Contested Commemoration: The Relationship Between Politics and the Memorialization of the Second World War in Polish Literature, Cinema, and Museums (1945-Present)

May 4, 2020   /  

Student: Alexandria Joyner
Major: History
Minor: Education
Advisor: Dr. Greg Shaya

This study examines the relationship between politics and memory in Poland. I argue that the memory of the Second World War has changed radically over the last seventy- five years as the Polish government, in both the communist and post-communist periods, pursued a politics of memory. I build this argument by identifying three political turning points that caused the communist government to reevaluate their war narrative: 1945, 1956, and 1967. I include a fourth turning point, 1989, to show how post-communist Polish leaders adapted, but did not wholly challenge, the communist government’s narrative. I discuss Polish literature, cinema, and museums in four narrative chapters that align with the four political turning points. This study demonstrates how politics have the power to shape memory, determining the stories that are told and the ones that are suppressed. Poland’s memory struggle is not over and remains, even today, a site of political contestation.

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My project, Contested Commemoration, looks at the relationship between politics and the memorialization of the Second World War in Poland. I use literature, cinema, and museums to examine this relationship.

I have always had a fascination with the history of the Second World War and Polish history. The politicization of memory in Poland is an ongoing phenomenon, and the relevancy of this issue contributed to my interest in pursuing this topic.

After the Second World War ended, Poland’s newly formed communist government created a narrative about the war that treated its end as a victory over fascism brought on by the Soviet Red Army’s liberation of Poland. This narrative would be revised in 1956, 1967, and again in 1989 as a result of political changes within the country.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, Polish authors turned to prose as a way to make sense of what they had just lived through. Zofia Nalkowska, for example, published Medallions (1946), a collection of short stories about the Holocaust. Her work, however, does not follow the communist government’s narrative about the Soviet Red Army as the great liberators.

After 1956, Poland entered the period known as de-Stalinization. A new government-approved narrative emerged from de-Stalinization that stressed all Poles had come together to expel fascism from the country. Previously censored topics, such as the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and the Home Army, found their way onto Polish screens as the Polish film industry grew.

In 1967, however, the narrative changed again after a speech by political leader Władysław Gomułka led to heightened antisemitism within Poland. Jewish stories were replaced by tales of Polish strength during the war. Polish filmmakers, fearing censorship, adapted to the government’s new narrative after 1967.

After communism fell in Poland in 1989, the post-communist government utilized the same tropes of Polish unity and Polish martyrdom established by the communist government, but no longer celebrated the Red Army as the liberators of Poland.

Museums have become a way for the post-communist government to solidify a new narrative, one that places importance on the Home Army and the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Commemoration of the Holocaust continues to center on the fate Poles suffered, though recent scholarship by Polish historians like Jan Gross has tried to remedy this narrative.

Through my research, I determined that Poland’s memory struggle remains a contested issue as politics continue to shape memory.

Alexandria will be online to field comments on May 8:
2-4pm EDT (PST 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

45 thoughts on “Contested Commemoration: The Relationship Between Politics and the Memorialization of the Second World War in Polish Literature, Cinema, and Museums (1945-Present)”

  1. Awesome job Allie! When researching, what fact or piece of information surprised you the most?

    1. Thank you, Emily!!

      I think what surprised me the most was where Poles/the Polish government place their emphasis when commemorating the Second World War. As an American, I am taught about the war through topics like Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other events Americans were directly involved in or affected by. Obviously, that’s not the case with Poland.

      It wasn’t until I visited Poland and their museums that I realized how much emphasis they put on commemorating both the Home Army and the 1944 Warsaw Uprising – two topics I never learned about in school. With that, though, is how Poles commemorate the Holocaust. As a result of political decisions and political factors (i.e. 1967), there is a tendency for Polish Holocaust memorials (including the ones at Auschwitz) to de-emphasize Jewish suffering in favor of saying something to the effect of “But Poles died during the Holocaust, too!” Coupled with this is the debate about Polish participation in the Holocaust, something the Polish government doesn’t want to talk about but something Polish scholars do want to talk about.

