STRONA GŁÓWNAPUBLIKACJEARTYKUŁYPicking and Choosing: Preening the Polish Past

Picking and Choosing: Preening the Polish Past

Magdalena H. Gross, PhD candidate, School of Education, Stanford University.
From Warsaw on 23 July, 2010.

Picking and Choosing: Preening the Polish Past.

Summer is the season of commemoration in Poland. Last month, thousands of grown men clad in heavy armor gathered at the field of Grunwald to reenact the 1410 battle between the knights of Teutonic Order and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In early August, one may stumble upon WWII-era German tanks in the Warsaw streets. A week-long commemoration of the August 1, 1944 Warsaw Uprising is about to be launched.

 

Last week, July 22, marked the 68th anniversary of the "Great Deportation" of over 300,000 Warsaw Jews from the Umschlagplatz, at the center of the Warsaw Ghetto, to Treblinka. 900,000 Jews were murdered in this Nazi death camp, located in the woods 80 kilometers away. On that Thursday, I wandered through what used to be the Warsaw Ghetto. There was not a soul at the Umschlagplatz, not even a stone or a flower. I sat down in the shade, still sweating from the mid-summer heat. My father stumbled into the Platz at noon, gripping the daily newspaper: "Nothing, not one article, not one word." Silence.

We piled into a car that fittingly had no working air-conditioner. Stifled and sticky we travelled, like thousands of others to Treblinka, but only for a visit. During the car ride my father called the editor of the newspaper to remind him of the importance of this day. In response he heard: "It is customary to commemorate the Holocaust on April 19th!" Only one day for the Jews of Warsaw. But who is counting?

On the way to the camp, our guide, who had been there many times, got mildly disoriented looking for the location of the old Treblinka train station. My father and I wondered, “Where are the signs to Treblinka?” But there were none. We followed the train tracks to find our way. There, on the side of the road was one sign, burnt black from the summer sun, paint peeling from the extreme winter colds: “Museum of Fight and Martyrdom at Treblinka. 4 kilometers.” It would have been impossible to find the way without our guide. The impossibility, of course, implies both the extent to which the Nazis attempted to hide the place during the war, and also the extent to which the Poles attempted to forget the place thereafter.

At Treblinka, we were, at first, the only visitors. A vast, open, and empty space, the camp is adorned with jagged rocks symbolizing victims and places from which they came. The names of towns and countries are etched into the stones. In none of these rocks is the term “Jew” or “Jewish” to be found. In fact, the only place the word appears is on a plaque at the entrance of the camp. One has to peer closely at the grey sign in order to read it.

Earlier in the week I had passed a bus station in Warsaw where I saw a six-foot advertisement: The Days of the Warsaw Uprising! The 66th anniversary of a WWII event that claimed the lives of 250,000 Poles was being commemorated for a week with historical reenactments, dramas, radio shows, TV specials and much more. Meanwhile, that afternoon, we “joked” with the director of Treblinka’s museum: “Tomorrow your first transport came to the camp!” He blinked. Much like the rest of Warsaw, much like the rest of Poland, he did not seem to remember the anniversary.

Memory and history are at stake. Polish memory. Warsaw’s history. It seems abnormal to mute, to silence the history of these brutal deportations and massacres. The Jewish community made up 1/3 of the Warsaw’s prewar population. In 1942, it disappeared within two months from the center of town. Yet life in Warsaw, yesterday, proceeded as if nothing had ever happened. As if naturally, there was nothing to remember.

Memory and history serve to help nations and people cope with trauma providing a road map through which we can navigate our collective identities and everyday lives. If entire swaths of the map are missing, we are sure to lose our way, fall into an abyss, or, in Dante’s words, midway through our lives journey we will be led astray.

Much as we are born with physical traits, nations, with each generation, are born with expansive pasts. We cannot simply pick and choose our body parts, we cannot simply preen our past. With a heritage come the good and the bad, the easy and the hard. In order to comprehend the entirety of what was the Polish experience and martyrdom during World War Two, we must attempt to notice, understand and commemorate the Jewish experience as well. Stop the Silence. Say Something.

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