Collective Memories of Death Camps and Complicity in Nazi-Occupied Poland

Ron Berger —

The Polish government recently passed a law making it illegal in Poland to accuse the nation of complicity in the crimes committed by Nazi Germany in Polish territory during World War II, and from using the term “Polish death camps” to describe the concentration camps that were established and operated by the Nazis.

The legislation, signed into law by president Andrzej Duda of the Law and Justice Party, a right-wing nationalist party, marked a victory for those seeking to defend the “good name of Poland” and to repudiate negative portrayals of Polish history.

To be sure, the term “Polish death camps” represents a historical misrepresentation, and I don’t blame the Polish people for objecting to this phrase. When President Barack Obama used this phrase during a Medal of Freedom ceremony in 2012, I cringed. But denying Polish complicity, and outlawing use of particular terms, is an entirely different matter.

As a student of the Holocaust, one way I have approached issues such as these is through the lens of the sociological notion of collective memory. In general, collective memory entails the ways in which historical events are recollected in group context, if they are recollected at all, for collective memory entails both the remembering and the forgetting of the past. While collective memory is constructed, in part, by members of a society who actually lived through an event, it is also constructed by subsequent generations through academic historiography, literature, films, memorials, museums—and politics.

Importantly, collective memory is a contested terrain, as different groups, including nation states, compete with each other to establish particular narratives of the past as legitimate or delegitimate, often to achieve particular political agendas. Thus we may speak of multiple collective memories, rather than a single memory, and expect Poland or Germany or Israel, for example, to remember the tragedy of the Holocaust in different ways.

With this general orientation in mind, I will consider the nature of Holocaust collective memory in Poland, beginning with the immediate postwar period and then up to the present controversy.

Contested Memory at Auschwitz

Poland was the primary “killing field” of the Holocaust. With the largest Jewish population in Europe, more than half of the estimated 6 million Jews who were killed were Polish Jews, and many thousands of others from other countries were exterminated in the death camps located there. At the same time, some 3 million non-Jewish Poles were also killed by the Nazis, leading some to refer to this element of Polish history as the “forgotten Holocaust.” As the majority population, however, the proportion of deaths among non-Jewish Poles, while tragic, was much lower (about 10 percent) than the proportion of deaths among Polish Jews (about 90 percent).

Nevertheless, in the early postwar years, when Poland was under the domination of the Soviet Union, the Polish Communist Party advanced a narrative of the war that focused on the Communist struggle against Western imperialism and fascism. At the State Museum that was established at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp, for instance, the United States was portrayed as the successor to Nazism, and Polish resisters who were interned in the camps were portrayed as heroic martyrs who had tried to defend the Polish nation against Nazi aggression.

Maksymilian Kolbe

In the 1970s, the Catholic Church in Poland began asserting greater resistance to atheistic Communist authority and involving itself in disputes about collective memory, hoping to increase the Church’s visibility, underscore its relevance for Polish nationalism, and in the words of historian Jonathan Huener, lend a “redemptive meaning to Auschwitz.” In October of 1972, for example, the Church organized a holy mass in honor of Father Maksymilian Kolbe on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the main extermination camp of the Auschwitz complex, which was attended by a large gathering of people. Kolbe had suffered a martyred death in Auschwitz in 1941, after offering to take the place of another man who had been sentenced to death by starvation as punishment for the escape of another prisoner. Before the war, however, Kolbe had been a prominent anti-Semite and editor of an anti-Semitic newspaper, so his choice as an iconic symbol of the Holocaust evoked controversy internationally, especially among Jews.

When Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyłla was elected as Pope John Paul II in 1978 and began speaking out on behalf of religious freedom and human rights, the Polish people were emboldened to assert themselves against Communist domination through expressions of religious faith that were conflated with nationalism. During his papacy Pope John Paul II also engaged in acts of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews, including the historic opening of diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel in 1994. His imprint on Holocaust memory, however, was not without controversy.

