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Toronto Slavic Annual 2003Toronto Slavic Annual 2003

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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Ewa M. Thompson

Ways of Remembering: the Case of Poland

This article was a key-note speech, opening the second annual symposium, THE ROUGH AND THE POLISHED: A SYMPOSIUM ON POLISH CULTURE AND SOCIETY, organized by the faculty, visiting scholars, and graduate students of the Polish Language and Literature Program in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto from APRIL 15 - 18, 2005.

Of the ten countries admitted to the European Union on May 1, 2004, Poland is the largest. While Poles like to think that Europe welcomed its stepchildren back into the European fold by that means, their presence in that fold is precarious. One missing element is acknowledged history; each European country has managed to export such history abroad as part of the body of remembered events which, taken together, form the canon of European identity. Polish history, and the history of other countries collectively called "Eastern Europe," remains unacknowledged in European (and American) memory. Therefore, in my paper I shall not be making an appeal to that presumed knowledge, but rather to another and more universal kind of knowledge: an awareness of the fact that exclusion from the standard texts celebrating memory has momentous consequences for an ethnic or cultural group. It makes it appear dumb and unable to articulate itself, and it leaves it open to being defined by others.[1] As Paul Ricoeur suggests, history "overly remembers" some events at the expense of others.[2]

While it is impossible, in the short run, to correct the absence of Polish history in the standard histories of Europe (Norman Davies being an admirable exception), it may be possible to enter the historical edifice through a side door as it were, by reflecting on the ways of remembering common in Poland and in other non-Germanic countries of Central Europe. I am using a crutch here, and the crutch is the interest in memory that surfaced in scholarship some decades ago. I have in mind the work of such scholars as Jan and Aleida Assmann, Paul Ricoeur, Pierre Nora, Jay Winters, Hayden White, Ron Robin, as well as the various conferences that have been organized in the nineties relating to memory, such as the Bivigliano conference in 1998, or the 2001 Princeton workshop on memory in which I participated.[3] These works and these scholars combine an interest in history with an interest in individual and group identity, and trace the interaction of the two. They show that history being "wie es eigentlich gewesen" as German scholars used to put it, is problematic, because "how it really happened" requires continuous updating. History is related to memory, and what is remembered and what is forgotten constitutes an interesting object of study.

Why is it worthwhile to study memories? One reason is that the memories of a given ethnic group are a key to the understanding of that group. The collective memories of a national group-for it is mainly within the nation states that memories are being catalogued and conserved-provide a key to the self-understanding of a national group and, for those who do not belong to it, they provide clues to the way its politicians and people react to events or generate them. A study of the ways of remembering also enables us to see more clearly what is being forgotten or suppressed.

Another question that could be posed is, why should Poles or anyone else remember anything at all? Even before Francis Fukuyama erroneously proclaimed the end of history, some thinkers noted that humanity might be much better off if history were entirely forgotten, if we all became a people without memory.[4] Such postulates are, of course, utopian. The freedom to remember and to preserve the memory of the past is a condition necessary for a civilized society to exist.[5] Without the freedom to remember we lose our ability to put events in perspective and to understand the present state of the world. As Karol Wojtyła put it in his last book, "[m]emory is the faculty which models the identity of human beings at both a personal and a collective level."[6] Therefore, memory is important not only for nationalistic reasons but also, and primarily, because it helps to make us into civilized beings and enables us to solve problems.

The terms used in this essay-memory, communal memory, collective memory, traumas, closure-should be addressed first.

Let us start with memory.[7] Memory is what we remember. Memory and commemoration are meant to prevent the disappearance of individuals and communities into the "memory hole."[8] There are personal memories, there are family memories, and there are communal memories. The first two are self-explanatory, and they should be treated with caution as ingredients of historical memory: false memories and memories into which interpretation has been injected are commonly proffered in the courts of law.[9] Communal memory is the memory of a group of people who live in a certain neighborhood and who remember what happened in their particular area because they witnessed it themselves and while witnessing it experienced no outside pressure aimed at altering their memories. Under normal circumstances, communal memories are trustworthy, and they enjoy legal, historical, and moral acceptance. One of the wounds inflicted on the colonized nations by their occupiers is the delegitimization of communal memory: the memories of those who lived in a particular area for generations are dismissed; instead, the colonialist's version of events is ushered in. This is true with regard to Polish memories of the Second World War, as opposed to Russian memories which have generally been accepted in the West as legitimate. This is also true of Ukrainian memories over the last several centuries: here not only Russia but also Poland contributed to the delegitimization of communal memory.[10]

