I have studied Polish history for well over a decade and have had a particular interest in the genocide of the Polish people during the 20th century and how they have tried to remember and commemorate their suffering without much success. I have identified three particular acts of genocide perpetrated against the Poles with the intent to eliminate Poles themselves or a specific segment of the Polish society.
The first was the Polish Operation of 1937 – 1938 which was an anti-Polish mass ethnic cleansing operation of the NKVD carried out in the Soviet Union against Poles. The second was General Plan Ost in 1941 when it was decided to eradicate the Polish nation entirely. The German leadership decided that in 15–20 years, the Polish state under German occupation was to be fully cleared of any ethnic Poles and settled by German colonists.
Then there was the Ukrainian Genocide in the Wolyn Massacre, which was carried out in German-occupied Poland by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army with the support of parts of the local Ukrainian population against the Polish minority in Volhynia, Eastern Galicia, parts of Polesia and Lublin region from 1943 to 1945. These actions resulted in between 50,000 and 100,000 deaths.
This collective memory is a part of the Polish nation and these tragedies are well-known in Poland, yet these horrific events are not known outside of Poland, partially because Poland was unable to write their history because they were imprisoned by the communists and were not free to share their story. While this was happening, others were also writing their history, and sometimes it was not always factual, nor was it motivated by honest intentions.
Poland and the Poles still suffer from this historical revisionism and this affects their image, as well as their political dealings with other countries still to this day. Their collective memory still is one of suffering and tragedy, yet one that has been silenced and distorted to fit others' agendas. This is an example of how one history can be manipulated even after so much trauma and still, in the end, end up often being perceived as some pariah or collaborationist country.
There is also an opposite end to this where some histories can be manipulated in another way where all of the negative aspects of the past are erased and written out of their history. This becomes their collective history, and it forms an identity of who these are and how they act today. Often this is the basis of how they think and what they believe. For some, their whole being is dependent on collective memory, and any attempt to question it may be met with resistance and anger.
In this paper, I will attempt to address objectively how some collective memory is used and abused and why some people are remembered and why some are forgotten. What happens when one group has a monopoly on collective memory and how it can be abused and manipulated. How does this happen and what are the results of this and why I believe it is unfair.
This may be a controversial paper, but collective memory is controversial, as is history. Also, in this paper, I will back up my thinking with facts and the manipulations that I have uncovered and how they relate to how collective history is being abused for specific agendas. I will present various opinions and theories that I believe are important to show what is happening with this as a past problem and as a current state of affairs regarding this issue.
Apartheid South Africa existed, and it was ignored and allowed and few spoke openly about this racist state. I feel what I am discussing and how history has been rewritten and manipulated, this allows the existence of a modern-day equivalent to South Africa, but people are afraid to speak up about the address the inequalities to persist. There are many reasons that this has happened.
Over time, the world has let one event allow others to become somehow immune to criticisms and accountability that other people face. In many ways, victims became victimizers and out of a sense of guilt or being shamed many have fallen silent and fearful. We live in a time of intellectual terrorism when addressing the problems with Israel and how the Holocaust has been orchestrated to let the abuses against Palestinians exist is considered antisemitic.
I believe I have a unique perspective as well because of my long and dedicated study of Poland and especially the Holocaust years, which I have also written extensively about. I have not always come to the same conclusion as others that are followers of modern “new” historians have; most of my research was drawn from first-hand accounts, diaries, and personal memoirs, especially those written directly at the time of the war. I have a mistrust of later memoirs because much memory has faded, and many are driven by personal motivations, and I have found factual errors in many that I have reviewed.
Maurice Halbwachs (1992) invented the term collective memory to define knowledge about the past that is shared, mutually acknowledged, and reinforced by collectivities. Most people previously thought that memories simply reflected past events; Halbwachs disagrees and stated that memories are socially constructed in light of present-day interests. “Interests”, in my opinion, is a vague term and can also allude to many different things. These interests can mean gaining or pursuing something that is beneficial for the specific group that has developed pursuant to collective history.
Much collective memory scholarship has since underscored that socially produced meanings filter how collectivities understand and remember; this scholarship simultaneously recognizes that collective memories are nonetheless bound by path dependency, as mnemonic practices take form in dialogue with earlier framings and as previous interpretations of the past can endure even as the past is reinterpreted (Schwartz 1991).
