The Holocaust in Eastern Europe: Sources, Memory, Politics

Symposium in Honour of Professor Antony Polonsky

Antony Polonsky

Antony Polonsky

From: Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies

Tuesday, 16 March 2021, 9:30am-5pm GMT on Zoom

This event is organised by The Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies in co-operation with the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies (UCL) and The Wiener Holocaust Library.

Convenors: Professor François Guesnet (UCL); Dr Christine Schmidt (The Wiener Holocaust Library); Professor Michael Fleming (IPJS)

This symposium, in honour of Professor Antony Polonsky on the occasion of his 80th birthday, brings together established and junior scholars researching the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. Thematically focused on Sources, Memory and Politics, the symposium offers a timely overview of the state of knowledge.

Speakers include Professor Piotr Forecki, Professor Mary Fulbrook, Dr Łukasz Krzyżanowski, Dr Joanna Beata Michlic, Dr Katarzyna Person, Professor Dariusz Stola, Dr Agnieszka Wierzcholska, Dr Hannah Wilson, Connie Webber and Professor Antony Polonsky

Registration: Registration is free via Eventbrite. Please click the REGISTER button below and fill in your details on the Eventbrite site. Once you have registered, you will receive your Zoom link with your Eventbrite confirmation. This zoom link will be sent to you once again just before the lecture takes place.

Click here to download the Programme.

All books by Antony Polonsky and all volumes of POLIN are available to purchase at a 30% discount, if ordered before 31 March 2021. Click here for ordering details.


9.30 Registration

10.00 Session 1: Sources Katarzyna Person The Ringelblum Archive and the difficulty of listening to the voices of the victims. Hannah Wilson Uncovering Sobibór: Archaeology, Artefacts and Representation Agnieszka Wierzcholska Relations between Jews and non-Jews in Poland during the Holocaust: A micro-history of one town

12.00 Tribute to Professor Polonsky from the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization (given by Connie Webber)

12.30 Lunch

13.15 Session 2: Memory Piotr Forecki Domestic “Assassins of Memory”: Various Faces of Holocaust Revisionism in Contemporary Poland Łukasz Krzyżanowski Brothers and Sisters Joined in Pain: Survivors Commemorating Victims of the Holocaust in Provincial Poland Immediately after the War Mary Fulbrook Conflicting accounts of guilt and complicity

15.15 Tea Break

15.30 Session 3: Politics Joanna Michlic The Voice of Child Holocaust Survivors and the Politics of the Memorialization of the Holocaust. Dariusz Stola Scholars and coming to terms with the Holocaust in Poland Antony Polonsky Response

17.30. End of Symposium



Katarzyna Person
The Ringelblum Archive and the difficulty of listening to the voices of the victims.

The documents contained in the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, one of the most emblematic documentation undertakings of World War II, constitute undoubtedly a key collection of primary sources relating to socio-demographic changes in the ghettos during the Holocaust.

The Archive actively strove to record voices of those outside the mainstream narrative of traditional Jewish history; those on the bottom rungs of ghetto society. Many of these people were among the approximately 100,000 ghetto inhabitants who died of hunger and illness before the beginning of deportations to Treblinka. These voices were not shaped by post-war reflection on the Holocaust or even post-ghetto experiences in camps or in hiding.

In my paper I will look at these micronarratives of everyday life and through them discuss the everyday reality of the ghetto streets.

Hannah Wilson
Uncovering Sobibór: Archaeology, Artefacts and Representation Holocaust archaeology has arguably become one of the most crucial aspects within contemporary memory and cultural studies.

This paper will examine the impact of the archaeological findings at the site of Sobibór death camp in Eastern Poland. In 2007, Polish archaeologist Wojciech Mazurek and Israeli archaeologist Yoram Haimi began working together, picking up where the previous investigations left off. Dutch archaeologist Ivar Schute also joined after a huge number of items from the Netherlands were uncovered. Consequently, this ten-year period of excavations has been shaped by a variety of different actors, bringing with them the influences of different supporting organisations and institutions, and thus framed by international memory politics. This paper seeks to outline the reasons for the second phase of archaeological excavations and discuss their impact on the memory and historiography of the site. Collectively, the unearthing of artefacts at the site has played an important role in the public perception of the camp. Therefore, the paper will analyse the most significant findings, and the various types of artefacts uncovered there.

Most important is the small selection of artefacts that give some indication as to the identity of the victim, with either a name or other recognisable feature, and have thus led to the discovery of living family members; specific examples of these will be also present in this paper. It will aim to highlight the problems and narratives that come with classifying these objects, which have a bias towards Western Europe rather than the representation of Polish Jewry, for instance, and what this means for the future uses and impact of the artefacts within the new museum at Sobibór.