One should make a distinction between communal memory and collective memory.[11] Unlike communal memory, collective memory is acquired not by direct participation in events but by reading or hearing about them-that is, indirectly. Collective memory is the property of cultural groups and nations. It is shared by communities that do not necessarily live in the same neighborhood but have the same group loyalties. Collective memory reworks, compresses, and ideologizes communal memories. It sometimes mythologizes events and incorporates them into the already congealed categories of national mythology. It is sometimes identified with historical memory, although the latter term is also used for cultural memory which is a happier and healthier sort of memory. What is the difference? Collective memory is transformed into cultural memory when all the traumas have reached closure and there is little bitterness in remembering one's history. Cultural memory is a civilized memory, a memory that is not a signal for vengeance or an invitation to bitterness. It rearranges events of the past into categories that become part of one's cultural identity; it enriches a person instead of embittering him or her. Needless to say, such embitterment easily arises if a cultural community feels slighted or not properly recognized. However, with the passing of time and the creation of written texts and other artifacts, the collective traumas which a cultural community (nation) had experienced reach a sense of closure, and its members consign them to the past. The traumas become part and parcel of the cultural memory of a nation, rather than a means of inflaming imagination. Some group traumas become part of the world's cultural memory.

But the key distinction between collective memory and cultural memory is the lack of bitterness and of a desire to "get even." The history of the United States provides many examples of such healthy development. It is true, of course, that in the United States cultural memory developed in extremely propitious circumstances, the most important being a lack of external diplomatic, economic, or military pressure. As they progress and mature, both collective and cultural memories begin to include conceptual knowledge and develop their own canon of texts, musical works, paintings and sculptures, movies and theater plays, and folk art. The two blend and diverge from each other, and fortunate is the nation state whose cultural memory prevails over the collective one. Thus one can speak of a hierarchy of memories: from individual and family memory to communal memory to collective memory, and then to a sense of closure and consignment of past traumas to cultural memory.[12]

With these distinctions in mind, it must be said that Poles have faced difficulties in partaking of the process of transformation of memories. This process was thwarted by the colonial occupation of Poland after the Second World War and earlier, in the period of the so-called partitions of Poland.[13] Such obstacles can hardly be appreciated in the United States which has never been occupied by a foreign power since winning its independence from Britain. The most important cultural aspect of colonial occupation is that the writing and publishing of historical books (which are the reservoirs of memory) and the distribution of historical information are severely curtailed. Between 1939 and 1989, there was no freedom to remember in Poland. Of course, Poles did remember even under the Soviets, but these memories were weakened and distorted by the lack of free discussion. The denial of access to memory which was a prime feature of Communism, was therefore destructive of Polish political culture and of the political culture of other Soviet-occupied nations as well.

Here is an example of such damage. In a book titled Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, historian Jay Winter writes about the collective remembrance of the First World War in European cultural history.[14] He speaks of communities in mourning, of war memorials, war poetry, and the grieving process. But Winter's Europe ends with the Oder River; it does not include Poland or other countries of non-Germanic Central Europe. Here you have one of the many consequences of a denial of access to memory in Poland after the Second World War, when memories of the First World War congealed through hundreds and thousands of books written about that war in the first world countries. Under the Soviet occupation the Poles could not insert their presence into European discourse because they could not publish freely. The same could be said about the period of partitions when the word "Poland" was deliberately erased from discourse.[15] Similar things happened to other Central and Eastern European nations. Since the relevant books remained unwritten, there was no transfer of communal, collective, or cultural memory beyond the borders of an ethnic community. The colonizer's interests reinforced the dropping of non-Germanic Central Europe into the memory hole. Thus a common cultural mistake of excluding Poland from such books as Winter's became standard, and few recognize it as a mistake. The culture of commemoration which Poland shares with Western Europe was obliterated from Western Europe's cultural memory.

The Western European nations entered the Great War and came out of it with their identities bruised but essentially intact: France remained France, Germany remained Germany, and England remained England. They read each other's books. They recognized each other and honored each other's memories. The memories of the Great War in Western Europe included traumas, but under these circumstances they also included closures. In contrast, the traumas experienced by the countries of Central and Eastern Europe received no recognition outside the respective ethnic communities. Therefore the sense of closure which the Western European nations shared and enjoyed escaped non-Germanic Central Europe. The traumas remained vivid and active. The books that would outline these traumas had not been written. The cultural memories of the Western Europeans developed without taking their Eastern neighbors into account, a fact that then translated into not only cultural but also economic, political, and military developments. Western Europeans then accused their Eastern neighbors of chauvinism, nationalism, and assorted xenophobias without realizing, or indeed caring about the impossibility of achieving closure without outside recognition of one's communal and collective memories. After 1945, when Western Europe began to enjoy peace, liberty, and the Marshall Plan, Poland and other Central European countries were subjected to Soviet occupation, colonial dependency, and the manipulation or destruction of communal memories due to the forcible dislocation of population from the east to the west. The books discussing these events were not allowed to appear.

