auschwitz as an educational site while still honoring the people who were murdered there. While it was tough to walk through the camps, keeping places like Auschwitz open is important for so many reasons. Education about horrific events of the past is pertinent to preventing them in the future. As George Santayana said it best, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

A Gathering Storm

“This picture is from August of 1939,” explained our tour guide at the Schindler Museum.  “This is when the last rays of sunlight were cast on Poland.”  Her country was still gaining its footing as a re-established nation after World War I, yet was knocked off its course for decades after that bright August due to a combination of German occupation and Soviet control for decades after the war.

Street signs for roads that were renamed during occupation

The national memory of war that our Polish tour guide communicated was extraordinarily interesting.  The museum used a striking combination of light and space to evoke certain emotions in its visitors, such as a cramped and dark display to represent the Krakow Jewish ghetto or an uneven rubber floor to show the feeling of uncertainty as Poland was “liberated” by the Russians.

All of these tools were a supplement to our guide’s description of the displays and the war itself, such as her account of the outbreak of war .  After describing the helpless situation in which the fledgling nation found itself, our guide emphasized that the war would have been drastically changed had Great Britain and France sent the promised troops and equipment to Poland to continue the fight.  Immediately I wondered how, even with this help, Poland they could have fended off the Germans.  I was curious how plausible this could have been, especially considering the failure of British and French troops to thwart invasion in France in 1940.

A section of the museum depicting the Krakow Jewish Ghetto, which used tight spaces and darkness to emphasize the poor conditions that Jews were forced to live in

The most interesting aspect of this museum tour, however, was what we heard about collaboration.  Our guide tried to give us a clear picture through careful language about the different sects of society in Poland at that time, saying that there were, “good Poles and bad Poles, good Germans and bad Germans, and good Jews and bad

Jews.”  What I did not know as I heard this semi-ambiguous statement was that in February of 2018, the Polish senate passed a controversial law that made it illegal to accuse the Polish state or its inhabitants of being involved with crimes committed during the Holocaust.  The president of Poland described the law as a means to prevent Poland from being insulted and if broken calls for either a fine or up to three years in prison.

Bearing this in mind, it was fascinating to hear what our guide had to say.  It was clear to me that she had to “tip-toe” around different subjects with her remark about the good and bad sides to war, but she in turn created a more non-biased look at this issue as a whole.  Overall, our tour at the Schindler Museum provided me with an interesting look at Krakow’s history within the context of the war and subsequent liberation.  Viewing the war through Poland’s eyes as an occupied country definitely offers museum guests with a unique story that is often forgotten outside of Poland, even if it may be tainted by recent laws.  This tour, and the tours of museums in other nations, has left me curious to see how World War II history is taught across Europe, what information may be lacking in the US’s narrative of the war, and to what extent that nations are willing to let these tough conversations go.

I Don’t Want to Write About Auschwitz

I don’t want to write about Auschwitz. It is difficult to grapple with the atrocities that the Nazis committed there and in so many other places in eastern Europe. When I walked through the famous gates reading “arbeit macht frei,” I was sobered but disassociated from the place, as one is in places where unfathomable trauma has occurred. I continued on in this state as our tour progressed, past fences, photos, and then a room filled with human hair.

The objects collected at Auschwitz when the Soviets liberated it are only a small fraction of what the Nazis took, which makes seeing them all the more horrifying. The Germans made cloth out of human hair from women that they killed in Auschwitz. But it wasn’t this hair that snapped me out of my trance, but a stack of tallits, Jewish prayer shawls. Somehow, that made everything real.

I grew up Jewish. I have left wing political beliefs. I am only here because my great-grandfather immigrated from Poland to the United States. Walking through Auschwitz, seeing the faces of people that look exactly like those I grew up with, and knowing that had I been in Poland at the time I would have certainly been in that camp wearing a red triangle with a yellow one on top of it (meaning political prisoner and Jew) made Auschwitz personal.

The last stop on our tour, in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, was through a prisoner barrack preserved the way it was in 1944. It was in this barrack that those condemned to death would spend their last few nights. Already given starvation diets, prisoners at Auschwitz condemned to the gas chambers were not given any food or water. And the Nazis would not take these prisoners to the gas chambers until the barracks were filled with 1,000 people. Tired, starving, parched people stayed in these barracks awaiting their deaths. Walking through it, I felt like I was disturbing something sacred. I felt that my very presence somehow trivialized the suffering that had occurred in this room.

I don’t want to write about Auschwitz, but we all have to. I am privileged enough to have had the opportunity to study and stand in the places where genocide occurred. It is my responsibility to educate others about what I saw and felt. What gives me the most anguish, however, is that I feel that the world has not yet learned from these crimes. Mass murder and genocide continue on into the 21st century as our own country bombs others and shuts its doors to asylum seekers and refugees. We are all humans with fundamental rights. We all deserve freedom.

