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Poland examines its WW2 history narrative

Dana Regev
March 20, 2016

Poland's Ulma Family Museum is now open - part of an effort at honoring Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust. But some say museums like it emphasize one part of the country's history at the expense of another.

Polen Merkowa Ulma Familien Museum
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Delmanowicz

The museum's location wasn't chosen by chance. It lies in the small southeastern town of Markowa, at the spot where a local family was executed by the Nazis 70 years ago - on March 24, 1944, for sheltering Jews.

All members of the Ulma family were shot, including Jozef Ulma and his pregnant wife, Wiktoria, and their six children, ranging in age from two to eight. The family was hiding eight Jews in their home, all of whom were killed by German soldiers.

The new museum showcases historical documents and exhibits that detail the Ulmas' heartbreaking story. It also houses monuments in memorial to the Jews murdered in the area as well as one in memory of the Poles, who, like the Ulma family, paid with their lives for their rescue attempts and sacrifices.

"The history of the Ulma family is a symbol of those Poles who were killed for helping Jews," the museum's director Mateusz Szpytma has said.

The concept for the museum is connected with a broader political and national process in Poland, in which its citizens are re-examining their culture and collective memory regarding the horrors of the Holocaust.

"The world does not know the reality that prevailed in Poland during the years of occupation, and it is this ignorance that hurts the good name of our country," the Polish parliament wrote in a statement before the opening of the museum.

Polen Merkowa Eröffnung Ulma Familien Museum Andrzej Duda
Polish President Andrzej Duda speaks during opening ceremony of the Ulma Family MuseumImage: Getty Images/AFP/W. Radwanski

For the Polish government, the Ulma family symbolizes the lesser told story of Poles who sacrificed their lives for a noble cause. Those supporting the museum say commemorating those like the Ulma family means making a step toward correcting old injustices and misconceptions about the nation.

"The Polish legislature, in the name of the Polish nation, praises those who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination, and especially those who were killed by the occupiers in retaliation for helping Jews," the government statement continued.

Ignoring wrongdoing?

More Poles than any other nationality were bestowed the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Israel's Holocaust remembrance institute, Yad Vashem, for rescuing Jews during the Holocaust - with 6,600 people from the country recognized.

However, some note that number must be weighed against the more than three million Jews who were living in Poland at the time.

Critics have also accused the current Polish conservative government of deliberately stressing the heroic deeds committed by Poles, while ignoring their wrongdoings - including murdering Jews during World War Two.

Among those voices is that of professor Jan Tomasz Gross, a 68-year-old Polish historian. He has faced accusations of being an enemy of the state who is tarnishing national dignity.

Inside Europe - Poland grapples with its past

Gross shocked Poland when he published his book "Neighbors" 16 years ago, in which he exposed details of a massacre of Jews carried out by residents of the Polish town Jedwabne in 1941. About 1,600 of the town's Jewish residents were murdered by their Polish neighbors after being shut into a barn, which was then set alight.

Another book published in 2011 by Polish professor Jan Grabowski aims to shed light on the assistance that the civilian population in Poland gave to the Nazis for the purpose of discovery and persecution of Jews during the Holocaust.

Grabowski teaches history at the University of Ottawa and his book, "Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland," has won an award by Yad Vashem for its extensive research.

After winning, Grabowski told Israeli newspaper "Haaretz" that, "If you take for granted the statements of Polish officials, diplomats and public opinion - you may think that aiding Jews was the main practice of Poles under the Nazi occupation."

Marcin Wodniak is a student in Krakow but who grew up in the city of Rzeszow, some 25 kilometers from Markowa. "Of course there is a lot of ignorance in the world, and many people forget the huge suffering that my grandparents' generation went through. They were living under German occupation, which was exploiting this land to enforce its brutal, lethal system," he told DW.

"However, even in the case of Markowa, if you think about it for a moment: Who told the Nazis that the Ulma family was hiding Jews? How did they know? It's not a secret that many Poles also participated in these horrible deeds - by cooperating, assisting or actively murdering - and there is no point to deny that."

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