When I was applying for the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program, I was interested in better understanding the complexities of the Holocaust in Poland. I knew it would be an invaluable opportunity to learn about the German government and Nazi regime and gain a comparative perspective for my own research into the Romanian army and government and their involvement in the Holocaust under the regime of Marshal Ion Antonescu.
During the Fellowship, I found myself drawn to the issue of Polish post-war memory of pre-war Jewish life and the Holocaust. This topic captured my attention and was probably the issue that I learned most about and changed my perspective most profoundly. I dealt with memory in my research usually in the form of sources: journals, memoirs, and oral interviews. In carrying out oral interviews with veterans from the war, memory was a key issue. Books such as Maria Bucur’s Heroes and Victims: Remembering War in Twentieth-Century Romania and Gavin Bowd’s Memoria razboiului (The Memory of the War), 1941-1945, introduced me to some of the ideas of memory in the context of the Second World War in Romania.
As I was confronted with different examples of memory in Poland, I began contrasting them with my previous experiences when I was conducting my research in Romania, where the actions of the Antonescu Regime, independent of German pressure or direction, resulted in the murder of at least 300,000 Romanian and Soviet Jews. This is not taking into account the Jews of Northern Transylvania, which was under Hungarian occupation during the war. Still, none of my experiences in Romania prepared me for some of the things that I learned in Poland.
One of the first exhibits we saw during the Jewish Culture Festival was Souvenir, Talisman, Toy, an exhibit on contemporary Jewish figurines and images sold in the main square of Krakow, and elsewhere in Poland. I had read about these figurines tangentially in The Pages In Between before starting the program, but had not really thought much more about these examples of post-war memory. The exhibit on the figurines was well done and engaging, but overall I had an increasingly unsettled feeling as I made my way through the different parts of the exhibit, particularly as I watched the interviews with Poles about the figurines. Average people were asked why they had bought or sold the figurines and what was the significance that they held in their view. I was extremely disturbed when I heard some comments from shop owners selling the figurines that one person who saw the figurines said they looked like they were “lined up for the gas chambers”. I had a strong reaction to these figurines, as did many in the group who went to see the exhibition. However, these objects forced me to reflect on memory of Jewish life in Poland compared to what I had experienced, or, rather had not experienced in Romania when visiting cities, which once had large and thriving Jewish populations.
During our reflection session on the figurines, we talked about their appropriateness and the continued strength of particular stereotypes today. Throughout the Fellowship, the diversity of the fellows’ backgrounds served to help me understand more about this complicated aspect of historiography through engaging discussions. We explored the reality that many Jewish visitors feel their own stereotypes about the Polish people are confirmed when they see stereotypical representations of Jews in Poland. Poles are often stereotyped as being anti-Semitic because of bitter memories of interwar Polish nationalism, events during wartime Nazi occupation, and Communist era politics. Therefore, many believe that anti-Semitism is somehow an innate part of the Polish character and see the figurines as proof positive. However, as I was mulling over these things in our reflection session, I thought of my visits to cities in Romania, the Republic of Moldova, and Ukraine, which had formerly been major centers of Jewish life and culture; cities such as Bucharest, Iaşi, Cernowitz, Chisinev, and Odessa. When I visited them, these cities lacked any provoking visuals representation of their former Jewish populations, such as the ones we saw intermittently in Poland. In those cities, there is a marked absence of memory of the Jewish culture that once had flourished in them and played a major role in their respective histories. Yet the physical absence of images that can be labeled offensive does not mean that stereotypes or anti-Semitic feelings do not exist in those countries. In fact, I know from personal experience that such sentiments are still prevalent. This led me to wonder:
Is it better to have a skewed public memory of the past rather than a general amnesia?The informal dichotomy that I considered was that of bad memory versus no memory. One of my colleagues suggested that the actual physical remnants (synagogues, cemeteries, memorials) should comprise the public memory of Jewish communities and not misrepresented stereotypes. She had a good point, except that we know that usually only a handful of these physical remnants survived the Second World War. It was made clear during visits to various cities how much was destroyed, so that even what physical remains of former Jewish life are left are often remote, hidden, re-appropriated or ignored – leaving only memory behind.