Pope John Paul II

Early in his papacy, in June of 1979, Pope John Paul II made an historic nine-day visit to Poland, giving sermons at various historical sites, Auschwitz-Birkenau among them, where he gave a speech on a raised alter adorned with a tall cross before tens of thousands of faithful and described the camp as “the Golgotha of our age.” To invoke Golgotha, the place of Christ’s crucifixion, was an explicit invocation of Auschwitz as a site of Christian suffering, a point that was brought home further when he also invoked Father Kolbe’s martyrdom, as well as the martyrdom of Carmelite Sister Bendicta of the Cross, better known as Edith Stein, who also died at the camp. Stein had been a well-known philosopher, but she also had been a Jew who had converted to Catholicism. For the Pope to have invoked Stein’s memory was, in Huener’s words, “perhaps only natural and may also have been intended as a gesture of inclusivity and reconciliation between Catholics and Jews.” But in light of his Golgatha comparison, many Jews worldwide regarded it as a misconstrued effort to bring the Holocaust under the banner of a Christian narrative of suffering and redemption.

Carmelite convent

A few years later, in 1984, a group of Carmelite Catholic nuns moved into and renovated a building that was adjacent to the first Auschwitz camp, the site of the main museum exhibits, for use as a convent. During the war the building had been used to store Zyklon B and the stripped belongings of camp prisoners. Many Jews were offended by this infringement of “symbolic territoriality,” to use sociologist Marvin Prosono’s phrase, especially when Father Werenfried van Straaten, a Dutch Dominican priest, began a fund-raising drive for the convent that would help it become, in his words, “a spiritual fortress and a guarantee of the conversion of strayed brothers from our countries,” a not-too-veiled call to convert Jews to Catholicism. As pressure mounted from both Jewish and Catholic circles to relocate the convent as a gesture of respect and sympathy for world Jewry, a number of religious leaders met at an interfaith gathering in Geneva in 1986 and signed an accord declaring that there would be “no permanent Catholic place of worship on the site of the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps,” and agreeing to relocate the convent within two years nearby but clearly outside the immediate vicinity as part of a center for “information, education, meeting and prayer.”

By the summer of 1989, when construction on the relocated convent had not yet begun, the conflict escalated. New York Rabbi Avraham Weiss led a small group of demonstrators who climbed over the gate surrounding the convent and knocked on the convent door, wanting to confront the nuns about their occupation of what Weiss called “the world’s largest Jewish cemetery.” The protesters were greeted instead by Polish workmen who threw buckets of water mixed with paint (and purportedly urine) on them, and who beat and kicked them while the nuns and Polish police looked on. A few weeks later, Cardinal Józef Glemp, the head of the Polish Catholic Church, delivered an inflammatory speech before tens of thousands of followers at Częstochowa, the holiest Christian shrine in Poland, accusing the Jewish protesters of trying to assault the nuns and destroy convent property. He also chastised world Jewry for using their clout in the media to spread anti-Polish sentiments.

The War of the Crosses

The Carmelite convent was eventually relocated in 1993, when Pope John Paul II finally intervened, but that was not the end of the dispute. During the convent controversy, a local Catholic priest and some Catholic Auschwitz survivors had placed the cross that had been used at the Pope’s Birkenau visit on the grounds of the convent. The “papal cross,” as it was called, had been dismantled and stored in the basement of a local church and was now reconstructed at the site without any public fanfare or ritual. According to historian Geneviève Zubryzcki:

the planting of crosses to sacralize a site, to give it sacred immunity, had been a common practice under Communism. Most frequently, the tactic was used to defend church property, but the symbol was also used as a “protective weapon” against the Communist state during protests and rallies. In this case, the erection of the papal cross in the yard of the Carmelite convent was clearly such a tactic as well as a form of protest against the planned relocation of the Carmelite nuns.

