How much should we remember?

This post was written by Dan on July 26, 2009
Posted Under: Eastern Europe,Jewishness

Monument at Birkenau

How much should we memorialise tragic events? Poland is home to many of the landmarks of horror associated with the Nazis. But of these arguably the two most notorious are memorialised in very different ways. Auschwitz-Birkenau is the concentration and extermination camps where over a million Jews, gypsies, communists, trade unionists and lesbians and gays were worked to death, or simply executed. It is preserved perfectly, Auschwitz converted to a museum with each block dedicated to a different aspect of either life in the camp or of the wider holocaust, whilst the larger Birkenau is simply preserved as a monument and memorial to the horror. Over the years as historians have uncovered different aspects of the story the Auschwitz Museum has gained exhibits about the experience of Roma and Sinti communities, and now has dedicated exhibitions on the particular experience of the Jews of France, Holland, Belgium, Poland, Romania and Hungary (A little known fact is that Hungarian Jews were the single largest national group executed at Auschwitz, comprising 500,000 of the 1.1million).


Extraordinary Story

A stark contrast to this is about 200 miles north in Poland’s capital. The Warsaw Ghetto is the sight of some of the greatest tragedies and greatest acts of heroism of the holocaust. All of Warsaw’s Jews, 30% of the population, where forced into an area comprising 2.4% of the its size. Tens of thousands of people died of starvation and disease. In 1943 an extraordinary armed uprising challenged the Nazi military (documented extraordinarily in this book). This remains, for me at least, one of the most inspirational single acts of the 20th Century. Yet to look at modern Warsaw it would be hard to find traces of this story. One small section of the wall exists, hidden in a private courtyard. An old monument, built by the Soviets, stands in an obscure section of central Warsaw, attended by an old Jewish man with a stall selling dog-eared history books and odd badges. In contrast to the day trips and tours to Auschwitz that blossom around Krakow, there is no way of getting the Ghetto story, except to wander round yourself.


Ghetto Memorial

Clearly there are a number of reasons why these two sites are so different. Warsaw is a city of nearly 2million, whilst Oswiecim (OZ-VEE-TSIM – the Polish town that became Germanised in to Auschwitz) is a small town of 48,000. Clearly space was at more of a premium in post-war reconstruction. Very few remnants of the ghetto survived the reprisals of the Nazis, and the 1944 fighting in Warsaw, whereas the fleeing Nazis were unable to destroy most of Auschwitz, only able to reduce the gas ovens to piles of rubble before leaving. Clearly there was more of Auschwitz to preserve. Most people would have a sense that Auschwitz was significantly worse, that the industrial slaughter of millions is of a degree worse than the ghetto.

 Another, more cynical reason is the fact that Krakow, the nearest town to Auschwitz is Poland’s traditional tourist destination, whilst Warsaw is still developing its tourist industry. Perhaps the Ghetto tours will spring up, just like the Auschwitz ones. None of these reasons seem enough to me though. Whilst no-one expects them to go to the extremes of rebuilding the Ghetto to remember it (though that’s what they did with much of the rest of Warsaw), surely there could be more done. So, and I’m really interested in your thoughts, why is it that some things are memorialised in such detail, and others not?

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Reader Comments

Really interesting post Dan, I’ve not looked at it like that before.

Written By Salman Shaheen on July 26th, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

I’ve been to the places you mention – Auschwitz and Kracow on a trip organised by the Anti-Nazi League principally for trade unionists, teachers and students in 1995; and in Warsaw at a conference in 1997 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Bund – the Jewish socialist movement that Marek Edelman, whose excellent book you cite, is/was part of.

During the Warsaw conference we had an organised visit to the Warsaw jewish cemetery. From simple graves to elaborate mausoleums, under the shade of huge trees growing throughout, it is a very beautiful and moving place to visit. One section of the cemetery has a number of elaborate gravestones representing the heroic ghetto fighters.

We had a little bit of time off from the conference which I used to wander round the area of what was the Warsaw Ghetto – and there on a number of marble plaques raised a little bit above ground level, are a number of memorials to different aspects of hte struggle of the Warsaw ghetto.

Within that area there is a small square named after the Polish Jewish anti-fascist and socialist, Szmul Zygeilbojm, who, while representing the ghetto Jews on the Polish parliament in exile in london at the time, committed suicide as a protest against the failure of the allied powers to prevent the continued slaughter of the Jews under nazi occupation. The window of a building on one side of the square is given over to a memorial for Zygielbojm.
You can read more about Zygielbojm at

It took the determined efforts of a number of Jewish socialists including holocaust survivors, 50 years after he died, to get a memorial plaque put up to Zygielbojm in London. Perhaps memorialising him was a little embarrassing for the narrative that successive British government have wanted to convey about how responsive Britain was (or wasn’t) to the news of what was happening to the Jews under Nazi occupation and what they were demanding be done about it.