      Anyway, that was a really long answer to say: it’s all very surprising and caused me to think about WWII in a completely different way!!

      1. That’s super cool Allie! I am so glad you got the opportunity to visit Poland and learn about this in person. I think it is important to learn history from different perspectives and it sounds like you were able to do that.

  2. A remarkable project. You demonstrate – with an exceptional depth of research, in novels, movies, and museums – the changing politics of the memory of the Second World War in Poland. It was a pleasure to watch your project unfold and to see the final product. Well done!

    1. Thank you so much, Dr. Shaya! All of your support and guidance helped this project come to fruition.

  3. Congratulations, Allie! You will be missed. Best of luck with your future pursuit!

    1. Thank you, Upi! I’ll be sure to stop by the library once it’s safe to do so to say hello!

  4. Hi Allie! How did you incorporate museums into your research? Are there online tools to access museums dealing with post-WWII Poland or did you have to travel?

    1. Hi Leman! Great question.

      Museums comprised the fourth narrative chapter of my I.S. as a way to show how post-communist Poland has handled the commemoration of WWII. With the exception of two of the museums I looked at, the remaining three I discussed were erected after the fall of communism in 1989. In my research, I looked at who came up with the idea for the museum (government officials, a town’s community, a veteran’s organization, etc.) and where the funding for the museum came from to see who exactly was influencing museum presentation. With a site like Auschwitz, which became a commemorative site in the late-1940s, I tracked how its presentation changed across the 70-ish years since it opened to the public. These things are accessible through each of the museum websites.

      Through Copeland Funding, however, I was able to visit my five museums. During my visits I looked primarily at plaques to see how the museum curators wrote about the things on display. For example, one of the plaques at a government-sponsored museum contained information that ran contrary to the work of a prominent – though controversial in the eyes of the government – Polish historian. This gave a clear example of the memory struggle I examined in my I.S. I also looked at things like gift shops as a way to see what aspects of WWII were being commodified. Auschwitz, for example, had a gift shop where you could only buy informational books or DVDs. In contrast, the Museum of the Second World War had everything from t-shirts to board games.

      Hope that answers your question.

  5. Alexandria, what an interesting project. Based on the trends you have traced in cultural expression through literature, film and museums, do you have any predictions about the future of Polish perspectives on WWII and participation in the Holocaust?

    1. Thank you so much!

      The future of Polish perspectives on WWII and participation in the Holocaust is an ever-evolving debate in Poland. Given the current leadership within the country, however, the future looks bleak in terms of Holocaust commemoration. In 2018, the current Polish president signed a bill that turned claims of Polish complicity in the Holocaust into a civil offense (it was first proposed to make it a criminal offense with up to three years in prison until international outrage caused Polish parliament to change it).

      After Polish historian Jan Gross published “Neighbors” in 2001 (an excellent read!!), the debate over how to understand the role of Poles in the Holocaust really began within the country. Through my research, it seems that the academic community is much more willing to change the narrative and say that: “Yes, Poles were killed during the Holocaust, but there were also instances of Polish violence against Jews and we must acknowledge this.” The government, however, appears less willing to budge. A lot of the work on the government’s part is tied to ideas of Polish nationalism which is built, in part, on the idea that Poland suffered at the hand’s of oppressive governments – whether the Nazis or the Soviets – and they want their struggles commemorated and legitimized. With that in mind, I think Polish perspectives on WWII will continue to center on cases of Polish strength and martyrdom, which is why so many commemorative efforts in the country now center on the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.

      A good example of this is a short 4-minute film called “The Unconquered” produced by Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance that plays as you’re walking out of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk. If you’re interested, it can be accessed here: !

      I hope this answers your question!!