Agnieszka Wierzcholska
Relations between Jews and non-Jews in Poland during the Holocaust: A micro-history of one town

The paper presents research on the Holocaust in Tarnów, a mid-sized town in Southern Poland, where – prior to 1939 – half of the population was Jewish. This study of Tarnów however, is not a local history in the strict sense. It takes on a micro-historical outlook in order to provide a thick description of the social relations and social processes of the Jewish and non-Jewish townsfolk during German occupation. The study acts on the assumption that individual and small groups only seemingly act as autonomous subjects. In reality, all historical actors are deeply embedded and intertwined within the social, cultural, and political context around them. Thus, an in-depth analysis of sources on every-day life of an occupied society in a Polish-Jewish town, allows us to retrace and understand social processes under German occupation.

The study on Tarnów addresses many controversial issues such as the role of the Poles as “bystanders” or the question of Jewish agency in the process of rescue and flight. The study on Tarnów provides a multi-perspectivity due to the variety of sources: those produced by German occupiers, Polish “neighbours”, and Jewish victims are under scrutiny in this study. This allows to sketch out a dynamic field of social interaction between local Jews and Polish Non-Jews under German occupation.


Piotr Forecki
Domestic “Assassins of Memory”: Various Faces of Holocaust Revisionism in Contemporary Poland

The publication of Neighbours, a book by Jan Tomasz Gross, resulted not only in a stormy and long-lasting debate over Poles’ complicity in the extermination of Jews, or in research advancements in the field. In retrospect, we can clearly see its other consequences, which are definitely deeper, more far-reaching and long-lasting. They prompt us to verify the initially-formulated opinions about a great willingness to confront the difficult past, about the maturity of Polish democracy, about a reorientation of Poles’ historical consciousness, and about their readiness to say goodbye to their national mythology. The Jedwabne debate, whose course did give grounds for some optimism, was followed by a wave of rejection and historical revisionism. Various operations were performed on Polish memory, motivated by the desire to return to the pre-Gross times and to an innocent and heroic Poland whose borders were violated by Neighbours. A campaign was launched to defend the good name of Poland and Poles, who were allegedly accused of mass complicity in the extermination of Jews. The subject of the paper are various forms, tools and methods of Holocaust revisionism which can be observed in Poland since the debate around Jan Tomasz Gross's book. Numerous examples are provided by the statements of leading Polish politicians, representatives of state authority, historians' publications and articles in the mainstream press. Holocaust distortion and denial appears in Poland not only on the margins but in the very centre of public discourse across the political spectrum.

Łukasz Krzyżanowski
Brothers and Sisters Joined in Pain: Survivors Commemorating Victims of the Holocaust in Provincial Poland Immediately after the War

By the summer of 1946, more than 200,000 Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust lived in post-war Poland. Initially, communities of survivors were formed not only in the few big cities. Jews were coming back to their places of origin, towns and villages across provincial Poland. Regardless of their social background, wartime experience, and post-war place of residence, each one of them lost someone, most often – everyone; from their nearest and dearest to neighbours and school friends. Especially in smaller localities, remembrance of these victims served as an important factor bringing Jewish survivors together and allowing them to publicly give voice to their suffering.

This paper examines the cultivation of memory of the victims of the Final Solution and its role in integrating the Jewish community in the medium-sized city of Radom (central Poland) in the late 1940s. It explores the range of activities undertaken by the small and isolated community of survivors in order to commemorate those who perished. It also examines the ways through which memory of the recent Nazi genocide enabled these survivors to mark their presence in a post-Holocaust Polish city.

Mary Fulbrook
Conflicting accounts of guilt and complicity

This paper explores the ways in which perpetration and complicity in ghettoization, mass killings and exploitation for labour have been remembered and represented by different individuals and communities over time. It focuses on accounts of violence in selected locations in eastern Europe from the varying perspectives of diverse contemporaries who were involved in, or in close proximity to, violence – whether as perpetrators, bystanders, or victims – and among members of later generations in very different circumstances. It concludes by raising some of the issues which historians face in deciding how best to convey personal experiences and atmosphere, as well as wider conditions and argument, in scholarly analyses.


Joanna Michlic
The Voice of Child Holocaust Survivors and the Politics of the Memorialization of the Holocaust.

In this paper, I discuss how the analysis of the early post-war child Holocaust survivors’ testimonies contributes to answering the “big History questions” about Polish-Jewish relations, such as rescue process, survival and hostilities towards Jewish fugitives within different sections of Polish society. I also argue that the analysis of early child survivors’ testimonies could play a major role in challenging and deconstructing the key narratives employed in the current PiS (Law and Justice) historical policy about the Second World War and the Holocaust in Poland. The children’s voices deepen and complicate our historical knowledge about everyday life in Nazi-occupied Poland and could mitigate cognitive and ethical damage in public memory and historical curriculum caused by the current historical policy and its hegemonic and skewed narratives of the Holocaust.

