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In Poland, History, Politics and Memory Remain Deeply and Painfully Intertwined. A visit to Jewish and cultural sites across Poland reveals a country looking to move on from eight years of populist rule that turned the Holocaust into a political minefield.

GDANSK/WARSAW, Poland – Monday morning, late April. The sky is gray and overcast, and a bitter wind drives across the open expanse of the former Stutthof concentration camp.

In one of its few surviving structures, once a canteen, stands an unlabeled hill of shoes. Another structure features a hopelessly dated exhibition on the camp’s Polish victims.

Poet, musician and activist Grzegorz Kwiatkowski leads me across the lawn to the far end of the camp where the forest begins: to the gas chamber and the crematorium. Established 35 kilometers (22 miles) east of Gdansk (then Danzig), near the Baltic Sea, as many as 100,000 people were deported here during the war. The majority were non-Jewish Poles, including Kwiatkowski’s grandfather, though its victims also included Jews from Poland and the Baltic states.

The gas chamber was constructed during Stutthof’s expansion in 1943; murder by Zyklon B began in June 1944. Liberated on May 9, 1945, more than 60,000 people died at this camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, about half of them Jews.

Outside the camp’s perimeter, Kwiatkowski leads me along the barbed-wire fence and into the forest. The undulating earth is oddly spongy underfoot. It doesn’t take long to find what he is looking for.

“Here! There are shoes,” he exclaims, pointing around and capturing the evidence on his camera phone. The ground is littered with fragments: soles, heels, toe caps, leather straps – worn by time and the elements, but still disturbingly recognizable. “It’s obscene,” says Kwiatkowski. “I hate it.”

A native of Gdansk, he first visited Stutthof at age 9. He remembers his traumatized grandfather breaking down in tears. The shoes first came to his attention nine years ago. The camp served as a hub for leather repair. Victims’ shoes were shipped from Auschwitz and other camps to Stutthof, where they were worked on or repurposed, with the results sent to other parts of the Reich.

In their testimonies, prisoners from Stutthof reported seeing “piles,” “mountains” and “pyramids” of shoes. What remained was abandoned in the forest.

Stutthof’s shoes are rotting relics of a process of dehumanization and extermination. They are remnants of the orderly economics of the Nazi killing machine and its disorderly, chaotic breakdown. They are also evidence of a past that is still difficult to remember. Set against the well-maintained memorial site, for Kwiatkowski they say something about the place of Jewish suffering in recent Polish memory – and how in Poland, history, politics and memory remain deeply intertwined.

Since 2013, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews has stood at the center of an enormous city block in what was once the Warsaw Ghetto. The idea for the museum took root in the 1990s, around the time the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum first opened in Washington. It recounts the thousand-year history of Jews in Poland, from the first traces of Jewish life to its near destruction during World War II.

POLIN is one of several historical museums founded in Poland since its return to democracy in 1989. The capital’s new Polish History Museum is another.

“History is important for Polish identity,” says the latter’s director, Robert Kostro. The country’s borders have shifted over centuries and, for much of the last 100 years, it was also on the bad end of history. Kostro knows this personally, as his grandfather was also a prisoner in Stutthof. “Telling our history is also, in part, a way of coping and dealing with our national traumas,” he adds.

The trauma of all traumas is World War II, which Joanna Fikus, head of POLIN’s exhibitions department, tells me remains “one of the biggest points of reference” in Poland.

When Nazi Germany occupied Poland, it murdered its intelligentsia, colonized its lands, suppressed its culture, turned citizens into slaves, and killed between 1.8 and 1.9 million non-Jewish Poles. Three million Polish Jews – 90 percent of Polish Jewry –were systematically murdered in the Holocaust, in ghettos and death camps built on Polish soil.

Under communism, distinctions between victims went unrecognized, giving rise to a need, Kostro believes, for Poland to rethink its history after the system’s collapse.

“After 1989, there was a huge interest in Jewish history, Jewish studies,” Fikus recalls. There were public debates about the role of individual Poles in the Holocaust, epitomized by sociologist-historian Jan T. Gross’s 2001 book “Neighbors” about the Jedwabne pogrom of July 1941.

Polish Jewish life and culture was also, in a sense, rediscovered, manifest in local festivals and the work of local historians.

Krzysztof Kocjan is one such independent researcher. His work has focused on the southern Polish town of Olkusz, situated between Katowice and Krakow, whose sizable Jewish population was liquidated in June 1942.

“The word ‘Jew’ was never neutral for the Polish population,” explains Kocjan, whose interest in the Jews of his hometown grew out of a desire “to understand why the town was the way it was, the society was the way it was” in the postwar period.

