Past Program

Apr 03 - Apr 05, 2003

Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation: The Burden of History: World War II Memory and Polish-Jewish Reconciliation


The Burden of History:

World War II Memory and Polish-Jewish Reconciliation

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Report on a Meeting for a Historical Commission Project, April 3-5, 2003,

Hosted and Sponsored by the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture, Leipzig, Germany,

In cooperation with the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs,

And Professor Elazar Barkan, Claremont Graduate University


What role does history play in political reconciliation, and what role can historians play in public debates about the past? What can they contribute to the search for state and institutional accountability for historical injustices? Could the work of historians brought together from across the national or ethnic lines of old conflicts be a complement to the work of other institutions such as truth commissions and tribunals? Is it possible to produce new historical narratives which meet the highest standards of historical scholarship, while opening new space for discussion among former protagonists in a conflict? What might these narratives look like, how could they be publicized, and how large a spectrum of viewpoints could these narratives span, while excluding versions generally judged to be denial or the incitement of xenophobia? And does Polish-Jewish history-a relatively "cold" conflict, in that polarized public opinion, mutual mistrust, and sharply competing narratives of victimhood, rather than violence, are the key issues today-provide a promising case study to elucidate these larger questions?


A major methodological challenge is the integration of two kinds of history, one based on traditional ways of reconstructing events and one based on memory and narratives. This is not particular to this project, but is heightened because of the Holocaust. Traditional history is now felt to be insufficient as a means to understand the events of this period; memory and trauma have a special relationship. The Holocaust is an event in which time is compressed: it draws the prehistory of the key events, particularly the nineteenth century and the interwar period, into its narrative, and, as all foundational events do, it projects into the future as well. In the juxtaposition of these two events, Polish-Jewish history is of the utmost importance. It is often said by actors in Polish-Jewish dialogue that a key historical misunderstanding lies in the fact that the Jews focus exclusively on the Holocaust and see it as separate from World War II, while for the Poles, conversely, the key event is World War II, with the Holocaust, at least until very recently, being largely unknown among the general populace and largely ignored by scholars.


A study of the negotiating and renegotiating of these pasts offers valuable paradigms for other conflicting group memories, such as Polish-Ukraine, Czech-German and Polish-German. Thus, in addition to the specific bilateral reconciliation it aims to promote, the proposed project to create an international working group of scholars of Polish-Jewish history that is "commission-like" in its objectives is of particular interest because of this paradigmatic value.



A word of caution: projects like this proposed one can potentially contribute to a disquieting trend: that of validating conceptions of identity which are too tightly bound to the past and claims of victimhood. Yet, this type of investigation may allow the expansion of past conceptions of victimhood and how they have been refashioned. Furthermore, historians have little choice in the focusing on victimhood and the burden of the past, because this is what is provided by contemporary public discourse. This is connected to the general caution concerned the possibility that a project like this might create a narrative of mutual productive interaction that would overshadowed the conflict in history. While falsely harmonious narratives can be dangerous, the possibility of reconciliation is built on