When the Iconography Stops:
Understanding the Gaps in my Knowledge

Despite having had a lot of exposure to Holocaust studies and literature, I still experienced many gaps in understanding when listening to my grandparents’ stories. Whether something wasn't covered in my history classes in high school, or it wasn't featured in any of the major, award-winning films I have seen or books I have read, there were moments in my grandparents' stories when I felt, quite frankly, ignorant. What were the dynamics between ethnic Poles and ethnic Ukrainians in Poland during the war? Why was my grandfather given surprisingly lax treatment while working at Dachau? What were the differences between the American liberators and the Russian liberators?

Below, I explain some of the gaps in my own historical knowledge of the events surrounding the Holocaust. I then fill the gaps in with my own research, based on the history and politics behind the stories, and ultimately speculate why such gaps may have existed in my personal Holocaust education. 

Major gaps in knowledge from my grandpa’s story

The gap: Dynamics between Polish Jews and Polish non-Jews in the Lodz ghetto before 1938.

The moment in his story: In his recollection, my grandpa explains that, before the war, Lodz, Poland was a large city, with “a mix between Jews and Polish people…[with] more than 200,000 [Jews].” I wanted to know more about this time.

The research: The city of Lodz has had a long history. As formerly a part of Soviet Russia, Eastern Poland was not unified by nationalism in the early 20th century. According to a history feature from the BCC,

East Prussia had been separated from the rest of Germany in 1919 when the Allies redrew the borders of Germany and Russia to re-establish the independent state of Poland. The Poles had lost their independence as a nation state in 1795, when Tsarist Russia and Prussia had divided and annexed Polish lands. (BBC)

Accordingly, “Polish politics was [sic] divided between those who viewed Poland as a multinational state and Polish nationalists who sought to define citizenship based on ethnicity” (My Jewish Learning).

In the inter-war period, Jews made up about one third of the population of the city, and were “an integral part of the textile industry of Lodz” (Jewish Virtual Library). Apparently, a majority of ethnic Poles worked in agriculture, while a staggering ninety-six percent of Polish Jews worked in non-agriculture vocations. After World War I, many factories in Lodz were destroyed, and Jewish factory owners and workers were purposefully not given financial support from the government. Despite this, Jewish people generally prospered in the inter-war period, working and living peacefully among non-Jews in the city. This inter-war period seems to have been characterized by neutrality: nothing glaringly anti-Semitic, yet not entirely equal either.

Why the gap existed: I have never seen a film or read a Holocaust novel based in Lodz (more often these focus on Warsaw, the larger ghetto in Poland); while Lodz is featured in both Yad Vashem and The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, neither museum exposes much (if any) pre-war details. This research was hard to find – Lodz research centers almost entirely on the World War II era. Overall, the background information about the city seems simply too expository to justifiably find a spot in these museums, or in Holocaust books or film for that matter.

The gap: The role of Jewish Kapo at the concentration camps.

The moment in his story: My grandfather recalls several interactions in Auschwitz and Dachau with Jewish Kapos, officers appointed by the Germans to oversee prisoners. At Auschwitz, some Kapo seem to have been men from Lodz, but later, in Dachau, my grandpa recalls more Jewish Kapo, and even a Jewish doctor, at the camp.

The research: Kapo were given authority to discipline prisoners by the German SS. Later, after the war, these men were tried for war crimes, creating an ethical dilemma as to whether or not their being forced to follow through with German orders qualifies as a war crime, or an act of compliance. I found a New York Times article that explains how, in 1983, a Jewish Holocaust survivor was living in New York and was charged by Federal authorities of committing wartime atrocities (The New York Times). He had been a Kapo.

Why the gap existed: I had known about the Jewish leaders in the ghettos, but I never really considered the large role of selected Jews who worked at the camps, nor the ethical implications of their role at the camps after the war had ended. While this is clearly an issue that has been discussed in America (its mention in The New York Times indicates the issue had at least some space in the public discourse in the 1980s), it is not something I had ever heard of prior to this research. The issue of the Kapos may have simply become less relevant as time has moved on and most members of that generation have passed away.

The gap: The increasingly better treatment at Dachau sub camp IV, a forced labor camp.

The moment in his story: When my grandfather begins to describe his transportation to Dachau, he recalls a four to five week period during which he was given good food and no work. He remembers the food as “better than the ghetto,” and even describes that time as if it were a “hotel.”

The research: After doing some research, an article about forced labor from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum explains how, “Between 1942 and 1945, hundreds of subcamps of concentration camps were established adjacent to coal mines, munitions and aircraft parts factories, sites for underground tunnels, and other sites convenient to production of goods for the German war effort.” The sub camp my grandfather was at had been just that, a work camp, producing an underground silo for the German war effort. This also explains the moments when my grandfather recalls working near German farmers, as these sub camp workers were often used on German farms and at German factories. But why the easy treatment for that month? Apparently,

As the tide of war turned against Germany in 1942-1943, the need for labor increased and the ability of the Germans to extract laborers from the occupied Soviet Union decreased due to military defeat. The concentration camp administration sought to induce camp commandants to take measures to prolong the lives of their forced laborers, who in 1944 were becoming a more precious commodity. (USHMM)

This treatment seems to align with the timing of my grandpa’s stint at Dachau sub camp IV, but it also seems that the mandate to prolong workers’ lives ended after only a couple of short weeks. When my grandfather returned to sub camp IV after having worked briefly at another location, it had become a starvation camp.

