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Olga Kaczmarek

A Genealogy of Diverging Narratives on Wartime Polish-Jewish Relations in Polish Public Discourse

Starting with the publication of Jan T. Gross’s Neighbors in 2000, Poland has been undergoing a turbulent debate about Poles’ attitudes to Jews during World War II, and, more specifically, about the extent to which Poles were involved in robbing, turning in, or killing Jews under Nazi occupation. Sixteen years later, Neighbors’ impact is notable in a new wave of research, the emergence of a new generation of researchers and academic institutions in Poland, but also in a horizontal split in the “circuits of knowledge” on Jedwabne. From academic research to family dinner discussions, from traditional press to grassroots publishing initiatives to social media; these different channels and milieus have been providing spaces for diverging narratives of wartime Polish/Jewish history. Until recently, the debate was structured along relatively predictable images and topoi. Those were often aligned with specific views on the subject and with particular media outlets. Most recently, however, hitherto marginalized narratives of Polish innocence and sheer righteousness towards Jews during the war have found their way into mainstream media outlets, significantly affecting mainstream discourse in the public sphere and in politics. The aim of the paper will be to delineate the genealogy of this new “mnemonic takeover” and frame it as a new stage in the debate on Polish/Jewish relations during the war. While it may have appeared, in the last decade or so, that Poles were pushing aside defensive and negationist narratives as “residual” and marginal, emphasizing instead their increasing awareness of the complex attitudes and behaviors of Poles during World War II, with the new interest on the Righteous, it seems both necessary and important to step back and delineate a genealogy of diverging “knowledges.”

Olga Kaczmarek is a part-time lecturer at the Institute of Polish Culture, University of Warsaw, and director of international relations at Forum for Dialogue, the largest and oldest Polish non-profit dedicated to fostering Polish-Jewish dialogue. She is the author of the book Otherwise than Writing: Levinas and Postmodern Anthropology (2016, published in Polish by Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego). Her MA thesis was on blood libel in Europe and Poland, and she was a Fulbright fellow at Penn State University. Kaczmarek collaborated with POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews on the Polish Righteous program.