Displaced Memories

Remembering and Forgetting in Post-War Poland and Ukraine

by Anna Wylegała (Author)
©2019 Monographs 380 Pages
Open Access


The book is a comparative case study of collective memory in two small communities situated on two Central-European borderlands. Despite different pre-war histories, Ukrainian Zhovkva (before 1939 Polish Żółkiew) and Polish Krzyż (before 1945 German Kreuz) were to share a common fate of many European localities, destroyed and rebuilt in a completely new shape. As a result of war, and post-war ethnic cleansing and displacement, they lost almost all of their pre-war inhabitants and were repopulated by new people. Based on more than 150 oral history interviews, the book describes the process of reconstruction of social microcosm, involving the reader in a journey through the lives of real people entangled in the dramatic historical events of the 20th century.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Note on Translation, Transliteration and Names
  • Acknowledgements
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Beginnings: Questions, Inspirations, Objectives
  • Theories: Memory, Politics and Forgetting
  • In the Field: Methods and Methodology
  • 1 Dramatis personae: History and Memory
  • Roots (up to 1939)
  • War and Other Misfortunes (1938–1945)
  • Brave New World (1945–1953)
  • The Post-war Culture of (Non-)Remembrance (1953–1989/1991)
  • After the Fall of Communism: New Beginnings? (1989/1991-present)
  • 2 Resettlement and the First Phase of Adaptation136
  • The Journey: Autobiographical Memory and its Transmission
  • Fear, Violence, Poverty: After Arrival
  • Yearning, Temporariness, Alienation
  • 3 The Creation of a New Community and Social Integration
  • Relations with the Authorities and the New Political System
  • To Build Everything Anew, or the Social Wild West
  • The Long-term Consequences of Post-war Divisions: Integration Processes Among the Younger Generations
  • 4 Resettlement and Identity
  • Returning Home – the Last Stage of the Psychological Integration Process
  • People Make a Place a Home: “Who would I return to?”
  • The Former Homeland as an Element of Identity: “It’s good that we know these things.”
  • The Lost Homeland and Crippled Identity: “A person is always attached to their homeland.”
  • No Need for Homeland: “Why would we go there?”
  • The Old Homeland in the Consciousness of the Younger Generations
  • Gains and Losses – Who Came Through Migration Successfully?
  • 5 Remembering the Absent: Germans and German Heritage in Krzyż219
  • Settlers vs. Germans: Memories of the Oldest Generation
  • Before our Grandparents: Memory Among the Younger Generations
  • The Germans Today: Castaways, Tourists, Litigants?
  • Around Material Heritage
  • German Heritage and Identity
  • 6 Remembering the Absent: Jews and Jewish Heritage in Zhovkva251
  • Life and Death Among Neighbors
  • Hearsay: What do the Resettlers Know about Zhovkva’s Jews?
  • Family (Non-)Memory: The Next Generations
  • Foreign Heritage
  • Survivors, Ghosts, Visitors
  • 7 Remembering the Absent: Poles and Polish Heritage in Zhovkva
  • Once upon a Time in Poland
  • Times of Threat
  • Emigration, Expulsion, Marginalization
  • “Now it is OK”
  • Material and Symbolic Heritage
  • 8 Between Heroes and Traitors: The UPA and the Soviets in Zhovkva310
  • Bandits or Heroes? Troubled Autobiographical Memories
  • Pride and Prejudice: Ukrainian Nationalists in Collective Memory
  • “Liberators” and Liberators – or Two Types of Soviets
  • Stalinism, Stabilization, Veterans: Memories of Soviet Zhovkva
  • Heroes and Traitors: Summary
  • 9 A Land Without Heroes: Problems of the Memory Canon in Krzyż
  • Good Russians and Bad Russians: Autobiographical Memory
  • The Soviets in the Memories of the Younger Generations
  • Krzyż and Zhovkva: A Comparison of Heroic Canons
  • Postscriptum: Symbolic Space
  • Conclusions
  • Memories of Resettlement
  • Memories of Absent Others
  • Memories of Heroes
  • Between Memory and Forgetting
  • Memories of the Past and Collective Identity
  • Biographical Index of Respondents
  • Zhovkva
  • Krzyż
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Beginnings: Questions, Inspirations, Objectives

