[Photo: Adrian Grycuk, CC BY-SA 3.0 PL , via Wikimedia Commons]

Beim Essaywettbewerb “Beyond new wave of mythologization of WWII” (Center for Independent Social Research, CISR) hat Clara Friedrichsen 2020 in der Kategorie “Academic Essay” gewonnen. CISR beschreibt die Texte als “Works that demonstrate a deep knowledge of the theoretical and public debate about the Second World War. The authors of these essays have demonstrated their independence in working with the material, their ability to present the results of their research in a lively and accessible manner.” Hier findet ihr Clara Friedrichsens Sieger-Essay.

All of us have our own concept of our personal memory from learning things throughout our whole lives. But memory is a very abstract concept, which we cannot always get a hold of. The psychologist Jens Brockmeier gave us a theory on, how our collective memory works: While what is Remembered gets manifested in commemorations, anniversaries, monuments and other societal memory places, the Forgotten usually does not find its place. Nevertheless, it shapes our memory and has an important and mostly undervalued impact on how we view the past, present. and future. The Remembered connects individuals, forms their feeling of collective memory and cultural sense of belonging and defines what they see as the goal of intellectual knowledge – knowing the whole truth. Yet memory can be seen as a process with two sides: Remembering and Forgetting, which work together to shape experiences, thought and imagination (see Brockmeier 2002).
As of 2020 the Jedwabne massacre is a well investigated historical event. On the 10th of July 1941 the Jewish inhabitants of the small town of Jedwabne in the North of Poland were killed by their neighbours, Poles. They were herded in a barn, which was set on fire, burning them alive. As Prof. Shevah Weiss puts it in the documentary ‘Two Barns’: “It was a mass murder in every sense. Masses murdered and masses were murdered.” (Haim 2014). The publishing of Jan T. Gross’ “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland” in Polish in 2000[1] was the first to challenge this canon on a national and international level. But what happened during the memory process? The massacre in the Polish canon for a long time got attributed to the Nazi-Germans, which according to different witness reports in Gross’ book weren’t directly participating (see Gross 2001). Since then, especially among Polish and non-Polish historians, the topic gained popularity. For 59 years there was no public discussion of the events in which the Jewish population of a small town was murdered. How is that possible and what happened in those years?  This essay will give a chronological overview on the memory of the Jedwabne massacre.

The official narrative of the event had been shaped by memories, which were created in order to portray Poland and especially the Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne as innocent. The narrative stated that the Nazi-Germans committed the murder. Nonetheless, the massacre was remembered by locals and Jewish survivors from the region, who had difficulties in maintaining their own memory. This ‘true’ memory shed a light onto Polish antisemitism and Polish perpetratorship and hence couldn’t find its place in the canon of the post-war communist era and the post-soviet time. It couldn’t find its place in the official and collective image of a nation of victims, martyrs and heroes. This changed drastically, when Jan T. Gross published his book ‘Neighbors’ in 2000 and the national and international debate around the ‘true’ happenings aroused not just the recollection and investigation of events in Jedwabne challenged the self-perception of Poles and their part in the Holocaust and the Polish-Jewish relations during the war. The debate created space for the memories of survivors and their relatives.

There have been examinations of the massacre directly after the end of the second world war, which were immediately silenced. The reworking of the Polish Narrative during the Communist era was needed to establish a Communist national idea inside this canon, but didn’t leave space for any critical memory culture, because the Polish suffering was at the centre of this. The official narrative described Poles as victims, martyrs and heroes and encouraged pride into the Polish nation.
In the late 1960s the Partisans Party even expanded anti-Jewish narratives, including antisemite elements, establishing Jews as a threat and portraying the West as anti-Polish, while equalizing the Polish and Jewish fate. The event was also commemorated with an official monument in Jedwabne in 1963, which stated “The site of torment of Jewish people. The Gestapo and the Nazi police burnt alive 1,600 Jews on 10 July 1941.” (Wolentarska-Ochman 2006: 155). Initiated by the first solidarity movement in the 80s the first self-critical approach to Polish-Jewish relations provided the first forum for a re-examination of the collective memory (see Michlic 2002: 5). The political transformation in the late 1980s brought some smaller debates with it, which couldn’t change the collective attitude on a broad societal level (see Michlic 2012: 74). In 1988 the Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Arnold interviewed inhabitants of Jedwabne, which resulted in two documentaries on the massacre. In the 90s historians started a discussion about rethinking the memory of the ‘dark past’ of Poland. Still just the publication of Jan T. Gross ‘Neighbors’ in 2000 marked the beginning of a broad discussion over Poland’s collective memory of the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations on a national and international level. Michlic argues that “political stability that permitted public reckoning, as well as the acceptance of self-criticism within a particular collective culture” is prerequisite for such a debate (Michlic 2012: 67).
In the years 2000 to 2002 the debate triggered by ‘Neighbors’, led to a general debate about Polish perpetratorship, Polish-Jewish wartime relations and a general new critical view on the Collective Memory. In September 2000 the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) started an official investigation on the massacre. On the 59th anniversary of the massacre an official commemoration took place in Jedwabne, where the mayor and inhabitants of Jedwabne took part.  As Wolentarska-Ochman puts it: “In summer 2000 everything appeared to be on the right track.” (Wolentarska-Ochman 2006: 158). In the years until 2020, there has been an ongoing debate on the real course of events and the memory of it.

