Rewriting The Holocaust

In 2007 I did a speaking tour of eastern Europe, including Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Croatia. I spent a night in Belgrade, but my talk was canceled because there were anti-American skinheads waiting outside the hotel looking for Americans to beat up.

In Budapest, there was an ultranationalist protest going on in the town square. I asked my hosts what was going on and they explained that Europe never seems to manage to get rid of proto-fascist assholes. The protesters in Budapest were treated as though they were harmless jerks; as you can see, life went on apace in the town square. It looked though there were a few angry people having a barbecue in the corner.

When I got to Warsaw, I did some exploring in town and visited the “old town center” – which I later learned had been completely reconstructed by dismantling buildings elsewhere that had survived WWII, and re-creating the town center from photographs. Later I got back to my hotel and mentioned to the lady at the desk that I was a photographer and was in search of things to photograph. She suggested that I take a bus and go visit the death camp at Auschwitz. I declined.

Instead, I walked, with my huge camera bag, wrapped up in a heavy woolen cloak. I found a place that was interesting: a walled-off cemetery that looked very run down. I did a few pictures; the place was large and I was the only person there. It would have made, I thought, a great setting for a vampire movie. When I got back to the hotel I asked the lady at the desk what it was and she said “Oh! That was the old jewish cemetary. Nobody maintains it anymore so it’s very run down.”

Poland has had an antisemitism problem for a long time; since well before WWII. I remember reading about how the crusades kicked off with massive antisemitic blood-letting all across Europe; the histories I read (Joinville and Geoffroy De Villehardoin) made it sound as though the problem was that the well-meaning crusaders were being over-charged for supplies, but in retrospect it seems pretty obvious that the crusaders just didn’t want to pay at all. When they got to Jerusalem, they killed arab and jew alike, Joinville writing about how they knelt to pray at the holy sepulcher with the blood of infidels dripping onto the floor where they stood.

I recently read through O Jerusalem! by Collins and LaPierre; I need to do a review of it, but it hasn’t settled into my mind, yet. [One of you in The Commentariat(tm) recommended it, for which I thank you] it’s a blow-by-blow history of the founding of Israel, incredibly detailed and full of pain inflicted in great detail on everybody involved. One of the salient threads is the role that Poland and the Polish played in the formation of the state. The facts of history are that World War II was not a sudden aberration – it was a spasmodic culmination of the kind of grinding, deep, systemic antisemitism that has characterized Poland, Russia, France, Germany, Austria/Hungary, and England. It’s not dead and gone, either; Europe exported its problem to the Middle East and managed to avoid confronting it or its consequences. I’d imagine that the lessons learned in WWII were learned deep and hard, but apparently humans’ memory are short when it serves politicians to play on people’s worst instincts.

Last night I was working at the shop, listening to some of WNYC’s On The Media podcast, and they had an episode about how Poland’s reactionary government is trying to eradicate Poland’s role in The Holocaust. [otm] They focus (as do the Polish reactionaries) on modern antisemitism during WWII, basically rolling Poland’s 500+ years of vicious antisemitism into the background. If you want to listen to something depressing, I encourage you to listen to the On The Media episode; it’s a good description of how a government can step in and tweak the teaching of history, to defang the worst of it. Whenever I hear something like that, I review what I’ve learned about US history, and I can see similar fingerprints of propagandists in action over here. Briefly, the OTM piece covers how the government of Poland has been criminalizing discussing Poland’s culpability in The Holocaust, and suppressing publication of information about it in museums. The Polish governments’ efforts at suppression seem remarkably like the kind of thing we’d expect to see from the Trump administration: incompetent, obvious, and ham-fisted. But they aren’t intended to work on this generation; they’re aimed at the next.

It seems absurd to try to obliterate history, but what if it works?

As I visualized it in Photoshop, later.

From O! Jerusalem [wc]

In Poland, the Cossack Revolt [1670s] with a ferocity and devotion to torture unaparalleled in Jewish experience, wiped out over 100,000 Jews in less than a decade. When the czars pushed their frontier westward across Poland, an era of darkness set in for almost half of the world’s Jewish population. Fenced into history’s greatest ghetto, the Pale of Settlement, Jews were conscripted at the age of twelve for twenty-five years of military service and forced to pay special taxes on kosher meat and sabbath candles. Jewish women were not allowed to live in the big city university centers without the yellow ticket of a prostitute. In 1880, after the assassination of Alexander II, the mobs, aided by the czar’s soldiers, burned and butchered their way through one Jewish community after another, leaving a new word in their wake: pogrom.

The rest of Europe was in on it; it was not just Poland, but Poland cannot rewrite the history of WWII and The Holocaust – and their shameful part in it, any more than they can undo hundreds of years of pogroms that preceded it.

