On the Banality of Forgetting

Tracing the Memory of Jewish Culture in Poland

by Jacek Nowak (Author) Sławomir Kapralski (Author) Dariusz Niedźwiedzki (Author)
©2018 Monographs 276 Pages


Seventy-five years after the Holocaust, Poland’s approach to its murdered Jewish community still remains a highly debated and often politicized issue. This book addresses this contested topic in an interdisciplinary way, integrating the approaches of memory studies, social anthropology and sociology. The authors revisited the material from the fieldwork carried out 25 years ago and compared it with the interviews collected recently with the younger generation of Poles. The result is a fascinating account of the process of collective forgetting that offers not only an original insight into Christian-Jewish relations after the Holocaust, but also a significant contribution to the reflection on the social mechanisms of remembrance and identity-building.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 Researching collective memory
  • 1.1 About the research project
  • 1.2 Collective memory
  • 1.3 Memory and identity
  • 1.4 Forgetting
  • 1.5 A Responsibility to remember
  • 2 Inspirations: the current state of affairs
  • 2.1 The ambivalence of stereotype
  • 2.2 The ethnography of cultural patterns
  • 2.3 From cultural pattern to antisemitic discourse and practice
  • 2.4 The critical analysis of Polish identity discourse
  • 2.5 Anthropological psychoanalysis
  • 2.6 Critical theory and the Polish soul
  • 3 Memory and identity: on the meandering transmission of memory about Polish Jews and their culture
  • 3.1 Perception of people as a mechanism of cognition and categorization
  • 3.2 Individual and collective identities – a basic outline
  • 3.3 Identity and memory
  • 3.4 Identity and (non)memory
  • 4 Pictures of the past: coexistence remembered and imagined
  • 4.1 Types of neighborly life
  • 4.2 City of (non)memory
  • 4.3 Cultural memory inscribed in the urban landscape
  • 5 The non-memory of the Holocaust
  • 5.1 Dominant paradigms of interpretation
  • 5.2 Silenced Holocaust
  • 5.3 Cosmopolitan memory of the Holocaust: commemorated but not remembered
  • 5.4 Concluding remarks
  • Conclusion
  • Literature
  • Series index

| 9 →


When, at the end of the 1980s, an opportunity arose to participate in sociological research into memory about Polish Jews, their history, religion, and culture, we knew that we would be participating in something novel and exceptional from an academic point of view. It was with a keen interest that we gathered the memories of eyewitnesses to prewar life and to the Holocaust. At the time we also shared a strong conviction that those memories of the past would enter the public sphere and be appropriately managed and used.

Some three decades later we decided to investigate and check what had come of that recovered memory about Polish Jews. Particularly intriguing was the prospect of verifying the present-day state of social awareness regarding memory of that culture in what is today’s southeastern Poland. We inquired whether local communities are integrating memory of the Polish-Jewish past into their own histories – and if so, then how? What is the status of that past from the perspective of intergenerational transmission of knowledge about the bygone days? From a research viewpoint we found ourselves in an extraordinary period of time, one in which witnesses to the existence of the Polish-Jewish community and to its destruction were fading away. We investigated whether the eldest were able to communicate something to younger generations. Moreover, we looked into how younger Poles react to this inheritance: in particular, if they treat it in terms of a duty to remember. In other words, we examined whether and how communicative memory about a specific aspect of Polish history is transformed into cultural memor, and subsequently inscribed into local landscapes of memory.

Consequently, we can state that Jews are, indeed, continually present in the collective memory of contemporary Poles although the nature and mechanisms of that memory are rather distinctive. In as much as the effects of institutional remembrance of Polish-Jewish history and culture are manifest in the public sphere, it is not equally feasible to state that Jews are an integral part of the private set of individual and familial reminiscences.