On the outer wall of my family home in Krzyż – the German town of Kreuz (Ostbahn) before 1945 – it is possible to discern a Cyrillic inscription scraped onto one of the red bricks: “Zubov.” It was only when I became interested in the history of the town that I realized that this graffiti was probably carved by a Red Army soldier in the winter of 1945, when the Soviets “liberated” Kreuz on the way to their victorious advance on Berlin. I do not know who Zubov was; I have no way of finding out whether he met the previous owners of my home. But it was this inscription that kept returning to my mind as I wrote this book, a work devoted in most part to the memory of the Others who vanished from their (now our) homes: Germans from the Polish “Recovered Territories” [pl. Ziemie Odzyskane], and Poles and Jews from Western Ukraine.

This book, however, was initially supposed to be about something completely different. The research that I embarked on in 2007 was focused on collective memory in Ukrainian Galicia, a region I already knew, having spent time studying at the University of Lviv. I chose to look at the town of Zhovkva, situated between Lviv and the Polish border. I had been there for the first time in 2000. A further visit – a study trip with students from Lviv – gave me the idea that a town with such a complicated history would be interesting to study in terms of its “ordinary” inhabitants and their relationship with the past. After I started my doctoral studies, Zhovkva became the standout candidate for a case study. A multi-ethnic and multi-confessional locality before the Second World War, with Jewish, Polish and Ukrainian inhabitants, after 1945 it became a town of uprooted people. At the same time, because of the relatively good state of repair of the town’s material heritage, history here was tangible and close up; thus, the question of how present-day inhabitants relate to the past almost asked itself. I carried out my first pilot interviews, whilst still not having a coherent research concept, in Zhovkva in 2008.

It was at this time that I started working with the Oral History project at the Warsaw-based KARTA Centre, the most important non-university research institute in Poland dealing with the contemporary history of the country and of the broader East-Central European region, with a focus on individual people.1 ←13 | 14→The first project I carried out independently was a documentation of testimonies in my hometown, Krzyż; a town that was brought under Polish administration after 1945, where it is still possible to find traces of its German past. In the course of three years that I spent collecting personal biographies of the town’s oldest residents,2 I started to notice that I was comparing Krzyż and Zhovkva in my thoughts with increasing frequency; that the testimonies from the two places had remarkable parallels; and that I was asking about very similar things. Thus, seemingly by accident, the concept of a comparative analysis between two post-migratory towns was born.3

Although the pre-war histories and starting points for post-war transformations in the two towns were different, the existence of a tertium comparationis was indisputable: the contemporary faces of both towns are the products of wartime and post-war mass expulsions and other forms of mass population transfer. Both towns lost most of their residents as a result of the Second World War; both towns were repopulated by various, sometimes conflicting, groups of settlers; both towns emerged from the war in a different country with altered state borders; and finally, both towns experienced post-war life in non-democratic political systems that imposed a new, ethnically monolithic collective identity – Polish and Ukrainian, respectively. The testimonies of residents from Krzyż and Zhovkva, superficially so different, rapidly began to come together in a fascinating mosaic of similar experiences and similar memories.

The testimonies also strengthened my conviction that, despite the passing of time, the consequences of mass population transfer are still to be felt in Poland and other European countries. Resettled people not only lose the physical, material foundations of their existence; they are also threatened by a loss of identity, their functioning in society changes, and society itself changes significantly when it is uprooted and transported. Both Poland and Ukraine in the post-war era were countries where a substantial part of the population were faced with the necessity of rebuilding their lives from scratch, in a new place, and in a new political, cultural and material reality. Their situation was not made any easier by the ←14 | 15→lingering traumas of war or the oppressive political system, which was focused on building a “brave new world” rather than mourning the loss of the old. The experiences of resettled persons appear fundamental to an understanding of how history is interpreted in both countries, how national identity is constructed, how communities position themselves in relation to the past, and also their attitudes to neighboring countries. These experiences also influence the structure and strength of social bonds at various levels, from the cohesiveness of local communities, to the building of essential tenets of civic responsibility in modern societies. This influence is not limited to the individuals who were personally resettled; it also, indirectly, concerns successive generations.

