What is Polish History? – a debate
Despite their difficult history, Poles and Jews continue to need each other in the field of historical memory. Although thousands of non-Jewish Poles are committed to dialogue and fostering better relations with Poland’s Jewish community, there remain deep concerns about historical memory and surging antisemitism, raising questions about the country’s Jewish future. How can Poland continue to support its Jewish community and be accountable for its own history? American Jewish Committee (AJC) and Tablet Magazine together organized an important discussion on what shapes the Polish narrative.
The online debate on November 4, 2021 involved four prominent speakers, historians, and was moderated by Prof. Antony Polonsky who specializes in Judaic and Holocaust studies, and is a leading expert on Polish-Jewish history.
AJC Central Europe Acting Director Dr. Sebastian Rejak spoke about the need to find common ground amongst sometimes divergant narratives, trying to ensure researchers are never put under pressure.
We should rather talk about about histories – with many ethnic and religious groups and the different social classes that together form a multifaceted, diverse narrative.”
– Rejak explained, and added that Poland’s geopolitical reality of being located between two powerful neighbors can’t be ignored, when drawing a picture of how Poles perceive their identity and understand their history. Poland’s experience of oppression and striving for survival have contributed to shaping a collective psyche that sometimes fails to realize that Poland may also have been oppressive to others.
Answering the question “What is Polish history?,” Prof. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Chief Curator of the Core Exhibition at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, stressed the importance for museums to create honest exhibitions and for experts to conduct impartial research. Polish and Polish-Jewish history are inherently interlinked and it is important to understand that there are many ways to be Polish. The history of Polish Jews exemplifies some of those ways of being Polish, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett added.
Prof. Grzegorz Berendt, Acting Director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, said that freedom of research is not compromized in Poland, especially compared to the period before the fall of communism in 1989. According to Berendt, research of World War II history is popular with many academic centers in Poland and covers diverse perspectives. Dr. Havi Dreifuss, head of the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at Yad Vashem, stressed the importance of Polish history and Polish-Jewish history for a deeper understanding of modern Europe more generally. She, however, disagreed with Prof. Berendt on the issue of freedom of historical research in contemporary Poland. According to Dreifuss, some of the most prominent Polish Holocaust scholars have been the object of attacks by governmental institutions, which may adversely affect their achievements and prefessional status.
AJC CEO David Harris concluded the debate by stressing the importance of a continued dialogue between historians and the need to talk with all stakeholders. Harris one more time explained:
Why does AJC keep engaging in Polish-Jewish relations? Because there is no Jewish history without Poland, and there is no Polish history without the Jewish people.