Jedwabne and the burning barn where Jews were killed by their neighbors.

Jedwabne and the burning barn where Jews were killed by their neighbors. Jedwabne; historia we-zikaron, Jerusalem 1980

Features “There are many shades of grey in the history of Polish-Jewish relations” An exhibition of memory maps of a lost culture

The Grodzka Gate-NN Theater in Lublin is displaying maps about the memory of Jewish Central and Eastern Europe in an online exhibition. Martin Englund from Baltic Worlds meets curator and educator Piotr Nazaruk in a conversation about the memory maps, educating people about the Jewish history of Poland, nostalgia, and anti-Semitism.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2020:2-3, pp 25-28
Published on on October 7, 2020

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The Grodzka Gate-NN Theater in Lublin is displaying maps about the memory of Jewish Central and Eastern Europe in an online exhibition. Martin Englund from Baltic Worlds meets curator and educator Piotr Nazaruk in a conversation about the memory maps, educating people about the Jewish history of Poland, nostalgia, and anti-Semitism.

The Grodzka Gate-NN Theater in Lublin is displaying maps about the memory of Jewish Central
and Eastern Europe in an online exhibition. Martin Englund from Baltic Worlds meets curator and educator Piotr Nazaruk in a
conversation about the memory maps, educating people about the Jewish history of Poland, nostalgia, and anti-Semitism.

Soon after the Second World War, Holocaust survivors started to collect and write down their memories of their lost prewar environment. Memory books, yizker-bikher, were created and published to collect the memory of different Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust. Some of these books contained what are called ‘memory maps’ or ‘mental maps’, where the memories of survivors were recollected in the form of maps. A collection of these maps together with maps created by the oral history department at the Grodzka Gate-NN Theater in Lublin is now being shown virtually in an online exhibition by the Grodzka Gate-NN Theater, curated by Agnieszka Wiśniewska and Piotr Nazaruk. The maps depict destroyed Jewish communities in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova and Slovakia. Piotr Nazaruk explains the concept of memory maps in the following way:

“A memory map or a mental map or whatever we wish to call it is something which looks almost like a map, but it is not meant to depict the area so much as the emotional connection of its author to the place: Someone’s perspectives, someone’s emotions, someone’s mind.”

The memory maps in the exhibition not only recollect the memory of lost places; they also express painful moments in the history of Europe. Some of the maps have a dual aspect, in that they combine multiple time layers. These maps might make people reflect on Poland’s Jewish past.

“It is another interesting way to educate people about the Jewish history of Poland. We have a lot of testimonies. We have thousands of books; we have thousands of researchers in the field. But usually they’re boring. Who reads articles? Who reads books? If you have a map, it is an easy medium to use when talking about the Jewish history of Poland. You don’t need any special tools or knowledge. You just use your eyes and your imagination to feel the area depicted by the people who created the maps.”

Before the Second World War, Poland had a Jewish population of more than three million people or about 10% of the population. There were also significant Jewish minorities in the neighboring countries of Central and Eastern Europe which together created the great Ashkenazi culture with the Yiddish language, the shtetl, the Hasidic tradition, klezmer music, and a range of political, religious and cultural movements that were coping with different approaches to modernity. This was a very diverse culture and the conditions of their social existence differed over time and between countries. Yet most of this culture and the people inhabiting it were destroyed in the Holocaust. The genocide and war crimes of the German aggressors have been forcefully and broadly condemned in Poland. However, the question of Poles taking part in the Holocaust is a topic that divides. One of the memory maps in the exhibition depicts Jedwabne. Piotr Nazaruk describes it in the following way.

“The map of Jedwabne is unique because it is a very cute map in a way. It depicts a beautiful sentimental image of wooden architecture in a tiny town. On the other side there is a barn, which is on fire. But there are many such maps that combine similar cute, naïve elements with something that is extreme. There is a map of the town of Jonava in Lithuania. It is the only map I can think of with tiny figures of people, doing many things in the town: They are dancing, playing football etc. But on the other hand, the author included on the map a monument which was erected after the war to commemorate the murdered Jews of Jonava. Those tiny figures doing things on the map are very alive but also at the same time dead, killed. So, the map is very cheerful and very painful at the same time. Often you can find such combinations in these maps: For example, the pre-war state of a town, and at the same time, the borders of a ghetto. Or places where people were killed, mass-graves or similar. Jedwabne is quite significant for us in Poland since it deals with the shameful pogrom in such a naïve graphical way, but it is astonishing, that the barn that was set on fire is also included in this map.”

