Review Essay

"Schindler's List" and the Polish Question

In This Review


Discussions of the Holocaust often turn on two dominant issues. The first is grasping the nearly incomprehensible horrors of Nazi Germany's mass extermination campaign against Jews. The second, overshadowed by the monumental nature of the first, concerns the Holocaust's Polish setting and raises divisive questions about the history of relations between Polish Jews and Catholics not only during but also before and after the Second World War. Western popular culture, most recently Steven Spielberg's powerful film "Schindler's List," has tended to emphasize the first issue, the nature of the Nazi atrocities, while leaving the Polish setting as a fuzzy and often misunderstood backdrop.

Yet today such depictions are curiously outdated. Over the last few years, Polish Catholics and Jews have made remarkable progress in an emotionally charged debate that has moved well beyond past recriminations, bringing that backdrop into far sharper focus. For sure, this dialogue continues to generate acrimony, both between and within the two groups, and agreement remains elusive on how to present their common history in schools and to the general public. But increasing numbers of Polish Catholics and Jews, both inside and outside the country, are moving beyond the angry recriminations that had once all but obliterated previous attempts at understanding.


The debate since the Second World War over Poland's history can be reduced to two (simplified) opposing views. Polish Catholics often emphasized Poland's long record as a land of refuge for Jews, beginning with the great migrations of Jews fleeing persecution in other parts of Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and as a land of tolerance, where Jews were sometimes granted special privileges by Polish monarchs and nobles. Jews, on the other hand, often emphasized the steady growth of anti-Semitism in Polish society, especially when Poland reemerged as an independent state between the two world wars.

Poland's wartime experience compounded these angry disagreements. Polish Catholics stressed their own suffering at the hands of the German occupiers, arguing

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