The title of this volume discloses that, in fact, this work is about collective non-memory. Thus the research hypotheses aimed, above all, to shed light on the mechanisms of forgetting. We assume that Polish Jews, their history, and their culture have been reassigned to the set of unwanted, indifferent or ambivalent recollections. Moreover, the absence of Polish Jews in today’s social life has significantly transformed and – in the everyday life – practically eliminated the cultural need to refer to them in the identity narratives of contemporary Poles. ← 9 | 10 → Regarding the moral obligation to remember, our respondents generally believe that it has already been fulfilled via the public, institutionalized commemorations that form part of the official cultural memory.

Our observations confirm some of the factors which result in a replacement of memory by stereotypes and a sort of non-memory in which forgetting mingles with hazy, often mythologized contours of the past (Sendyka 2016). These factors include a disconnection in destiny, a simple lack of interest, and a dearth of meaningful contacts with members of the Jewish community. When recollecting the past, people find no reason to excavate and extract a non-remembered community from the realm of non-memory. Hence memory of Polish Jews does not make its way into intergenerational transmission.

Here in Polish society today we are dealing with a specific variation of forgetting: with regards to group conventions, there is a blocking of recollections which do not fit currently compulsory patterns of collective remembering delineated within a social framework. That frame of reference, in this case today, demands defense of the collective identity underpinned by a patriotic-martyrological1 interpretation of Polishness. Polish society was unprepared to join in the discussions about Holocaust collaboration which had been ongoing in Western Europe, and all the more unready to process such knowledge when many Poles were the beneficiaries of the sudden disappearance of the Jews. A natural defense mechanism was to reject the globalized discourse on the Holocaust. Undertakings by elites who have attempted to explain to general society the significance of the Holocaust for European identity have only deepened the conflicts of memory. Simultaneously, this unpopular route taken by the elites opened the way for political groups, movements, and parties which take advantage of elements drawn from a nationalist ideology in order to instrumentally play political games with the memory of the past.

One of the key discoveries made in the course of this tracing of collective memory about Polish Jews is the banality of forgetting. Here – as in Hannah Arendt whose “banality of evil” inspired us – this does not signify a banalization. The banality of evil did not entail a diminishment of the role of committing evil or an act thereof, but rather the terrifying normality, ubiquity, and ordinariness of evil which can strike even without a criminal intent on the part of the perpetrator. Thus this mechanism, as we have observed, also functions in issues of non-memory. If in the public sphere there are few if any preserved traces of the ← 10 | 11 → Jewish past, if they are not remembered and commemorated, then the absence becomes a negative frame of reference, a frame of reference for non-memory. This means that Poles today do not think about Polish Jews who are vanishing from memory – not as a result of complex psychological mechanisms of denial, but simply banally. The absence of Jews in the imagined past is treated as something obvious and normal. People and communities can indeed forget without any motives or, to put it precisely, without having been aware of the existence of such motives.

In turn, looking at the question of a cultural memory inscribed in a landscape and analyzing local politics of remembrance, we write of the banality of forgetting not only with respect to Arendt, but to the intuitions of Michael Billig regarding the banality of nationalism. Like hanging flags which in some routine, unreflective way purportedly remind members of the nation state of its existence (Billig 1995), so, too, in our context, an all-encompassing framework for remembrance ultimately means that ensuing generations do not really think about the content to which this framework points. It is often the case that the more built up the framework is – the more impressive the monuments, the more elaborate the ceremonies, etc. – the less it requires reflection upon its semantic aspects. Forms of commemoration substitute for the content of reminiscences.

The landscapes of memory therefore possess the power to produce both memory as well as amnesia. Space plays an active role, even when seemingly nothing is happening. Space bears pressure by its very presence; it creates and carries meanings all around. This includes meanings associated with the past, their aura of obviousness and naturalness. Hence the landscape of memory comprises a part of the frames of memory which, by their very existence, interact in a way that organizes our thoughts and unconscious emotions regarding the past (Irwin-Zarecka 1994). At the same time, this environment, this setting, this milieu reminds its inhabitants of one thing yet allows them to forget something else. In other words, landscapes of memory are thus domains of forgetting: in rendering some past more present, they simultaneously erase the traces of another past.

