In teaching about the Holocaust, it is very important to understand how memory works

A two-day national scientific conference titled „Formy zniewolenia w okresie II wojny światowej na okupowanych przez Niemców ziemiach polskich (1939-1945): obozy, getta i więzienia” [“The forms of enslavement during World War II on Nazi-occupied territories of Poland (1939-1945): camps, ghettos and prisons”], organised by the Pilecki Institute, begins on 4 November. Dr Jacek Konik from the Science and Research Department of WGM will moderate the session titled „Pomoc, samopomoc i opór” [“Help, Self-help and Resistance”], and Dr Hanna Węgrzynek, a deputy director for science and exhibition, will deliver a lecture titled „Jak kształtował się schemat nauczania o Zagładzie w szkołach polskich” [“How the teaching about the Shoah evolved in Polish schools”]

3 November 2020

How does the conference fit in with the issues you deal with at the Warsaw Ghetto Museum?

The subject matter of the conference fits in very well with the issues that we deal with in the Science and Research Department. We work not only on the history of the local ghetto but also on the phenomenon of “ghettoisation” – the creation of ghettos in Poland – and its multidimensional effects. Both social effects – isolation and its consequences – and economic ones: forced labour and economic exploitation of the ghettos. We are also interested in the evolution of the Nazi policy towards Jews, the activities of the Nazi terror apparatus, Jewish survival strategies and how Polish-Jewish relations during World War II looked like in practice. For me as an archaeologist, and I believe that archaeology is also about the 20th century, the material remnants of the ghettos and their inhabitants, as well as those who were hiding on the Aryan side, are incredibly important. Both small artefacts and larger objects, with an appropriate research approach based on methodology and the achievement of modern archaeology, may turn out to be a gold mine of information that can help us to clarify several doubts, fill information gaps, and find something so far unknown and, consequently, absent from scientific circulation. Contemporary archaeology is not only about excavations, but it is also a broad, interdisciplinary research analysis. It can already be successfully used to investigate the traces of the ghetto and the times of the Holocaust.

The conference will show, among other things, the scale of ghettoisation in occupied Poland. Who managed several hundred ghettos in Poland?

In every ghetto, the Nazis created Jewish Councils of Elders, with different numbers of members, referred to as Judenrats. Those Jewish “self-governments” managed the ghettos by the Nazis’ institution. The Judenrats had to follow the orders of the Nazi authorities, but the Nazis themselves would come to the ghettos relatively rarely. It should be remembered that Nazi policy towards ghettos and their inhabitants was evolving. The Nazis started to create ghettos to control the Jews in the annexed territories because they did not know what to do with them. Their primary goal was to get rid of “parasites” from the occupied territories. In the beginning, they did not plan total extermination. It was the failure of the previous ideas – moving Jews out of the country, make them settle in extremely unfavourable places – that led the Nazis to the so-called Final Solution. When the decision was made to murder the Jews, the policy towards ghettos and their inhabitants was noticeably tightened. However, the ghetto management system itself had not changed.

How were ghettos supervised when only some of them were fenced?

Ghettos were supervised by the Jewish Order Service, subordinated to the Judenrat. Nazi or collaborative formations kept guard at some posts on the ghetto borders – if clearly defined – and there were also patrols. There were various solutions, adapted to local conditions.5 How do we try to count, from today’s research perspective, the number of ghetto victims?We assume that almost all ghetto inhabitants were murdered. Few people escaped from the ghettos; only a small percentage survived.

How many, in percentage, of the ghetto prisoners survived?

We can only talk about a few percent. The exact data are not known; in larger ghettos, some people were staying illegally and it is not possible to determine the exact number of inhabitants, and in smaller ghettos, where often no one or only a few individuals survived, the number of those imprisoned is also not entirely certain.

You are also a teacher. How to educate properly about the Holocaust?

From my experience, I know that in such education, what matters is not only the events but first and foremost their causes. Both students at schools and universities ask: “what happened?”, but their next question is: “why did it happen?”.  What were the reasons? Why did someone come up with an idea to murder the entire nation?  The teacher must be prepared for such questions. They must also consider whether they can handle such a subject. If they feel they can’t do it, they can ask someone else, or invite an educator from a museum that offers classes on the history of the Holocaust. What is important, it is worth quoting the testimonies of survivors as well as other witnesses of history in such education. It is best to use recorded testimonials, with image and sound. Mimicry of the speaker, visible emotions appeal to the audience much more. It all reinforces the message. The teacher must not be afraid to say in front of students and listeners: “I don’t know, I have to check it.” The Holocaust is a difficult and multi-threaded issue, you cannot know everything and it is good to have access to current scientific studies. Just in recent years, major publications which can be used in education have appeared on the Polish market of history books. A teacher who knows how to admit that they do not know something becomes more “human” and credible to their students. The students will listen more carefully and will surely grasp and remember what the teacher wants to tell them. Finally, I would like to add that in teaching about the Holocaust, it is very important to understand how memory works. The individual and the social one. Witnesses of the same events could remember them in different ways, which does not mean that one of them is deliberately lying. However, social memory is not the sum of individual memories. In a nutshell, it can be said that it is the result of the dominant narratives about the past. Social memories, just like individual ones, may vary. When teaching about the Holocaust, it is important to remember this. This way, unnecessary tensions can be avoided.

Interview conducted by: Anna Kilian

Photo Pilecki Institute