  6. Outstanding research! I love your analysis of literature, films, and museums with historical memory!

  7. Allie, this is such a cool and interesting project! As you know, I’m a STEM person and am not well-versed in history, but you made it all very concise and not difficult to understand. I especially liked how you organized your results by year and clearly showed how political changes brought about these new narratives of WWII. They led directly to your concluding point that politics have a strong influence on memory, which I think is super interesting and something I haven’t thought much about before! Also it’s super cool you got to go to Poland! Amazing job, I enjoyed your presentation! 🙂

    1. Lauren, this is so sweet! I am so glad that everything made sense!!

      There is so much information within the project and I tried to pick and choose the most important bits to make a coherent presentation and I’m glad that came through.

      I cannot lie, I am also eagerly awaiting my next chance to go to Poland.

  8. A fascinating subject. Can you expand a bit about how the narrative of the war under Soviet censorship from 1945-1956 portrayed Polish nationalism? By focusing on the liberating Soviet armies did it in turn denigrate Polish nationalists?

    1. Of course!

      In short: Soviet censorship did not support Polish nationalism.

      For a longer answer: Between 1945-1956, stories about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising – a movement led by the Polish Underground and the Home Army – were not permitted to be shown onscreen. The Home Army was likewise excluded from the major government-sponsored veterans’ organization. In one of the novels I looked at from the period, “Ashes and Diamonds (1948),” written by former Home Army-affiliate Jerzy Andrzejewski, there is a clear struggle over how to portray the incoming Soviets versus how to portray members of the Underground. The entire novel, which takes place in the days leading up to VE Day, attests to this uncertainty in identity felt by Poles after the war.

      The Soviet-backed government, however, wanted one narrative of the war. This narrative said that the Red Army and the Polish Armed Forces in the East – which was affiliated with the Red Army – liberated Poland from the Nazis. They created this narrative as a way to legitimize their own authority as a new form of government. By framing the Red Army and the Soviets as an alternative to Nazi fascism, the new government attempted to show that no other political organization would be tolerated. Because the Home Army was loyal to the Polish government-in-exile and, therefore, a representation of an “old” way of thinking, they had no place in the 1945-56 government’s narrative. The Polish Armed Forces in the East were acceptable to the government because they fought on the “right” side.

      I hope this answers your question!!

  9. Awesome job on this, Allie! This is all very interesting. I’m especially intrigued by the period of “De-Stalinization” and the antisemitism that unfortunately followed. Do you think that vestiges of those movements are noticeable in more recent Polish media and museums, or has the government-backed “story about Polish strength during the war” effectively erased them?

    1. Hi Dante! Thank you so much!

      The short answer is: Yes, both de-Stalinization and the 1967 antisemitic campaign had profound impacts on commemoration that are still affecting the country today.

      In terms of de-Stalinization, allowing things like the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and the Home Army to be shown onscreen gave Polish directors an avenue to tell a story that deviated from the government’s immediate postwar narrative, which had only given credit for the liberation of Poland to the Soviet Red Army and its allies. The communist government reevaluating their narrative to include Home Army veterans in their “fight against fascism” narrative created a profound change. Suddenly, Home Army fighters who had died in the Warsaw Uprising became martyrs in the fight against fascism. Where they were once shunned from post-war society, they became national heroes.

      In 1967, when Władysław Gomułka issued a speech in response to the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, he, too, created a profound shift in the narrative. His speech was intended to be anti-Zionist, saying that Polish Jews who claimed Israel as a second homeland were no longer welcome because Poland was to be their only homeland. Antisemites, however, were not interested in asking their Jewish neighbors if they were Zionists or not. His speech led to a conflation of all Jews with Zionists and, therefore, people unwelcome in Poland. After this, the government entered several years of silence where mentions of the Holocaust only discussed Poles who died. Polish-Jewish relations were not discussed at all. The exodus of the majority of Poland’s remaining Jewish population meant that Poles commanded the narrative of the Holocaust. To fill the gaps in war films and literature, the story of Polish strength in the wake of fascism emerged.

      Both of these events – the rise in Home Army stories and the lack of Jewish stories about the Holocaust – are still present in Poland today. In the museums I visited, symbols for the Home Army are everywhere. Exhibits dedicated to the Holocaust are present, but a large component of these exhibits are dedicated to Poles who died in concentration camps and other atrocities committed against Poles. Jewish stories are told, but they almost appear to be de-emphasized.

