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Poland’s Memory Problem

The country’s new conservative government ushers in a troubling approach to curating Poland’s legacy.

By Dara Bramson


Jan Gross poses with the Polish edition of his book Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz. (Photo: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)

When the video chat connects, I see Professor Jan Gross’ eyes smiling through his round glasses, greeting me from a plain room. We’ve met briefly before — both times in Poland — but I know far more about him than I should, based on our short encounters. These days, it seems, Gross has become a household name in the country — an avatar of Poland’s historical memory and the pressures coming to bear on the press.

Gross was awarded the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland in 1996 for his opposition to communist rule, and for his historical writings and activism during and after the 1968 protests. In 2000, he published Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. The book led former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, the following year, to apologize to victims of the 1941 pogrom during a televised ceremony at the 60th anniversary commemoration. Gross’ book also unleashed a debate that has shaken Poland and Poles for years to come.*

Gross, who was jailed for five months in 1968 as a young activist, asserted that “Poles killed more Jews than Germans” in a September 2015 article he wrote for Project Syndicate, reprinted by the German newspaper Die Welt. Today, Gross is awaiting a decision to determine if he is guilty of “publicly insulting the nation” — an article in the Criminal Code that could lead to the potential of three years’ imprisonment — as a result of his statement.

In conversation with me, Gross clarifies that his words referred to the crimes of Poles and were not — as some sources wrongly asserted — an exculpation of Nazis.

“My case is banal compared to other things,” Gross says flatly, adding that he doesn’t feel particularly victimized. “What they do is pretty straightforward.”

“They” are the conservative government of Poland, where the president, Andrzej Duda, condemned “any form of prejudice” in July 2016 at the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Kielce pogrom. After winning the election in late 2015, Duda’s conservative Law and Justice party has been deeply preoccupied with policing language and memory, and determining what does and does not fit into “the Polish point of view,” the précis of which was captured by Andrzej Zawistowski of the Institute for National Remembrance: the rejection of “what we consider as untruth.”

Poland’s striking progress since Communism once distinguished the country as a model for post-conflict memory and reconciliation; these latest developments mark not only a grim setback but also a dangerous shift.

“It is hard to interpret this phrase, which in practice seems to mean the suppression of both Polish experience and the history of the war in general,” as historian Timothy Snyder wrote in the New York Review of Books, in an essay focused on the threat that the government might whitewash history by meddling in the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk. Snyder is one of many active voices addressing concerns about the integrity of Poland’s democracy and has announced that he’ll return his own Order of Merit if Gross’ is stripped.

Zawistowski’s characterization (“what we consider as untruth”) refers to the government’s plan to remove 229 Soviet monuments around the country this year — which he says depict gratitude to the Red Army for liberating Poland from Nazi rule — and relocate the displaced behemoths to an “educational park” in Borne Sulinowo, a remote northwest Polish town unlisted on some maps. The project is estimated to cost 200 million PLN (equivalent to about $50 million). The trend of Soviet monument removal is not new: Local governments in Poland have liquidated hundreds of such memorials since 1989 (with the exception of cemeteries, which will remain untouched). Others, such as the city of Rzeszów, whose mayor declined to destroy the city’s monuments, have chosen to preserve this aspect of their urban landscape. Apart from the occasional exception, though, the radical uniformity of these initiatives poses very serious concerns about essentially erasing, in dramatic fashion, traces of any history that the government considers unflattering. It also further aggravates relations with Russia — which argues that war memorials are protected under a 1994 bilateral agreement — given that some 600,000 Soviet soldiers died liberating Poland.

The pending fate of the already-built Museum of the Second World War, which the government proposed canceling with the justification that it does not align with “the Polish point of view,” has also provoked related controversy. Professor Dariusz Stola, the director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, calls the potential initiative a “brutal attack that has no apparent reason.” In his estimation, it seems the government will dismiss the director and “do something radical,” at the very least depriving future generations of the museum’s unique global perspective that offers a multi-faceted narrative of victim and perpetrator. My conversation with Stola underscored the contradictory nature of the ruling political party, whose leaders have both appealed to their xenophobic supporters and condemned these attitudes, a gap that has intensified since the European refugee crisis.

These touchy subjects are not a recent phenomenon. The language of memory alone poses great challenges. In September 1939, the town of Oświęcim, just an hour from Kraków, became part of Nazi-occupied Poland. The Germans transformed the town’s former Polish military base into a camp and called it by its German name: Auschwitz. In 2012, President Barack Obama apologized for his faux pas of saying “Polish death camps” — a phrase so offensive to the Polish government that the Auschwitz-Birkenau StateMuseum created an application for “correcting memory errors.”

An April 2016 Economist article noted that the Polish Anti-Defamation League had shunned the phrase as “a form of Holocaust denial, as it underplays German responsibility.” Since then, the Polish government approved a bill in August criminalizing the same phrase that Obama uttered; the punishment is up to three years imprisonment. As recently as the July 2016 North Atlantic Treaty Organization conference in Warsaw, Obama voiced concerns about the health of Poland’s democracy.

These attempts to regulate historical narratives — whether the changes come to fruition or not — have inspired a host of critical questions about the fate of the country’s physical landscape, collective memory, constitutional integrity, and the old question that, in a place like Poland especially, could not be more provocative: Whose story is it to tell?