Halbwachs contrasted collective memory by how the active past informs the identities of collectivities, including public representation with autobiographical memory memories of events that we personally experience, including aggregated individual memories referenced as “collected memories.” Despite these distinctions, many scholars have asserted that the content of individual memories is shaped by socially constructed symbols, narratives, and knowledge.
People associate themselves with a group and their history and with that comes the collective memory that has been shared and it often shapes and defines who they are. In the United States especially being so diverse, there are distinct groups that have tried to shape their past and write or in some ways rewrite their history to create a picture of who they are as a people. Indeed, this creation is just a creation in many ways, and there are motivations behind this as well. Truths mixed with fiction will portray the face of what is desired, often at any cost.
We live in a memory-obsessed age and people in the west are also infatuated with autobiographies, especially with traumatic life narratives about the legacies of abusive childhoods, true crime, and stories about the dark side. Maybe life is so good in the west, that some people have a desire to connect to something horrific, perhaps it is something psychological in the American psyche.
Tourism now consists largely of the consumption of “heritage” such as castles and stately homes; memorials and museums increasingly dot the landscape, and commemorative events seem to occur with increasing frequency. Genocide is also affected by these broad cultural trends. Indeed, in some respects, it exemplifies them, there is a term that describes this kind of voyeurism where people have become fascinated with death sites, it is called “Dark Tourism”.
The perpetuation of genocide requires the mobilization of collective memories, as does the commemoration of it. For the individual victims of genocide, traumatic memories cannot be escaped. For societies, genocide has profound effects that are immediately felt, and that people are exhorted to “Never Forget”, this is particularly true with the Jewish Holocaust, which is at the forefront of the genocide competition, if one may say so.
The Holocaust has become more central in American cultural life, more so than the Civil War. Most states either demand or require some sort of Holocaust program (there are laws that enforce this) in their schools, and many universities now have endowed chairs in Holocaust Studies. Hardly a day goes by without some Holocaust-related news-story.
Polls show that many more Americans can identify with Holocaust than Pearl Harbor or the atomic bombing of Japan. As for museums and memorials, I counted seventy-eight in the United States alone. No doubt the Holocaust was a tragedy of major proportion, but its significance now overshadows almost all other American historical events.
So, like everything in the west, there is competition, and with that a competition for victimhood. So Those with the means and the political power will be able to place their tragedy to be the one with the main focus. One of the many ways they do this is by trying to create their genocide as one of complete uniqueness above all other genocides, but when looked at historically that fails. Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, and even the genocide of the Poles in Wolyn are comparable to the Jewish genocide.
Norman Finkelstein, son of Holocaust survivor, states that the claims of Holocaust uniqueness are intellectually barren and morally discreditable. They reek of supremacist ideological thinking and Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary, ridicules the Holocaust uniqueness claim as “a distasteful secular version of chosenness”.
Some ways of trying to justify this have been attributed to several leading Jews. Anti-Defamation League (ADL) head Abraham Foxman, claims the Holocaust “was not simply one example of genocide but a near successful attempt on the life of God's chosen children and, thus, on God himself. And Elie Wiesel is no less vehement that Jews are unique than he is about the uniqueness of the Holocaust: “Everything about us is different.” Polish- Jewish historian stated in regards to the difference between Poles and Jews, "This Jewish death was the result of the absolute impossibility to reach an agreement. For Poles it was simply a biological, natural question–just death, nothing more, whereas for Jews was a tragedy, a dramatic experience, metaphysics, the encounter with the highest.”
None of these claims of being superior will justify that the Jewish Holocaust was any different than other genocides. It only makes those trying to validate this look like racists, and yet they are free to say these statements without any recourse or judgment. Using these kinds of responses seems similar to the Aryan ideology of thinking, which they claim to abhor and fight so vehemently against.
It is hypocritical. Imagine if other people used this kind of speech? How would it be accepted? I doubt if another group of people using this kind of rationale for their discrimination, it would be accepted. How is it that this is only acceptable for Jewish people to say? Does suffering allow you to get away with such things?
The question is, Why? In the first place, unique suffering confers unique entitlement. The unique evil of the Holocaust, according to Jacob Neusner, this not only sets Jews apart from others, but also gives Jews a “claim upon those others.” For Edward Alexander, the uniqueness of The Holocaust is “moral capital”; Jews must “claim sovereignty” over this “valuable property.” In effect, Holocaust uniqueness – this “claim” upon others, this “moral capital” – serves as part of the reason for Israel’s nationhood, “The singularity of the Jewish people”.
