print this page

Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research in Poland

Member Since: 
1999

Holocaust Memorial Days: 27 January, 19 April.

Overview

Poland was the first country invaded by Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939. With a stab in the back from the Soviet Union on September 17, Poland disintegrated within weeks as a sovereign state. Its western and northern territory was incorporated into the German Reich, the center and south became the German-occupied General Government, while its eastern regions were taken by the USSR. Polish soil became the place where millions of Jews perished during World War Two. Six German Nazi death camps were established on that soil. Our concern for the preservation of Holocaust sites and the memory of the Holocaust is a way to honour the victims and caution future generations. We also believe in the continuation of Polish-Jewish history of which the Holocaust was certainly not the last chapter.

Poland's commitment to education, remembrance and promotion of Holocaust research is primarily determined by two factors: our history and our geographical location. Poland, not by its own will, was chosen by the Third Reich as the place where the Holocaust was to be perpetrated. Future victims were transported to the General Government from all corners of Europe and even North Africa. Hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews and those from other countries were herded into ghettos where they were decimated by hunger and disease. In December 1941 the first death center – Kulmhof – started to operate in what was called Warthegau (prewar western Poland). In 1942, after the Wannsee conference, the German occupation authorities started “Operation Reinhard” a plan to murder all Jews in the General Government. More death camps were built: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. Two concentration camps – Majdanek (KL Lublin) and Auschwitz-Bireknau – were partly transformed into extermination camps. The sites of all six former death camps are now in Poland.

Remembrance of the war in Poland is multifaceted: it involves the annihilation of the Jews and the suffering of the Polish people. We look with sadness and regret at those pages of our history that recall shameful deeds. The fact that some Poles killed their Jewish neighbours, or turned fugitive Jews in to the Gestapo, the German Ordnungspolizei and the “navy-blue” police staffed by ethnic Poles still causes pain and requires further scholarly research. On the other hand, it is no less important to remember the valour of very many Poles who risked their lives to help their Jewish compatriots. All this should be seen against the backdrop of the thousand-year-long Polish-Jewish history and the rich heritage of Polish Jews and their contribution to the Polish society at large.

Education

In 1999 the Minister of Education made the decision to include Holocaust education in the curriculum as a mandatory subject of secondary school education in the general humanities (youth aged 13-19). A year later the minister recommended the use by teachers of a new educational program “The Holocaust. A Curriculum for the Humanities in Secondary School  Education for Teaching on the Destruction of Jews” .

Since then the Holocaust has been taught in various forms on different levels of education, mainly in history classes but also during Polish literature, civic education, and extracurricular lessons. Based on the above-mentioned curriculum, in 2003 a complimentary handbook “Understanding the Holocaust” was published to enhance Holocaust education. The latest edition of this handbook, revised and expanded, appeared in 2012. It helps teachers to include the topic of Holocaust in Polish literature, ethics/religion, civic education and philosophical education classes. It is specifically recommended for use by junior high school teachers.

Photo: International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust. Photo courtesy of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum,  Bartosz Bartyzel.

Visits to former concentration or extermination camps are recommended in high school curricula. It is estimated that out of 400,000 Polish visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2014 more than one in four were high school students. Several thousand more visited camp sites in eastern Poland.

For more than ten years a number of in-service teacher training programs have been offered to teachers willing to learn more about both the history of the Holocaust and the methods of teaching it. The growing interest in this kind of courses may be partly attributed to the interest of the general public in Poland in WW2 and the Holocaust. A continued public debate on these issues makes it almost necessary for teachers to enhance their knowledge. Teachers enroll in courses offered by: the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum), Yad Vashem, Mémorial de la Shoah, the Wansee Conference House or the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In 2006 the Centre for Education Development in Warsaw created a network of twenty two Regional Coordinators for Holocaust Education. It organizes conferences, trainings, meetings, seminars and exhibitions dedicated to the topic of Holocaust education. It also recruits teachers for regional seminars on education methods in teaching about Jews and the Holocaust organized in Yad Vashem and Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris.