The example of Jedwabne is a difficult memory to cope with in Poland, since it was the Polish neighbors who killed the Jews of Jedwabne in the burning barn, not the German aggressors. Through the documentary films by Agnieszka Arnold and the books by Jan Tomasz Gross (from 2001) and Anna Bikont (from 2004), the Jedwabne pogrom has created a great debate and has become the symbol of Poles taking part in the Holocaust. Yet Nazaruk discusses how Jedwabne is somehow getting in the way of a broader understanding.

“Most people have accepted the fact that Polish neighbors were those who killed the Jews in Jedwabne. It is not a topic any more in Poland, I think. The thing is that there were many places in Poland where some Poles were involved in the killings; that’s the problem. Jedwabne was so famous that people forgot or were not interested in knowing that there were also other places with very shameful pasts. But of course there are people in Poland who wish to stop talking and stop researching things like Jedwabne, other pogroms or other violent acts against Jews. But on the other hand, there is a huge group of people in Poland that realizes that we can’t escape from such topics. It is also, in a way, part of our heritage and our history.”

Polish anti-Semitism is being made visible by the memory maps and Piotr Nazaruk tries to find a balanced position toward this topic.

“Polish anti-Semitism has a very long history. Polish pro-Semitism also has a very long and interesting history with figures in itself. Polish anti-Semitism is something everyone knows about, at least in Poland. It has been researched; it has been discussed many times. It’s a well-known thing. You have a map of Jedwabne with a sign of a violent anti-Semitic pogrom, but you also have a map in our collection by a person who was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations medal. There are many shades of grey in the history of Polish-Jewish relations. I don’t like to simplify it and say that there were either only anti-Semites or only Jew lovers in Poland.”

The Poland that was created after the war was quite a different country from the Poland that existed in the interwar period. More than 90% of the Jews had been killed and the majority of the survivors did not stay in Poland. Other large minorities in Poland like Germans and Ukrainians were forced to leave the country due to the war and the political situation. The multicultural Poland of the interwar period evolved into a monocultural Catholic Polish nation state under the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. During the war, Poland was caught between the two most violent dictatorships of all times, described as part of the ‘bloodlands’ by Timothy Snyder. Under the occupation and terror of both these powers, the sufferings of the Polish people were enormous. The history of suffering goes back at least to what is called the Deluge in the 17th century, while the partition of Poland in the late 18th century is deeply rooted in Polish historical consciousness. Due to the country’s painful history, and the historical consciousness it creates, history and commemoration is a hot topic in Poland and the political conflicts are reflected in the sphere of cultural memory.

In Piotr Nazaruk’s words: “History in Poland is a very sensitive matter. Take the Swedish-Polish war: There are people in Poland who still can’t forget about the Deluge, the books and other things taken by the Swedes. It’s something very alive for people, even these days in the 21st century, because it is a part of the Polish soul. This was harmed many times in its history, and harmed itself many times.”

Piotr Nazaruk reflects on the moral and political aspects of working with Jewish history in Poland. He tries to simply show people the Jewish life that existed there and leave the reaction up to them.

“To educate people does not mean that we need to make them feel guilty about the past. I am an educator at Grodzka Gate, but I never feel I have to convince people of something. They can make up their own minds. They can feel their own emotions towards history. I don’t want to make people ashamed of history, or guilty, or somehow unpleasant. It is not my goal. It is hard to predict what kind of reaction you provoke.”

Still, he can see how his personal perspective and interest might affect the way he educates. On the question of whether it is possible to teach about Holocaust in an unpolitical way or not, he answers.