On a broader scale, the post-war outcome in the area usually known as Central or East-Central Europe was the result of two major historical events: the Second World War as a total war, and the ethnic cleansings and genocides that began during the Stalinist Terror of the 1930s and continued in different forms until some years after the end of the war. The specific character of this region is poignantly conveyed by the title of Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.4 Enormous bloodshed and two totalitarianisms – these are the reasons behind the demographic, political and economic situation of East-Central Europe in the second half of the twentieth century. Considering questions of identity and collective memory, however, it is vital to add a third factor, one that followed directly from those first two: mass population transfers on an unprecedented scale. Another book title can serve as an apt metaphor for the resonance of this theme: Der Verlust [Loss], authored by the German journalist Thomas Urban in 2004 in the wake of Polish-German debates concerning the Centre Against Expulsions.5 The book’s introduction features a one-and-a-half page summary of all of the European nationalities that were subjected to ←15 | 16→deportation, flight or other forms of forced migration in the years 1939–1956; the list includes all of the ethnicities that lived in the interwar Polish state. After 1945, both Poland and Ukraine became republics with completely new borders. Poland was “shifted” westwards, losing the eastern provinces known informally as Kresy Wschodnie [Eastern Borderlands],6 gaining territories to the north and west that had previously been part of Germany.7 The Germans in these areas either escaped or were deported. A similar plight met the Poles who had lived in the former eastern provinces, which became part of the Soviet Union; they departed under various degrees of duress during a series of “repatriation” waves.8 Soviet Ukraine was expanded by three southeastern Voivodeships of interwar Poland; as Poles left these territories, Ukrainians and Russians from eastern Ukraine and other Soviet Republics arrived in Galicia, as did ethnic minority Ukrainians deported from the south-western provinces of the new Polish state.9 ←16 | 17→Thus, East-Central Europe of the second half of the twentieth century was not only the Europe of murdered bodies, but also of resettled persons. It was a Europe of lost friends and family, but also of lost homes and homelands. At its core, this book is about this fundamental loss and its consequences.

However, this book is not a history of resettlement and deportation; it is about the ways in which population transfer was experienced by concrete individuals, how they remember those ordeals today, and how the fact of resettlement influences successive generations of residents in contemporary Zhovkva and Krzyż. It is therefore a study of personal experience, local memory, and identity, not a reconstruction of history on the micro scale.10 Maurice Halbwachs long ago proposed the notion that collective (social) memory is distinct from history; for him, history was an objective picture of what happened, whereas memory was a source of tradition that could vary as long as different social groups existed. Elsewhere, Halbwachs opposed “living history,” or in other words collective (social) memory, to academic history.11 Polish historian Robert Traba, an expert in the culture of the German-Polish borderlands, argues that the essential difference between history and memory lies in the role the latter plays in group identity. As he puts it: “Cultural memory, that is, the recollections that contribute to the creation of meaning and identity, always carry with them the danger of being forgotten, erased, or of concealing that which would cast doubt on individual and collective identity: most often, guilt.”12 Another historian, Jay Winter, wrote, “History is memory seen through and criticized with the aid of documents […]. Memory is history seen through affect.”13 Thus, memory belongs to a completely different order to history; memory is non-normative and its objectives are distinct to those of history, as are the expectations placed on it. Memory is that ←17 | 18→which transforms history into individual experience; or in other words, it turns the past into a material from which identities are constructed.14 On the other hand, the pursuit of history is itself an act of remembrance.15 A hard opposition between history and memory is ultimately useless: perhaps it is better to understand both processes as different modes of remembering in culture. The past is not something given; rather, it must always be constantly reconstructed and represented.16 “Professional” history written by academics is undoubtedly distinct from the memory of “ordinary” individuals, but they also remain in a dynamic relationship of interdependence as cultural methods of facing the past. A consequence of accepting the equal status of history and memory is the unconditional rejection of a research methodology that aims to show the chasm between what people remember and what “really happened.” Memory is a research object in and of itself.