Parallel to these developments, throughout the period of Soviet occupation there was no significant accumulation of capital in Poland, and the ensuing lack of economic stability further prevented the orderly archiving of memories. While in West Germany memories were freely sorted out and spoken about, in the East parts of history were suppressed, with disobedience resulting in punishments ranging all the way to imprisonment, torture, and death. In these conditions, the custom of excluding non-Germanic Central Europe from books about Europe solidified. The Poles experienced all the traumas Winter's book describes, and then some, yet their traumas remained outside the field of vision of those in the perception-setting countries who wrote about the First World War, the interwar period, and the Second World War and its wake.

Thus on the one hand, books could not appear in Poland that would allow the memories to be sorted out and discussed in conditions of peace and stability; and on the other, an image of Europe was created in books written in English, French, and German that excluded Poland and other non-Germanic nations of Central and Eastern Europe from participation in Europe. This nonimage was caused, and further solidified by, a lack of recognition of collective memories in non-Germanic Central Europe -and, as Nancy Fraser noted, recognition is a major value in the postmodern world.[16]

Have the Poles lost their collective memory because of these developments? Obviously not. While the books on Polish history that should have been written did not appear, and while the Western European writers ignored the geographical area whose memories had not been brought to their attention by recognized books or official celebrations, the Poles did remember by various means that bypassed the orderly archiving of memories taking place in free countries. In conditions of colonial occupation on the one hand, and a lack of material means to preserve and archive artifacts of the past on the other, Poles relied on other ways of remembering that may seem inefficient to the inhabitants of free countries. Closure was difficult to achieve for reasons already mentioned, and therefore Polish memories are mostly collective rather than cultural.

Memories start with the place where the event giving rise to memory happened. As the poet Tadeusz Gajcy said in "Specters" ("Widma"), Poland has countless places of memory, mainly the specters of harm done to the people, localities where traumas were experienced-but also places of glorious victories. The lost battles, the executions of random passersby on Warsaw streets by the Nazis, the hangings of leaders of Polish uprisings by the Russians, the defense of cities, places of torture, places of suffering; but also victories over invaders at Grunwald and, in 1920, on the Vistula River-all of these remain in Poland's collective memory not so much by having been archived in "definitive" books, but by osmosis as it were, by committing to memory messages about such places.

A great many of the Polish places of memory might not have been celebrated in books or at official functions in Soviet-occupied Poland, much less in the memories of Poland's neighbors who made a contribution to their appearance, but they were preserved by individual visits to them, by word of mouth, by teaching them to children at home, by adult discussions in private spaces, by commemoration in theaters, cemeteries, and churches. The illegal samizdat literature also played a role.

Among the foremost ways of remembering places of memory was the invention of the substitute location for commemorating the traumas and glories of the nation. In these locations, the rituals of memory were enacted by dissident citizens in defiance of the government. Foremost among these substitute localities were the country's theaters, with their intelligentsia audiences and a slew of patriotic actors.

In Soviet-occupied Poland, and also in Russian-occupied Poland before the First World War, the producers staged plays that dealt with the country's collective memories. The viewers treated these performances as national celebrations, and they treated theaters as substitute places of memory. They reacted by applauding scenes meant to pillory the invading evildoer and extol the native hero. In this way a substitute and temporary closure was achieved. While the authorities usually caught up with these defiant commemorations, hundreds and thousands of theatergoers managed to see the performances before they were closed down. In 1955, Adam Mickiewicz's Forefathers' Eve [1823-1832] was staged in Warsaw. The play presents Russians in an unfavorable light, and at that time the Russians were perceived as the chief perpetrators of Communist mischief. Forefathers' Eve played to a full and enthusiastic house until the authorities shut it down. In 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution, theaters in Warsaw and Cracow staged November Night by Stanislaw Wyspiański, another drama of anti-Russian resistance dating back to the early twentieth century.[17] In 1958, when the period of so-called thaw was drawing to a close, Sławomir Mrožek's play The Police was staged in Warsaw's Dramatic Theater. It was closed down by the real police. The Polish theater played a cat-and-mouse game with the Communist authorities, as historical plays about Polish resistance were successfully staged and then banned, and then staged again (Mickiewicz's Forefathers' Eve was also banned in 1967, but shortly afterwards, six different theaters simultaneously staged it. Polish theater specialist Kazimierz Braun remarked that in the 1950s and 60s, "[t]heater developed a cryptic stage language, comprised of allusions, symbols, allegories, and metaphors through which it communicated with the public."[18]