After the nuns vacated the convent, the cross remained, against the well-publicized objections of Jews. In the spring of 1998, during the annual “March of the Living” program, which brings Jewish students from all over the world to Poland, Catholic protesters raised banners and posters with slogans such as “Defend the Cross” and “Keep Jesus at Auschwitz,” turning the issue into a full-blown controversy. Kazimierz Świtoń, a former anticommunist activist and official of the right-wing Confederation for an Independent Poland, initiated a hunger strike at the site of the cross, demanding that the Catholic Church make a firm commitment to keeping the cross in place. After failing to secure this commitment, according to Zubryzki, Świtoń “appealed to his fellow Poles to plant 152 crosses on the grounds … both to commemorate the (documented) deaths of 152 ethnic Poles executed at that specific site by the Nazis in 1941 and to ‘protect and defend the papal cross.’” Świtoń’s appeal was successful, and the site was

transformed into the epicenter of the War of the Crosses, as individuals, civic organizations, and religious groups from every corner of Poland (and as far away as Canada, the United States, and Australia) answered Świtoń’s call to create a “valley of crosses.” … During that summer, the site became the stage for prayer vigils, Masses, demonstrations and general nationalist agitation. It was the destination of choice for pilgrims, journalists, and tourists in search of a sacred cause, a good story, or a free show. Religious … as well as secular symbols such as red-and-white Polish flags and national coats of arms featuring a crowned white eagle [a symbol of Polish sovereignty] … adorned the crosses and added to their symbolic weight and complexity.

War of the Crosses

The War of the Crosses lasted for 14 months and became an international controversy, as U.S. Congressional representatives and Israeli officials demanded their removal. In the end, the Polish government and Catholic Church arranged for all but the initial papal cross to be relocated elsewhere. This “compromise” essentially left Świtoń and his followers victorious, since the maintenance of the papal cross was their objective all along.

Importantly, the War of the Crosses conflict over symbolic territoriality was not simply a dispute about the significance of Auschwitz. As Zubryzcki observes, the conflict was also, if not primarily, about the nature of Polish identity in post-Communist Poland. During the Communist era, the cross was in many respects a progressive symbol of opposition to the State. But with the fall of Communism, especially as it had been appropriated by right-wing nationalists, it has become a narrow symbol of Polish exclusivity, a declaration of Polish citizenship and Catholicism as being one and the same.

In Poland, Jews or Jewishness are sometimes invoked as symbols of anyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, who oppose a “strictly exclusive ethno-Catholic vision of Poland.” Even Catholic officials who advocate a more inclusive conception of Polish identity are accused of being “crypto-Jews,” as are those who favor the entrance of Poland into a more cosmopolitan European Union. As Stanisław Krajewski, a Polish philosophy and Jewish activist, observes, “It is not so much that Jews are blamed as enemies [of Poland] but that enemies are labeled as Jewish.” To label someone or a set of ideas as “Jewish” is to invoke a general cultural epithet that expresses disapproval, even over matters that have nothing to do with Jews or Jewishness. It represents a way of narrowly delineating the accepted qualities of Polish citizenship, marginalizing minority groups who are unwelcome by the majority.

The Jedwabne Massacre Controversy

Jan Gross

In 2000, Polish-Jewish historian Jan Gross published a book about a massacre that took place in the small Polish town of Jedwabne in the summer of 1941. The English translation was published as Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, the next year. In that book Gross reports that about half the Gentile residents of this town of about 1,600 residents rose up and killed the other half, who were Jews, with the approval but without the participation of the handful of Germans who occupied the area. That a historian should bring such a “dark past” of Poland’s history to the forefront would inevitable provoke controversy because it was at variance with the Polish martyrdom theme that had been integral to the Auschwitz convent and War of Crosses controversies. One Polish critic dismissed Gross’s book as a “lie aiming to slander the good name of Poland.” This sentiment harkened back to a statement made by Władysław Siła-Nowicki, a prominent anticommunist attorney and anti-Nazi resister, who in 1987 had said:

I am proud of my nation’s stance in every respect during the period of occupation, and in this I include the attitude toward the tragedy of the Jewish nation. Obviously, attitudes toward the Jews during that period do not give us a particular reason to be proud, but neither are there any grounds for shame, and even less for ignominy. Simply, we could have done relatively little more than we actually did. … Let no-one talk to us, our people, our nation, who fought at the time of the German occupation, about our supposedly unfulfilled moral obligations.