What, then, did I wish to find out from the residents of Krzyż and Zhovkva? At the most fundamental level: what they remembered, what they had forgotten or suppressed, and why. More specific questions were divided into three groups. The first category concerned the resettlement and its direct and indirect consequences. I was interested in how respondents interpreted questions of guilt, punishment and responsibility, as well as their personal evaluations of the benefits and losses of resettlement. I considered it important to understand the dynamics of how these processes took root in different generations: whether a new, internally cohesive community was successfully created which identified with the new post-war place; and also the extent to which the pre-war history of the town was recognized by residents as “their own.” I tried to interpret the extent to which the older generation still felt attached to their former places of residence, and whether this question had any significance at all for young people. The second group of questions concerned the memory of the previous residents of the town: the vanished “Others.” Was this a troublesome memory; was it screened off, or associated with a specific set of problems? Did it in any way affect attitudes towards present-day Poles, Jews and Germans? The third group of questions revolved around the transmission of memory. Did accounts ←18 | 19→of the past play a role in family life? If so, in what ways did the younger generations modify the contents of the experiences of the older generation? If not, why was there no intergenerational transmission of memory? How large was the influence of other factors that affect collective memory, such as official memory, neighbors’ accounts, or group representations? These three groups of questions were posed with the contextual background in mind: i.e. local policies of commemoration and identity construction in both Krzyż and Zhovkva. I was interested in how official commemorative policy operated in both towns, whether it approached the pre-war cultural heritage of the towns, and what the relationship was between private and official memory.

Theories: Memory, Politics and Forgetting

But what exactly do I mean when I declare that I am studying memory? Theoretical treatments are so abundant, sophisticated and diverse that it is impossible to provide a comprehensive summary of memory studies, a discipline that emerged relatively recently.17 Nonetheless, this book employs terms that have specific histories and conventions of usage, so it is important for the sake of clarity that the main ones are explained. The theoretical axis around which my analysis spins is the relationship between individual and collective memory. Collective memory is defined as the sum of cultural narratives about the past, including both knowledge about and judgment of history, that are potentially available to the average citizen (not just the intellectual elites). In my understanding it forms a kind of cultural “background” that includes mediated (i.e. not personal, first-hand) experience, which is essential to the construction and consolidation of group identity.

Maurice Halbwachs, one of the “founding fathers” of the discipline, argued that all individual memory is immersed in, and formed under the influence of, “social frames” of memory. Individual memory functions in particular (sometimes multiple) networks of referentiality; this is why we cannot separate it from the collective dimension or analyze it without situating it in the context of remembering groups. Social frames of memory carry out a very important ←19 | 20→function, in that they create a sense of continuity within a community. For Halbwachs, it is nearly impossible to cleanse individual memory of the influence of social framing and thereby to access a pure, undistorted experience.18 My research repeatedly confirms this observation: biographical memory is never based solely on individual experience, because each person uses models provided by culture to interpret his or her own experience. There is also an influence in the other direction: individual experiences, if they concern a significant portion of members of a community or are important enough to constitute part of its identity, over time become part of the collective memory. Needless to say, as in every aspect of collective identity, it is the elites who most easily make the cultural “background” their own, i.e. in Central European conditions – the intelligentsia.19 Nonetheless it remains an important fact that, although the elites have a closer relationship with the dominant narratives of collective memory, they never gain exclusive access to it.

Influential scholars in the German humanities also discuss the internal tension between collective and individual memory. Jan Assmann, who coined the term “cultural memory,” defines it as follows: “Cultural memory refers to one of the exterior dimensions of human memory […] the contents of this memory, the ways in which they are organized, and the length of time they last are for the most part not a matter of internal storage or control but of the external conditions imposed by society and cultural contexts.”20 Assmann distinguishes four areas of memory: mimetic memory (modes of action, which we learn through repetition); memory of things (objects, material culture); communicative memory (language and communication); and cultural memory (transmission of meanings). Communicative memory – that is, memories of the recent past as preserved by the closest generations – plays a special role in the interactions between individual and collective remembrance. Like Halbwachs, Assmann argues that there are no pure forms of memory: every individual recollection is a reconstruction of the past immersed in a social and cultural context.