“Well, everything is probably political. For sure, you can use these maps to educate people about the Jewish history of Poland and the Holocaust. For example, you can show that Jews lived almost everywhere in Poland, which is the most important thing to educate people about. There were Jews in your hometown or in the place you live. You can show them Jewish names on such maps. They can understand that there were people there who felt that the place was their home. They had their own culture, their own specificity, in such places. And you can also show them more unpleasant elements of our history thanks to these maps. But can we do that without making it political? Hard to say.”

He continues on the same topic.

“For example, I consider myself rather a leftist. I realized at some point that when I guide people through our exhibition at Grodzka Gate, I focus mainly on political aspects, such as the activities of Bund for example. People who are more interested in the activities of Meir Shapiro and other religious figures are probably quite disappointed with my tours. So, there is no escape from your own personal views.”

The Grodzka Gate-NN Theater started as an avant-garde theater in 1990. Over time, it has evolved into something bigger, and today it is a memory institution and museum where the theatrical component is one of many aspects of their activities. Their main focus is to exhibit the multicultural history of Poland and the city of Lublin and educate people about this. Grodzka Gate, which means city gate, was until the mid 19th-century the meeting point between the Christian dominated old city of Lublin and the Jewish neighborhood around the castle. In this sense, the building represents the multicultural Lublin that used to exist.

The memory of Polish Jewry is kept alive in many different ways, both in Poland and in other countries. In some cases, nostalgia for the lost Jewish world is reproducing old anti-Semitic stereotypes while other cases are commemorating the life of the Polish Jewry in its diversity. One obvious anti-Semitic aspect of Jewish nostalgia in Poland is the popular use of “lucky Jews”, pictures or figurines depicting Jews with money. They are bought in order to bring economic luck. In other cases, this nostalgia leads to volunteer initiatives cleaning and reconstructing Jewish cemeteries. One aspect of this nostalgia is the growing interest in the Yiddish language, which is an aspect that Piotr Nazaruk returns to as the main path to the Jewish culture of Central and Eastern Europe.

“These maps are also a testimony of a lost language. Yiddish was a widely spoken language in our part of Europe. That’s why it was obvious for their authors that they should also be captured in Yiddish, their language. We have thousands of issues of Yiddish newspapers in Poland being held in libraries, but almost nobody reads them. These maps are also such a testimony of a lost language that existed here, developed here, and flourished, but was destroyed. In my opinion you can’t research Jewish history without the Yiddish language. You can’t omit the Yiddish press, Yiddish books, Yiddish sources, etc.”

Quite recently in Poland, two major museums have undergone a change of leadership for political reasons: The Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk and Polin in Warsaw. The Polish government has imposed a memory politics that emphasizes national heroism. The Grodzka Gate NN Theater is a municipal institution and Piotr Nazaruk tells me that he does not experience much of the tension that exists in Polish memory politics.

“Well, it is quite complex. Regarding Grodzka Gate, we are a municipal institution depending on the local council. The Gdansk museum, from what I understand, was a state museum subordinated to the Ministry of Culture. So, from our perspective, central government policy does not affect us so much. I would say that the current government of Poland has no real conflict with the Jewish community. Their main issue is with the depiction of Poles as perpetrators. They want to reflect a more heroic view of the Polish nation — which also is true in a way; you cannot simplify and say that all Poles killed Jews. Central government policy does not affect us that much. Municipal policy is something we have to deal with. But fortunately, from what I understand, we have quite good relations with the city council and the president of Lublin. And our cooperation is very good.”

Piotr Nazaruk tells me how he seldom encounters the tensions between different historical views in his work due to the fact that he is working in the city of Lublin.

“In many smaller towns in Poland, there are still some kind of open conflicts. People remember that someone was hiding Jews, and someone was harming Jews; or someone was working with the Germans and someone was working with the Russians.”

The battles of cultural memory in Poland seems somehow distant to the everyday work as an educator at Grodzka Gate. Throughout our conversation, Piotr Nazaruk stresses that he wants to give a balanced picture and not to press opinions upon people, but there is one statement that he clearly puts forward in talking about the memory maps. “There is no history of Poland without the Jewish history of Poland.”, or even more clearly: “Jews were here”.

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