Many Holocaust related programmes are being launched by various NGOs and municipal institutions, for instance: Center for Education Development, The Jews in Poland: Saving from Oblivion - Teaching for the Future, and The Grodzka Gate Centre.

Remembrance

Both state and local government institutions, universities, research institutes and schools are extensively involved in Holocaust commemoration. State and local authorities honour the victims of the Holocaust - with special ceremonies held on January 27th (the anniversary of the liberation of the German death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau), and on April 19th (to commemorate the heroic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising). Many towns and cities have erected monuments in remembrance of the annihilation of the Jews who had lived in these places before the war. Such monuments or commemorating plates can be found, among other places, in Warsaw (i.a. Umschlagplatz and the Mordechai Anielewicz Bunker), Łódz, Kraków, Kielce, Lublin, Zamosc, Białystok, Góra Kalwaria (Ger), Otwock, Tykocin, Wielkie Oczy, Chmielnik, Płonsk, Szydłowiec and in Jedwabne, where a monument to the memory of the Jews murdered by their Polish neighbours in 1941 was placed in 2001.

Photo: 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, January 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Marek Kocjan

Polish government is also extensively involved in preserving the memorial sites:

  1. Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is a memorial site and a museum. It includes two former German concentration and death camps: Auschwitz I (also called the Stammlager)  and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The museum was formally established by the Polish Parliament on July 2, 1947 and covers an area of 191 hectares. Its official name on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, to which it was added in 1979, is “Auschwitz Birkenau. German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945)”.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation

The aim of the Foundation established in 2009 is to create a perpetual capital to finance the preservation work at the Auschwitz Memorial, which was created on the site of the largest German Nazi concentration and extermination camp – the only such object on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The target amount of the Fund is 120 million Euro. The annual income goal is approximately 4-5 million Euro, which will make it possible to realize the Global Preservation Plan: a long term programme which encompasses all the expert driven conservation work done at the Auschwitz Memorial. Donation declarations of over 100 million euro have been gathered so far. Among the largest donor countries to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation are: Germany, the USA, Poland, France, Austria, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Israel, Italy, and Russia. The Foundation has been financing conservation work at the Memorial Site since 2012.

  1. Majdanek

The State Museum at Majdanek was founded in November 1944 on the grounds of the former German concentration and death camp. It is an institution directly subordinate to the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. In addition to organizing exhibitions, the museum also runs educational and academic activities. The mission of the Museum is to cultivate the memory and promote historical education about the German occupation in the Lublin region during World War II, particularly by means of commemorating the victims, preserving the relics and documenting the history of the camp at Majdanek and the death camps in Belzec and Sobibor.

Photo: Majdanek State Museum (Konzentrationslager Lublin 1941-1944).

  1. Belzec

Museum - Memorial Site in Bełżec was founded in 2004 as a branch of the State Museum at Majdanek. One of its main responsibilities is documenting and commemorating the more than 500,000 victims of the German death camp at Belzec (SS-Sonderdommando Belzec). The new memorial was co-funded by the Polish government and the American Jewish Committee The initiative was finalized in cooperation with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The Belzec Museum’s activity concentrates on historical education and providing guiding services.

 

  1. Sobibor

In 1993, on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the revolt in Sobibór, the Museum of the Former Death Camp (SS-Sonderdommando Sobibor) was set up, as a branch of the Museum of Łęczyńsko-Włodawski Lake District. At that time, a new multilingual memorial plaque was unveiled. In May 2012, the Museum of the Former Death Camp in Sobibor became a branch of the State Museum at Majdanek. Owing to that fact and as a result of archaeological research underway on the site since 2000, steps have been taken to create a new form of commemoration.

The Project to commemorate Victims of the Sobibor Death Camp

The Project to establish a Museum-Memorial Site at the former German Nazi extermination camp in Sobibor is an international undertaking. The initiative, started in September 2008 by Poland, the Netherlands, Israel and Slovakia, involves the creation of a memorial site within the perimeter of the former extermination camp with content-related and financial participation in the project of all countries involved.