Both Assmann and other scholars who have expanded on his theories make it clear that the two types of collective memory – communicative and cultural – can only be distinguished at the level of theory. As Harald Welzer writes, in ←20 | 21→the social practices of individuals and groups, these two forms of memory are tightly interwoven.21 The narratives of communicative memory can enter cultural memory through concrete practices of cultural transmission; they can be preserved, or otherwise, they are lost together with the memories of individuals. Communicative memory can also influence the content of cultural memory; for example, it can remove certain elements. Autobiographical memory is formed as a result of a constant interaction between people’s internal autonomy as individuals and external influences of which they are often unaware. What distinguishes the autobiographical memory of a given individual from the memories of everyone else is precisely the history of that individual’s communication with others.

Another German scholar, Astrid Erll, argues that “cultural memory” can serve as an “umbrella term” that covers various related meanings employed by researchers in different disciplines, such as: “social memory” (a point of departure for studies in the social sciences), “material memory” or “communicative memory” (objects of interest in studies of literature and media) and “mental” or “cognitive memory” (the field of research in psychology and cognitive science).22 Erll points out that the concept of “collective” or “cultural memory” is ultimately a figurative metaphor, whereby the mental act of remembering (a cognitive process that takes place in individual minds) is metaphorically transferred to the realm of culture.

Collective memory can also be understood as a communicative and ritualistic framework that gives biographical memory a collective dimension.23 It thus supplies “keys” through which individual experiences can be interpreted, creating a symbolic and cultural medium for the group in which one functions. This is precisely why in many of the testimonies analyzed here, the boundary between what someone personally experienced and what he or she only heard from others is often blurred. Asymmetry between biographical and collective memory – which arises when significant personal experiences do not become absorbed into collective memory – can lead to serious disturbances of identity, as well as marginalization and exclusion. Autobiographical memory, based on personal experience, is also sometimes described as “primary” memory, in ←21 | 22→contradistinction to the “secondary memory” of derivative “knowledge about” events,24 as well as “postmemory,” i.e. memory passed down to successive generations.25

Whilst the concept of collective memory is methodologically attractive, it does have its critics. One of the most interesting alternatives to the theory of collective memory is provided by Jay Winter, who argues: “If the term ‘collective memory’ has any meaning at all, it is the process through which different collectives, from groups of two to groups in their thousands, engage in acts of remembrance together.”26 For Winter there is no such thing as the memory of a state or nation; at most, there are memories held by people who are connected to the other people by virtue of belonging to the same group. If there are no remembering individuals – for example if they lose interest in a particular aspect of history, pass away, or physically relocate – the remembering collective also vanishes. This is, according to Winter, what Halbwachs had in mind when he wrote about memory disappearing when the social frames of memory disappear. Rather than “collective memory,” therefore, Winter proposes that we think in terms of “collective remembrance.” The essential questions for such an approach concern the intentions of individuals who are publicly active in spheres related to the past, i.e. those involved in the “work of memory.” Collective memory becomes only a metaphorical term, which in reality denotes a “set of practices of collective remembrance.” What matters, then, is not what people think about the past, but how they act. Winter’s critique of the term “collective memory” allows us to consider memory as a social phenomenon that is changing, procedural, constantly renegotiated, and always situated in the here and now.

An important question that follows from Winter’s critique is the distinction between collective and official memory. By official memory I mean the vision of the past constructed and transmitted by authorities through the available means of symbolic enforcement: education (curriculums and textbooks), various forms of public commemoration (museums, a monopoly on shaping symbolic space, the organization of holidays and anniversaries, etc.), and the media. The form of official memory that most frequently features in this study is the memory propagated by the state; nonetheless, it is worth noting that there are ←22 | 23→also official memories whose carriers are groups other than (smaller than) the state. In any situation where a social group creates a structure of power, they may also advance an official memory. A good example is the official memory of tightly knit ethnic minority groups, which have their own means of education and information distribution, such as the Polish minority in Ukraine and the Ukrainian minority in Poland. Official memory maintains various relationships of interdependence with biographical and collective memory. In a democratic society, collective memory is a foundation for official memory, whilst official memory can convey aspects of collective memory to individual memories. The less democratic a society is, and the more its governance relies on a ruling ideology, the more collective and official memory are out of joint. For example, Polish memory of the resettlement from the pre-war eastern territories was only inscribed into official memory after 1989.27