Kocjan recounts that through the ’90s and 2000s, he “had the impression that Poles were open enough at this time to start to discuss quite openly” the Polish-Jewish past. Dariusz Stola, POLIN’s former director, agrees. “There was a better understanding of Polish Jewish history in Poland and internationally, and progress in how Poles remembered the Second World War.”

But, he adds, under the governments of the right-wing, populist Law and Justice Party from 2015 to 2023, “there was a regression.”

In the bunker-like permanent exhibition at Gdansk’s Museum of the Second World War – whose glass-fronted entryway leans precariously toward an adjacent canal – a single shoe in a glass booth forms part of a display on the Holocaust alongside umbrellas, spoons and a wall of suitcases. In the next dark-paneled room are floor-to-ceiling columns made up of photographs: a small selection of the faces of the 6 million.

The juncture between the two spaces is broken up by an enormous pastoral photograph of a Polish peasant family – a mother and six children. Accompanying it is the headline “Poles in the face of the Holocaust” and a caption: “Saving their neighbors cost them their life…”

The explanatory text tells the story of how members of the Ulma family were murdered by the Nazis in March 1944 for hiding Jews in their home. To the left of the display is a screen offering more information about “Poles saving Jews.”

This section is one of several changes made under the Law and Justice government after 2017 that “altered the meaning of the whole exhibition,” says the museum’s acting director, Rafal Wnuk, whose connection to the site goes back to its very conception.

Working between 2009 and 2016, when he says there was no meddling from Warsaw, Wnuk intended the museum to counter prevailing political-historical forces around World War II, including right-wing German victimhood narratives and Russian anti-Polish propaganda.

He also agrees there was a “huge shift” taking place at the time in Poland’s own understanding of its victim status, Polish-Jewish relations and the role of Polish collaborators.

“We had this idea that a modern narrative museum could be the beginning of a discussion about these things,” explains Wnuk, describing it as “an opportunity to show the history of the Second World War from a Central European perspective” while relating it to other viewpoints and experiences. The original concept, too, “was to show the war from the perspective of civilian individuals involved,” as opposed to world leaders or high-ranking generals.

But shortly after the museum opened to the public, the government fired the existing director in April 2017, hired a new one and asserted its worldview upon the space. The exhibition became more “ethnocentric,” Wnuk thinks: anti-communist, Polonized, Catholicized and militarized.

The most “brutal” change was the removal of a film that ended the exhibition, a warning about the failure to learn from World War II, replaced with “a simplistic animated feature about Polish heroism, martyrdom and greatness.”

The result of these alternations is that the Museum of the Second World War is now a mishmash reflecting competing Polish narratives about history and memory. The Central European, civilian-centric thrust of the exhibit is cut through with cartoonish bombast, ahistoricism, militarism, Catholic imagery, and tales of Polish heroism and Polish suffering. An exhibition about war has turned into a war zone itself.

The Law and Justice Party came into power in 2015 with a specific history policy, or polityka historyczna. Dignity would be restored to Poland and the Polish nation by emphasizing Polish heroism and Polish martyrdom – the Ulma family being one example – and rejecting elements of Polish history that were difficult or made Poles feel uncomfortable.

POLIN’s former director Stola recounts how the party had a “deliberate strategy to disrupt the consensus about the past, release strong emotions and capitalize on them.” The main emotional trigger was the feeling that “foreigners do not respect the suffering of Poles during the Second World War.”

Scholars like Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski were prosecuted for their work investigating the complicity of non-Jewish Poles in the Holocaust. The party also tried to amend the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance in 2018. Their attempted criminalization of any attribution of responsibility for the Holocaust to Poland or the Polish nation “was a PR disaster internationally,” Stola reminds me, causing an enormous diplomatic row with Israel.

Domestically, however, he thinks it had its benefits. “The objective was to raise the sentiment of resentment, of being underappreciated, of unrecognized suffering – and then exploit it.”

It also brought to the surface expressions of antisemitism, especially online, that had hitherto been latent. “Law and Justice did not want to appear antisemitic, but they were eager to exploit antisemitic emotions and the consequences of anti-Jewish prejudice,” notes Stola.

Though Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich thinks it had no negative impact on Jewish life, he says the former government’s stance on the issue of Polish collaboration made for “very tense Polish-Jewish relations” and “deterred young scholars from going into Jewish studies.”

Collaboration “is a very painful subject. I understand why Poles would not want to talk about this,” he reflects, during a discussion in his office at the back of Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue. “But it’s something that did happen.”

Fikus recalls how surveys of public sentiment on the issue of who suffered more during World War II, Poles or Jews, flipped under the Law and Justice Party. Suffering, says the POLIN exhibitions department head, became a kind of “value in the society.” For eight years, Polish suffering and Jewish suffering were locked in a kind of competitive victimhood to the detriment of Polish-Jewish relations and the field of historical society.