This can lead to a situation in which attempts to remember Polish Jews and introduction of their fate into contemporary social memory will be met with defense mechanisms. This is the case because such attempts will be seen as encroaching upon something so obvious in a natural setting; they will be seen as disturbing a peace and comfort in everyday functioning, and as demanding an intellectual effort in the rethinking.

Memory of the Jews in Poland is entangled in a process which, on the one hand, pertains to cultural norms imposing a duty to remember, and, on the other ← 11 | 12 → hand, pertains to a mnemonic sense of safety and security. A need to ensure safety compels people to extract recollections which might threaten the identity and integrity of a group (Mälksoo 2015: 221). Mnemonic security is in the foreground of communal endeavors to preserve such a vision of the past which would guarantee the historical continuity of the group as well as coherence in its identity narrative. These elements shape the future social order. In this case, forgetting entails an active rejection of those memories associated with Polish Jews that distort the desired image of the past which Polish non-Jews have about themselves. This pertains, above all, to any recollections which undermine a conviction that Poles generally suffered the greatest misery and distress during the Second World War and that they saved their Jewish compatriots during the concurrent Shoah.

Many a time herein we will refer to a question which continues to trouble scholars in the field of memory studies: is there an obligation in contemporary times to remember peoples of the past? Among others, Paul Ricoeur (2004) frequently raised this question about a duty or responsibility – and if such exists, then who or what mandates it? Ricoeur linked this commitment to remember with the idea of justice and fairness which itself bears a pressure subjectively sensed as an obligation. The duty to remember is understood as a socially determined imperative which appears to be effective only when processing of memory of what one perceives as one’s own community. In this case we refer to a moral responsibility to inscribe in memory those events and persons who have been significant for our group.

Our intention with this project was to investigate how this mechanism contributes to a situation where a responsibility for the past does not extend to Others, and does not encompass the remembering of people whom we did not consider as members of “our” community. Far from representing a normative standpoint, we are nevertheless interested in the process by which Others are excluded from the sphere of a group’s moral commitment and, consequently, from its sphere of memory.

As the authors of the book at hand, we have grouped our remarks and analyses in five major sections of this volume. In the first, we sketch the theoretical reference points of our deliberations, concentrating on the mechanisms linked to the functioning of collective memory and forgetting. We further present our research background and context, discussing the subsequent steps and procedures by which our data was gathered and accrued. The second chapter is wholly devoted to an analytical presentation of the current state of affairs in research on Polish (non)memory of the Jews. The focus is on issues of social distance, stereotypes, ← 12 | 13 → and antisemitism – especially how these shaped Polish (non)memory. The interactions and intersections of these elements are incorporated into the earlier described theoretical framework. Of interest to us is a presentation of the sociocultural context for processes of remembering and forgetting decisive in how (from today’s perspective) the past is retold.

The following chapter pertains to the core problem of our investigation: the meanderings of memory transmission, explicitly memory about Polish Jews in contemporary Poland. Special attention is devoted in this section to direct ties between memory of the past and the social identity formed in a period of systemic transformation (Poland’s rapid shift from communism to democracy after 1989). Next is a chapter which constitutes an ethnographic illustration of the specifically identified mechanisms of remembering and forgetting. Referring to materials from our fieldwork, we reveal the conventional nature of the historical Polish-Jewish coexistence. We call attention to the fact that this type of inter-community ties did not facilitate the formation of such a closeness and bonding which could later translate into an inclusion of memories about a past shared in common into the collective memory of one of the collectivities. It is our determination that a maintained distancing set Polish Jews apart, beyond the frames of reference which shape the collective memory of Poles today. In the second fragment of this part we will show how the small-town communities upon which we concentrated in our analysis do not cope well with remembrance of Polish Jews (with their history, religion, and culture) in the local landscapes and spaces of southeastern Poland today. We analyze this case in order to identify and indicate the structural circumstances which have hindered a collective working through of memory. Concurrently, we formulate herein our remarks regarding the politics of memory and its impact upon the memoryscape.

