Remembering and forgetting

The Kazimierz District of Krakow, or the Jewish Quarter, blends tradition with the avant garde.

Just down the street from a centuries-old synagogue is a Cuban-themed bar with a picture of Che Guevara, that nation’s revolutionary “martyr” on the wall. Old Jewish cemeteries are side-by-side with trendy coffehouses and restaurant.

Our seminar leader, Benjamin Lorch, has told us that there is an increased interest among the Jewish young people of Poland in their heritage and many have come here for the Jewish Culture Festival, which is taking place at the same time as our visit. The attractions include a wide variety of music, including, surprisingly enough, an appearance by Fred Wesley, who played the trombone in James Brown’s band in the 1960s and 1970s.

They’re setting up for the music as we walk through Kazimierz, led by Dr. Karen Underhill of the University of Chicago. This area was once a separate city from Krakow, inhabited mostly by Jews who were encouraged by a series of kings of Poland to settle in the area to do non-agricultural work.

One of those occupations, interestingly, was journalism. Underhill drew a parallel between the Polish nation of the early 1800s and New York of just a little later. In both socieities, Jewish newspaper publishers — like the Ochs/Sulzbergers of the New York Times and Dorothy Schiff of the New York Post — had great influence.

We make a stop by a bookstore — always a good choice for a group of academics, before taking a scenic walk across the Vistula River to eat lunch at a restaurant called Pod Lwem (“Under the Sign of the Lion” — great salmon for an entree and several tasty flavors of gelato for dessert.

Our afternoon session is spent at the Jewish Community Center in Kazimierz listening to a couple of speakers. The center is a fairly new facility with an interesting history. Prince Charles of England provided the impetus for its founding after a 2002 visit to Krakow in which he heard the stories of Holocaust surviviors.

In the first presentation, Dr. Piotr Trojanski, a professor at the Jagiellonian University, described how students are taught about the Holocaust in Poland — it’s now a mandatory part of the curriculum.

“The Polish people are moral and physical custodians of Holocaust sites since so many Poles died there,” he said.

But that wasn’t always the national attitude, especially in the Communist era. As we will learn in Germany, too, the Communists were good at erasing national memory.

“They marginalized it to defame the anti-Communist underground,” Trojanski said of the Communist attitude toward memories of the Holocaust. Even the earliest versions of the Auschwitz memorials underestimated the number and role of Jewish victims. And by 1970s. exhibits about the mass murder of Jews were available only to foreign visitors.

“As a result, two generations of Poles grew up not receiving accurate information from the schools about the Holocaust,” Trojanksi said.

The last thrree decades have been devoted to restoring these memories.

“The Solidarity generation demanded accurate information about the Polish past, including the history of the Jews,” Trojanski said. He passed around some materials used in Polish schools today to teach the Holocaust, including some frank portrayals of these events in comic book form.

The afternoon’s other speaker was Dr. Jan Gross, a Princeton University professor and author of a controversial book called “Neighbors,” an account of how 1,600 Jewish residents of a a small town in northeastern Poland were massacred in July 1941 — hundreds were burned alive in a barn. The atrocities at Jedwabne were at first blamed on the Nazis, but many were later found to have been committed with the help of non-Jewish residents in the town, Gross says.

“Half of the population murdered the other half,” he says in the introduction to his book.

No one talked about it for many years, because they were ashamed and afraid, says Gross, who says his work is an attempt to “rectify a skewed narrative.”

Gross has also angered Catholics with his claims that the Church abdicated its moral responsibility to protect Jews. His public appearances have been marked by demonstrations and protests — we were asked not to put the fact that we were going to hear him on Facebook or blogs or in other public forums.

Gross says he can explain how the Jedwabne massacre happened but not why.

“It’s a complex issue and difficult to come to terms with,” he said. “It’s hard for Americans to find a perspective that’s comparable unless it’s the Civil War.”

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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