A similar situation was repeated under martial law in the 1980s. The satirical plays of Mrožek, then several decades old, were wildly applauded, and were seen as metaphors of past and present situations. Adam Mickiewicz's Forefathers' Eve, performed again in theaters in Warsaw and Cracow, became an occasion for symbolic articulation of moral superiority over the Russians, perceived as executioners of Poland in the nineteenth century and also in the twentieth. Juliusz Słowacki's Salomea's Silver Dream, magnificently staged in the Wielki Theater in Warsaw in the 1980s, became an occasion for a melancholy recounting of past mistakes of policy toward Ukraine. Both contemporary and historical plays were interpreted as symbolic of workers who fell during the periodical risings in factories in 1956, 1970, 1976, and 1980. The plays were interpreted as containing hints about the unresolved murders of Catholic priests, the imprisonment of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, and the execution in prison of several thousand Polish patriots in the 1940s and early 1950s. The allusions to tsarist brutality in the 1830s were seen as emblems of contemporary brutality emanating from Moscow. These theatrical performances placed contemporary events in historical perspective; they enhanced collective memory in a peaceful way, and thus prepared the audience for closure and relegation of past events to cultural memory. Each such replay of past events in the theater, each rehearsal of collective memory, brought Poles closer to the archiving of traumas, because these performances were symbolic vindications of the catastrophes they presented. They reinforced the language of right and wrong in terms of which Poles saw their history, and they prepared the audiences for a symbolic retribution by honoring heroes and victims. In the absence of free publishing the Polish theater provided Poles with opportunities to rehearse closure, if only in a tentative fashion.

The Polish map of memory was also rehearsed and confirmed by the numerous films made of those works of Polish literature that contributed to the foundational myth of Poland as a nation. Here the Achilles' heel of subjugated nations, their excessive concentration on their delegitimized communal memories and wounds, turned out to be an advantage. Over the last two centuries Polish writers obsessively narrated the Polish political tragedies by writing novels, poems, and plays about them. These words of fiction were then transformed into movies. One such successful transformation was "Pan Tadeusz" by Andrzej Wajda which broke all records of first night attendance in Poland. There were films made of Henryk Sienkiewicz's Trilogy and Quo Vadis. The Promised Land by Wajda (originally a novel by the Nobel-winning Władysław Reymont) portrayed the sufferings of industrialization, while The Man of Iron mythologized Solidarity.

Not all people went to theaters, of course. But both those who did and those who did not went to the Polish cemeteries on All Souls' Day, celebrated in Poland on November 2 each year. As the place where primarily religious ceremonies are usually performed, the cemetery was beyond the reach of the Communist government authorities and could be used as a gathering place for those who wanted to commemorate an event. All Souls' Day is a uniquely Polish celebration that combines paying honor to one's own relatives as well as the heroes of the nation. On that day the entire country proceeds to cemeteries to light candles on the graves and monuments of not only relatives but also of people who are perceived as worthy of remembering-those who died during the various Polish insurrections, those who perished during demonstrations against tyranny, and the soldiers who fell on the battlefields.

At the Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw (the Polish equivalent of the Virginia's Arlington Cemetery) the graves and monuments commemorating the uprisings of 1831, 1863, and 1944 receive much attention on All Souls' Day. The monuments to these uprisings are covered with burning candles and flowers, and spontaneous group prayers are not unusual. It is a sight to behold, as people who have no personal relation whatever to, for example, Romuald Traugutt gather at his monument and place flowers at the plinth. Neither the state nor the local authorities supervise these gatherings; they were frowned upon but not forbidden under Communism, and they persisted even in Stalinist times. Another place at Powązki that is covered with lighted candles and flowers on November 2 is the plot where the heroes of Polish Resistance in the Second World War lie buried, young men aged 16-24 who are still remembered by their military aliases: Zośka, Rudy, and Alek. These are people Zbigniew Herbert wrote about in his poetry, while Aleksander Kamiński described them in his fictionalized account of Nazi-occupied Warsaw titled Kamienie na szaniec [1943]. The graves of these young idealists are sixty years old, yet the remembrance is still vivid. Such scenes are recorded not only in Warsaw but also in other Polish cities and towns. Like their theater counterparts, these November commemorations help bring people to closure with regard to the war traumas. The repeating of these ceremonies year after year has taken the sting out of the initial bitterness, and it has shrouded in dignity the otherwise sordid defeat Poland experienced at the hands of the Soviets and the Nazis.

The Catholic churches have also served as places of memory. There is hardly a church in Warsaw that does not have some kind of war memorial inside or outside. In St. John's Cathedral (rebuilt after destruction by German air attacks in September 1939), there are bits and pieces of the old cathedral displayed on the walls. They are cemented to the wall and make a powerful impression. A visitor to the cathedral is reminded of the fact that at this very spot there once stood another structure, another cathedral hit by bombs and artillery shells, and that massive numbers died at that very place. The cathedral thus serves as a museum, as a place of religious worship, and a place of mourning. It offers opportunities for commemoration, for grieving, and for spiritual engagement. Another church in Warsaw's Old City, that of the Sisters of the Holy Eucharist (Sakramentki), was likewise leveled by German bombing, burying in its ruins the entire convent of nuns who were at that time on their knees adoring the Eucharist. This is the stuff of legends, and the remarkable deaths of these nuns are duly remembered in commemorative plaques displayed in the rebuilt church.