When I got back to my hotel room, and was drifting off to sleep, I realized that the jewish cemetary was untended because there are no jews left in Warsaw. I.e.: between The Holocaust and chasing them off to the Middle East – it worked. Suddenly I was face-down in the toilet vomiting violently. I have never been back to Poland.

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The bagel stand was one of my favorite images from Warsaw. And it ties to a happy thing that I learned about the other day, so let me tell that story here. The subway/train station in Warsaw is a great underground rat-warren of tunnels and tracks. I had a fun time exploring and photographing and eating street food. It wasn’t until I had been down there for about an hour that I noticed something and backtracked a bit: the tunnel entrances had the characteristic angles of blast-suppression zones against nuclear overpressure. The whole subway/train system was Warsaw’s collective hope for surviving a nuclear war; i.e.: futile, worthless. Warsaw would have been hit with 5 or 6 hydrogen bombs in the megaton range. Any survivors would not last long; Auschwitz, unless it was targeted, would survive; it’s 200km away and outside of the blast zone.

Another podcast I listen to is The Bowery Boys, which is about New York City history, by a couple of New Yorkers who love their city. In a recent episode, they talked about bagels, and how huge and important a business bagels have been in New York. Of course, they discussed the origin of everyone’s favorite carb-wad: Polish jews brought them over and they were a huge hit starting in the 1870s – probably brought into the market by the jews who had fled the pogroms following Alexander II’s death in 1880. By 1900, bagels were such a vital industry that they became part of the history of labor and unions – bagel workers were treated worse than the steel workers in Pittsburgh. So far, that’s all depressing, isn’t it? But the part that had me laughing long and hard was this: the bagel was invented in Poland because christian bakers, not wanting competition from jews, passed a law that prohibited jews from producing baked goods. Thus, the bagel came to be: born in antisemitism – a clever dodge to mess with the christian laws by boiling them and ‘drying’ them on hot racks, but not ‘baking’ them. Every time you enjoy a big wad of bagel-carbs, spare a “fuck you” for centuries of Polish antisemites.

A note about capitalization: I generally don’t capitalize the name of religions, because I don’t respect them and it pleases me to show my disrespect in that way. It’s also laziness; if you start capitalizing religion then do you capitalize the pope, too? What about scientology and its theories? I’m not going to start capitalizing “operant thetan” any time soon, etc. It’s easier and more consistent to just disrespect the lot of them. Judaism makes this problem difficult since it’s a religion, a culture, a cuisine, and (arguably) a political movement. I capitalize real places and people. It confuses me, too. That’s the point, I suppose – I’m supposed to take someone else’s imaginings so seriously I build them into my language.


  1. Who Cares says

    I asked my hosts what was going on and they explained that Europe never seems to manage to get rid of proto-fascist assholes.

    It is worse then that. We failed to get rid of the Nazis, not Neo-Nazis I really mean good old Nazis. You can still find them in the Ukraine, they call themselves Banderists in honor of their hero Bandera but their ideology is almost pure Nazi. Which is funny in a sad way since the Nazis considered them just as worthless as these people think the people living to the east of pre WWII Poland (and to them the real target of the Nazis ire) are.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the government of Poland has been criminalizing discussing Poland’s culpability in The Holocaust…

    I started to ask whether they intend to clean up the image of the nation or of the Catholic Church, but then realized they clearly want to erase that distinction as well.

  3. Bruce says

    At least in Google Maps, one can now find the Jewish Cemetary in Warsaw easily. The aerial view shows the Jewish versus Christian sides clearly, based on the thicknesses of the trees.
    It’s a short walk north of the Hyatt or the Ibis hotel on Okopowa street, north to Anielewicza 47, where the cemetery starts just NW of the parking lot.

  4. says

    When I got back to my hotel room, and was drifting off to sleep, I realized that the jewish cemetary was untended because there are no jews left in Warsaw. I.e.: between The Holocaust and chasing them off to the Middle East – it worked.

    That’s not why old graveyards are untended. In the city where I live there are several untended cemeteries. People are willing to take care of their parents’ graves. Maybe also their grandparents’ graves. But very few people care about the graves of their more distant ancestors. Regularly visiting some grave and taking care of its visual appearance is time consuming. Most people don’t want to do it unless they personally knew the person who is buried there. In the city where I live pretty much every graveyard that is sort of old is untended and looks similar to your photos.

  5. says

    Speaking of Poland, their politicians recently came up with the idea to criminalize sex educations in schools and treat it as “pedophilia.”

    So yeah, Poland sure isn’t a country I’d like to live in. For multiple reasons.

