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CJS Event Explores Poland's Holocaust History

“The Past is a Foreign Country: Poland Confronted with Holocaust History”
A CJS event featuring Dr. Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs, Director of the Center for Holocaust Studies, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland
Tuesday, November 1, 2016

How do scholars and educators work together to confront, inform, counter, and shape the construction of national memory, especially when the construction conceals the dark history of the Holocaust? In a November 1 lecture hosted by the GTU’s Center for Jewish Studies, Dr. Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs made it clear that one must begin with children and young people and their teachers. Since the mid-1990s, Dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs has developed curriculum and taught educators how to teach the Holocaust in Poland’s middle and high schools.

While many hundreds of teachers and thousands of children have engaged with this history, Ambrosewicz-Jacobs notes that Holocaust education in Poland faces many challenges including:

  • persistent attitudes about Poland’s pre-war Jewish population as other, that is, as not authentically Polish;
  • an ideology of competitive suffering during WWII that rates Polish (i.e., “our”) pain higher than Jewish (“their”) pain;
  • widely held and unprocessed feelings of Poland’s betrayal after the war when the Allies delivered it to Stalin;
  • an unwillingness to confront the complicity of friends and family members in the Holocaust; and
  • the replacement of history with an esteem-boosting narrative of unilateral Polish righteous activity (sheltering Jews in homes, connecting Jews to the partisan movement, and so on) in the face of German atrocity.

The difficulty in confronting this history has been intensified recently with the election of a right-wing and nationalist government that has made it a criminal act to publicly assert Poland’s participation in, or co-responsibility for, the Holocaust.

In spite of these obstacles, Dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs sees opportunity in the work of a new generation of young Polish historians who are digging deeply to give a more accurate and nuanced portrayal of the events and emotions in the foreign land of the past. By combining new research with pedagogical methods that include peer-to-peer teacher training and deep listening to others’ stories of suffering, she believes Poles can counter this particular construction of national memory with compassion, forgiveness, and understanding.

Dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs is the Director of the Center for Holocaust Studies, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland. She is the author of more than fifty books and papers including Me - Us - Them. Ethnic Prejudices and Alternative Methods of Education: The Case of Poland; What Can We Learn from the Dark Chapters in Our History: Education about the Holocaust in Poland in a Comparative Perspective; and The Holocaust Voices of Scholars (ed.).

This lecture was cosponsored by the GTU’s Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, and the Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center.

--Carrie Sealine