This is a creation and a manipulation of collective memory and how it can be used for victimhood supremacy. This takes one person and categorizes them as special, separate from others, as somehow they should be memorialized in a special more profound way and this allows them to say and do things that others cannot. Objectively this is a form of supremacist ideology, but it is more than that. It is significant because these historical revisionisms are then used to build on, such as in the creation of Israel which is often now compared to apartheid South Africa and then as an excuse in the discrimination and racism against the Palestinians.
This is the same viewpoint that some white South African citizens had in regards to black South Africans because they felt they had “moral capital” Similarly, some Jews treat Palestinians with the same kind of treatment because of this kind of “moral capital” they believe they have and because, possibly they hear statements from the likes of the “spokesman for the Holocaust”, and unapologetic advocate for Israel, Nobel Peace prize winner Eli Weisel, “Everything about us is different.”. When one believes that about who they are, they may also think they are above the law and not accountable to the same moral codes that others are.
South Africans are keen to recognize the comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa. Nelson Mandela made a quite famous observation: "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians." For South Africans, whose memory of apartheid is still raw, Israel is a target not only because it is a remaining example of a hated system, but because for the colonized indigenous population, today's apartheid is worse. As a South African newspaper editor, Mondli Makhanya, put it in after a 2008 trip to the Middle East: "It seems to me that the Israelis would like the Palestinians to disappear. There was never anything like that in our case. The whites did not want the blacks to disappear."
Much of this has to do with the Holocaust Industry, which Norman Finkelstein writes about. The “Holocaust Industry” is something different from the Holocaust and many of those I wrote and write about are part of this industry. The definition of industry is: “people or companies engaged in a particular kind of commercial enterprise”, and this is what the Holocaust in many ways has become.
What we see is the promotion of the singularity and uniqueness of the Holocaust industry, this promoted a particularist, self-interested lesson that the Holocaust proves Jews are uniquely oppressed and that they therefore deserve a unique solution: a state, Israel, that must be given unique leeway by western states to commit crimes in violation of international law. The Holocaust Industry – very much to be distinguished from the real events of the Holocaust – is deeply entwined in, and rationalized by, the perpetuation of the racialist, colonial project of Israel (Cook,2020).
Yet in regards to speaking out against this injustice, there is an overwhelming fear to criticize Israel, because there has been an effort to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, and critics are silenced and afraid to say anything that may be offensive. The same European leaders who a few years ago marched in Paris shouting “Je suis Charlie” – upholding the inalienable free speech rights of white Europeans to offend Muslims by insulting and ridiculing their Prophet – are now queuing up to outlaw free speech when it is directed against Israel (Cook, 2020).
An example of how history has been manipulated is the Eichman trial and the Kapo trials. The Eichmann trial, an integral part of Holocaust history was one of the most famous trials and there is a wealth of information on it. It was a public event that told the story of the Holocaust survivors and gave them a voice and a chance to hold one of the German war criminals accountable. The Eichmann Trial serves as a positive memory agent in regards to Jewish collective memory and how justice was in a sense was supposed to serve.
Practically unknown, but in fact, more common than most historians will openly ever discuss or write about was Jewish collaboration with the Germans, although Jewish diaries are clear about this fact. This dark part of history has become taboo and those who do openly write about this can face claims of being labeled a Holocaust Denier or Anti-Semite. Obviously, there is something to hide and this is clearly the case when those who try and write about this history face such repercussions.
Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University states that to question a survivor’s testimony; to denounce the role of Jewish collaborators – this is all evidence of Holocaust denial. The most insidious form of denial, she suggests is “immoral equivalencies”: that is, denying the uniqueness of the Holocaust. People are terrified to question anything about the Holocaust, this is intellectual terrorism. It seems one cannot even question the authenticity of a survivor’s testimony. Yet I have found many survivor testimonies that discuss Jewish collaboration with the Germans. These theories make no sense,
Jerzy Kosinski for example, he wrote “The Painted Bird”, seen as an iconic autobiographical depiction of a young boy’s tragic war experience in Poland, it was quickly added to the canon of Holocaust literature. He claimed to have lived a torturous life beaten and sexually assaulted by Poles. It was a hit and he became the darling of Jewish circles, however, The Painted Bird”. Later it was revealed that Polish villagers took him in and protected him from the Germans, despite the death penalty that awaited them if they were found out. It is still read in some universities. I assume questioning this would be the equivalent of Holocaust denial.
