The Poles, the Jews and the holocaust: reflections on an AME trip to Auschwitz

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Two trips to Auschwitz (in 1989 and 2003) provide a context for reflection on fundamental issues in civic and moral education. Custodians of the Auschwitz historical site are currently aware of its responsibility to humanity to educate about the genocide against the Jews, as a morally distinct element in its presentation of Nazi crimes at Auschwitz. Prior to the fall of Communism in 1989, the site's message was dominated by a misleading civic narrative about Polish victimization by, and resistance to, Naziism. In this article, I discuss the attempts of many Polish intellectuals during the past twenty-five years to engage in an honest and difficult civic project of facing up to their history, as it is entwined with anti-Semitism, with the centuries-long presence of Jews in Poland, and with their current absence. An interaction with a tour guide who took me to be criticizing Poles for their failure to help Jews during the Holocaust prompts further reflections on the difficulties of grasping the moral enormity of genocide, on the dangers of stereotyping, on the conditions under which it is appropriate to proffer and to withhold well-founded moral judgements, and on the moral importance of appropriate feelings and attitudes when moral action is extraordinarily risky or dangerous.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Massachusetts USA

Publication date: June 1, 2004

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