  1. Treblinka

The Museum of Armed Struggle and Martyrology in Treblinka is a branch of the Regional Museum in Siedlce, a cultural institution of the local government of the Mazowieckie Voivodeship. It is located on the site of the former Treblinka death camp where between 800.000 and 900.000 Jews were murdered from July 1942 through November 1943. The victims were for the most part Polish Jews but many also came from different European countries. There were also Sinti and Roma among the victims.

The number of visitors coming to Treblinka from abroad began to increase significantly only after the fall of communism in Poland in 1989. The new exhibition centre located at the camp opened in 2006. It was later expanded and made into a branch of the Siedlce Regional Museum. In 2010 a new museum pavilion was opened. It houses a historical exhibition as well as multimedia educational facilities.

  1. Kulmhof:

Museum of the Former German Kulmhof Death Camp in Chełmno on Ner is a branch of the Martyrdom Museum in Żabikowo (a cultural institution of the local government of the Wielkopolskie Voivodeship).

The mission of the Museum is to cultivate the memory of the place of the first instant mass extermination centre for Jews in Warthegau by preserving the relics and documenting the history of the death camp. Its mission also includes historical education about the extermination of the Jews and the Roma during the Second World War.

POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

One of the most recent initiatives that includes as one of its aims keeping alive the memory of the Shoah is the Museum of History of Polish Jews which officially opened its core exhibition on October 28, 2014.

The museum project was formally launched in 2005 by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, the City of Warsaw and the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. It was a unique and unprecedented initiative, spanning many fields of research and drawing on the expertise of scholars and museum professionals from around the world.

The Museum stands in what once was the heart of Jewish Warsaw – an area which the German Nazis turned into the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. This special location, coupled with the Museum’s proximity to the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, demanded extreme thoughtfulness on the part of the building’s designers, who carefully crafted a structure that has become a symbol of the new face of Warsaw. The design by the Finnish studio Lahdelma & Mahlamäki was selected in an international competition.

The Core Exhibition is a journey through 1000 years of the history of Polish Jews – from the Middle Ages until today. It is made up of eight galleries, spread over an area of 4000 sq. m., presenting the heritage and culture of Polish Jews, which still remains a source of inspiration for Poland and for the world. The galleries portray the successive phases of history, beginning with legends of arrival, the beginnings of Jewish settlement in Poland and the development of Jewish culture. The social, religious and political diversity of Polish Jews are shown, highlighting dramatic events from the past, the Holocaust, and concluding with contemporary Jewish revival.

Research

Historical research on the Holocaust began in Poland immediately after the end of war with the establishment of the Central Jewish Historical Commission in 1944 (afterwards renamed the Jewish Historical Institute). There was a rise in interest in studying the Shoah among academics from 1989 onwards. In 2003 a Centre for Holocaust Research - the first academic institution of this kind - was created within the structure of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. It was followed five years later by the establishment of the Centre for Holocaust Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. University courses on the Holocaust are offered to undergraduate and graduate students at many other Polish universities, e.g. in WarsawLublinWrocław, Poznan, Gdansk, Białystok, Bydgoszcz, Opole, Rzeszów and Katowice. Every year dozens of students present their masters theses and PhD candidates complete their doctoral dissertations dedicated to various aspects of the Holocaust, mainly in the field of history, literature, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. Over a hundred books and several hundred articles in scholarly periodicals are published every year. More and more Polish scholars research the dark pages of Polish history in World War Two as well as the period that followed it. As a result, several public debates have taken place in Poland in the last fifteen years.

Photo: Holocaust related publications

 Main Holocaust research topics in Poland:

  • Operation Reinhardt,
  • Anti-Jewish laws in the General Government,
  • Attitudes of the Poles vis-à-vis the Jews during the Holocaust,
  • Polish resistance and the Jews,
  • Postwar trials of persons charged with collaboration,
  • Manipulations of Holocaust history and memory in the Communist era,
  • New perspectives of the Holocaust – how it speaks to the Polish society today.
  • Women and children in the Holocaust

Updated: 28 January 2016