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Memory cannot live while amnesia survives

, by Claire Darme

The PiS government’s dealings with memory are an attempt at fostering a selective memory of the 20th century, which can do no good to Polish society and Polish reputation worldwide.

Józef & Wiktoria Ulm Ⓒ Wikimedia Commons


  • Chair of the JEF Europe Task Force for Small & New sections. Member of the 2013-2015 Executive Board.


What should be remembered

On March, 17th 2016 a museum was opened in the Polish town of Markowa to honour the Ulm family. Jozej, pregnant Viktoria and their 6 children were murdered by Nazis on 24th March 1944 together with the Goldmans and Szalls, the two families of Jews they had been hiding in their farm since 1942. The family as a whole has received the title of Righteous among the nations from the Yad Vashem institute in 1995 and are currently part of a procedure of beatification of Polish martyrs of World War II. This museum is the first of its kind. The inauguration of the museum was a great moment for the town of Markowa, a welcoming countryside locality where people vividly remember the Ulm family. The moment was further intensified due to the presence of president Andrzej Duda.

The presence of the incumbent Polish president in itself is a legitimate, sensible thing. The suffering of Poles during World War II has been for too long minimised by a great deal of foreigners. However, the presence of this PiS president cannot be lightly considered. It must be stated at some point that memory cannot coexist with amnesia. As long as the government is trying to put a veil on the other side of the coin of Polish history, the presence of the president cannot be read only as a homage: it carries too much of a risk of ambiguity and ultimately manipulation.

What should not be forgotten

It should not be forgotten that if the Ulm family was murdered in the first place, it is because they had been denounced by malevolent people who knew they were hiding Jews. Similarly enough, president Duda cannot at the same time commemorate the life and death of the Ulms and fail to recognise that there were also, at the same period of time, Poles who failed to honour their country.

This government cannot threaten historians and put its hand on key aspects of Polish memory. The government cannot threaten to take Jan T. Gross’ White Eagle order away for writing a book about the Jedwabne massacre, and at the same time take the posture of a government involved in historical matters.

What it will lead to

This attitude will in the end prove the most counter-productive to Polish interests. Since the fall of the USSR, Polish historians have been more than ever taking part in coordinated teams of researchers, and the fate and suffering of Poles during the 20th century has never been so well-acknowledged. Because it has been working hard to resolve the tendency that had existed to put memories and suffering between Poles and Jews in competition, Polish historical academia has gained in credibility and is listened to on the world stage. Yet outside the field prejudice endures, and it takes ever so little to strengthen them again.

In Poland itself, the memorial landscape is now more balanced than it has ever been. The various museums dedicated to Polish memory, such as POLIN in Warsaw or the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, the sculptures, the monuments… are for the world to see that Poland is having a healthy, scientific approach to its past, keeping away from the inner demons that European people surrendered to during World War II. When foreigners are reassured on this point they will be able to listen to Poland further and consider things such as the fate of the Ulm family. But if the only thing talked about is the Polish Righteous, one can fear it will only be seen as an attempt by Poland to victimise itself. What will Polish youth think then? Will they see the world as their enemy and go back to the dark days of exclusive nationalism? Dear president, do Poland a favour, and stop playing with the work of historians. You will only strengthen that which you are precisely trying to destroy: prejudice against the Polish people. And we do not know where that will lead us to.

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