To remain a victim, one also must be remembered as innocent of crimes and currently, the Polish nation has been targeted by Israel and many Jews as collaborators in an attempt to blur history and avoid accountability. I find this disturbing when in fact, only in Poland did one face the death penalty for oneself and their whole family for even giving a Jew a piece of bread, yet estimates of Polish aid goes up to three million individuals. As for being victims, Daniel Goldhagen, author of “Hitlers Willing Executioners, construes antisemitism as a Gentile mental pathology; the “host domain” is “the mind”. By doing this, he is conferring total blamelessness on the Jews.
Jehozua Perhle, in his diary, stated “The liquidation of Warsaw Ghetto is the most terrible day in the history of not only Poland but of Judaism all over the world. The members of the Judenrat and the Judischer Ordsdnungdienst played a shameful role as supporters and henchmen of the extermination of Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto has unveiled the dirty face of the Jewish community. The type of denunciation we see here has never existed amongst the Poles. I cannot believe that any other nation that has retained its national pride can fall so low”. Without the aid of the Polish community outside of the Jewish Ghetto as well, the Jews inside would have starved to death in a matter of months and this was done with the risk of their own lives.
Comments like those of Perhle or the words of those that lived at the time like Emanual Ringelblum, nor those of esteemed Jewish philosopher Hannah Arent and her fierce condemnation of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis are even considered today. What is now heard and taken as historical truth is from the “New School” of Holocaust Studies, whose leading historians include Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engleking, the one mentioned earlier that stated how Jewish and Polish deaths were different. In my opinion, those racist words should disqualify her from being viewed as an objective historian, but no such action has been taken.
Labeled as “scientists”, their works consist of cherry-picking the worst of the Poles and the martyrdom of the Jews with no mention of Jewish criminality that took place during the war. Their word is taken as gold and it is read by many Jews who certainly believe in the martyrdom scenario that they have grown up with and have been in many ways indoctrinated with. Recently a Pole, a niece of one of the individuals they wrote about claiming he was a collaborator, actually saved Jews. She sued and won an apology and in the media, there was outrage about freedom of speech against Holocaust scholarship and the two became martyrs themselves.
These are just a few examples of cases of Holocaust historical problems that are problematic for historians that would like to write about the past objectively. To do so would be at a great risk for their career and future. There is a silence in this area and no one is willing to breach this topic out of fear for their livelihood and of course reputation. Being labeled a Holocaust Denier is a crushing accusation and it doesn’t matter if it isn’t true factually, we already know from statements how broad that term actually is.
Anything can be taken as antisemitism and individuals are targeted for practically anything and usually the Holocaust will come up as a part of a smear to insult those that are being persecuted. Peter Schäfer, a respected professor of ancient Judaism and Christianity studies who was forced to resign as director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum last year. Schäfer’s crime, in the eyes of Germany’s Jewish establishment, was that he staged an exhibition on Jerusalem that recognized the city’s three religious traditions, including a Muslim one (Cook, 2020).
This time it was in regards to being anti-Israel and promoting historical distortions. Mondoweiss wrote that a reporter for Israel’s right-wing Jerusalem Post, which has been actively colluding Schäfer observes: “The accusation of antisemitism is a club that allows one to deal a death blow, and political elements who have an interest in this are using it, without a doubt… The museum staff gradually entered a state of panic. Then of course we also started to do background checks. Increasingly it poisoned the atmosphere and our work.” with the Israeli government to smear critics of Israel, contacted Schäfer with a series of inciteful emails. The questions included “Did you learn the wrong lesson from the Holocaust?” and “Israeli experts told me you disseminate antisemitism – is that true?”
The example of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis during the Kapo Trials is unknown and ignored on purpose this serves as a negative memory agent and has become a case of “collective amnesia”. Indeed, the Israeli press reported on the proceedings but gave them limited coverage. Indeed, over time, the terms Judenrat and Kapo, instead of being historically accurately placed they turned into derogatory expressions marking especially those in favor of negotiating with the Palestinians.
