Questions of Identity

Posted by Mary Hendra on May 15, 2014

This week I am in Poland with a group from Facing History, as part of a learning trip. Over the course of nine days, we are exploring questions about history, memory, and legacy that are at the core of our work. With the help of Polish and Jewish scholars, witnesses to history, community activists, politicians and journalists, as well as organizations that have worked with Facing History throughout the past 25 years, we will be challenged to think in new ways as we confront the past and struggle with questions about the present and future. I find myself thinking deeply about identity and the questions raised by and around it.

At Facing History, we spend a lot of time talking about the complexity of identity. We create identity charts, share them to build community, and discuss how our identities change over time and with experience. Being in a new country with such a complicated history brings these questions of identity to the fore. I keep asking, “What does it mean to be Polish today?” “What does it mean to be Jewish in Poland today?”

The complexity of Polish identity is not one we think much about in America. Did you know:

  • Poland, for much of its history, was multiethnic and multireligious. Those were key characteristics of what it meant to be Polish. Today, it is practically monoethnic and monoreligious - one ethnicity (Polish) and one religion (Catholicism) dominate.
  • When people talk about "Jewish life" in Poland, the focus usually is on the Holocaust, but Jewish life in Poland actually spans 1,000 years.
  • Despite the difficult history of Jews in Poland, today the Jewish population is 8,000, according to the 2012 census. That number goes up to 15,000, when you include those who don't identify as Jewish in public and an unidentified number more who do not yet know they have Jewish roots.
  • The Chief Rabbi of Poland is a New Yorker!
  • The devastation caused by forced Communism immediately following World War II is an integral factor to understanding Polish history and identity today.
  • Democracy is truly a critical part of Polish identity, but democracy in Poland is just 25 years young. In America, we have the luxury of no longer thinking about the Cold War as anything more than history, but Polish parents struggle daily with how to raise their children in an environment that is entirely different from that in which they matured.

All of this and more is leading me to ponder questions around identity that have great significance here, and also some degree of universal relevance.

When and why do we explore our identity?

One of the speakers that we have heard this trip noted that the heightened curiosity that Poles developed about Jewish history and culture came from two key areas:

  1. A sense of loss and perhaps nostalgia, particularly due to that fact that Poland no longer has the diversity it once did, and
  2. That increased self-esteem developed as a result of the Solidarity Movement.

IMG_3251On this trip, we are seeing evidence of this increased curiosity in the success of programs for dialogue and exploration of Jewish history, both in schools and in the new Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw.



Who gets to tell the story of our identity? Who has a responsibility to tell the story?

In preparing for this trip, I looked at many images, and discovered that many of the ones that presented life in Poland before the war were actually commissioned specifically by an organization wishing to show poverty and orthodoxy as defining elements of the Jewish community. (Read the New York Times article "A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac" to learn more.)

I also think of our young Polish tour guides - middle- and high school students who have researched the lives of Jews in their villages, where no Jews remain, and now lead walking tours to share that story of identity with other students, adults, teachers, city leaders, and even us - visitors from a foreign country.

How do you reconcile the identity of a nation as perceived from the outside with that experienced inside?

Sunday evening we watched a film that was released in Poland in 2013, Aftermath. (Check out Kenneth Turan’s review in the LA Times.) This feature film is a fictional account of two brothers grappling with their past, beginning with the one brother’s irresistible impulse to recover and re-place Jewish grave markers that had been used in the paving of streets and on farms, even at the church. The film is powerful in its image of a hidden history and a conspiracy of silence by the villagers. Even more powerful to me is the significance of its being made and viewed by hundreds of thousands of Poles who use this film as an impetus to engage in discussion about this history.

Indeed, the producer said his goal in making it was not to be a historical documentary, but a question to the Polish people. It seems to me this film is a prompt for self-reflection. Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be?

It can feel like a risk to ask, for all the public to see and hear, "Is this us? Is it me?" On this trip, it seems that "Who are we?" is as important as "Who am I?" And, it comes full circle to the earlier questions: Who gets to tell our story? How do we create the space to search deeply for the identity we have and the identity we want to develop?

Download a free copy of the Facing History resource The Jews of Poland to find primary sources, connection questions, and teaching strategies about this period of history.

Read more about the trip to Poland, including reflections on a visit to the Treblinka extermination camp from one of our Toronto bloggers and a look at how we remember and study Holocaust history from one of our edtech bloggers.

Topics: Holocaust and Human Behavior, Critical Thinking, Religion

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