      The only real difference between post-1956 and post-communist stories about WWII is how the Soviets are commemorated. The post-communist government relies on all the same tropes of Polish martyrdom used by the communist government, only they now portray the Soviets as evil alongside the Nazis.

      Hopefully this answers your question, and sorry for writing so much!!

  10. Fantastic project, Allie! The passion for Poland and your project is evident and it has been amazing seeing it all come together. I love the choice to analyze a mixture of literature, film, and museum exhibits in tracing the memorialization process. As media consumption continues to evolve in the 21st century, how do you see these various tactics influencing the future of Poland and their process of consuming information? Again, fantastic project! Extremely well done.

    1. Goodness, thank you so much, Gabe!

      I am prepared to see an influx of films and shows about WWII. There’s already a show on PBS called “World on Fire” that’s about the war experienced all over Europe, but does feature a Polish family. The show isn’t produced by Poland, but you can see the influence the country’s war narrative had on the characters. The main Polish character has ties to the Home Army, Poland’s big symbol of strength.

      I also think that there has been an increase in virtual exhibits that anyone can access. I used one about the Holocaust in my I.S. that was produced by the Institute of National Remembrance.

      As long as people have access to technology, the government will continue putting out this information to make it accessible to as many people as they can.

  11. Nice job Allie! What was the most interesting source you feel you got to look at?

    1. Thanks, Eli!

      I want to say the museums because they were all so different in size and set-up, but honestly I think the most interesting source was one I found without meaning to. It was a t-shirt stand I found while walking through downtown Warsaw. I would liken the images on the shirts to confederate flag/Civil War memorabilia in the United States. Everything was very “never forget” and “we remember,” and it was at that moment that I truly realized how much this struggle over memory has taken control over Polish society.

      The films I got to watch were cool, too, and I have a new appreciation for 1950s Polish cinema.

  12. Hi Allie,

    I thought your project was exceptional. From the short time I have spent in Poland in the past, I was struck by how the memorialization of war differs from other countries that experienced mass carnage in the middle of the 20th century. Did you have any room in your IS for a comparative analysis? I wonder if the difference between Polish remembrance and that in other countries could be attributed to the near-destruction of particular sites. For example, while the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw is commemorated by a single line in the ground that no one would notice unless they were looking for it, bunkers in Berlin have been converted to contemporary art galleries. I find the question of how societies negotiate with the presence or absence of these spaces fascinating. Bravo on a job well done!

    1. Hi Jared,

      Thank you so much! I, too, was completely struck by how Poland memorializes the war. Being able to visit the museums and walk the streets of everywhere from Warsaw to Oswiecim really allowed me to think about this project in a completely different way. I was witnessing first-hand how Poles tell their own history.

      I would have loved to include a comparative analysis, and I think a longer project would have. It’s fascinating to see how different countries deal with the questions of commemoration that emerged after the war. Germany is very clear in its denunciation of Nazism, but countries like Poland have a hard time accepting that there were Poles who did collaborate with the Nazis.

      As you noted, it’s interesting to see how societies negotiate with the presence/absence of commemorative spaces. For my research, I was intrigued by who proposes the ideas for monuments and who sponsors them. The Warsaw Ghetto Memorial was an effort by the Jewish community, whereas the Home Army Museum in Krakow was proposed by a former Polish president.

      One day when I have the time and the resources, I would love to take this project further and look at how other former Soviet satellite states dealt with the memory of the war.

  13. Ali, great job on your I.S. project! I found very interesting your conclusion that politics shape memories. You seem to have done very well-rounded research, exploring history through literature, cinema and museum. And how cool that your trip to Poland raised this question in your mind.

    I will miss you in the Libraries. I appreciate your help in my learning the ropes. I wish you all the best as you move on. What is next for you?

    1. Hi Dottie,

      Thank you so much! My time in Poland definitely helped me approach this topic from an entirely new perspective.

