The free world can’t say, “We didn’t know about the Holocaust!”

Our guest is University of Warsaw Sociology Department Professor Pawel Spiewak, who has been the director of the Warsaw-based Jewish History Institute since 2011. Spiewak visited the Private Ulus Jewish High School as part of a trip supported by the Polish government to help develop new projects to promote Jewish culture and history. Spiewak answered our questions on behalf of Salom Newspaper, although his answers on the details of the Holocaust and the life stories of Poland’s Jews naturally overshadowed our queries.


Let’s start with the Jewish History Institute. Can you explain the goal in founding the institute and some of its projects?

The Jewish History Institute goes back 70 years ago. It was founded in 1947. However, before its official founding, it began work to research [the effects of Nazism on Jews] in August 1933 as the History Committee. Historians collected the accounts of people that had survived the war. Today, our archives contain the different accounts of around 8,000 people who witnessed that period. They’re people who went to Treblinka and to Auschwitz... The other documents that we value as much as people’s accounts are diaries that have survived. These are important because they were written as the events were happening. We have hundreds of diaries, drawings and paintings made by Jews and photographs. These photographs, for instance, contain details about the Jewish ghettos in Poland that are a lot different than those showed by the Germans.

Of course, I couldn’t go further if I didn’t note that we are indebted to Emanuel Ringelblum for the whole archive. Together with some friends, Emanuel Ringelblum formed the ‘Oyneg Shabbes’ (Joy of Shabbat) underground movement, which played a pioneering role in creating the Warsaw Ghetto Underground Archive that we still have today.

The group collected documents shedding light on what the Jews went through, from the year the war started in 1939 until the Polish Jews were sent to the concentration camps and the ghettos were destroyed in 1943. Such a movement operated in truly difficult circumstances in that era due to the reaction they would get from both the Germans and Jews seeking to avoid more oppression at the hands of the Germans. As houses of worship, houses and libraries belonging to Jews in Poland were being destroyed, [the movement] hid their documents in a variety of places around Warsaw in an effort to prevent them from being destroyed. These documents were discovered and unearthed once more in 1946. These documents weren’t just a true treasure trove for Polish Jews, but Jews all over the world. We could even call them the most important collection to survive the Holocaust.


So what happened to the Oyneg Shabbes movement afterwards?

 Almost all the members of the Oyneg Shabbes movement who worked on the project died in the Holocaust. Importantly, as the incidents were developing, Yakov Grojanowski escaped from the Chełmno concentration camp to inform the Oyneg Shabbes movement about what was happening in the camp. This information was secretly passed on to London, reaching PM Winston Churchill and even President [Franklin] Roosevelt in the US. Documents provide proof that this information reached authorities. That means that the free world can’t say, “We didn’t know about the Holocaust; we had no idea about what was going on!” All thanks to Ringelblum and his friends...


If we return back to the reasons for establishing the institute...

Our primary goal was to construct the memory of the Jewish nation, again with the support of Jews. They can learn a lot from these documents. We have an enormous library. Our institute has a much more scholarly character. While other institutions function a lot more like museums, we possess a much more sophisticated, detailed and categorized database. When you visit our website, you access 1 million pages of various documents.


Approximately how many Jews live in Poland today?

No one knows. There are a lot of people who are unaware of their Jewish origin. What’s more, there are quite a lot of people who have Jewish ties in their family history but know nothing about Jewish culture. This has never been an issue for Jews in Turkey. As long as you have lived on this soil, you have been able to worship and practice your traditions and customs. This tradition has been broken in Poland. Because of this, Polish Jews first need to research their family tree and then learn what being Jewish means. They weren’t raised with this consciousness at home. They need to learn the rituals and reconstruct their traditions. Jewish culture was erased after the war in Poland. As it was, most Jews were murdered. And 90 percent of those that survived emigrated. Those that remained chose to conceal their identity.


What about your family? How did you discover your roots? Or did you already know?

Mine is a typical story. After the war, my father changed his name – his first name. In fact, he changed his mother’s name, too, so that they wouldn’t be able to track him down. But even if he survived the war, it was only to fall into the hands of the Soviets and be imprisoned in the Gulag archipelago. But he was liberated in the end and returned to Poland. My father really worried about my brother and me. He told me that his parents were killed for being Jewish. I knew this from my childhood, but I didn’t have any idea what it was like to be Jewish. I also didn’t know anything about the traditions.


So when did you start researching?

A number of years ago. I went to Yad Vashem and checked my entire family tree. As you know, there are the records of the victims of the Holocaust. Our institute has a Genealogy Department; I was able to find the names of our family ancestors there. I tracked our family back to the 18th century. Today, I know which houses belonged to my family – there’s one in Ukraine, for instance.


Did the end of the communist regime have an effect on your research into your origins?

Communism wanted us to forget our past and look to our future. With the collapse of communism, we can say some people began to take an interest in their Jewish roots and the culture.

The development of democracy and press freedom opened a new page on this front – in terms of the past of both Poland and the Jewish nation.

Rabbis first came from America to Poland to teach about Judaism [after the collapse of communism]. But the Judaism in America is different than the one in Poland, so this created some problems at the start.

I remember taking part in a Pesach Seder in the 1980s. Most of those who took part in these meals were Jews. They were uneducated and extremely poor. They would speak Yiddish to each other, but I didn’t understand because I didn’t speak Yiddish.


Speaking about the issue of cultural interaction, as a sociologist, what can you say about the effects of globalization on Jewish culture? In your opinion, is globalization a threat or does it provide Jews around the world with the opportunity to communicate with each other?

I see it as having a constructive role. If you want to be a part of humanity, the concept of humanity is empty on the inside if you have no roots or identity. Forming a bond with Jews on the other side of the world helps me find my own roots as a member of a nation. I think that globalization encourages us to be more conscious of our identity in this way.


Perhaps we could touch a bit on politics… Are you worried by the rise of the far right in Europe?

From a Jewish perspective, I see the situation as a failure of education, especially on the issue of Holocaust education. We try and give education on xenophobia, how Jews were treated during World War II, “What is Nazism?” and others. The result? Nationalism is still strong, as is anti-Semitism. There are people that actively deny the Holocaust. We have to think about this. As educators, if we fail at this, this means that what happened during World War II could happen again. It appears that this time the target would not be Jews but Muslims.

I look at Poland and Islamophobia is really strong. People hate Muslims without even knowing what Islam is.


I’d like to delve deeper into what you said about Holocaust education. How should we explain this extremely sensitive subject to our children without creating new traumas and cultural prejudices?

We have to teach our children about the Holocaust in some fashion. Not just Jewish children – all children. Maybe we succeed; maybe we fail. We emphasize the reality that genocides have sometimes been able to occur, but our goal needs to be the creation of consciousness to prevent genocides.

Today, people are still dying in many parts of the world – in Syria, for instance. These people are dying all on their own; no one hears their voice, just like Jews during World War II.


In closing, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to ask your opinion about the March of the Living trip. These trips are an important part of Holocaust education because visitors have the opportunity to see things first hand. Given your expertise, can you tell us how the trips have changed the views of camp visitors?

The weight of history is on our shoulders. It is like a curse. People say, “We will never forget.” But not forgetting does not mean that this kind of thing won’t happen again. People that come to Poland learn that they must always be strong to ensure something like this doesn’t happen to them again.


Pesach is just around the corner. Do you have any wishes you’d like to pass along to our readers?

I hope that years later, when I again come to Istanbul, your school will be stronger than it is today, that your community will be bigger and that your newspaper will have more resources. These are my wishes.


Thank you for speaking to us and your lovely wishes.


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