Michael F. Bassman
Eastern European Studies Grant
July 31, 2004 - August 13, 2004
I started my trip in Riga, Latvia. As someone who had traveled in Eastern Europe before (as early as 1969 and as recently as 2002), I was stuck by the abundance of food now available in supermarkets. The shelves also included gourmet items from Western Europe and the United States. In the center of Riga was the Museum of Occupation, a modern, admission-free building receiving a lot of publicity. All exhibits were accompanied by texts in Latvian, English, German and Russian. Basically, the message of the museum was that Latvia had first been occupied by the Nazis and then by the Russians. What interested me was the omission of media on the Jews of Latvia - there was, for example, no mention of the ghetto in Riga. My investigation of Latvian Jews during the limited time in the country yielded no results. I visited the National Archives and was told that the documents pertaining to the pre-WWII Latvian Jews were not available at present.
More discouraging than Latvia was Poland, my next country. Poland, prior to WWII, had the largest population of Jews in Europe. I spent most of my time in that country, visiting Warsaw, Krakow, Lublin, Lvov and Zakopane. We need to remember that three-million Jews from Poland were murdered during the Holocaust. In addition, all of the death camps were in Poland. The Nazis never could have carried out their genocidal plan without the collaboration of the local peoples, especially the Poles and the Ukrainians who had a long tradition of anti-Semitism and inciting pogroms. Warsaw, like Riga, had a large museum of Polish history with the Poles portrayed as victims of the Nazis and, later, of the Russians. In Krakow, where 1/3 of the population had been Jewish before the war, only a small, synagogue with an old, mostly-destroyed cemetery remains. The people with whom I spoke noted that Poland was now better off as a result of having one religion, Catholicism.
Classes with whom I met at Krakow University spoke about the Holocaust, which they defined as a time when Poland was occupied by Germany. When I asked about the Jews, I received blank stares for the most part. Moreover, some students remarked that the Jews had brought Communism to Poland. I did have the opportunity to meet four elderly Jews who were Holocaust survivors. Each lived as Catholic out of fear of anti-Semitism. They claimed that life had been easier under the Communist regime.
Results from the trip that I will incorporate and, of course, expand on in my teaching:
1. Anti-Semitism still exists in a Poland without Jews.
2. Poland, unlike Germany, does not recognize the "crimes" of WWII. The country sees itself as an innocent victim.
3. There is no recognition of the pre-WWII Jewish community.
4. The Catholic Church is omnipresent, with airports, streets, and boulevards named after Jean Paul II.
5. Documents and archival materials relating to the Jews are still not easily obtainable.