Bloody Memories: Encountering the Past in Contemporary Poland

Essay Excerpt

In the summer of 1987, I went to Poland to begin developing a fieldwork project. Ewa, a Polish friend of mine now living in the United States, came during part of my stay to visit her mother and stepfather. Her presence proved paRticularly fortunate because it gave me ready access to her family and a circle of close friends. Although this essay focuses on my discussions with Ewa's stepfather, subsequent encounters with others demonstrated a strikingly consistent pattern, namely, the persistence of a national narrative in which Jews figure conspicuously and enigmatically as a mysterious people complicitous in their own demise. I will have more to say about this later in the essay.

Elsewhere I have written about the misuse of Polish and Polish Jewish history by American Jews themselves. The recent popularity of Jewish pilgrimages to Poland's death camps are a case in point (Kugelmass 1992), because their scripted, nondialogical nature makes them more a reenactment than an engagement with the past. Poland is a theater prop in a Jewish pageant about national catastrophe and redemption. Such criticism is based on the somewhat questionable premise that another type of encounter would facilitate awareness of the complexity and diversity of Jewish experience in Poland before, during, and after the Holocaust. But in reflecting on the material that follows, even my own experience suggests otherwise. Indeed, the central issue this essay addresses is, What are the limits of interethnic dialogue, particularly when self and other are integrally linked as diametric opposites? My conclusion is rather pessimistic; even within dialogical encounters, constructions of otherness manage to stand firm, and particularly so when national mythology remains resilient. The latter point, it seems to me, is the key, and I shall have more to say about it in the conclusion (281). 

Kugelmass, Jack. "Bloody Memories: Encountering the Past in Contemporary Poland." Cultural Anthropology 10.3(1995): 279–301.

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