The politics of memory- who owns the memory and how they wish to express it – is very complex, so I don’t think there is any simple answer to your question, though I think your economic explanation around Krakow/Warsaw is an important aspect. Krakow also has a perfectly intact Jewish quarter, complete with 16/17th century synagogues which the Nazis did not bomb (they removed the population from there to a local concentration camp instead).

Antisemitism still features significantly in Polish society, but there is another layer of Poles whom I have met both there and here who are very conscious that pre-war Warsaw was a thriving multi-ethinic city of Poles, Ukranians, Lithuanians, Roma, Germans, Jews…while Warsaw today is pretty monocultural and they would very much like to see the city embrace a less monocultural future. Perhaps if they became more influential politically, the marking of the past might change too.

You can find a very interesting exploration of the politics of memory/memorials in James E Young’s book from the 1990s “The Art of memory” .

Written By DavidR on July 26th, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

Thanks for the book suggestion, been looking for a good volume on the Warsaw Uprising; reading your post it’s obvious something that matters to you. I think you may have a point too for the economic case for the “success” of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Who “owns” the history of certain events is a big contributor to how they are remembered.

If you look at the history of the Spanish Civil war you see one of the few histories which was written by the losers. The reasons for this are fairly clear, the winners of the Second World War and the shapers of late 20th Century civilisations had created an anti-fascist narrative.

However, if you dig a little deeper you see that a lot of the actions of Socialist, Anarcho-Syndicalists and Trade Unionists in the anti-fascist force has been removed. Again, this was about power, nobody seemed to like Socialist either.

For me though, the most interesting and confusing development, which I cannot work out, is the move to canonise some of the priests murdered during the Spanish civil war.

Now the church was heavily involved in the Fascist camp (along side many industrialists, military men and unlucky conscripts) and some Priests were murdered (or executed if you like) by the “good guys.”

I wouldn’t dare pass judgement on them all, but some of them were collaborating with Franco and in the context of a Civil War, their treatment was not extraordinary. The movement to turn them into Martyrs, into human memorials to the Church’s betrayal of Spain’s working class, seems strange.

Although a lot of memorialising seems to be about aggrandising those currently in power and reinforcing convenient narratives, some is more of a mystery.

Written By Left Outside on July 26th, 2009 @ 8:58 pm


Very interesting and relevant article. I would like to suggest that perhaps one way to make sure that we remember as we should is to try to remember it together and in the full context of the events. Without obfuscating the nature, the enormity, and the singularity of the Holocaust with respect to the Jewish nation, I always wonder why it is so much easier to remember things separately and so difficult to remember them together. Some of that has found itself to this article in the following sense:

- The author talks about the Ghetto area of Warsaw as if it somehow was a Jewish area before the war. But in fact it involved a very tragic forced expultion of a huge swath of the Polish population of the city which then had to fend for itself. Sounds like a dangerously selective background to the story.
- The author talks about the Warsaw Polish Uprising of 1944 simply as “fighting in 1944”. That is as insensitive as referring to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 simply as “fighting in 1943”. Given the fact that the Warsaw Polish Uprising of 1944 was such an enormous and catastrophic event that essentially wiped out the entire city of the map and to this day shapes the psyche of Poles in an extremely significant way, this comes across as misleading and dangerously selective.
- The author refers to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument as built by the Soviets as if Poles could care less while nothing could be further from the truth (or am I over sensitive?). Today’s monument (the first one was completed in 1946) was entirely organized and funded by the Jewish organizations in Poland, designed by a Jewish artist (Natan Rappaport), with the stonework done by a Polish company, and the monument itself casted in Paris. It was finished in 1948 – years before Poles could commemorate the Warsaw Polish Uprising of 1944. And it certainly is not in an obscure section of the city – it is where the fighting in the Ghetto has begun.

And so on.

My point is that perhaps, just perhaps, the answer to appropriate remembrance is by making an effort to understand the entire context of the events together and therefore having a more unified attitude and approach. For example why not making a visit to the museum of the Warsaw Polish Uprising of 1944 a routine stop when visiting Warsaw – along with the visit to the Jewish cemetery and the Ghetto monument? Why not! Epecially since the museum does have a significant exhibition on the 1943 Ghetto uprising (how could it not!). When in Jerusalem, I made sure to put aside a day for Yad Vashem and to have a well informed Jewish guide along.