The erection of monuments has been central to Polish ways of remembering. The monuments dedicated to the heroes of the Second World War in particular are part of the Polish landscape. The Communists allowed these monuments to be erected because they commemorated the struggle against the Nazis; Soviet crimes in Poland remained a taboo subject until the relegalization of the Solidarity Labor Union in 1989. After the demise of Communism Soviet crimes began to be commemorated as well. Most of these monuments honor people who died at those very locations, but some of them are placed in substitute locations. Among the latter, the most remarkable is the series of monuments dedicated to the victims of Katyn. Not only Poles in Poland, but also the Polish diaspora took great interest in this matter. Cities as diverse as Toronto, Canada and Johannesburg, South Africa, have Katyn monuments today. Nothing mobilizes the Polish diaspora more effectively than an announcement that a Katyn monument is being built: money flows easily for that purpose. This indicates that the Katyn trauma has sunk deeply into the collective memory. Of all the murders of Poles by the Soviets this one is best remembered.[19] Until recently it was difficult to archive it because the Russian government has been reluctant to admit guilt, let alone make symbolic amendments. The Russians have finally admitted their complicity in the murders, but no symbolic apology followed. During President Putin's visit to Poland in January 2002, he dismissed the matter of apology out of hand. Shortly before that visit Gennadi Ziuganov stated that no apology for Katyn should ever be given, because the Soviets lost half a million people while "liberating" Poland. Of course, this liberation is perceived by many Poles as fifty years of further colonial dependency. When the collective memories of neighboring countries differ so dramatically, it is virtually impossible to achieve closure.

The more recent traumas have also brought a slew of monuments. A workers' demonstration took place in Gdańsk in 1970 during which the police killed a number of participants. In response, shortly after the Solidarity Labor Union was legalized, a monument to the slain workers was erected in December 1980. Directly at the entrance to the Gdańsk shipyards the workers built three crosses mounted on very tall steel beams. The inscription underneath reads: "The Lord giveth his people strength/the Lord giveth his people the blessing of peace"(Psalm 29). One hundred and fifty thousand people showed up for the unveiling of this monument in December 1980.[20] Two hundred thousand people attended the unveiling of a similar monument in Poznań honoring workers killed during a peaceful demonstration in 1956. A monument was also erected at the entrance to the Wujek coal mine where a number of miners were killed by the police during the struggle for the legalization of Solidarity in 1981. All these tragedies have not yet reached closure due to the fact that for various legal reasons, those responsible for the killings have not been brought to justice.

As stated before, the observance of many anniversaries was not possible in Poland while the country was not sovereign. But Poles developed substitute ways to commemorate these as well. After the 1863 uprising, it became fashionable in Poland to wear jewelry made of black enamel. The symbolism of these ornaments was clear: they featured crosses, crowns of thorns, irons and chains, the Polish eagles, and the Lithuanian Chase. The tsarist authorities forbade public display of Polish and Lithuanian symbols, but they could not prevent people from replicating them in their jewelry.[21] A similar way of defying the authorities was resurrected after the suppression of the Solidarity in 1981, when people began to wear Solidarity badges even though such badges were illegal. Another substitute way was the singing of a religious hymn in churches that had two endings: one expressing thanks to God for free Poland (this was the obligatory version under Communism), and the other asking God to restore freedom (the subversive version). The singing of this second version was a favorite act of defiance of churchgoers on Sundays. The singing of the forbidden version was not entirely risk-free because churches had spies assigned to them, and these spies would observe people's mouths to see what words they were singing. The culprits might then be interrogated by the secret police or beaten up by the police-sponsored assailants.

After 1989 all anniversaries began to be celebrated. The battle of Warsaw in August 1920 became one of the favorite commemorations, as well as the Soviet aggression against Poland on September 17, 1939-a recently legitimized memory-and, of course, the Constitution of the 3rd of May 1791. This last commemoration was discouraged under Communism for reasons having to do with Russian nationalism: alarmed by Poland's reforms in 1791, Catherine the Great attacked Poland and shortly afterward engineered the second partition.

These celebrations of defeats have been absorbed into the nation's memory as the means of strengthening rather than weakening its sense of identity. Polish novelist Eliza Orzeszkowa's novels include one titled Gloria Victis, glory to the defeated. The Polish collective memory has internalized this expression. Józef Piłsudski is credited with a similar maxim, "To be defeated and not to surrender-this is victory" (Być pobitym, ale się nie poddać-to zwycięstwo). In such contexts, defeats are not considered shameful but rather are treated as the fall of a just man against unjust enemies. This interpretation is, of course, common among ethnic groups that suffered many defeats: victims usually perceive themselves as just and view their oppressors as unjust. However, the foreign engineers of these defeats refuse to remember them and incorporate them into their historical memories.