Thus, collective memory is inextricably entwined with group identity: a common memory turns a group into a remembering collective. Lech M. Nijakowski provides a useful description of remembering collectives as

aggregates of individuals (not necessarily groups) that are connected by a specific biographical experience, not always of a traumatic nature, as well as their descendants who inherit family frames of memory. Remembering collectives are made distinct from each other not just by the different “objective” histories of their members […], but also through the individual perspectives of their members […] and the emotions that are associated with those perspectives.28

Membership of a remembering collective does not have to be based on a familial transmission of memories that are constitutive for a given group; it can also be gained by means other than inheritance. Group memory does not only form a specific sensitivity to historical events that comprise that particular collective identity; it can also influence how people evaluate other elements of social memory. Group memory can define both large collectives (e.g. Red Army veterans in Ukraine) and small, localized groups (e.g. particular groups of settlers in Krzyż and Zhovkva). It can be integrated into collective and official memory, as has happened, for example, with the memory of settlers from the former Eastern Borderlands in Poland, or members of the group can undertake efforts to make it so. Particular remembering collectives in a given community can be in conflict ←23 | 24→with each other; but in this case, it is less likely that their narratives will enter collective and official memory.

Group memory is a particularly fertile foundation on which social practices of remembrance can develop; it is therefore the point at which memory understood as a potential repository of culture transforms into actual activity – a “historical remembrance” in Winter’s terms.29 Nonetheless, if memory is not turned into action, this does not mean that it does not exist; the reasons behind such passivity (or invisibility) can be various, from weak internalization of the narratives of collective memory to limitations resulting from diverse factors. Collective memory is often too weakly connected to personal experience to mobilize people into getting involved in practices of remembrance; autobiographical memory is too particular for such an outcome. This is precisely why remembering collectives are the most influential actors on this stage.

Another concept that is as important as memory for the purposes of this book is forgetting. The centrality of forgetting for collective identity was captured by Ernest Renan at the end of the nineteenth century, who argued that a nation is a collective that remembers together, and even more importantly, forgets in unison.30 Forgetting – also referred to as non-memory or selective remembering – is the second face of memory. Aleida Assmann states that memory and forgetting are inseparable parts of the same whole, together forming cultural memory.31 Paul Ricœur, who adapts the theories of Sigmund Freud, transfers psychoanalytical concepts from the individual to the collective, such as: repression; remembering, repeating and working through; excess of memory; and work of memory.32 In Ricœur’s understanding, societies struggle with similar problems to individuals: driven by anxieties about the integrity of their identities, they forget about certain elements of their past, only to later work through them arduously and to struggle with the returning effects of memories banished to the unconscious. The philosopher introduces a key distinction between active and passive forgetting: active forgetting is a conscious and purposeful action, intended to erase a feature of memory in order to preserve the symbolic and material good of the group; passive forgetting, on the other hand, is the ←24 | 25→usually unconscious avoidance of memories sensed to be problematic, difficult, or dangerous.

References to Ricœur’s ideas can be found in a broad range of empirical and theoretical studies. For a study based on analysis of personal interviews, an important consideration noted by Kaja Kaźmierska with reference to Fritz Schütze is that at the level of oral narration, “fading out of awareness” acts as the equivalent of passive forgetting.33 Marek Ziółkowski writes about the strong relationship of identity not only with forgetting, but also with what he calls “painful memory” (in relation e.g. to political and inter-ethnic conflicts). He argues that events that become part of collective non-memory are initially diminished and banished to the subconscious (passive forgetting), before they disappear from public discourse and cease to be a basis for collective action (active forgetting).34 Analyzing the memory of the Holocaust, Michael Bernard-Donals divides memory into Aristotelian anamnesis – recollection of persistently returning narratives that are uncomfortable or previously repressed – and mneme: rational, deliberately constructed stories about the past, or cultural memory.35 Anamnesis constantly interferes with mneme, trying to impose elements that have been erased from cultural memory. According to Bernard-Donals, these two dimensions of memory can be interpreted both in individuals (in which case anamnesis refers to difficult memories for the person) and in entire societies (in which case the repressed memories are those that have been erased from mneme by the collective as a whole). He argues that the Holocaust is a classic event that pertains to anamnesis.