In Romania, the situation is similar, in Iaşi, only one synagogue of nearly one hundred survived the war. In Bucharest, the four remaining major synagogues are hidden behind huge Communist blocs, literally out of sight and out of mind. While it is clear that Romania had a much smaller Jewish pre-war population, around 800,000, in comparison to over three million in Poland, it still seems strange and disturbing that very few remnants of the Romanian-Jewish culture remain, particularly because Romanian Jews were notably visible minorities in urban settings. All major Romanian cities in the interwar period had large Jewish populations whether in the southern region of Wallachia or the western region of Transylvania with their largely assimilated, Reform Jewish populations or in the eastern regions of Moldavia and Bessarabia with its more Orthodox and Yiddish speaking Jewish population. In fact, Iaşi was the birthplace of modern Yiddish theatre. The Jewish past of Romania was vibrant and influential, but during the war much of the population of the eastern provinces was decimated by the Antonescu regime, yet the Jewish population of Wallachia and southern Transylvania survived deportation and death; numbering around 350,000 in 1945. Therefore, in Romania, unlike Poland, the Jewish population survived the war much more intact and Jewish life actually continued until the late 1970s, when most Jews were allowed to immigrate to Israel by the Communist regime. Nevertheless, despite the survival and continuity of the Jewish community in Romania, today, unlike in Poland, there is basically no memory of that past, flawed or otherwise.
There are certain public examples of that memory in Romania, such as the Romanian Holocaust Memorial, which was only inaugurated in 2009. There are a few memorials in Iaşi and other towns created after the war by the Jewish community. The Jewish Yiddish Theatre still exists in Bucharest. There are synagogues in almost all the Romanian cities I have ever visited, usually dilapidated and vacant, but there nonetheless. More distressing to me is the absence of a public discussion or debate about the complicity and role that Romanians played in the Holocaust. This is in stark contrast to the situation that I experienced while in Poland during the fellowship program. It became evident to me as I read the required readings, listened to lectures, and talked with our Polish guides, that there has been an extensive, ongoing discussion about Polish collaboration and responsibility in the Holocaust. In Romania, in contrast, this debate is nearly nonexistent, even though Romania remained unoccupied by Nazi Germany and independently partook in deportation and murder of the Jewish communities of the eastern provinces of Bukovina, Bessarabia, and Transnistria.
Despite the varied opinions on representations of Jews and post-war memory, it seems to me that no memory may be worse than bad memory. Despite the issues Poland still faces, its open space for dialogue should be a model for many countries. In Romania, without public debate or organizations addressing post-war memory, there is no forum to inform the public, help people learn from the past, and, hopefully, begin healing wounds. Instead Romanian academics working in the United States try to confront the issue of the Holocaust in Romania, but the debate is limited to Romanian academics in Romania writing in response justifying the actions of Antonescu and his regime against Romanian Jews. The government is officially supporting Holocaust studies and funded the Holocaust Memorial in Bucharest, but it seems largely lacking motivation other than to placate the European Union in order to receive funds and support. The government has done the official minimum required of it to remember the Holocaust. The more important goal, and the much more difficult one, will be to expand the debate to include more than a narrow strata of government officials and academics to include the general public.
My experience with the many forms of commemoration and memory in Poland during the fellowship affected me greatly. It offered me a new perspective of my own research and motivates me to make sure that I properly address the Holocaust and its issues in my own work. I returned from Poland with a largely optimistic outlook on developments. The debate over the Holocaust continues to raise awareness of tolerance and understanding. The Jewish past in Poland seems to be steadily more recognized and important, as evidenced by the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews that we visited in Warsaw. I hope that I can contribute in the future to the ongoing debate and scholarship on the Holocaust in a meaningful way, which will help our understanding of the events as well as change the attitudes of people in contemporary problems of intolerance and prejudice.
Grant Harward grew up in Orange County, California and earned his B.A. from Brigham Young University, where he researched the Communist takeover in Romania. He lived in Romania for two years, studying Romanian history during the Second World War and becoming fluent in the language. He earned his M.A. in History of the Second World War in Europe from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Modern European History at Texas A&M University. His research focuses on the motivation of Romanian soldiers fighting on the Eastern Front against the Red Army and in perpetrating atrocities against the Jewish population under Romanian administration.