Independent scholar Kocjan sees it this way: “It’s much easier to talk about our good actions than about something that brings us shame.”

In October 2023, the Law and Justice Party lost parliamentary elections to a three-party coalition led by former European Council President Donald Tusk, who was subsequently named Poland’s new prime minister.

Changes are now afoot in Warsaw, including at the Culture Ministry under Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz – and in Poland’s museums. Wnuk took over as the Museum of the Second World War’s acting director at the start of April.

In his position as Polish History Museum director, which he has held since 2006, Kostro has survived many changes of government. His museum opened in September 2023 in a stone-clad, gray-toned building so vast that, standing on the square before it, it cannot be taken in with the naked eye.

Poland’s state audit office reported that the structure cost almost $300 million – three times over budget. Its permanent exhibition, currently under construction, will open in spring 2026.

“Like any democratic society, we are not one. We were able to work out a project that would be acceptable to most Poles,” he explains, talking about assembling the core exhibition. “I never had political pressure from any culture minister. If certain topics were brought up for discussion in the process of curating the exhibition, it was by members of the Museum Council.” He says they reflect a broad range of views and perspectives on Polish history.

Not every museum was as ill-fated as the Museum of the Second World War. Stola’s reappointment as POLIN director was effectively vetoed by the government in 2019, but the museum in general, exhibitions director Fikus says, remained independent. Schudrich served on the steering committee for a new museum at the Sobibor extermination camp and is engaged with the project to build a Warsaw Ghetto Museum. “I never saw any indications of government interference,” he says.

In Gdansk, Wnuk’s intention is to restore the exhibition to its original form, free of the previous government’s interventions. “And I’m not going to ask any minister if they’re going to allow it or not,” he asserts. “If they don’t agree, I’m either going to quit or they are going to have to fire me.”

Piotr Rypson is the new director of the Department of Cultural Heritage at the Culture Ministry. “We’re living in a totally divided society and one should be careful and wary of creating abrupt changes,” he cautions. “I think a public institution should be responsible for not adding fuel to the fire unless it’s very cold.”

There are not only shoes strewn around the forest floor by Stutthof concentration camp. Vodka bottles, candy wrappers and freshly dug holes are evidence, artist and activist Kwiatkowski interprets, that trophy hunters have been here in search of historical artifacts to trade or sell.

For him, the status quo is intolerable: “I want to live in a Gdansk that is open to the commemoration of Jewish life,” he stresses.

Over the past decade, Rypson explains, Stutthof has undertaken work on multiple occasions to remove shoes from the forest, and clean and store them on the museum site. But each time it rains or snows or a wild animal goes foraging, the ground shifts and more fragments are unearthed. Further archaeological work would require the permission of the national State Forests administration and the local heritage management authority.

Almost 80 years after the camp’s liberation, it would be impossible to determine to whom each individual shoe fragment belonged and on which transports specific shoes arrived at Stutthof.

What is true, in the broadest sense, is that these artifacts are evidence not of Polish but German crimes. This, in turn, may make it easier for politicians and historians in Gdansk and Warsaw to agree on what to do about them.

“My first thought as a person who works at a museum would be to preserve” the shoes in the best possible conditions, Fikus says. This is also Stutthof’s plan, says Rypson, who recently met with the museum leadership to discuss the issue of the shoes – a matter so grave it has made its way up to the Culture Ministry. His department just approved almost $75,000 in funding for “additional archeological explorations” in the forest, he tells me later via email.

“There was probably a certain amount of inertia,” he explains as to why this process has taken so long. Under the Law and Justice Party, “a lot of actions were paralyzed by bureaucracy.” Rypson also thinks it would be worthwhile if collecting the shoes were accompanied by research into the Nazis’ logistical and economic processes that allowed them to arrive at Stutthof in the first place. “If the museum needs extra funding to cover that research, we are ready to help,” he says.

There are alternative proposals. Wnuk can envisage a scenario in which, instead of being displayed, the shoes are buried in a kind of catacomb. Debating with herself, Fikus considers: “Sometimes, leaving objects where they were found might have a more powerful impact on people.”

Kwiatkowski worries, however, that this would “undermine the visibility and memory of the Holocaust,” and would prefer an outcome in which the shoes are properly exhibited and contextualized.

“When I’m standing in Auschwitz and I see that whole display of shoes, it smacks me in the face,” says Chief Rabbi Schudrich, suggesting Stutthof convene an international committee of experts to assist in dealing with its material legacy of the Nazis’ crimes.

“It personalizes the Holocaust, it’s what you remember. And if preserving the death camps is in large measure to ensure that people do not forget, those shoes help you not to forget.”

Liam Hoare,