I was born in Warsaw in 1954 and the enormity of the Jewish and Polish tragedies was never separated or played against each other when I was young – I was very conscious of both at school and at home. It made sense like that. It’s not until we immigrated to the US in 1970 that I started to learn that the world seems to know so much about the tragedy of the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 but so very little about the parallel tragedy of the Poles and basically nothing about the enormity of the Warsaw Polish Uprising of 1944. I’m still trying to figure out why this is so. Maybe because we don’t even try to remember together?

Written By puzzled on August 7th, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

Puzzled: A few points in response.

Firstly I certainly have no intention of minimising the events of the Warsaw Uprising (in fact I was intending to write a post about it). I hope I didn’t give that impression. ‘Built by the Soviets’ was unfortunate shorthand, sorry about that.

I did visit the 1944 Uprising museum, which is excellent, though I don’t know what that has to do with anything. My point is simple: As a visitor to Warsaw the story of the ghetto is far harder to find than other stories, and that seems odd to me. Perhaps this is an appropriate overcompensation for the problem you mention at the end of your comment, but I’m not sure it appears like that to the visitor.

Written By Dan on August 7th, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

Perhaps I’ll be able to shed some light on the issue.

First, Auschwitz and Kraków. I’d say that one has nothing to do with the other. Kraków happens to be where it is, and Auschwitz happens to be where the Nazis had built it (they weren’t even in the same country during WWII). Auschwitz is only one of several camps preserved. If people don’t visit the others as often it’s perhaps because they’re not so famous. But I doubt that so many people visit Auschwitz just because it’s close to Kraków. In fact I’d say that more people visit Kraków rather than Lublin because they choose to visit Auschwitz rather than Majdanek. Even though Majdanek is the better preserved of the two, and Lublin is also a beautiful old town.

Additionally, when the decisions were made, Poland was a Communist country locked behind the Iron Wall. There were no tourists in Kraków at that time, and Kraków was far from the Communists’ favourite sights. They built Nowa Huta to rival it, and to show that the town of the people is better than the town of the kings.

Warsaw is an opposite case simply because there was nothing to preserve there. The city ceased to exist, literally. After the war there was talk about moving the capital of Poland to Łódź. Finally, it was decided that the town would be rebuilt as a sign of the successful overcoming of the destruction the Nazis had wrought in the city and the country. But the idea of rebuilding it, in defiance to the Nazis’ designs, was to rebuild what it used to be BEFORE the war, and not what the Nazis had made it to be during it. Indeed, rebuilding the Ghetto would rather be an absurd way of following the Nazis’ example.

Moreover, as much as the Ghetto was clearly separated from the rest of Warsaw in the years 1940-1944. After that date is was all the same endless rabble.

In fact not much of the old Warsaw was rebuilt. Only the most ancient sites. Likely, if Polish people had the freedom to do it, more would be rebuilt and we’d have a prettier city today. But the idea of the Communists was to build a modern town in the Socio-realist style, that’s what they did in the Ghetto’s area. Even the Stalin’s gift that the Palace of Culture and Science is overlaps with the Ghetto’s borders.

The plan was designed by a Jewish architect, and he marked the Ghetto area by making small mounds out of the ruins of Ghetto between and under the buildings. Walking, you can notice that the city there isn’t as flat as elsewhere. That’s a reminder that you’re walking on the ruins of the Ghetto. Also, there are more places, like the Bunker in which Anielewicz died, Anielewicz Street, a monument to Korczak, a monument marking the Umschlag Platz. There’s also a part of the Ghetto wall appropriated as a wall of the National Mint. There are many small markers, one just needs to look for them. There are also large pictures of pre-war Jews on the last buildings preserved in Prosta Street. But, the main difference between Auschwitz and Warsaw is that Auschwitz (the part where the camp is) was never a city. Warsaw is a city, and the Ghetto was in the middle of it. As a city it’s first of all for the living. As much as one can live with the reminders of history, it’d be sick to live in the middle of a cemetry, or, indeed, to build around one’s place of living the walls of the Ghetto. How many people do you know who’d like to ghettoize themselves?

Apart from the Warsaw Uprising Museum which has an exhibition devoted to the Ghetto Uprising, there will be another important institution. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews will open in two years. It will have a large coverage of the Ghetto and the situation of Jews during WWII.

Written By Sylwia on November 26th, 2010 @ 6:40 am

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