      When it’s safe to do so, I will definitely stop by the libraries and say thank you in person. Next up is graduate school for my Masters in Library and Information Science at Kent!

  14. Great job Allie!! It’s so interesting to see how different perspectives shape our memory of history, especially in the context of a global war.


    1. Alena,

      Thank you so much! It’s definitely interesting to be able to compare my knowledge of the war as an American who went through the American school system to how Poles learn about it in schools and through things like field trips to museums. The things both countries focus on are completely different, which made my research all the more exciting.

  15. Hi Allie! So great to see how well your fascinating IS topic came together. I am so thrilled to have been a small part of your Wooster journey in my intro course – and that politics continues to be among your interests in your IS project! Wishing you all the best, Prof. Bos

    1. Hi Dr. Bos,

      Thank you so much! Intro to U.S. National Politics is still one of my favorite courses I’ve taken at Wooster and is part of the reason I have become so engrossed in research that has a political component to it. Being able to see where the United States and Polish governments diverge and converge on certain issues has been a lot of fun as well, especially since the two countries have engaged in more political dialogues as of late.

  16. Allie, your project is amazing! Your presentation is very concise and easy to understand which I really appreciate since I am not well versed in Polands history or history in general. Your project is very interesting example of how politics influence the way countries remember historical events. I think the trends which you presented in Polands history is something we normally don’t think about. We just accept what is taught to us and call it a day. The passion you have Polish history and history as a whole is shown through this project. I enjoyed reading about your project and miss hearing about Poland in person!

    1. Hannah!!!! Thank you so much, and thank you for listening to all of my rants over the course of the last year. I totally agree: in middle school – and even high school – I never really questioned why something was being taught to me the way it was. I just accepted it as fact. Now that I’m older though, it’s cool (though scary) to see how much the telling of historical events has been shaped by politics. Much like Poland, the United States is not innocent in its telling of history.

      Being able to approach history critically has been a lot of fun and allowed me to reflect on my own experiences.

  17. What I knew about Poland this morning: Pierogis

    What I knew about Poland after learning about your IS: After a traumatic war, governments were able to reshape their history and create an altered version for their citizens. You found the truth in literature, and spotted how the narrative kept changing, multiple times! You’re an incredible historian, and an incredible, bright, amazing person. I hope scholars will learn to appreciate and admire you as much as I do… also, a greater appreciation for pierogis.

    Fantastic work, I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for you.

    1. Marcel!! This put the biggest smile on my face, thank you so much. Pierogis are important!

      Being able to see how the Polish government has manipulated the narrative of a traumatic event across 75 years to legitimize its own authority has been fascinating. It’s especially fascinating to see how little changed in this narrative from Poland having a communist government to a democratic one.

      It really makes you think about all of the other other countries out there (including the United States!!) that are using memorialization as a political weapon.

  18. Congrats Allie! I’m so excited to see how well this came together. Fantastic job!

    1. Thank you, Abby!!

      And thank you for all of your support my junior year when I never thought this project would happen.

  19. Allie,
    What a fascinating project. I spent two weeks in Poland in 2018 and visited the WWII Museum in Gdansk, Auschwitz, the Schindler Museum in Krakow, Wolfsshanze, and the Stalag Luft III POW Museum in Zagan. It was an eye-opening experience and I too came away with a new perspective on WWII. As a history major at Wooster and the daughter of parents who lived through WWII (Pearl Harbor was my mother’s senior year at Wooster), I always seek out WWII sites when I travel, but I had little knowledge of Polish history. I remember hearing when I was there that the Polish government was considering replacing the director of the WWII Museum because the exhibits were not “nationalistic” enough. Do you know if that happened? I’ve also read a little about the Polish government’s unwillingness to admit any cooperation with the Nazis during the war, and I’ve read Jan Karski’s “Story of a Secret State”, which paints a story of every Pole being part of the Underground. Do you have a sense of how much cooperation there was with the Nazis? Thank you and congratulations on some great research!

