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Thoughts on Visiting the Warsaw Rising Museum

Thoughts on Visiting the Warsaw Rising Museum

January 13, 2012 2:37 pmComments are Disabled

Because I have Jewish heritage it is only natural for me to have been inundated from birth with stories of the Holocaust, and of course it is only natural for me to have heard of the crimes of the non-Jewish witnesses of this 20th century horror. As my family was at Auschwitz and most lost their lives there, Poland and the Polish people have occupied a particular place in my family’s historial memory, as attested to by questions my older family members have posed rhetorically: “Why did the Poles send their neighbors to their deaths? Why did the Poles allow Hitler to kill 2-3 million Polish Jews? Why were they complicit in mass murder?” And of course, it is very easy to engage in the same sort of factionalism and national hatred that has characterized so many brutal regimes, for the same reasons: we seek someone to blame, someone proximate, someone whose better human nature may have prevented them from engaging in evil but who somehow went down the wrong path. This may be natural, but I don’t think it is right. It is much like blaming a rape victim for her travesty; after all, her presence and gender was a prerequisite for her attack. But the history of the Poles in World War II is on the whole more complicated than a Nazi historiographer or Jewish victim would like to see. I am reminded of that scene from the Israeli documentary “Antisemitism,” where a bunch of Israeli teenagers visiting Warsaw encounter some old Poles. The old Poles try to communicate innocently, but the Israelis think they are being antisemitic (of course, with the benefit of translators, we know that they are not). The scene is supposed to make us think about this Jewish-Polish divide, this hatred that has seemingly existed for decades, even though the reality of the history makes it so much harder to believe in this feud.

In recently reading Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands–a history of the lands between Hitler and Stalin in World War II–what has amazed me was not what I knew from my laser-focused, self-interested history of the war–deportations of Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian and Belarussian Jews to their deaths–but what I didn’t know. Mass starvations in eastern Europe predicated by Stalin’s obsession with national collectivism, as Hitler’s ideology of racial purity de facto sentenced millions of non-German, and non-Jewish, nationalities to their deaths. Bloodlands gave me a first detailed look into the history of Poland under the Nazis, and it is not a pretty picture.

Poland’s history is a history of a homeland savaged, conquered, destroyed, raped, pillaged, and chopped up by both Hitler and Stalin. As one force came in from the east and the other from the west, the Poles had nowhere to run and hide and millions of them were butchered like cattle. After being invaded, no one came to Poland’s aid. One million Poles died in the defense of the homeland and another million as prisoners of war–executed by Hitler and Stalin as their unforgiving pincers closed in on Warsaw. The British and French declared war on Germany but it took 6 years to liberate Poland herself. The Polish government in exile pleaded for an earlier intervention but to no avail. In those 6 years, the Nazis and Soviets butchered Poland, an ideological and political enemy for so many reasons on both sides: it was independent, Catholic, diverse, possessed former German or Russian territory, capitalistic and industrialist, a breadbasket, and free. They were the prize of Eastern Europe and their defeat heralded the symbolic triumph of [National] Socialism.

When I visited Warsaw in October I had the opportunity to see the Rising Museum, a testament to the Polish uprising against the Nazis (and later the Soviets), and in general of 15 years of terror in Warsaw from the invasion of Germany to the “relaxation” of Soviet control in the mid-50’s. Poland especially was so brutalized, so raped, by the combined German and Soviet regimes that it is no wonder that Poles today feel a sense of pride in their country’s ability to rebuild and reclaim what was lost. This pride, and the horrors of the past, come to life in the Rising Museum, and especially so for me, for as a Jew, I was struck with an incredible sense of connection–not disparagement–with the Polish people after seeing the suffering, humiliation and bouts of mass murder that the Poles themselves faced at the hands of the Nazis. The Poles, like the Jews, were stripped of their national heritage. Intelligentsia and priests were butchered by both Stalin and Hitler–the former to empower the proletariat and the latter to pacify resistance (which obviously didn’t work). Catholic institutions like Churches and orphanages were burned to the ground with people inside. Mental hospital patients were butchered by the thousands.

In Warsaw, the Rising itself only came about because the Soviets had reached the edge of the city and the Poles believed their resistance would be saved. Instead, the Soviets looked on callously as their one-time German allies put the Rising down and slaughtered its participants. In one day, one Nazi general executed 70,000 Poles. On the Soviet side, Poles were rounded up by three-men execution tribunals (troikas) who sentenced people to death for participation in the resistance (which had not really existed against the Soviets) and they were shot within 3 hours of being sentenced in a choreographed show of summary justice. Polish communists were shot for being Poles, and Polish Soviets were shot for not being communists. In one town, a troika took a phone book and sentenced everyone with a Polish sounding name to death. The troikas would murder 300 people per day, with the same painstaking record keeping characteristic of the Nazi regime. In Warsaw, especially, Poles were rounded up by the thousands. The very existence of the Jewish ghetto was predicated on the forced deportation of thousands of Poles who lived in that quarter of the city–most of whom no doubt were executed as well.

It is very easy to look at the history of Jews in Poland and blame the Poles, but the politics of mass murder go beyond neighborly betrayal. The Nazis viewed Poles and Jews as animals, and like animals we were expected to scramble an compete for survival, every child, every last scrap of food. It is not surprising that the animosity felt by our Jewish ancestors exists, but we must be careful to leave their hatred a the door of open inquiry.

On a secondary note, the museum also made me reminiscent of other museums of national suffering, in particular the apartheid museum in Johannesburg, which I have also written about.

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