Part 1 of this blog post briefly introduced the research that I had been conducting for a number of years as a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Sussex. The project examined how cinema has engaged with new histories of the Holocaust in Poland, that is, with scholarship that has been focusing on incidents of murder and looting conducted by Catholic Poles against their Jewish neighbours during the Second World. This research has recently been published in a book entitled Framing the Holocaust in Polish Aftermath Cinema: Posthumous Materiality and Unwanted Knowledge (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). In Part 1, I also explained that a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship funded a series of film screenings and discussions intended to bring together artists and scholars (based primarily in Poland) with members of the public at The Wiener Holocaust Library. Sadly, these events had to be cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. This two-part blog post is intended to highlight some of the issues that we had hoped to discuss during these events.
Where Part 1 sketched out some of the characteristics of what I termed a Polish ‘aftermath cinema’, in Part 2 I focus on one area of recent scholarly inquiry that I have found particularly thought-provoking, which involves a series of reframings of sites of violence during the Holocaust. Concentration camps and urban ghettoes have often been studied and represented in Polish history and culture. The new histories of Polish rural violence, which began to emerge around 2000 with Jan T. Gross’s study of the murders of Jewish citizens in Jedwabne in 1941, have shifted attention towards provincial spaces instead. These studies have sought to transform how we understand the relational dynamics between Catholic Poles (as the dominant majority in Poland) and Jewish Poles in rural and small-town areas under German occupation. In this post, I will indicate how this shift of attention to the rural has manifested itself in new environmental and ecological approaches to sites of Holocaust death and suffering.
‘Non-sites of memory’
The turns towards provincial spaces in Polish scholarship should be set in the context of broader research, including the impact of a vast project spear-headed by Father Patrick Desbois into decentred sites of mass killing conducted by Nazi German SS death squads (Einsatzgruppen) across Eastern Europe in the ‘Holocaust by bullets’ (Desbois 2008). Desbois and his research team have spent over a decade travelling across the region and identifying sites where Jewish, Roma, and other victims of the Einsatzgruppen still lie buried in provincial areas. Often, the number of victims in particular mass graves are unknown, as are their names. Where larger concentration and death camps and urban sites of mass murder are often officially commemorated or turned into museums, these more ‘local’ sites tend to be unmarked by official plaques or memorials. The ‘Holocaust by bullets’ research project has identified thousands of these spaces across Eastern Europe.
Based primarily at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, anthropologist and cultural theorist Roma Sendyka, leading a team of researchers, has been developing new ways to think about such sites. While the ‘Holocaust by bullets’ project tends to focus on the graves of victims of Nazi German forces, Sendyka also considers those sites where (primarily Jewish) victims of Polish violence lie buried. Sendyka has used the term ‘non-sites of memory’ to refer to these spaces, adapting a term used by historian Pierre Nora and Shoah filmmaker Claude Lanzmann. The term ‘non-site’, however, is not intended to indicate an empty or voided space. As Sendyka points out, while the spaces might not be marked by traditional commemorative objects or signs, the knowledge of what took place there is often passed down through generations. The spaces become encoded with different meanings by local populations. Marked by violence, the spaces often cannot be afforded a comfortable position within local memory or history, but neither can they be entirely forgotten about. These are spaces that tend to threaten the self-image of local communities, reminding them of their own complicity in actions that might range from murder to the failure to properly bury and honour the victims. Sendyka and her research team have thus been charting the diverse ways in which provincial communities co-exist with the sites. These might include producing make-shift commemorative markers (placing simple crosses in the earth or painting them on trees, for example), allowing the spaces to become overgrown, or, distressingly, ‘contesting’ them by turning them into local rubbish dumps (Sendyka 2016, 700).