It’s summer solstice in northeastern Poland, nearing 9 o’clock in the evening, the sun still illuminating the lake of the former family estate of late poet Czesław Miłosz. We, a group of foreign writers and artists, are sitting in the café at the Borderland Foundation, sipping tea with local honey prepared by our host, Borderland’s founding director Krzysztof Czyżewski. Launched in 1990, the foundation aims to “research, revive, and nurture the cultural diversity of the Eastern borderlands of Poland that was nearly destroyed by two world wars” through educational and dialogue initiatives. The word “bridge” is never far from Czyżewski’s lips or the foundation’s space — in the multicultural borderland of Sejny where Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus nearly intersect — with the core mission of building real or imagined bridges between cultures and ethnicities.,+Poland/@54.5422051,21.9874469,7z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x46e0efc6e3b43513:0x258d6f9a2d07a55f!8m2!3d54.10809!4d23.3469

“We published Neighbors in 2000 [in Polish] as an important tool to inspire much-needed dialogue about the past,” Czyżewski says of Gross’ famous book. And dialogue it provoked: Though many criticized Gross’ work for being anti-Polish, others applauded his boldness for initiating sensitive but critical conversations on Polish-Jewish relations, sparking an avalanche of work that addressed easier-left-unsaid matters. Pokłosie (“Aftermath”) — a 2012 Polish film addressing the dark past of a fictional Polish town based on true stories — was one such example. To the chagrin of some Poles, the 2013 Academy Award-winning film Ida reached an international audience. These milestones became part of a landscape of burgeoning dialogue, proliferating since the fall of Communism.

Anna Bikont, a Polish journalist and author of The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne, doesn’t believe that Gross’ Order will be revoked and wrote that, regardless, the honorific should not be the center of this debate. “What matters is the scapegoating, the sowing of hate, and the subsequent closing of ranks in an imaginary siege,” Bikont wrote of Gross in Tablet. In a New York Timesbook review, Louis Begley paraphrased Bikont’s perspective that the “relative quiet that reigned after the publication of Gross’ book in Polish turned into a media storm once the realization sank in that Neighbors would expose to the American public an incident shockingly at odds with the image Poles presented of themselves as a martyred but heroic and noble people.”

Bikont’s prominent voice is especially poignant given that Poland’s World Press Freedom Index status dropped 29 positions in the last year. Reporters Without Borders, the organization that publishes the report, credits this shift to a “media law empowering the government to appoint and dismiss the heads of the state radio and TV broadcast media” shortly after the election. Already, the impact is visible: Nearly 200 former media employees have been fired or quit since. The cacophony of critical voices on the issue illustrates a parallel cry to examine the past and its unlearned lessons.

“Violent nationalistic rhetoric can eventually lead in a direction we know very well,” says Gross. “This is an indication of a policy that will have practical consequences.”

Curating and cultivating collective and historical memory based on absence and presence, theoretical or actual, is a grave responsibility.

The prospect of authorities arbitrarily amending the constitution is of concern to Rafał Pankowski, co-founder of Nigdy Więcej(the “Never Again” Association), the country’s leading anti-racist non-governmental organization that works to combat prejudice through initiatives such as monitoring racism and providing accurate information to the press. Pankowski was instrumental in facilitating the implementation of Article 13 in the late 1990s, which specifically prohibits racist activity.

Objectively speaking, the new government’s impact is already evident, Gross says. Much artistic and scholarly activity has been dependent on state subsidies. In November 2015, deputy prime minister Piotr Gliński attempted to ban what he termed a “pornographic” play titled Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden)by Austrian Nobel Prize-winning playwright Elfriede Jelinek. Though the show went on with the local Wrocław governor’s blessing, a dozen people attempted to block the entrance to the theatre. The morning after opening night, the director’s family home was covered in eggs and tomatoes. For some, even these comparatively non-violent attempts at curtailing free speech have triggered memories about the consequences of censorship; several sources I spoke with expressed trepidation about speaking publicly.

“What are the reasonable limits of the government interventions in the field of memory and history?” Stola asks. He speaks openly about the disparity between diplomatic gestures acknowledging contemporary anti-Semitism and his concerns as a citizen about the constitutional tribunal and rule of law. By his standards as the director of a major cultural institution, which has been supported by the government, forming historical narratives is the job of historians.

Curating and cultivating collective and historical memory based on absence and presence, theoretical or actual, is a grave responsibility. Whose role is it to regulate the check-and-balance system of the fine line between healthy historical revisionism and the even-more-perilous approach of negationism? Poland’s striking progress since Communism in openness toward difficult topics once distinguished the country as a model for post-conflict memory and reconciliation; these latest developments mark not only a grim setback but also a dangerous shift. Balancing the risks of forgetting about the past and an unhealthy preoccupation with it is now purely a matter of politics, according to some.

“This regime aims to undermine the legacy and legitimacy of the founders and main architects of transition in 1989, in an attempt to write their own, to root themselves in a kind of succession of events that will establish their own legitimacy and authority,” Gross says. “They know that, in order to control the present and the future, you have to control the past.”

*Update—September 26, 2016: This article has been updated to include the date of the Jedwabne pogrom.