The Holocaust in the eyes of Polish youth

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When walking through the streets of Polish towns and villages, we pass by houses which were once built and inhabited by Jews. Buildings which are now wholesalers, shops, seldom museums and even more rarely open synagogues used to be places where the Jews who had lived in Poland for almost thousand years, used to pray. Are we aware of that?

When traveling along Polish roads, we tend not to think about how many of them were built by Jews forced into slave labor by the Germans and their collaborators during World War II. Polish territories, both those annexed by the Third Reich and by the Soviet Union, as well as those constituting the General Government, along with the territories of the Baltic States, Romania, Ukraine, and Belarus, became the epicenter of the genocide of Jews. The number of representatives of this nation who died in death camps on Polish land is 43% of 5.8 million. Others often died near their homes, in many cases at the hands of their own neighbors who collaborated with the Nazis. How can we tell the story of the Holocaust so that survivors can recognize their own fate in the narration?

How can we tell this story to the generations of descendants of victims, executioners, and witnesses of the Holocaust? In the foreword to the collection of short stories by Charlotte Delbo (Auschwitz and after), an outstanding writer, member of the French Resistance movement deported to Auschwitz, Laurence Langer gives, among others, the example of a Polish navy-blue policeman. This man was "hunting" for Jews and at the same time he was hiding a Jewish girl at his home. Langer writes that he is unable to explain such behavior. Are we aware of the existence of such paradoxes?

Scarce knowledge

The author's research project was initiated in 2008 at the Centre for Holocaust Studies at the Jagiellonian University (CHS). It was co-financed by the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research (ITF), currently the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah. The project focused on the determination of the attitudes of Polish youth towards Jews, the Holocaust, and remembrance. Another objective was to evaluate good educational practices. These were selected from analyzed examples of the reconstruction of the memory of Polish Jews and their culture, history, and murder in the local communities of Lublin, Warsaw, and the Świętokrzyskie voivodeship.

The scope of research encompassed a nation-wide survey (control group of 1000 people aged 17–18), a focus- group interview with teacher-experts (carried out by CEM Market & Public Opinion Research Institute in Kraków), an evaluation of the author's own curricula regarding education in the subjects of Jewish history and culture, and regarding projects connected with Holocaust remembrance (experimental group of 1110 students of secondary schools and universities or colleges). Also included in the analyses were participant observations of selected educational curricula in Tykocin and Treblinka, Kielce, Lublin, Bodzentyn, Starachowice, and Warsaw, as well as individual interviews with teachers and local leaders.

The research proved that knowledge about the Holocaust among students was scarce. Only 14% of them were able to give the correct number of Jewish victims in World War II. What is worth noting about the results is that the memory of the Holocaust is important for 38% of Polish youth for personal reasons, while 47% of young Poles do not have an opinion about whether this memory is important to them. They lack the knowledge that nearly 90% of approximately 3.5 million Polish Jews died during World War II, and they do not have the information or capability to include the Jewish minority in their own civic group.

Jewish cemetery in Bodzentyn near Kielce. Photo: CHS archives


It is crucial that the percentage of young people for whom knowledge about Nazi crimes is important has not decreased in the last 10 years, i.e., since the first measurement in 1998, but has even slightly increased by 5%. "While watching the fourth generation of witnesses of World War II during the trip to memorial sites initiated by the students of the 64th Secondary School in Warsaw with their history teacher, Robert Szuchta, we noticed moments of reflection," comments Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs, PhD, head of the research project concerning awareness of the Holocaust. Emotions are also noticeable in impressions from the trips to Tykocin and Treblinka: "Tykocin — a ghost town. There was nobody, we saw no more than three people. I imagined what the town looked like before the Holocaust, before World War II. It was devastating," said one of the students.

Students of the 64th Secondary School in Warsaw told us, "It was definitely an emotional experience which I will certainly remember." What was important for students was the approach of the accompanying teacher, who did not leave the young people alone but still gave them time to think on their own. "The fact that there was no hurry (…) no such thing as: quick, quick, let's move on, there's no time to stop, let's have it done and go on. There is a chance to feel. Not only to find out what happened to those people but to feel it," concluded a secondary school student. These thoughts are consistent with the important discourse concerning the strategy of teaching about the Holocaust and the importance of the intellectual approach, i.e., the transfer of knowledge, and the emotional approach, i.e., empathy, in talking about the difficult past.

Creating memory

Most of the students participating in research disagree with the statement that the Holocaust is not important today because it took place more than 60 years ago, although one third of the participants do not have a specific opinion (neither "agree" nor "disagree"), while every tenth student is willing to agree with the statement. On the other hand, it is quite worrying that Polish youth show a large degree of indifference towards antisemitic graffiti, in spite of so many initiatives to cover antisemitic inscriptions on Polish streets.

Young people express open attitudes towards the memory of the Holocaust, although they often lack knowledge about basic facts. Second grade secondary school students are not ready to create a common narration and memory encompassing both Poles and Jews with regard to the Holocaust. They still manifest defensive attitudes regarding the attitude of Poles towards Jews during World War II.

The focus-group interview conducted among teachers in Kraków by Szymon Beźnic from CEM Market & Public Opinion Research Institute resulted in the development of recommendations concerning the curricula for teaching Jewish history. However, a lack of conclusions concerning the extent of the realization of the previous curricula remains: Were they successful? How did young people react? What should be emphasized in particular? As a result, it is impossible to compare different versions of curricula in their effectiveness. Teachers may often be discouraged from doing tasks related to the transfer of knowledge about the Holocaust because they must devote their personal time and energy, and because there is no reward for doing so. This is why teachers who are involved in teaching about Shoah and shaping the open attitudes of young people deserve so much recognition.

As a continuation of the research project, information is being gathered about local grassroots initiatives that are related to the heritage of Polish Jews. "We would like to create an audio-visual workshop for students and scientists and to develop our library here at the Center for Holocaust Studies of the Jagiellonian University. Within our studies, we would also like to deal with the most difficult, even controversial issues, e.g., connected with the lives of the rescuers, who often feared the reaction of their neighbors to the fact that they were saving Jews," Ambrosewicz-Jacobs concludes.

Research team: Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs, PhD — Project Director; Szymon Beźnic; Maja Brand; Adam Dąbrowski; Dagmara Mrozowska; Elisabeth Büttner; Katarzyna Kopff-Muszyńska; Joanna Stöcker-Sobelman; Katarzyna Suszkiewicz; Agnieszka Zajączkowska-Drożdż

Cooperation: Sociology Students Scientific Group, Social Research Section.
Consultants: Professor Antoni Sułek; Professor Ireneusz Krzemiński; Marek Kucia, PhD