To understand how a nation’s and society’s memory is constructed one has to look into memory theory. About 100 years ago Maurice Halbwachs defined the term “Mémoire collective” – the Collective Memory. He defined it as the memory of the individual, which is developed in its social surrounding, is socially mediated and constituted by communication. Within its social environment each individual forms its view on the past, at the same time the collective memory of the environment gets formed (see Assmann & Czaplicka 1995: 126). Jan Assmann expanded this concept with the idea of “Cultural memory”, which is not attached to the everyday life, but to events in the past, which got forwarded in “cultural formations” such as monuments, texts and rites, and “institutional communication” such as recitations, practices and observances (Assmann & Czaplicka 1995: 129). Especially relevant for this analysis is the concept of ‘Counter memory’, a memory which stands in contrast to the Collective memory. The memory of the Jedwabne massacre can be seen as a counter memory in 2000, because it challenged the Collective memory in its roots.
Focussing on psychologist’s Jens Brockmeier’s explanation of how every individuals mind gets influenced by the surrounding discursive and cultural environment (see Brockmeier 2002: 21), it strikes that during the suppression of the Soviet era the individual mind had to have difficulties to remember. Every individual selects memory of “cognitive and emotional relevance” (Brockmeier 2002: 22), which means it chooses memories of personal significance. With this in mind one could argue that the murder of Jews is such a memory. Yet every individuals mind is just one element of the Collective memory, of social remembrance and commemoration, which also make a comparable selection on a collective level. By selecting information, other information is excluded and hence forgotten. By excluding this information, the before selected information is linked in a new order and then new coherences are created. The information is now organized in new scheme. In the case of the Collective memory of the Polish society of the second world war and the actions of  Poles, this scheme is a memory of victimhood, heroism and martyrdom. In this scheme the Remembering of Polish perpetratorship could not find its place. Connecting this with Maurice Halbwachs’ idea of how memory is organized, every individual remembers and forgets according to their personal cultural ‘frames’ (religion, politics,…) (see Halbwachs, cited by Brockmeier 2002: 23–24). According to Halbwachs the collective memory is organized by such societal structures, aspects that do not fit into this structure are forgotten. Jens Brockmeier also states that an individual’s cultural worldview is always rooted in social rules, values and the “shared memory of a commonly inhabited and similarly experienced past” (Brockmeier 2002: 18). Aleida Assmanns’s theory on the “Dynamics of Cultural Memory” adds ‘psychological pressures’ to the reasons, why individuals forget by saying that “painful or incongruent memories are hidden, displaced, overwritten, and possibly effaced.” (Assmann 2008: 97). According to her there are two cultural forms of forgetting: ‘active forgetting’ and ‘passive forgetting’, being intentional and non-intentional. While material and immaterial memories can actively and intentionally get trashed, recycled or censored, they can also get passively and non-intentionally lost, hidden, dispersed, neglected, abandoned or left behind, if they fall out of the frame of attention, valuation and use (see Assmann 2008: 97–98). In the case of the memory process of the Jedwabne massacre, it could be argued that the Remembering of the course of events got censored for such a long time and by that ‘actively forgotten’, that the Collective memory non-intentionally abandoned the memory of the murders, because it fell out of the frame of attention, valuation and use.