Museums also serve as tools in the ways of remembering. They play a lesser role in Poland than in Western Europe where a museum is an archive for the numerous works of art accumulated by a country. Under conditions of colonialism, such accumulation did not take place in Poland. Thus the most important museum in Poland is the Auschwitz Museum in Oświęcim. Like so many other places of memory, Auschwitz commemorates a defeat-in particular, the Shoah. Virtually all Polish children take a trip to that museum some time during their school days, and the memory of the ovens, roomfuls of eyeglasses, hair, and shoes remain seared in their memory forever. But under Communism, the Jewish Holocaust was polluted by mendacity. First, the Communists misinformed the public about the number of people killed in Auschwitz claiming it was four million. Recent research has scaled that down to one million. Second, the Communists did not tell the Polish public that it was primarily Jews that were slaughtered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Polish children who visited-and I was among them-were told that the Nazis killed such and such number of people, and the subtext was that these people were mostly Polish. In their eagerness to erase nationalistic differences, the Communists actually multiplied them. The downplaying of the Jewish tragedy brought anger from Jewish survivors abroad, which in turn caused a defensive counterreaction from Polish Christians. But the departure of the Russian army ten years ago brought significant changes to the remembrance of the Shoah in Poland, and the trauma of Auschwitz is beginning to achieve its proper closure.

All these celebrations have to do with collective memory rather than with communal memory. As I mentioned before, the Polish communal memory has been delegitimized by hostile foreign interventions. Those who sided with the Soviets in order to survive have one set of memories, those who fought against the Soviets, have another. In such conditions the creation of a common communal memory has become an unattainable luxury. The shrinking or delegitimization of communal memory is one of the major traumas of the last sixty years, a trauma that is hardly recognized or articulated outside the borders of Poland. It has had fatal implications for the self-image of many communities, as well as for Poland's international image. This in turn has further delayed the achievement of closure, and it has made the Polish cultural elites rely on collective rather than communal memories in seeking legitimization.

The ceremonies of remembering which I have described do not reignite conflicts; instead, they contribute to the healing of wounds. They are not to be compared to the German cries for revenge before Hitler's ascendancy to power, or to the behavior of Dostoevsky's Man from the Underground who merely replays the old hurts and is unable to achieve closure. In fact, certain traumas have already reached the point of closure in Poland. Among them is a good part of the Polish-German relations. The Germans have acknowledged their guilt concerning the Jews. There is a consensus in Poland as to what happened to Christian Poles under Nazi occupation. The trauma of the Warsaw Rising in August-September 1944 has achieved a point of closure with the building of the commemorative museum.[22] The issue was also symbolically closed by the erection in Warsaw of several monuments dedicated to the Warsaw Insurgents, including one to "The Child Insurgent" on Podwale Street, showing a child whose head is barely visible under a big helmet and whose little legs are too short for the soldier's boots. These monuments are the fitting symbols of closure for this major trauma to the city and to the nation. Another element that helped to archive this tragedy was the rebuilding of the Old City in Warsaw and the symbolic reparations paid to Polish slave laborers by the German companies that profited from their labor during the war.

Things are different with regard to the much longer period of Soviet occupation. Here there is still a great deal of bitterness. There is a sense of loss and of unjustified disappearance of memory on the Russian side. There is a widespread perception in Poland that when the Communists gave up power in 1989, one of the unwritten conditions of this relinquishing of power was the consent to forego punishment of individuals who illegitimately wielded power for half a century in Poland. Except for few notorious cases, the former Communist functionaries were allowed to keep their jobs and even run for office. The lack of apology from these individuals, not to mention proper punishment, creates bitterness and cynicism in Polish society, and delays the achievement of closure.

The unwillingness of the Russians to face up to their colonial past is also a major hurdle for all the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe who came under Soviet Russian domination. The Russian government has refused to apologize for the crimes committed by the Soviets, even though Russia has declared itself to be the successor state of the Soviet Union. It appears that the Russians are opposed to a reexamination of their history during their imperial period between Peter the Great and the fall of Communism. They are also unwilling to revisit the problem of the Russian-Soviet advantage during the Communist period. The unexamined versions of Russian history continue to be taught in schools in Russia, and they have made their way to American textbooks of Russian history, to mention only George Vernadsky and Nicholas Riasanovsky. In my book Imperial Knowledge, I analyzed the textbooks written in free Russia in the 1990s, and I noted that postcommunist textbooks continue to serve a basically unchanged menu of interpretations of Russian imperial expansion.[23] Obviously the Russians have a greater access to world attention and recognition than the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, or Romanians. Their unwillingness to look at their own history from a postcolonial perspective makes it hard for Poles and others to achieve closure and to correct the version of history of Central and Eastern Europe still present in the American academy, among others.

In order to provide a systematic access to memory, the Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej) was created in Poland in 1998. Its goal is to help Poles come to terms with the cataclysms of the past and to memorialize moments of intense collective suffering. The Institute resembles a similar organization in Russia called Memorial, except that Poland finances its own institute whereas Memorial is financed primarily by the Soros Foundation. The Institute of National Remembrance is also charged with the investigation of Nazi and Soviet crimes. The Institute administers the archives of the Communist Ministries: of Internal Affairs, of Defense, and of Education. It also collects documents related to crimes committed against the Polish nation by the Soviets and by the Nazis. It publishes books and organizes conferences and exhibits.