Scholars in Holocaust and Genocide Studies have increasingly been drawing on insights from archaeology, forensics, and soil sciences to consider the entanglements between buried human remains, the natural environments in which they lie, and local communities. Ewa Domańska, for example, has recently developed an ‘ecological-necrological’ approach to post-genocide burial sites to consider how the chemical and physical composition of soil changes with the presence of human remains (2019, 1). Vegetation growing on such sites is often visibly affected: plants might grow more abundantly, or different species of flora and fauna might gradually appear. Indeed, it is often through changes to plant life and animal behaviour around a site that local populations ‘read’ the spaces as sites of burial. Further, scholars have begun to consider how ‘witnessing’, as an activity or responsibility generally attributed to human beings, might be considered to extend to elements of the natural environment. As living human witnesses gradually pass away, the ‘era of the witness’ (Wieviorka 2006), which prioritized testimony, is also understood to be waning. Simultaneously, Holocaust sites are being reframed as spaces that might yield material evidence rather than primarily as sites of testimony (Dziuban 2017, 18). In these frameworks, elements of the environment are seen to have a material agency, such that, for example, soil or trees could be seen to index violence or atrocity (Małczyński 2018). The forensic analysis of vegetation can offer insight into how long a body has been buried and under what conditions, turning plants into what Domańska has termed eco-witnesses (2019, 3).
The potential for non-human life to bear witness to events seems to take on additional significance in situations where, for example, testimonies of local bystanders might be undermined by complicity. At the same time, the tendency to uncritically view material evidence as providing unambiguous and objective scientific proof can also be hijacked for revisionist purposes. This is a particularly acute issue when burial beliefs and customs might discourage exhumations. For example, in the early 2000s the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, conducting an investigation into the massacre at Jedwabne, opened two of the mass graves, but the remains were not exhumed or analysed in labs following objections from Jewish religious leaders. As Dziuban explains, Polish right-wing activists have exploited this situation to discount survivor testimonies and argue that there is no evidence that Poles participated in these crimes (2017, 25).
Rather than replacing human testimony and memory, then, forensic and archaeological discourses should be seen as forming new connections with them (Dziuban 2017, 26). Polish aftermath cinema often shows us such connections at work. Amateur archaeological processes feature in a number of recent films such as Władysław Pasikowski’s Aftermath (2012), as the remains of Jewish victims of Polish violence are exhumed from the earth. The remains emerge alongside prayers, confessions and testimonies, indicating the powerful need for people to place material forms into familiar frameworks of understanding. Although these are not the reactionary or revisionist narratives of right-wing activism pointed to by Dziuban above, it is still crucial to consider precisely how, in these films, processes such as exhumations are given meaning by ‘local’ communities, what narratives circulate around them and who these narratives might condemn or exonerate. In works of Polish visual culture, rural violence is often shown to be carried out by uneducated and crude ‘peasants’, which elides the fact that those Poles who participated in and benefitted from violence against Jewish people came from all socio-economic classes and were subject to wider influences from, for example, the Catholic Church. It remains to be seen whether the increasing scholarly studies of these class entanglements will have a significant impact on Polish visual culture.
Desbois, Father Patrick. The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008).
Domańska, Ewa. “The environmental history of mass graves.” Journal of Genocide Research, July 19, 2019.
Dziuban, Zuzanna. “Introduction. Forensics in the expanded field”, in Zuzanna Dziuban (ed), Mapping the ‘Forensic Turn’: Engagements with Materialities of Mass Death in Holocaust Studies and Beyond (Vienna: New Academic Press, 2017), pp. 7-35.
Gross, Jan T. Neighbours: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, 1941 (London: Arrow Books, 2003).
Małczyński, Jacek. “Jak drzewa świadczą? W stronę nie-ludzkich figuracji świadka” [“How do trees testify? Towards non-human witness figurations”]. Teksty Drugie 3, 2018, pp. 373-385. DOI: 10.18318/td.2018.3.26.
Mroz, M. Framing the Holocaust in Polish Aftermath Cinema: Posthumous Materiality and Unwanted Knowledge (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)
Sendyka, Roma. “Sites that haunt: affects and non-sites of memory.” East European Politics and Societies and Cultures, vol. 30, no. 4, 2016, pp. 687-702. DOI: 10.1177/0888325416658950.
Wieviorka, Annette. The Era of the Witness (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006).