Remembering Catastrophe

Before arriving in Poland, we visited sites where most of World War II’s heroic stories unfolded.  In London, the Blitz was devastating. Nonetheless, the allies were victorious, and England’s national identity remained after the war. In France, we visited Normandy and walked the same beaches as those who liberated France. In Western Europe, we saw examples of resilience, perseverance, and triumph over evil. In Krakow, however, the sites and museums did not bear the usual Western European happy ending.

About one-third of Krakow’s pre-World War II population was Jewish. They were intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, and most importantly, people.  Jewish people in Krakow were Polish citizens and were incorporated into life throughout the city just like other citizens. The Nazis quickly occupied Poland and all of this changed. The Nazis treated Jewish people as less than human and made every effort to break the Jewish population. 70,000 Jewish people were relocated to a ghetto with space for 17,000 people; rations were less than three-hundred calories per day; and Nazi terrorized the community as part of their mission to gain living space.  Eventually, Krakow’s Jewish population was nearly exterminated. Outside of Krakow, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the largest and most brutal Nazi death camps. Over one million Jews and even Polish citizens were sent here, and most of them never left. These atrocities were unfathomable to me, especially considering that they happened in a modern society.

Amidst my shock and attempts to understand how Nazis created a system that murdered millions of Jews, political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals, and other outcasts, I realized how important it is to study these catastrophes and visit sites where they took place. Visiting Auschwitz was hard. Gaining a sense of how many lives weren’t lived was even more challenging. The system responsible for nearly seven million Jewish people’s murder was created through a series of societal changes and motivated by hatred in an attempt to portray someone else as the enemy. Visiting these sites is gut wrenching, but if we don’t take time to pay respect to those who were victims of Nazi Germany or attempt to understand why these atrocities happened, we risk accepting a similar fate in the future.

Poland and the War in the East

In the months leading up to this trip, I had guessed that a few places would open my eyes in some way, but Krakow’s Schindler museum, which occupies the site of the factory at the center of Steven Spielberg’s renowned Schindler’s List, was not at the top of that list. However, after touring the museum and listening to our tour guide discuss the war from a Polish perspective, I certainly was left pondering some new thoughts.

As an American, I learned to think about World War II in a much different way growing up than Eastern Europeans, especially Poles. I always viewed the outcome of the war as an ultimate Allied victory and total liberation of Europe. Although my recent studies in this class and others have opened my eyes to the other perspectives, I did not realize the extent of the legacy the war had on the Poles. Without going in depth about the history of Poland and its highs and lows, the brutality it experienced at the hands of both the Nazis and Soviets in World War II cannot be overstated. That is not to mention the atrocities committed against Polish Jews by both invaders and, in some cases, native Polish gentiles. Numerous pogroms that resulted in the murder of thousands of Jews were carried out across the eastern front. Many Poles were complicit if not active participants in the persecution and murder of eastern European Jews. This is a reminder of the widespread antisemitism already present in Europe before the rise of Nazism. The museum portrayed all Poles as victims of the war and did not offer much explanation for antisemitism on the part of the Poles. It frankly left out a great deal regarding the role locals played in pogroms. Our tour guide really opened my mind to the impact a violent and oppressed history has had on generations of Poles.

From the museum, I gained a better understanding of the Polish experience under both Nazi and Soviet occupation. I did not realize the extent to which the Poles suffered starvation, racism, and mass murder. The museum told a different story from the ones in London, Normandy, and Paris. Those museums tended to focus on the global impact and military history or the Holocaust. I had nearly forgotten about the east when I arrived in Krakow. So much of my attention was centered around the Allied invasion from the west or the Holocaust. At Auschwitz, obviously, I was thinking about the Jews of Europe and other minorities who were persecuted and murdered.  Though the museum in Krakow doesn’t necessarily leave out or dispute those aspects of the war, it highlights the Polish experience in a specific manner and approaches remembering this time period in a different way. The Nazi march to the east left millions dead and millions more starving and oppressed. In Poland especially, it’s easy for a casual observer of history to forget that Poland was not truly liberated after its suffering during the war but incorporated in the Soviet Bloc.

This museum is about the suffering of Poles and how the major events throughout the war affected people within Poland. The events that took place in the east are easily overlooked by too many Americans, me included, and should not be dismissed when thinking about World War II. Overall, the museum fails to acknowledge some of the atrocious acts committed by Polish gentiles, but still manages to deliver a powerful story about the Polish experience during World War II. It was one of the biggest highlights of my experience and left me thinking about the eastern theatre of the war much more critically.