The discourse on national memory which the Institute tries to generate is not based on finger-pointing. With varying results, the Institute attempts to be nonpolitical and nonpartisan. One of its directors, Professor Roman Kiereś, said in an interview with Rzeczpospolita that his goal is to collect data rather than to judge. Among other things, the Institute has made friendly moves toward Poland's minorities, particularly Jews and Ukrainians, and it has investigated controversial issues concerning minority relations. The Institute also tries to provide Polish citizens, usually descendants of victims, with access to documents that detail the victimization of their parents and grandparents. That so basic a task still has to be performed in Poland sixty years after the Second World War ended testifies to the depth of the traumas inflicted by half a century of occupation by the Soviets. The Institute maintains contact with the Memorial in Russia and with similar institutions throughout the region of Central and Eastern Europe. By emplotting Polish history in such a way as not to exclude the Other and by accepting the Other's story as well, the Institute helps to re-legitimize the narrative of Polish history. This will eventually result in the creation of texts that will transform the connection between past and present from one causing pain, anger and impotent frustration to one where the past becomes a source of identity rather than of pain. In other words, the Institute tries to speed up the transformation of collective memory into cultural memory. There are naturally many pressures put on the Institute, and given its limited financial means the investigations are not always satisfactory.

All these attempts to access and archive Polish memory have had little impact so far on how the Polish past is perceived outside of Poland. The fact that Polish memories often differ dramatically from the memories of the Western Europeans (and therefore of the world) is a serious problem, a problem that delays the closure of war wounds in Poland. As soon as the Soviets loosened their colonial grip on Poland, thousands of historical books appeared commemorating the nation's traumas and setting the record straight. But such an outburst cannot make up for the decades of neglect. It will take time for these books to penetrate the Western intellectual establishment. As mentioned earlier, one of the reasons for Poland being out of step with Western perceptions of European history is that for fifty years (and also during the entire nineteenth century) Poland was forced to remain silent in the international arena. [24]

Israeli scholar Ron Robin has recently described Israel as a "tense" (as opposed to a "relaxed") nation.[25] Similarly, Poland is also a tense nation. Poland's collective memory is still replete with remembrances of events that call for acknowledgement. Poland is often jolted by the periodic reminders that Polish traumas have not been recognized in the standard narratives of European history, in books such as Jay Winter's Sites of Memory, in commemorations of the events of the Second World War, in acknowledging the decisive Polish contribution to the defeat of the Turks in 1683-to mention just a few random events. To paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre, the scholars who work in the Polish area have to rise to the importance of the task of continually trying to devise new ways to allow Polish memories to be incorporated into world history.[26] In conclusion, the abundance of adverse events in the Polish past made Polish culture into a great reservoir of commemoration and mourning. Some of these events remain open wounds due to the differing perception of history by Poland's eastern and western neighbors and because of an inability of Poles to inject themselves into world discourse. But the area of unresolved conflicts is shrinking owing to the freedom of expression that now prevails in Poland. Such institutions as the Institute of National Memory attempt to transform traumas into cultural memories. In the early-twenty-first century the Poles acquired an opportunity to create texts, works of art, and works of scholarship that could help to achieve closure of all the traumas within the nation itself and later with regard to the outside world. It remains to be seen whether the Polish educated classes will rise to the task. When memories are articulated, sorted out, compartmentalized, explained, and commemorated, the traumas of the past will finally become the past. It is to be hoped that this process will proceed apace in Poland until a point is reached when Polish culture transforms itself from the culture of traumas to the culture of acknowledged memories.


