By Caroline Cormier, 2013 Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellow
A slender grey-haired man with a bright smile met our group in a sunny room at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim. He introduced himself as Father Manfred Deselears – a German, Catholic priest who moved to Oświęcim in 1990 to assist in using the lessons from the Holocaust to transform relationships in the present. In telling us about his work, Father Deselears said something that has weighed heavily on my mind since returning from Poland last summer. Sitting up straight in his chair, he leaned forward and told us matter-of-factly that to understand the Holocaust is to understand what Auschwitz itself is a symbol of. According to Father Deselears, “Auschwitz symbolizes the fundamental destruction of relationships between individuals and people and communities the world over.” What we need to do, he continued, is begin working toward truly healing these relationships – not simply glossing over them or forgetting the past.
“If we do not confront memory in a real way, it will continue to haunt us and limit the kinds of relationships we can have in the future,” he said. In this context, the role of memorialization and educational programming create important spaces – where people, with all of their wounds and scars, are welcome to engage in dialogue with one another while maintaining their respective identities. Father Deselears’ call to begin listening to each other in a more productive manner has a clear presence outside of Oświęcim and the former Nazi death camp that stands at the town’s outskirts. In fact, a desire to engage in meaningful dialogue about life before, during, and after the Holocaust is present in numerous facets of Polish society today.
Time and time again, my experience in Poland this summer revealed the many reasons why Poland cannot and should not be solely defined by its past.
While we cannot deny the atrocities that took place on Polish soil during the Holocaust, there is a need to move forward and continue the healing process. Of course, this process is not an easy task: it requires Poles today to have the courage to delve into their country’s past, as victims and perpetrators, in order to cope with the devastating void that the destruction left behind. Already, this process has set into motion a meaningful engagement with their own responsibility for memory itself. I was especially intrigued by efforts to commemorate the past, which have been established at the local level. Without a doubt, there is substantial evidence that the healing process in Poland is well underway. As a result of this process, the Holocaust has been memorialized in many different forums by a wide array of individuals throughout contemporary Poland.
I had visited Poland in 2008 on another educational program focused on visiting Holocaust sites. Returning to Poland in 2012 as an AJC Fellow, my understanding of the country’s past changed considerably. Our group was fortunate to meet community leaders, local activists, and representatives from non-profit/non-governmental organizations who have taken on the responsibility of educating current and future generations about Poland’s history. We had the opportunity to engage with non-Jewish Poles who have been working to preserve the remnants of pre-war Jewish life in their communities. In Krakow, we participated in the Jewish Culture Festival, developed in 1988 by a non-Jewish Pole. The Festival educates people about Jewish history and culture – both past and present. Thousands of Poles attend the festival annually, engaging in educational workshops or simply attending the much-anticipated concert finale. In my opinion, this festival, in spite of the oft-made argument that it may not be a valid representation of Jewish culture, serves as an important nexus between the representation of Jewish life in pre-war Poland and the renewal of Jewish life in Poland in recent years. The festival provides a forum for anyone interested to engage with the past and present.
There are smaller-scale commemoration ventures taking place that are also worth mentioning here. In Będzin, we met with Karolina and Piotr Jakoweńko of the Cukerman’s Gate Foundation – an enthusiastic young couple who have taken an avid interest in their community’s history. In seeking to preserve the remnants of pre-war Jewish life in their city, they have fought to preserve a former shul and Beit Midrash in the city. They also developed a number of public commemoration projects, which they have worked to incorporate into the city landscape. The work of the Jakoweńko duo is only one example of many non-Jewish Poles committed to protecting and preserving Jewish heritage sites and memory in Poland.
Even small communities throughout Poland are working to restore or preserve the synagogues remaining in their communities – by turning them into community centers, museums, or simply leaving them to stand as memorials in a semi-destroyed state. During my time as an AJC Fellow, I had the opportunity to visit many of these communities. These efforts all show that Poles are engaging with the Jewish past of their country in a meaningful way. While there is no way to restore the lives that were lost during the Holocaust, these efforts demonstrate progress towards real change in Poland and beyond. The memory-work taking place does not always provide easy, clear-cut solutions to understanding the Holocaust. Instead, the ongoing memory-work stands as an acknowledgement that the healing process that comes in the wake of genocidal violence requires a kind of patience and commitment that will endure for generations to come.
Without question, my experience in Poland this past summer was eye-opening. My time spent as an AJC Fellow provided the knowledge and experience necessary to begin contributing to a larger conversation about how to think differently about contemporary life in Poland in relation to the Holocaust. Seeing the country in a different light than during my first visit in 2008 allowed me to recognize the dangers of presenting a single-sided story about Poland’s past and, more importantly, it showed me that history isn’t simply about the past. It is a continuum that requires constant (re)construction and (re)negotiation – processes that are both challenging and evolving. While there certainly is a lot more to be done in Poland, it seems that there is movement in the right direction in generating an environment where the past is accounted for and the future is re-imagined.
Caroline Cormier is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in History at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation project focuses on the politics of Holocaust memory in postwar Germany. Caroline holds a M.A. in Geography and Urban Planning from the University of Toronto, as well as a B.A. (Honours) degree in Political Science and Global Development Studies from Queen’s University.