Poland and Holocaust History

Cressida Trew, winner of this year's Julia Wood Essay Prize, shows that Polish historians under political duress and with the need to forge a positive national identity have denied rather than confronted the Holocaust. 

The question of how to interpret the Holocaust has forced historians to confront fundamental questions about the nature of human identity and indeed about the validity of history itself. Complicity in genocide sits very uneasily with national pride. Nowhere is this more so than in Poland, where so many of the death camps were located. Before the Second World War, Polish Jewry numbered 3.3 million, whereas postwar numbers totalled only 240,000 (a figure which had fallen to 9,000 by 1970). A total of around 5.5 million people were murdered in the Polish camps: of these 4 million were of Jewish origin, 3 million being Polish Jews.

Research conducted in Poland in the 1960s suggests that hundreds of Poles were executed by the Nazis for aiding Jews and that thousands more helped Jews in various ways. However, the remainder of the population of 30 million in Poland did not offer any aid to Jews, and while it is important to avoid blanket generalisations – especially in view of the circumstances of the Nazi occupation – this fact is a very disturbing one when placed within the context of widespread Polish anti-Semitism before, during and after the war. Thus the problems presented to Polish governments after 1945 by the Holocaust were deep-rooted. It is the argument of this essay that their 'solutions' expressed political, ideological and national concerns that in many ways reflect a cross-section of the anxieties that constitute anti-Semitism.

Polish history and the Holocaust

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