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Alicja Podbielska

Genealogical Memory of the Righteous in Poland

One of the paradoxes of the 1968 anti-Semitic campaign in Poland was the official designation of war-time rescuers of Jews as national heroes. Previously excluded from commemoration and largely absent from public discourse, rescuers were now brought to the fore in Wladyslaw Gomulka’s speech that launched the anti-Zionist witch hunt. Following the First Secretary’s lead, the mainstream daily press claimed the subject. As this paper will show, the 1968 narrative echoes loudly in today’s discourse on “the righteous,” focusing as it does on numbers, gratitude, and the nation’s honor. Notwithstanding the rhetoric of “reclaiming” and “restoring” memory, allegedly suppressed by the communist regime, the memory of rescue is being centrally constructed and organized. Its top-down character becomes apparent when the official discourse on rescue is compared with war memories, as recorded in oral histories, transmitted between generations in the countryside. Drawing on a wide range of political speeches, press articles, and cultural representations, this paper analyzes rhetorical strategies, distortions of historical truth, and instrumental use of the topic of rescue, and will focus on the resonances with 1968 propaganda. Once again, state officials honor rescuers to promote a positive image of Poland abroad. Once again, rescuers come to serve as proof of Polish heroism and innocence. The trope of Jewish ingratitude, a staple of the 1968 anti-Semitic discourse, still looms large. And, as before, the memory of rescue is framed by the notion of Christian martyrdom, with Poles the ultimate victims and the only agents, while Jews serve merely as passive props.

Alicja Podbielska is a doctoral student at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. Her dissertation, “The Memory of Rescue in Poland,” examines when, how, and why Polish Holocaust rescuers were officially designated “national heroes.” Prior to her doctoral studies, Podbielska worked at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. She obtained her master’s degree in literary studies from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan and was awarded a European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI) Fellowship at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.