Dariusz Stola
Scholars and coming to terms with the Holocaust in Poland

After decades of communist distortions and marginalization of the Holocaust in public remembrance, democratic Poland emerged as a leader among the postcommunist countries in efforts to come to terms with this difficult past. Several major debates on the Holocaust intensively engaged Polish public opinion and brought statements by state leaders and other public figures. They contributed to making of new monuments, exhibitions, educational programs and many works by writers, filmmakers and other artists. I would argue that that the scholarly contribution to these developments was greater than providing factual knowledge on the past. Their origins were in the renaissance of transnational studies in Polish-Jewish history in the 1980s, and scholars played key roles in the public debates, up to a time, bringing in academic culture, which contributed to the constructive mainstreams of the debates. This would not have been possible without a fortunate combination of factors, such as the respect for academic expertise in Polish society and the prevalence of conciliatory memory policies. Unfortunately, these factors have significantly eroded in last decade, which adversely affects the positions of scholars and the debates on the past.

Antony Polonsky Response

Biographical Information

Michael Fleming is a historian at The Polish University Abroad, London. His publications include Communism, Nationalism and Ethnicity in Poland, 1944-1950 (2010), Auschwitz, the Allies and Censorship of the Holocaust (2014) and (as editor) Essays Commemorating Szmul Zygielbojm (2018).

Piotr Forecki, professor at the Faculty of Political Science and Journalism, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. Academic Interests: Polish collective memory of the Holocaust; Holocaust denial in Poland and Europe; Anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence in pre-war Poland and after WWII; Problem of Polish complicity in the Holocaust; Anti-Semitic Rhetoric in Public Discourse; Holocaust Representations in Comics and Polish Feature Films. Most significant publications: Od Shoah do Strachu. Spory o polsko-żydowską przeszłość i pamięć w debatach publicznych [From Shoah to Fear: Disputes over the Polish-Jewish Past and Memory in Public Debates], Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, Poznań 2010; Reconstructing Memory. The Holocaust in Polish Public Debates, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH 2013; Po Jedwabnem. Anatomia pamięci funkcjonalnej [After Jedwabne: An Anatomy of Functional Memory], 2018, Wydawnictwo Instytutu Badań Literackich Polskiej Akademii Nauk, Warszawa 2018.

Mary Fulbrook, FBA, is Professor of German History at UCL. A graduate of Cambridge and Harvard, Fulbrook is the author or editor of some twenty-five books. Her most recent monograph, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, was winner of the 2019 Wolfson History Prize and a finalist for the Cundill Prize, while her book on A Small Town near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust won the 2012 Fraenkel Prize. Previous monographs include works on generations and violence in the German dictatorships, the character of East German society, and national identity in divided Germany. Among professional commitments, Fulbrook is a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the Memorial Foundation for the former concentration camps of Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora. She has served as Executive Dean of the UCL Faculty of Social and History Sciences, and Academic Director of the UCL European Institute; she was founding Joint Editor of the journal German History, and Chair of the German History Society, and has served on the Council of the British Academy.

François Guesnet is Professor of Modern Jewish History in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London. He holds a PhD in Modern History from Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Freiburg im Breisgau, and specializes in the early modern and 19th century history of Eastern European, and more specifically, Polish Jews. He held research and teaching fellowships at the Hebrew University Jerusalem, the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), the University of Oxford and at Dartmouth College and is co-chair of the editorial board of Polin. Studies in Polish Jewry. His book publications include Polnische Juden im 19. Jahrhundert: Lebensbedingungen, Rechtsnormen und Organisation im Wandel (Böhlau-Verlag: Köln, Wien 1998), Der Fremde als Nachbar. Polnische Positionen zur jüdischen Präsenz in Polen. Texte seit 1800 (Suhrkamp-Verlag: Frankfurt am Main 2009), and, with Gwenyth Jones, Antisemitism in an Era of Transition: The Case of Post-Communist Eastern Central Europe (Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang Verlag 2014). Together with Glenn Dynner, he published Warsaw. The Jewish Metropolis. Studies in Honor of the 70th Birthday of Professor Antony Polonsky (Boston, Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers 2015). In recent years, he has taken a great interest in the history of matted hair.

Łukasz Krzyżanowski, is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He received a PhD in the Social Sciences from the University of Warsaw. From 2016 to 2018, he was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin. His monograph, Dom, którego nie było: Powroty ocalałych do powojennego miasta had two editions in Poland; in 2016 and 2018. Its English-language adaptation, Ghost Citizens: Jewish Return to a Postwar City was published in 2020 by Harvard University Press. He has held scholarships from the University of Oxford, Yad Vashem and the Claims Conference (Kagan Fellowship).