Over time, Kapos just became victims like all Jews. They did it because they had to do it. This has been the excuse regardless of the cruelty, depravity, motives, or time period. Collaborators become victims as well. This never applies to non-Jews though, even if under the threat of death they were forced to identify Jews, they are still condemned as collaborators. This is just another historical double-standard applied to Jewish victimhood.
In regards to the early years of Israel and how the Holocaust in relation to Jewish history was affected by manipulation, as well as how personal history was often neglected to shape national identity and collective memory, historian Anita Shapira describes the phenomenon thus: “The memory of the Holocaust as a key event in Jewish history was raised over and over again. It was always related in massive terms: six million Jews; Auschwitz, Maidanek; Treblinka. The private holocausts of the survivors did not serve as a topic for discussion or interest. The collective memory was a blanket that hid all vestige of private memory, of personal experience.”
This is why so many individual stories like the ones that were told in the Kapo trials, the personal diaries, and the memoirs about Jewish collaboration are censored or ignored because that private memory is not convenient for the collective memory. Those are negative memory agents and are not meant to be forgotten to the past, as all Jews were martyrs or heroes and current collective Jewish collective memory is as it is at the present.
As for the state of Israel, writer Idith Zertal captures the immense impact and how the Holocaust is intertwined completely with the nation and perhaps without the tragedy, there would be no Israel at all, “The Holocaust has always been present in Israel’s speech and silences . . . in legislation, orations, ceremonies, courtrooms, schools, in the press, poetry . . . Through a dialectical process of appropriation and exclusion, remembering and forgetting, Israeli society has defined itself in relation to the Holocaust: it regarded itself as both the heir to the victims and their accuser, atoning for their sins and redeeming their death.”
Zertal connects the link between the Holocaust and Israel and how the Holocaust was essential in the founding of Israel. Without the German genocide of the Jews, the Jews would have no excuse to claim that they needed a nation of their own, albeit at the expense of people that were already living on the land they claimed as their own. Moreover, they had the blessing of many American Christian evangelical denominations that supported them believing they were God’s “chosen” people and the land always belonged to them because God said so.
This also a case of historical revisionism and manufacturing of collective memory that was manipulated into the creation of the “Jewish” nation of Israel, that somehow Israel belonged to the Jewish people, it was and always has been theirs. This is contrary to what the memories of those that were residing in the land of Palestine, pre-Israel, recall. They have defined this era as the Nabka.
This was 1948 and Nabka literally means exodus. This occurred when more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were ethnically cleansed from prewar Palestine. They fled or were expelled from their homes. Between 400 and 600 Palestinian villages were sacked during the war while urban Palestine was practically destroyed. It is important to note that the Nabka was in 1948 as was the founding of Israel.
It is important to remember as well that war-crimes (and still are) were perpetrated against Arab Palestinians as well that played into psychological warfare. One example was Deir Yassin when around 130 fighters from the Far-right wing Zionist paramilitary groups Irgun and Lehi killed at least 107 Palestinian Arabs, including women and children, Victims were essentially shot, stabbed, and blown up at close range by hand grenades.
Prime Minister Begin hailed the taking of Deir Yassin as a “splendid act of conquest" that would serve as a model for the future: in a note to his commanders he wrote: “Tell the soldiers: you have made history in Israel with your attack and your conquest. Continue thus until victory. As in Deir Yassin, so everywhere, we will attack and smite the enemy. God, God, Thou has chosen us for conquest.”
There were Jews that spoke out about this atrocity, including Einstein. Today they would be considered “wrong Jew”. What we face today besides that Holocaust industry is the Antisemitism industry that affects Jews critical of Israel. The witch-hunt targets Jews critical of Israel, Jews opposed to the occupation, and Jews who support a boycott of the illegal settlements or of Israel itself. Again, the problem with these “bad Jews” is that they allude to a universal lesson, one that says Palestinians have at least as much right to self-determination, to dignity and security, in their historic homeland as Jewish immigrants who fled European persecution.
Taking all of these issues into account one can witness how collective memory has been manipulated and created to fit agendas. It happens over a period of time and it is carefully constructed and in this case, it is well done and challenging to oppose in any manner in the case of any agenda put forward. For every agenda, there are groups set up to defend the particular issue at hand, and this is a challenge that hopefully, with the fight for truth and justice, we can overcome together and bring to light equality and freedom.
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