  1. This issue was eloquently articulated in Edward W. Said's Orientalism [1978]. On the importance of recognition in international relations see Nancy Fraser, "Rethinking Recognition," New Left Review, 3 (May-June 2000), 107-120.
  2. Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, translated by David Pellauer and Kathleen Blamey (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 80-92. This monumental work is both a history of memory and a classification of it; it surpasses the objective of the present essay which intends to sketch out the Polish ways of remembering as strategies of communal survival.
  3. The Bivigliano conferences produced a volume edited by Bo Strath, Myth and Memory in the Construction of Community: Historical Patterns in Europe and Beyond (Bruxelles-New York: Peter Lang, 2000) which contains papers by Hayden White and Ron Robin, among others. The Princeton Workshop on Memory (organized by Aleida Assmann) took place on May 4, 2001. Les Lieux de Memoire: La Republique, vol. 1, edited by Pierre Nora (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), is seminal to many works on collective memory: it analyzes the bifurcation of France's memory into republican and nationalistic. Like Ricoeur's work, it is tangential to my purposes because it deals with a nation state whose memories have generally been acknowledged without hostile interference.
  4. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (NY: Free Press, 1992).
  5. Jan Assmann and Tonio Hlscher, editors. Kultur und Gedchtnis (Frankfurt/M: 1988).
  6. Pope John Paul II, Memory and Identity (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2005), 144.
  7. In my identification of the various kinds of memory I am indebted to Aleida Assmann's guest seminars at Rice University's Center for the Study of Cultures in Fall 2000. See also Aleida Assmann's Introduction to her Erinnerungsraume: Formen und Wandlungen des Gedchtnisses (Munchen: C. H. Beck, 1999).
  8. This term was first used in George Orwell's 1984.
  9. False childhood memories are a notorious example. Kathy Pezdek et al., " Planting false childhood memories: The role of event plausibility," Psychological Science, 8 (1997), 437-441.
  10. This process took place in Soviet-occupied Poland after the Second World War as the history of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus (formerly under Polish rule) was rewritten by the occupiers and their collaborators, and it became standard history afterwards. Ola Hnatiuk, Požegnanie z imperium. Ukraińskie dyskusje o tožsamości (Lublin: Maria Curie-Skłodowska University Press, 2003).
  11. Aleida Assmann and Ute Frevert, Geschichtsvergessenheit - Geschichtsversessenheit vom Umgang mit deutschen Vergangenheiten nach 1945 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1999).
  12. The concept of cultural memory is developed in Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedchtnis: Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identitt in frhen Hochkulturen (Munchen: 1992).
  13. The difference between a colonial conquest and other land grabs is the presence in the conquered territory of an awareness of a history separate from that of the occupiers, and of a group consciousness that has converged, or is about to converge, into the consciousness of a separate nationhood. Thus Charlemagne's empire was not a colonial empire, whereas the empire of the Austrians or Russians in the nineteenth century was. Ewa M. Thompson, "Nationalism, Imperialism, Identity," Modern Age, vol. 40, no. 3 (Summer 1998), 250-61.
  14. Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995). Likewise, in Aleida and Jan Assmanns' work the Polish experience is fully deleted.
  15. Alexander I demanded of Napoleon that he do not revive Poland. Accordingly, the Treaty of Tilsit (1807) between Alexander and Napoleon created a Duchy of Warsaw out of Prussian-occupied Poland, whereas Russian-occupied Poland was ceded to Russia in perpetuity. Article IX of the Treaty reads as follows: [The area of Białystok, recently conquered from Prussia] "shall be united in perpetuity to the Russian empire, in order to establish the natural limits between Russia and the duchy of Warsaw."
  16. Nancy Fraser, op.cit.
  17. Kazimierz Braun, A Concise History of the Polish Theater (Edwin Mellen Press, 2003).
  18. Ibid., p. 277.
  19. Allen Paul, Katyn: The Untold Story of Stalin's Polish Massacre (NY: MacMillan, 1991).
  20. Timothy Garton Ash, The Polish Revolution: Solidarność (New York: Scribners, 1983), 102.
  21. Encyklopedia Polski, edited by Roman Marcinek (Cracow: Kluszczyński Publishers, 1996), 61; H. Sutherland Edwards, The Polish Captivity: An Account of the Present Position of the Poles in the Kingdom of Poland, and in the Polish Provinces of Austria, Prussia, and Russia, vol. 1 (London: Wm. H. Allen and Co., 1863), 11.
  22. Jan Cienski, "Modern Poland Carves New Identity," Financial Times (London), 20 April 2004.
  23. Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000).
  24. But things are slowly changing in that sphere as well. I would like to mention a recent project to commemorate the world's traumas through works of art, a project undertaken in the United States. The name of the project is the Legacy Foundation; it was initiated by Clifford Chanin. The Legacy Foundation has its own Web site, www.legacy.org. Legacy is a foundation whose self-imposed task is to gather works of art dedicated to the commemoration of events during which people died in large numbers, not by accident but by the design of others. The Legacy Project describes itself as a gathering place for persons interested in the enduring legacies of the many violent traumas of the twentieth century. It explores issues of remembrance in different cultures and tries to understand the contemporary significance of historical tragedies. So far it has displayed on its Web site dozens of paintings and other artworks symbolizing world traumas. It seeks out artists who portray the consequences of cataclysms and build enclosures for remembrance. The site displays the trauma of the Jewish Holocaust, the slaughters accompanying the split between India and Pakistan, and other mass slaughters in Southeast Asia and Africa. One of the exhibits consists of two abstract paintings commemorating the annihilation of Lidice, a Czech village, after the assassination of Richard Heidrich during the Second World War. Among the items representing Polish traumas are poems by Zbigniew Herbert and an autobiography of a prisoner of the Communists, Włodzimierz Kołaczkiewicz.
  25. Ron Robin, "Two Cheers for the New Historians: A Critique of Israel's Post-Nationalists," in Myth and Memory in the Construction of Community: Historical Patterns in Europe and Beyond, 315-320.
  26. Alasair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Univ. Press, 1990), 236.
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