Making Sense of the Holocaust in Contemporary Poland: The Real and the Imagined, the Contradictions and the Paradoxes
"The Holocaust and the Contemporary World" (Kraków, 23-24 April 2015)
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This article, written from an anthropological perspective and based on extended personal fieldwork by the author, consists of a detailed discussion of two places of Holocaust memory in present-day Poland: the memorial museum at Auschwitz and selected Jewish sites in the city of Kraków. The principal argument is that both the Auschwitz museum and Jewish Kraków have meanings which are multi-layered and multi-dimensional. For example, Auschwitz means different things to different people; some of those meanings are particularist (relating to the histories of different victim groups), some are universal. Similarly, the character of Jewish Kraków is understood not only in relation to the physical presence of a former Jewish quarter (now substantially restored), but also in relation to the overpowering awareness of ruin and the absence of Jews. The investigation and analysis of common interpretations of these two places reveal that they rest on numerous contradictions and paradoxes; the real and the imagined, usually understood as polar opposites, may in fact coexist in people’s minds. In a sense it can be described as a ‘chorus of voices’, all of which need to be heard and acknowledged. But these voices are not always in harmony; on the contrary, what often comes across is dissonance or cacophony. In other words, there is no fixed interpretative scheme, no unified or stable approach. Nor, perhaps, should there be, in approaching something so totally subversive as genocide. The job of the scholar, in representing and problematizing how people make sense of the Holocaust in such contexts, thus requires the recognition of ethnographic inconsistencies and uncertainties, and in consequence to challenge preconceptions, mystifications, stereotypes, and simplifications.
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