A fight over memory overshadows Poland’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The controversy surfaced as the April 19 commemoration neared, with information from prominent Jewish activists that the government intended to use the occasion to announce plans for a monument to Righteous Gentiles on the grounds of the former ghetto, near the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The monument would commemorate more than 6,000 Poles who risked their lives saving Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Members and associates of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences wrote an open letter criticizing both the timing of the announcement and the monument’s proposed location.
“These few streets and squares are a one-of-a-kind memory zone,” they wrote, “where first of all Jewish suffering should be honored, not Polish heroism.”
The letter acknowleded the heroism of the Righteous and termed a monument in their honor “right and worthy of support.” But the scholars urged it be located elsewhere.
“As Poland is long and wide, there is no lack of places for the Righteous monument – but let the Warsaw Ghetto area remain an untouchable refuge of the memory of the murdered Jews,” the letter said.
Prominent Jewish leaders also issued a statement criticizing the plan. “We believe the monument should not stand on the remains of those who were not rescued,” the statement said, according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency.
Barbara Engelking, Director of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research and one of the signatories of the scholars’ letter’s, wrote a commentary in Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest circulation newspaper, in which she expanded on the inviolate nature of the ghetto grounds.
“There should be an area of silence around the museum dedicated to the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, where Jews loved, prayed and died in horrible ways,” she wrote.
Engelking also criticized the timing of the announcement: “On April 19, the eyes of many people (and the media) from around the world will be on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto. This day, in a special way, belongs to the Jews, to the memory of the Jews, and in my opinion this should not be disturbed.”
Edyta Gawron, assistant professor of Jewish studies at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, sees the timing of the announcement as good marketing by the government. It grabs some of the attention that is focused on 70th anniversary of the ghetto uprising, she said.
“This reminds me of a competition among victims: who suffered more and who was the hero more,” said Gawron.
Repeated attempts by the Forward to get details from Polish government officials about the monument and announcement have been unsuccessful.
Still, there are some important Jewish figures who believe that the monument belongs in the ghetto. Holocaust survivor Sigmund Rolat, who has worked tirelessly for establishment of the museum, told the Forward, “I can think of no better place for the monument honoring our Polish heroes than within a breath of our new museum.”
Sharing that view was Konstanty Gebert, author, columnist and a prominent member of Warsaw’s Jewish community. “Denying the Righteous a monument would be a triumph of national indifference to their heroism,” said Gebert. “Poles would not understand that, and as a Jew I would not understand that either.”
According to Gebert, Chrisitan rescuers of Jews have not received appropriate recognition. He acknowledged contemporary scholarship that shows Poles as murderers and denouncers of Jews during World War II but said, “This monument would try to rebalance this picture by saying that all Poles were not like that, and I think that’s fair.”
But others feel the monument is designed to mask the dark side of Polish history.
Professor Jan Grabowski, a prominent authority on the Holocaust and a signer of the letter opposing the monument on ghetto grounds, sees the monument as fulfilling a national need.
“Much of the Polish national ethos is built on the heroic self-perception and any attempt to show the darker side of wartime experience is met with indignation,” said Grabowski during a phone interview from his office at the University of Ottawa, where he teaches history.
Grabowski said that the former ghetto site should be devoted to the memory of Jewish suffering and not to Polish bravery.
A recent poll of Warsaw high school students by the Center for Research on Prejudice at Warsaw University found 54 percent of students believe Poles gave Jews sufficient help during the war; 5 percent said it was too little; and 9 percent said it was too much.
The students were also asked who suffered the most. Nearly half, 44 percent, said Poles and Jews suffered equally.
Assistant Professor Michal Bilewicz, who supervised the poll, said its results, which he finds shocking, reveal the extent of victimhood competition in Polish memory and lend credence to the view that the monument will foster a belief that all Poles were rescuers.