In closing, the last chapter of this volume concentrates upon analyses regarding memory and non-memory of the Holocaust. Many a discovery from research projects conducted heretofore in Poland confirm what we have found: contemporary Poles have not worked this memory through and have not dealt well with preservation of Shoah memory on their landscape. We find the non-memory of the Holocaust crucial for the understanding of the vicissitudes of the contemporary Poles’ memory of the Jews. It makes the pre-Holocaust Polish-Jewish past something more distant temporally than it really is. As Thomas Mann observed in his Foreword to The Magic Mountain, if a past is separated from the present by an event of great significance, especially of a traumatic character, it seems completely lost and locked in time with no continuity or impact whatsoever. What the Great War was for the story of Hans Castorp, the Holocaust was for the story ← 13 | 14 → of Polish Jews as remembered by the non-Jewish Poles. For them, Jewish life in Poland seems to have belonged to an entirely different, nonexistent world. This is not only due to the fact that, indeed, it ceased to exist along with the murdered Jews, but also due to the fact that the very murder of the Jews rendered their previous existence almost unreal.

Moreover, the non-Jewish Poles did not manage, by and large, to work through their memories of the Holocaust. Their disinclination to undertake this was in order to avoid a discomfort associated with their helplessness and indifference, but also sometimes with their complicity and profits gained as a result of the murder of the Jews. For this reason, they mnemonically securitized not only the difficult past of the Holocaust but also temporally estranged the reality that had preceded it. Thus, in addition to a social aphasia (an unwillingness to speak about the Holocaust) and a “deflective negationism” (shifting the blame onto others), Poles employed various strategies of mythologizing the past and framing it in redemptive narratives of various sorts in an endeavor not only to exonerate themselves but also to normalize the Holocaust and make it intelligible (Blutinger 2010).

The non-memory of Polish-Jewish life (with reminiscences hopelessly mixed up with mythology) indicates, however, that – contrary to Thomas Mann’s notions – the estranged past continues to have an impact on the present. People who failed to successfully work through their difficult memories are sentenced to acting the past out, often compulsorily. “They have a tendency,” Dominick LaCapra (1998a: 2) observes, “to relive the past, to exist in the present as if they were still fully in the past, with no distance from it.” This hidden form of the existence of the past in the present influences the way people report their memories; it may also have an impact on other spheres, often very distant from the past that has not been worked through (Feierstein 2012). This is what we faced in our research: a peculiar mixture of remembrance and forgetting, mythology and transference, indifference and interest in the past. This was influenced, on the one hand, by distorted reminiscences of the past, imperfectly transmitted between generations, and, on the other hand, by the imperatives of the present wherein memories have been enacted. Our book attempts to interpretively grasp this complex constellation and to present Polish non-memory of the Jews and the Holocaust in a broader theoretical context.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (November)
Collective Memory Forgetting Polish-Jewish relations Transmission of memory The Holocaust Sites of memory
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2018. 276 p., 1 b/w tab.

Biographical notes

Jacek Nowak (Author) Sławomir Kapralski (Author) Dariusz Niedźwiedzki (Author)

Jacek Nowak is Associate Professor of Sociology at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. His teaching, research, and publications focus on identity issues, ethnic and religious minorities. Recently he is working on the phenomenon of collective memory. He has a good knowledge of the multi-ethnic composition of East-Central Europe. Sławomir Kapralski is Professor of Sociology at the Pedagogical University of Kraków. His research focuses on theory of culture, nationalism, ethnicity and identity, collective memory, antisemitism and the Holocaust, and the Roma communities in Europe. Dariusz Niedźwiedzki is Professor of Sociology at the Jagiellonian University, Kraków. For over 20 years, he has carried out research in the fields of identity, migration, social memory, ethnic conflict, social and cultural changes in integrating Europe, and the link between politics and culture.


Title: On the Banality of Forgetting
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
278 pages