After the publishing of ‘Neighbors’ those collectively forgotten memories suddenly reappeared in the cultural memory and found a place to be actively restored and remembered. “Cleansing the memory”, one of the first articles on the topic by Andrzej Kaczyński, gave the debate a title which provoked the debate’s most important questions concerning Remembering and Forgetting: “Can memory be cleansed? Whose memory exactly should be purified?” (Wolentarska-Ochman 2006: 153). This raises the question, what the idea behind ‘cleansing’ is? Is there a will to reach reconciliation or to reach the goal of knowing the whole truth?
Since the suppression during the Soviet time the discussion has now developed into a more democratic debate, in which critical rethinking of the canon could take place. As Wolentarska-Ochman argues in regard to Halbwachs theory of Remembering and Forgetting within frames, “the cleansing of memory could be identified with its reshaping.” (Wolentarska-Ochman 2006: 153). In order to reshape the memory, the postcommunist nation had to develop new viewpoints and attitudes.
After 2000 the ‘new’ democratic Poland reshapes its Collective memory, matching the current needs and aspirations, meaning a different set of values and ideas is the basis for the new relevant memory (see Wolentarska-Ochman 2006: 154). Since the memory is closely connected to values and national traits it is a critical and sensitive topic for the society, because it can become “an instrument of exclusion and an impulse for war.” (Wolentarska-Ochman 2006: 154). She draws the conclusion that the reworking and commemoration has to take place on a communal societal level, which is not connected to an official position of power. She analyses the local effects of the debate in Jedwabne and discovers that the locals struggle to find their place in the new Collective memory and the commemoration policies, which have been ‘forced’ upon them. While the memory debate on the Jedwabne massacre could finally take place on a national level in the 2000s leading to a rethinking of national values and the democratic movement towards the EU, especially the debate on the local level showed the complexity of the memory. Many Jedwabnians had and have personal connections to the victims and murderers. The main intimidating question in the room was, which family had Jewish blood on their hands. For the Jedwabnians it is not just a question of collective memory, it is a question of very personal Remembering. While the Poles on a national level had to overthink their attitude and perception towards and of Polish history, many Jedwabnians had to overthink their personal history. Not just their worldview or ‘nationview’ got contested, but how they see their personal surrounding. The inhabitants of Jedwabne showed different patterns of behaviour being confronted with the debate: being defensive, adapting historian’s and public’s arguments or general refusal to face the debate. Wolentarska-Ochman sees the reasons for those behaviours in the media hunt, the national pressure and the lack of a working communal commemoration project. Different political actors used the debate as a stage for the ongoing election campaign and for antisemitic propaganda. Even the apology by the Polish president surprised them while many still weren’t convinced of the new description of the event. She describes the Jedwabnians as isolated from the rest of the population and consequently missing the ‘good spirit’ needed for a reworking process (see Wolentarska-Ochman 2006: 159–161). This resulted in them not showing up at the 60th anniversary of the massacre in 2001 and founding “The Committee for the good name of Jedwabne”. This failure of memory policies, as well as other factors resulted in a lack of an adequate local commemoration, which would have been possible in the eyes of the town’s mayor, if it could have its own space and pace (see Wolentarska-Ochman 2006: 171–172). While parts of the society started reworking their memory, other parts held onto the Soviet narrative of a nation of victims.

The findings of this essay display how the massacre was forgotten which should not be confused with why it was forgotten or excuse any of the actions. Antisemitism was and is present in the Polish society and politics (see Winiewski & Bulska 2020). This essay is trying to understand how the false narrative of a massacre could stay alive for 59 years.  It describes based on theories how the Polish Collective memory excluded such a drastic event and struggles to restore the memory of it.
In Poland the debate on the Jedwabne massacre provoked a discussion on the time of the Holocaust and brought a “return of the memory” with it, as Slawomir Kapralski puts it, also “(…) it has divided various sectors of Polish society and caused a backlash that hampered the reception of the Holocaust discourse.” (Kapralski 2017: 183). In the following years the debate is still ongoing in the discussion on Polish school history education and also made it into the fictional movie “Aftermath” in 2012 by Władysław Pasikowski. The history of the massacre also found its way into museums like the POLIN museum in Warsaw dedicated to the History of the Polish Jews. While the ‘new’ findings of the massacre reveal a terrible part of history, the discussion triggered an overthinking of the self-perception of Poles and their role in the Holocaust and the Polish-Jewish relations during the war. This led to a more diverse and open ground for future debates and possibly to a healthier image of nationhood. The debate can hopefully also be seen as an example for future discourses in other nations, where the past was and is suppressed. Especially for survivors and relatives of victims the process is important and contains the hope for a more open, sympathetic and inclusive image of Polish Jews in memory and present.


Assmann, A. (2008) Canon And Archive. In: Young, S. (ed.) Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook, 8th edn. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, pp. 97–107.

Assmann, J. & Czaplicka, J. (1995) Collective Memory and Cultural Identity. New German Critique (65), 125–133.

Brockmeier, J. (2002) Remembering and Forgetting: Narrative as Cultural Memory. Culture&Psychology 8 (1), 15–43.

Gross, J. T. (2001) Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Haim, H. (2014) Two barns, Israel.

Kapralski, S. (2017) Jews and the Holocaust in Poland’s Memoryscapes: An Inquiry Into Transcultural Amnesia. In: Sindbæk Andersen, T. & Törnquist-Plewa, B. (eds.) The twentieth century in European memory: Transcultural mediation and reception, 34th edn. Brill, Leiden, Boston, pp. 170–197.

Michlic, J. (2002) Coming to Terms with the “Dark past”: The Polish debate about the Jedwabne Massacre. Working paper. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem.

Michlic, J. (2012) The Jedwabne Debate: Reshaping Polish National Mythology. In: Wistrich, R. S. (ed.) Holocaust Denial: The Politics of Perfidy. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, Boston, pp. 67–84.

Winiewski, M. & Bulska, D. (2020) Antisemitismus in Polen. https://www.bpb.de/politik/extremismus/antisemitismus/308451/antisemitismus-in-polen. Accessed 9/14/2020.

Wolentarska-Ochman, E. (2006) Collective Remembrance in Jedwabne: Unsettled Memory of World War II in postcommunist Poland. History&Memory 18 (1), 152–178.


[1] The complete title of the book in Polish reads “Sąsiedzi: Historia zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka” (lit. Neighbors: The History of Destruction of a Jewish Town) and was published in 2000. The English translation used as a reference for this essay was published in 2001.