  6. wereatheist says

    I’d like to cut the Poles some slack for events during the German occupation.
    The Germans didn’t even bother to install a local puppet administration, which they did almost everywhere else in occupied territories.
    There were collaborators for the Holocaust, but overwhelmlingly from Polish Republic minorities, e.g. ethnical Germans (surprize!), Lithuanians, and Ukrainians.
    Stepan Bandera and his troops were not accepted by the Germans, because the latter did not like the idea of self-commanded Untermenschen forces. So the actual Banderistas fought as guerilla force, mostly eradicating Polish villages, killing every Jew the Germans had missed, and fighting communist partisans, thereby being useful idiots for the occupiers, instead of resisters.
    But after the war, the first pogrom was 7-4-1946, in Kielce ( “only” 40 dead).
    The Jewish communities in Western Germany, after the war, were mostly DPs. They could have gone back to their places of youth, but had good reason not to go.

  7. wereatheist says

    I guess I have to explain more:
    Stepan Bandera is a hero to Ukrainian Nazis, but the western part of Ukraina was Polish until 1939. He was a Polish citizen, before the war.
    I’m only talking about regions of pre-1939 Poland, here.

  8. dangerousbeans says

    @5 Andreas Avester
    Wait, there isn’t some municipal organisation that tends the cemetery?
    Around here cemeteries seem to be either public corporations or run bug churches. The only abandoned ones are linked to old churches the relevant church can no longer be arsed maintaining.

  9. Jazzlet says

    In the UK there are three kinds of cemetaries, municipal, religious, and private. If a private cemetary goes bust it will end up neglected, the most famous is Highgate Cemetary, burial place of among many others Marx.

  10. says

    Wait, there isn’t some municipal organisation that tends the cemetery?

    Nope. In general, churches own cemeteries. Whatever churches might be saying in their tax forms, in their essence they are for-profit organizations.

    Here’s how the lifecycle of graveyards works in Latvia.

    Phase 1: Profit. Running a graveyard where people are regularly buried is profitable. Firstly, each patch of land is sold for a fee. Secondly, the burial service costs money. Thirdly, every summer (july/august) there’s a cemetery festival during which people are expected to visit their family members’ graves and give obligatory donations to the church. Tending individual graves is up to the living relatives of the person who’s buried there. There’s some social pressure and many people feel guilty if they allow their family members’ graves to overgrow with moss and lichen.

    Phase 2: Abandonment. Graveyards have limited space. Once it runs out, no new burials are possible. The living relatives die and stop tending the graves. They also stop giving money to the church. At this point a graveyard stops generating profit. Its maintenance turns into an expense. At this point churches abandon the graveyard. It overgrows with weeds, moss, and lichen. Wooden crosses rot and stone gravestones crumble.

    If the graveyard is located in some remote place, ignoring it is easy. If it is in the middle of some city, problems start:
    (1) if you just leave it be and ignore it, it is a visual eyesore due to looking sort of ugly;
    (2) if you maintain it, it’s a financial expense;
    (3) if you propose removing all the tombstones and running bulldozers over the entire place, sentimental people feel outraged and complain about how it is wrong to disrespect the graves,
    (4) if you propose new burials on top of the old ones, sentimental people feel outraged.

    Phase 3: Disposal.
    After enough decades pass, an old graveyard gets converted into a park if it’s in the middle of some city. All the wooden crosses are already rotten, and all the tombstones get removed. The result is a public park. If the graveyard is located in some remote place, it just naturally turns into a forest.

    In the center of Riga there’s an old graveyard. My school was right next to it. Here are some photos:

    The burials were suspended in 1964. This place is not quite as overgrown as in the Marcus’ photo, but I’d say that the church who owns this place isn’t taking good care of it. Incidentally, this graveyard is owned by a large wealthy church that has lots of members.

  11. dangerousbeans says

    That sounds like how i expected it to work
    Just being able to abandon this land seems like a problem: it’s full of bodies and toxins from embalming

  12. Raucous Indignation says

    I missed being here Marcus. Although I didn’t realize that until I returned a few days ago. Oh, one more thing:

    Stop and Frisk and Fuck Bloomberg.

  13. says

    Raucous Indignation@#13:
    I missed being here Marcus.

    Welcome back!

    Stop and Frisk and Fuck Bloomberg.

    Billionaires are not “stop and frisk”able.

  14. StevoR says

    Powerful, evocative, informative, thought-provoking post. Thankyou Marcus Ranum.

    I wonder whether any Jewish organisations eg. Shoah memorial groups know of this and, if so, why they haven’t intervened? Money, time and priorities maybe but still?

  15. says

    I wonder whether any Jewish organisations eg. Shoah memorial groups know of this and, if so, why they haven’t intervened? Money, time and priorities maybe but still?

    I suspect they still don’t feel welcome in Poland?

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