But others welcomed Gross’s contribution to the dialogue about Poland’s past, reminding Poles that after the war, in the city of Kielce on July 1, 1946, a mob of Poles had attacked and killed 42 Jews and wounded about 50 others. And in addition to Jedwabne, research has documented the involvement of Poles in the killing of Jews in eight other Polish towns during the war. Historians Antony Polonsky and Joanna Michlic also point to the “wave of anti-Jewish violence that accompanied the first weeks of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union” in the summer of 1941, where research indicates that thousands of Jewish were killed by local Ukrainians and Lithuanians.

Polonsky and Miclic conclude that Gross’s “Neighbors challenges the widely accepted view that during the Holocaust the Poles were, at worst, mostly hostile bystanders, unwilling or unable to assist their Jewish neighbors and profiting materially from their destruction: Gross provides a concrete case of active Polish involvement in the process of mass murder.” That this makes some Poles uncomfortable, as perhaps it should, is explained by Polish psychologist Krystyna Skarzyska: “It is understandable that we feel psychological discomfort when our own community is blamed for serious sins. The inclusion of cruelty toward others in national collective memory is completely at odds with our self-image. Its acceptance is almost impossible for people who are convinced that they have usually been victims and solely victims.”

Back to Polish Death Camps

It is in this context of disputed memories of the Holocaust that we should understand the current dispute regarding the so-called “Polish death camps.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the new Polish law a form of Holocaust denial, while Israeli journalist Lahav Harkov wrote that you don’t get to 3 million Jewish deaths “without cooperation.” Poles, in turn, have called the Israeli opposition “anti-Polish” and encouraged their government not to give in to “Israeli bullying.”

A Polish colleague of mine recently complained to me that, while Poles like he accept a burden of guilt for the deaths of so many Jews, this anti-Polish narrative is one-sided and unfair to the many Poles who aided Jews in need and helped them survive, including the more than 6,600 who have received the formal honor of being designated as the “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Israeli government. Responding to the Israeli government’s complaints, an editorial in the tabloid-style newspaper Fakt, one of the best-selling dailies in Poland, asserts that it’s “hard to understand why” the Israelis are so outraged. After all, Poles have “been fighting for years” to stop people from using “the deceitful term ‘Polish death camps.’” Poland was occupied and brutalized by the Nazis, the editorial notes, and it was Germany, not Poland, that was responsible for what happened.

On the other hand, writing in the more liberal Gaezetta Wyborcza, journalist Dominika Wielowyska notes that the Law and Justice Party has given anti-Semites a platform for blaming Jews for Communism and spreading the defamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the forged book that purports to outline a Jewish plot to take over the world. Law and Justice politicians also praised the 60,000 demonstrators who marched through Warsaw last November chanting “white Europe” and “pure blood.”

Thus, the current controversy is but a continuation of a longer story, one that implicates competing views about the future of Polish identity. Will it be a nation marked by ethnic exclusivity, marginalizing memories of the “other,” or will it be a nation of ethnic pluralism, inclusive of others’ memories and acknowledging the wrongs done to them.

Ron Berger recently published Children, Save Yourselves! One Family’s Story of Holocaust Survival (Little Creek Press, 2018). In this book, Ron tells the story of his father’s and uncle’s survival in Nazi-occupied Poland. Ron’s father endured several concentration camps, including Auschwitz, as well as a horrific winter death march. Ron’s uncle survived by passing as a Catholic among anti-Semitic Poles, including a group of anti-Nazi Polish partisans, eventually becoming an officer in the Soviet Army.