Joanna Beata Michlic is a social and cultural historian, and founder and first Director of HBI (Hadassah-Brandeis Institute) Project on Families, Children, and the Holocaust at Brandeis University. Currently, she is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the UCL Centre for the Study of Collective Violence, the Holocaust and Genocide, UCL Institute for Advances Studies, and Research Fellow at Weiss-Livnat International Centre for Holocaust Research and Education, University of Haifa. She is a co-Editor in Chief of Genealogy Journal. Her research focuses on social and cultural history of Poland and East European Jews, the Holocaust and its memory in Europe, East European Jewish childhood, rescue and rescuers of Jews in East Central Europe and antisemitism, racism and nationalism in Europe. She is a recipient of many prestigious academic awards and fellowships, most recently Gerda Henkel Fellowship, 2017 - 2021. Her latest single-authored monographs is Piętno Zagłady Wojenna i powojenna historia oraz pamięć żydowskich dzieci ocalałych w Polsce (Warsaw, ZIH, December, 2020). She is currently working on a book project on the history and memory of rescue of Jews in Poland, More Than the Milk Of Human Kindness: Jewish Survivors and Their Polish Rescuers Recount Their Tales, 1944-1949.

Katarzyna Person is a historian of Eastern European Jewish history, working as an Assistant Professor at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. She has written three monographs and over twenty articles on the Holocaust and its aftermath in Eastern Europe. The English language translation of her book on the Jewish Order Service in the Warsaw Ghetto Warsaw Ghetto Police: The Jewish Order Service during the Nazi Occupation will be published in Spring 2021 by Cornell University Press in association with the USHMM.

Antony Polonsky is Chief Historian of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw and Emeritus Professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University. Until 1991 he was Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is co-chair of the editorial board of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, author of Politics in Independent Poland (1972), The Little Dictators (1975), The Great Powers and the Polish Question (1976); co-author of A History of Modern Poland (1980) and The Beginnings of Communist Rule in Poland (1981) and co-editor of Contemporary Jewish writing in Poland: an anthology (2001) and The neighbors respond: the controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland (2004). His most recent work is The Jews in Poland and Russia, volume 1, 1350 to 1881; volume 2 1881 to 1914; volume 3 1914 to 2008 (2010, 2012), published in 2013 in an abridged version The Jews in Poland and Russia. A Short History.

Christine Schmidt is Deputy Director and Head of Research at the Wiener Holocaust Library, London, where she oversees academic programming and outreach. Her work has focused on post-World War II tracing and documentation gathering, the concentration camp system in Nazi Germany and comparative studies of collaboration and resistance in France and Hungary. 

Dariusz Stola is a historian, professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences. He has published ten books and more than hundred articles on the history of Polish-Jewish relations, international migrations and communist regime, as well as on Polish debates about these pasts, including: Kraj bez wyjścia: migracje z Polski 1949-1989 (A country with no exit? Migrations from Poland, 1949-1989); Kampania antysyjonistyczna w Polsce, 1967-1968 (The anti-Zionist campaign in Poland, 1967-1968); Nadzieja i zagłada. Ignacy Schwarzbart - żydowski przedstawiciel w Radzie Narodowej RP, 1940-1945 (Hope and the Holocaust. Ignacy Schwarzbart as a Jewish representative in the Polish National Council, 1940-1945). In 2014-2019, he was the director of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Connie Webber has been Managing Editor of the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, publisher of Polin, for more than thirty years. Since 2011 she has been living in Kraków, Poland.

Agnieszka Wierzcholska, PhD, is a post-doctoral researcher and teacher at the Institute for East European Studies at the Freie Universität in Berlin. She has written her PhD (defended at the FU Berlin 2019) on Relations between Jews and non-Jews in Poland, 1918 – 1945. Micro-histories from Tarnów, awarded by the academic Jury of the Polish Ambassador’s prize in the category of best Dissertation on Poland (in Germany). She has published several articles on the topic such as: Beyond the Bystander. Relations Between Jews and Gentile Poles in the General Government. In: Bajohr, Frank / Löw, Andrea (ed.) The Holocaust and European Societies. Social Processes and Social Dynamics. London 2016, p. 267–287; Helping, denouncing, and profiteering: a process-oriented approach to Jewish–Gentile relations in occupied Poland from a micro-historical perspective. In: Holocaust Studies 23 (2017) 1-2, p. 34-58. Web:

Hannah Wilson, MA is a graduate of the Weiss-Livnat International MA program in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa (Israel). In 2016, began her PhD research on the material memory of Sobibór at the Department of History, Nottingham Trent University (UK), funded by the AHRC Midlands4Cities Award. She is a former EHRI fellow, and from 2014 onwards, she has participated as a research student at the archaeological excavations at Sobibór and Treblinka camp sites in Poland. In 2019, she was awarded a research grant by the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah in Paris.