When analyzing collective forgetting, it is important to consider why and how memory is suppressed. A community forgets certain facts, either actively or passively, in order to protect its group identity and moral integrity. That which is uncomfortable and unsafe, which might lead to some members of the collective ceasing to positively identify with the group, is erased. A second reason is more closely connected to the mechanisms by which individual and collective memory function. The loss of memory is a result of the disappearance of the ←25 | 26→social frames of memory; when they are removed, memory is also lost, first at the collective level, and then at the individual. Halbwachs argued that if certain memories fail to resurface, it is not because they are too old and gradually faded, but because they were previously part of a conceptual system that no longer exists.36 Jan Assmann makes a similar argument: when communication is interrupted or frames of memory disappear, forgetting ensues.37 The ideas voiced by both theorists are crucial for a study such as this one, which has been conducted in places where the previously existing frames of memory have completely vanished in the course of a single generation, or at least have been very substantially modified.

Another essential question in this context is the extent to which the social process of forgetting is reversible. As several scholars have shown, biographical memory can be altered under the influence of collective memory: individuals not only forget certain facts from their own lives, but also “re-remember” those that appeared forgotten forever.38 Can the same be said of collective memory? It appears that forgetting is a matter of a degree, and is more or less irrevocable. Aleida Assmann, using the same terms as Ricœur but giving them a completely different meaning, draws a distinction between active and passive forgetting:39 active forgetting removes an event from memory permanently and is irreversible; passive forgetting, on the other hand, happens through lack of attention rather than active choice, and can therefore be undone. In the scheme proposed by Assmann, collective forgetting (both active and passive) are complemented by active and passive remembering. Within a society, specific institutions – schools, civil offices and museums – are involved in active remembering. Active remembering constructs a canon of memory, whereas passive remembering happens in the realm of archival memory. Assmann illustrates this co-dependence by means of the suggestive metaphor of a museum, which has a display and storage. The display is accessible at any time, and is similar to active remembering. The storage is the archival memory, which is more difficult to access, but which can potentially be moved to the display hall. Processes of passive forgetting are often, in essence, passive remembering. The memory is not lost; it is merely temporarily out of use.

←26 | 27→

In the Field: Methods and Methodology

The method used in the present study essentially comprises three strands: a specific local community, memory seen through the prism of autobiography, and analysis of family memory through different generations. I decided to research social memory in small towns because I believe that the questions at the heart of this project are better answered from a lesser distance, rather than from a macro perspective; moreover, small-scale research facilitates deeper analysis. Of course, the findings of this study cannot be extrapolated to the greater whole of Polish and Ukrainian societies. Nonetheless, they do give an indirect perspective on the bigger picture by means of the typicality of the towns under consideration. Autobiography is a key word for this project because it is precisely through personal narratives that I examine how social worlds are reflected in the accounts of my interviewees.40 Especially in the case of older respondents, it would be impossible to understand their views and memories without a holistic consideration of their lives. As Norman Denzin argues in his essay reinterpreting the autobiographical method in sociology, “human behavior must be studied and understood from the perspective of the people under consideration.”41 If subjectivity is thus taken seriously, the categories of truth and falsehood become inadequate. The concepts of authenticity and inauthenticity, or “emotional authenticity” as the well-known oral historian Alessandro Portelli put it, become more appropriate.42


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (August)
Deportation and resettlement Politics of memory Holocaust and ethnic cleansing Polish-Ukrainian conflict Second World War Collective Identity
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 380 pp.

Biographical notes

Anna Wylegała (Author)

Anna Wylegała is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw. Sociologist by training, she works at the intersection of sociology of culture, history and anthropology, with a special focus on memory in Poland and Ukraine.


Title: Displaced Memories
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380 pages