Annual Lachowicz Lecture Focuses on Competing Narratives of Poland

News Story: November 16, 2012

Michael Dobkowski, professor of Religious Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, was the guest lecturer for Sacred Heart University’s annual Lachowicz Lecture. His topic was Polish rescue behavior in the context of the complex Polish-Jewish history and relationship.

Speaking to a full house of students, faculty, staff and community members, Dobkowski discussed the complexity of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust. He began with a story that came from a gathering of survivors from the Warsaw Ghetto about a man who had been saving a piece of bread all day for his dinner. Just as he was about to eat the meal he had been dreaming of all day, a child came to his window crying out for bread in Yiddish. Since it was after curfew, he threw the piece of bread down to the child only to see the child fall to the ground and die. Fifty years later, the man was still bothered by the incident. His friends suggested that he did not do enough – that he should have gone downstairs and outside to hand the bread to the boy. That way, the child would have known someone cared during the last minutes of his life.

“We are dealing with a time in history when sometimes people threw the bread and sometimes they didn’t. It’s a time in history when many people felt fear and isolation,” Dobkowski said.

He noted that genocide requires both perpetrators and collaborators. In many cases, he said, the most ordinary people were merely trying to survive and were not thinking of heroic measures. But there were also perpetrators, colluders and the actively indifferent. “That’s why those who did rescue others – or did even smaller things to make a difference – are viewed as heroes,” he said. “They are the bright spots of World War II. They are powerful examples of light and caring. Many of the tens of thousands who survived did so because they were helped by non-Jews.”

Dobkowski said that Poland is particularly important in the history of the Holocaust because there were more Polish rescuers than anywhere else, but there were also more Polish victims. There were six major killing camps in Poland, but there were tens of thousands who extended themselves to help their Jewish friends and neighbors. “They had to be afraid for themselves and their families. They had to be afraid that their neighbors would turn them in,” he said.  

The reality is that in retrospect, Jews who could get to the other side of Warsaw and find a family to help them survived much better than those who participated in the resistance. This fact and others have led to two competing narratives of what happened between the Poles and Jew during World War II, Dobkowski said.

One narrative speaks to the altruistic and heroic behavior that led to tens of thousands of people being saved. That narrative says that Poland was not an anti-Semitic country, but rather a country victimized by Germany. “No other nation was targeted and decapitated by the Germans the way Poland was. Three million Polish Christians were killed during World War II and, while the killing camps were constructed in Germany, there were no Polish guards at the camps,” Dobkowski noted.

The other narrative points to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were turned over to the Nazis – a narrative that views Poland as a Jewish cemetery. “Some suggest that the abuse visited on the Jews by the Poles was worse than by the Germans. There are many survivors who not only would never return to Poland, but don’t think others should be there doing business and building synagogues. It’s complicated,” Dobkowski said.

His point was validated during the question and answer session following his presentation. Members of the audience spoke passionately from each of the conflicting viewpoints. As Dobkowski said, it’s complicated.

The lecture is sponsored by the University’s Polish Studies Fund and the Human Journey Common Core Colloquia Series.  The Polish Studies Fund is a long-standing endowment established by the late Professor Francis Lachowicz to promote the study of Polish history, culture and language. Professor Lachowicz taught at SHU from 1978 to 1995 in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages.