Let's Not Talk About It
The day we went to the museum
In all families, there are topics that are best to avoid. In the last years of my father’s life, when I visited him often, I stayed clear away from discussing abortion, the Catholic Church, and the Holocaust Museum. Why upset a man in his nineties?
My father was a right-to-lifer. For him, the sanctity of life was a moral certitude that came from a deep place based on the doctrine of his Catholic faith. Equally taboo was any criticism of the Catholic Church, the institution around which he ordered much of his life.
The Holocaust Museum was a more complex issue to untangle. It has taken me much longer to understand why I avoided asking an old man of Polish-Catholic origin living in a Canadian long-term care residence about the Jews in Warsaw during the war.
During my father’s last visit to my home in Montreal, when he was still mobile enough to travel, I took him to the newly opened Holocaust Museum. I thought he would appreciate the skillful way the exhibits were organized to educate people about the atrocities and commemorate the victims' personal experiences. He had, after all, lived through the war. That day, I discovered my father’s sentiments about this tragic period of Polish history.
We walked through the museum, taking our time to examine each exhibit. We took little breaks to sit when my father seemed tired. He didn’t say much. I wasn’t surprised; in the face of such suffering, it is hard not to be moved and silently respectful. As we were leaving, he thanked the docent and said it was an interesting museum. He also added, “But my parents were murdered by the Nazis, and there is no memorial to them.” Neither the docent nor I said a word.
He seemed upset but did not want to talk about it. His reaction left me unsettled. Over the years, I had heard comments that Polish people were anti-Semitic or, at the very least, had done little to help their fellow citizens. These pronouncements were made as if they were facts or common knowledge.
After his visit, I searched my memories for any indication that my father harboured anti-Semitic sentiments. Did he not think the Jewish people deserved this memorial museum in Montreal, a city with a significant population of Jewish Holocaust survivors?
Shit, I thought, why this reaction? Had I missed something, even though my father referred to my Jewish husband, with love and respect, as his “son”?
I combed my memories for hints. A Polish Jewish man owned a jewelry store in our town. My father would bring his watch to this man to be repaired or buy jewelry for my mother. My father and the owner greeted each other warmly each time we walked in and kibitzed back and forth during the visit. The jeweller often said, “Pay me half now and the rest when you can,” pronouncing the Polish words slightly differently from the way my father said them. Other fancier jewelry stores opened, but my father continued to patronize this man’s store. No hint there.
A boy in my class, perhaps the only kid in my entire high school, was Jewish. We were close friends, and he was part of my social group. There was no indication my parents had any negative sentiments about my Jewish friend. No hint here.
Even at the end of his life, my dad spoke with affection about his high school stamp club friend, who was Jewish. He talked about how much they had enjoyed spending time at each other’s homes. No hints at all. But still, I did not bring the topic up.
The Nazi regime terrorized, displaced, and murdered three million Polish Jews. What is less known is the fact that they also murdered close to three million non-Jewish Poles. I will let historians argue about exact numbers, which vary depending on which side does the counting.
Of all the Allied countries, Poland lost the biggest portion of its population in the war. The Polish government did not collaborate with the Nazis. It ran a resistance government in exile, first from France and later from London, England. The Home Army (an underground resistance) was the largest such force in Europe, and some Jews were part of it.
Poland was decimated during the Second World War. It was squeezed on all sides: by the Nazis, who wanted to enslave or eliminate the entire Polish population and annex their land; by the Soviets, who initially invaded eastern Poland and then entered into an uneasy pact with it in 1941; and by the Allies, who had to keep the Soviets onside for logistical reasons. At the war’s end, Poland was handed over to its Soviet liberators, and another form of occupation began.
There is a reason why the story of the murder of Christian Polish citizens is not better known. For forty-four years under the Soviet regime, from 1945 until the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, censorship in Poland prevented any discussion about Stalin’s murderous regime. Censorship also silenced any discussion of the resistance activities of the Home Army and their passionate desire for a free and democratic Poland. In the immediate aftermath of the War, the Soviets rounded up people who had been part of the resistance. They were tortured, imprisoned, and even executed. Any threat to Soviet hegemony was silenced. For this reason, my father, who had been in the Home Army and fought in the Warsaw Uprising, refused to return to Poland after the war.
Poles who had suffered and remained in Poland were systemically silenced by the pro-Soviet government. Even the Holocaust was not discussed in Communist Poland under the Soviets. Officially Poland was silent about it all.
There was little empathy from other Allied nations, who were busy rebuilding their infrastructures and the lives of their own citizens. For a long time, Polish historians, barred from records and archives, couldn’t present an accurate account of the war to their fellow citizens. And elsewhere, practically nothing was written in English about the Polish nation under German occupation until the late 1980s.
In Poland, there were no memorials or museums dedicated to Polish suffering, whether the suffering was Jewish or Christian. It wasn’t until 1979 that Auschwitz was designated a World Heritage Site. The Warsaw Rising Museum opened its doors only in 2004. The boundaries of the Warsaw Ghetto were marked by memorial plaques starting only in 2008. The museum of Jewish history opened in Warsaw in 2013.
The void was filled by Jewish historians, who painstakingly documented the atrocities committed against the Jewish people. In the narrative, unfortunately, non-Jewsih Poles have often been sweepingly portrayed as anti-Semitic bystanders or, worse, as Nazi collaborators.
Recent years have seen a shift from the narrative of Polish Jewish victims and Gentile passivity or villainy. Efforts are now being made to combine the Polish Jewish and non-Jewish narratives into one, resulting in a more balanced story that is much closer to the truth. The Nazi’s treatment of Jews was unspeakably cruel and violent, and there is no parity with what happened to Polish Christians — the Jewish population was, after all, a smaller part of the population and a greater portion perished. There is a growing recognition that others suffered traumas and violence as well. This shift began only at the end of my father’s life, too late to provide him with any comfort or sense that his life, and the lives of his parents, who died in concentration camps, had been seen and understood.
The complexity of war, particularly the Second World War in Poland, involving intersecting geopolitical forces and five years of unimaginable horror at the hands of the Nazi and Soviet occupiers, when choices were not always choices, cannot be reduced to a simplistic trichotomy of victims, oppressors, and bystanders. War affects everyone touched by it. No one escapes.
The day I brought my father to visit the Montreal Holocaust Museum, I had no understanding of the complexity of it at all.
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This is such an important story Alice, and told in such a moving and sensitive manner. I would guess that most people don't know that so many non Jewish Polish people were murdered during the war.
I knew your father was a hero fighting in the Warsaw Uprising but I never knew his parents were murdered. I wish you could write a book about this subject, to educate the Jews and the Non Jews of Poland, of what went on there during WW 11. My grandfather was able to escape from Poland & make his way to Canada, but his attempts to rescue his sister & her children from Nazi controlled Poland resulted in only one of his nieces making her way here, to be brought up as a "sibling" to my father.
I know the Polish Jews and the Polish Non Jews here in Canada don't see eye to eye on what happened in the war, but all the more reason for your story to reach this wider audience. Thank you for sharing this story with us.
Powerful history encapsulated in the intimacy of a close relationship is one of the things you do so well, Alice!