    1. Hi Carol,

      Thank you so much for this comment and for your fascinating insight. As for your comment about the WWII museum, I do believe the director was replaced. I visited the museum in December 2019 and noticed a strong nationalistic presence, particularly in the video that played as you exited the last exhibit called “The Unconquered.” One of the members who serves on the board for the museum, Bogdan Musial, is also someone I have encountered in my research for his staunch opposition to historians like Jan Gross. Gross’ “Neighbors” gets at the conversation over Polish cooperation with Nazis during the war.

      There is definitely a debate between the government and historians like Gross over how to acknowledge Polish participation in the Holocaust. Again at the WWII Museum in Gdansk, I noticed that the plaque for the Jedwabne pogrom Gross writes about in “Neighbors” paints the event in a completely different light. Where Gross argues that Poles acted independently of Nazi orders, the plaque says that the Nazis persuaded the Poles to carry out the pogrom.

      I will say that there was not wide-spread cooperation with the Nazis, but it happened enough that instances of it occurring cannot be treated as isolated events (as the Polish government continues to argue). In many cases, Poles reported the presence of Jews out of fear for their own safety. Nazis imposed punishments for Poles caught helping Jews, which caused many Poles to turn Jews seeking shelter away. There were also cases of Poles robbing Jewish homes of their possessions after deportations, something Gross also brings up in his book.

      Hope this answers your questions, and thank you again!

  20. Hi Allie!

    Congratulations on a job well-done! Professors Friedman and Shaya spoke of your great IS work regularly in my classes with them.

    For my IS, I am examining how the Holocaust, a European event, is portrayed in American museums and what factors shape the American Holocaust narrative. Specifically, I plan on visiting the Museum of Tolerance in LA, the USHMM in DC, and the Holocaust Memorial Center in Detroit (when I am able) and comparing their Holocaust narratives. My question to you is, do you have any specific advice on how to approach this project? Did any particular databases or researching techniques help you more so than others?

    1. Hi Rachel!

      Thank you so much! Oh geez, I didn’t realize how much my work got circulated around the Department!

      That is so fascinating and I can’t wait to see the finished project! I think my biggest advice would be, when visiting these sites, to go in with a plan. I had very little plan and just kind of wandered the exhibits taking pictures of every plaque that seemed of interest to me. I think taking pictures (where you’re able) is always a good idea because you can reference them later on. Also, take notes as you go through the exhibits and look for common themes. Also: gift shops! Gift shops are important! Ask yourself: What kinds of things are being sold? Are they reference and research materials, or are they board games and t-shirts? Those things also tell a lot about the narrative being presented.

      Also, since you’re working with American museums, you should have a much easier time making contacts with museum directors, curators, tour guides, educators, etc.! I would see if you could schedule interviews with some of these people, whether over the phone, email, or in person! Ask them about presentation, the museum’s mission, anything that might help you make a stronger argument. The language barrier I worked with deterred me from making these contacts.

      In terms of databases, I just combed through each of the museums’ websites. Look for things like mission statements, who is donating money to these museums, who created them and why! Chances are, you’ll be able to tell what narrative the museum is trying to send based on things like donors and who wanted the space created.

      Other than that, I tried to use jstor to find articles related to the history of the museums. Not a lot is written on Polish museums, but bigger sites like Auschwitz have a rich database. See if you can find things like that and then look through those bibliographies!

      Hopefully this helps! I did a lot of trial and error with my project.

  21. Magnificent job on this Allie. You’ve taught me so much. I’m so proud of you and the fact that your passion is never dissuaded nor depleted. That in itself is admirable and encouraging. Can’t wait to see what’s next for you. You are going to touch many more people’s lives in such a positive way.

    1. Thank you, Michael!

      This is so thoughtful and I’m glad my silly little passion for Poland came through to you in my work.

      The plan is to be able to turn this passion into a career, but we’ll see what happens.

  22. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I’m definitely going to put “Neighbors” on my reading list. I wish you all the best at Kent State and in your career. I’m a librarian, and I know your Wooster education and I.S. research experience will serve you well in the future. One never stops learning or researching in an information-related field. Keep traveling too!

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