Ronald J. Berger, The Holocaust, Religion, and the Politics of Collective Memory (Transaction, 2012).

Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Penguin, 2000).

Jonathan Huener, Auschwitz, Poland, and the Politics of Commemoration, 1945-1979 (Ohio University Press, 2003).

Richard C. Lukas, Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation 1939-1944 (University Press of Kentucky, 1986).

Antony Polonsky (ed.), My Brother’s Keeper? Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust (Routledge, 1990).

Antony Polonsky & Joanna B. Michlic (eds.), The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy Over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland (Princeton University Press, 2004).

Marvin Prosono, “Symbolic Territoriality and the Holocaust: The Controversy over the Carmelite Convent at Auschwitz,” in Perspectives on Social Problems, vol. 6 (1994).

Judith Vonberg, “Poland to Outlaw References to ‘Polish Death Camps’ in Holocaust Bill,” (Feb. 2, 2018).

The Week, “Poland: Don’t Call Us Complicit in the Holocaust” (Feb. 9, 2018).

Geneviève Zubryzcki, The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland (University of Chicago Press, 2006).

6 thoughts on “Collective Memories of Death Camps and Complicity in Nazi-Occupied Poland

  1. You’ve written an important and excellent article! Jakob Weiss, writing autobiographically in The Lemberg Mosiac, also left little doubt as to Polish complicity. In writing about Lvov, his book filled a gap down to the gauge of the railroad tracks the German High Command failed to take into consideration, as well as the infighting between the SS and the Wehrmacht. That being said, there are plenty of instances when people took someone under their wing and hid them, too. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the book critic, recalled an important example. After he and his wife escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto, a Polish couple took them in and hid them. Periodically, when their host got drunk he’d declaim, “The mightiest man in the world decided you should die. Me, a poor typesetter from Warsaw, decided you should live. Let’s see who wins.” Since the majority did very little to help, we can be all the more grateful to the few who did.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Collective memory far too often exhibits tribalism at its worst, whether religious, ethnic, nationalistic, or other variations. Sadly, reflecting just on Christianity’s 19-1/2 century history, as noted by many Biblical scholars, the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, & John sequentially express passages escalating an anti-Jewish tenor. It took only two generations for this to emerge (from the 30s AD into the 70s and 80s), so ironic because the historical Jesus had focused on unconditional acceptance of one another’s shared humanity; the lesson to strive to reflect divine values & actions in worldly life became hostage to retained tribalism. Historians of religion document the subsequent bloody trail of Jewish persecutions across time in Western Civilization. The affirmed collective memories of probably most practicing Christians today either are unaware of such devastating realities, at one extreme, or are in denial & tend to still blame “the Jews” as Christ killers, at the other. It seems much of this persists in aspects of world history since the 1930s through current times . . .

    It is sad that the compassionate & redemptive themes threading through both the Jewish Bible (Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament cannot serve to knit a collective human fabric of mutual tolerance and respect, at the very least. I make the above comments neither to overstate history nor to offend anyone. Ron’s piece seems to reinforce the continuing tragedy of our human failures to master unlearned lessons of great consequence to our ultimately shared world.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Today I read a story about a YouTube video put out by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a prominent Jewish-American group, that further inflamed this controversy by using the historically inaccurate term “Polish Holocaust” and calling for the U.S. to sever its ties with Poland. Jonathan Ornstein, director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, persuaded the Foundation to remove the video, which they did, noting that the Polish Jewish community was concerned that the inflammatory video jeopardized the safety of Jews in Poland.


  4. Today I read that the last surviving Christian Poles who helped Jews during the Holocaust wrote an open letter to Polish and Israeli authorities, asking them to seek a path of “dialogue and reconciliation” amid the diplomatic crisis that has emerged over this issue.


Comments are encouraged.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s