Why the gap existed: I have never heard of such a change in treatment at the concentration camps, nor had I seen it represented in any Holocaust texts. There have been representations of sympathetic German soldiers or civilians in various texts, but I have not seen any popular text that shows this easing of treatment at the camps themselves. I can only assume that this moment in the history of the Holocaust confuses the general representation of Nazis; it would add a nuance to the story that may make for too much complexity. It also only lasted for a short period of time, which may have led historians, writers, and filmmakers to overlook it.

The gap: Anti-Semitic action, post-liberation in Poland.

The moment in his story: In his tapes, my grandpa explains how, back in Lodz after the war, he and his sisters saw more attacks against Jews from anti-Semitic gangs, in the form of beatings. It was after my grandfather saw this treatment that he decided to return to Germany, where there was actually less Anti-Semitism.

The research: According to a blurb from Yad Vashem about the aftermath of liberation,

Many Jews who emerged from camps, forests and hideouts, or who returned from the Soviet Union under the repatriation agreement, received an enraged and hostile welcome. Many of the locals feared that the Jews would demand restitution of the property they had stolen. Anti-Semitic gangs murdered approximately 1,500 Jewish survivors in Poland alone, in the first months after the liberation. (Yad Vashem.)

Why the gap existed: I can only suppose that this gap existed for me because most films and books end at liberation; the same for the exhibits at the museum. The aftermath of what to do with the displaced people of Europe and the Anti-Semitism that remained adds another layer of complexity to the end of this terrible period in time.

Major gaps in knowledge from my grandma’s story

The gap: Communist Russia's invasion and occupation of Stepan (in Eastern Poland) in the late 1930s. 

The moment in her story: My grandma explains how her hometown of Stepan, Poland (which is now part of contemporary Ukraine), had become a communist town in September of 1939, when the Red Army came in and occupied the area. Suddenly, everyone began to work for the Russian government, and food rations were established. I had little understanding of Russia's role in the war prior to liberation, and had no idea that some parts of Poland had been occupied by Russia, while others were occupied (as is commonly known) by Nazi Germany.

The research: The Russians, led by Stalin, invaded Poland in September of 1939. They had made an agreement with Germany, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, that divided Poland between the two powers. In the pact, Hitler took most of Central Poland and Stalin took Eastern Poland and most of Lithuania (PBS). Although my grandmother doesn't remember much changing in terms of her daily life as a young girl in Stepan, 

middle and upper class citizens–the so-called bourgeoisie – [were targeted by the USSR], redistributing their homes and possessions to those people the Soviets considered to be working class. Polish intellectuals, civic leaders, and anyone suspected of supporting the old regime or resisting the idea of eastern Poland becoming a permanent part of the Soviet Union risked arrest, torture, and deportation. (PBS).

The Soviet occupation of this area lasted until June of 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union and took over all of the USSR's occupied territories. After World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met with the US and USSR at the Potsdam conference to create new borders for Poland. The Poles "had no say in the matter," and Poland "became twenty percent smaller" (PBS). My grandmother's town was suddenly outside the border of Poland, and is now in modern-day Ukraine. Below is the history of occupation in Stepan, according to the Shoah Foundation:

  • Stepan Coordinates: 51º08'N 26º18'E
  • N of Rivne (Równe)
  • Country before and during WWI: 1900-1918: Russia (Volhyn gubernya)
  • Country in interwar period: 1918-1920: Disputed territory
  • 1920-September 1939: Poland (Wolyn voivodship)
  • Administration during WWII: September 1939-June 1941: USSR
  • June 1941-Winter 1944: occupied by Germany (Reichskommissariat Ukraine)
  • Winter 1944: Soviet authority restored
  • Country after WWII: 1945- 1991: USSR (Ukraine)
  • 1991 - today: Ukraine (Rivne oblast)

Why the gap existed: More often than not, when I had thought about World War II and the Holocaust, I imagined only ghettos, death camps, and Germany; I paid little to no regard for the national identities of the countries that had been occupied. In reality, the Nazi's occupied many nations, each with unique ethnic, religious and national identities, including Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Denmark, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Norway.

I never truly learned Poland's geopolitical history of occupation by both the Russians and the Germans mostly because my general understanding of the Holocaust had been reduced to Jews and Nazis. To begin understanding that the Jewish and non-Jewish people affected by the Holocaust were more than just Jewish, but were also Polish or German or Dutch or French, is to begin to understand that larger, geopolitical forces were at play during World War II. Media representations of the Holocaust that I have seen are necessarily reductive, distilling the war into good vs. evil, in order to present a base-level understanding of what happened, rather than revealing these subtleties. 

The gap:  Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish relations prior to and during World War II.

The moment in her story: When recalling the people of her hometown, my grandmother remembers that the Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish children were all treated the same at school prior to the Russian and German occupations. Despite this, each ethnic groups of children remained divided when they socialized. She later notes how, during the German occupation of the Stepan ghetto, the Ukrainians were less apt to help the Jews than the Poles. Later, when these tensions broke into fighting between Polish and Ukrainian partisans when my grandma was hiding in Virke, Poland, her Polish family, the Janickis, lost their home and were forced to flea. They were ethnic Poles. 

The research: In 1918-1919, there had been a Polish-Ukrainian War over a territory, including the city of Lviv, that eventually remained Polish. During the inter-war period, tensions were high between ethnic Poles and ethnic Ukrainians in the region who felt that they were under a Polish occupation of Ukrainian territory. Many Ukrainians boycotted Polish elections and were generally "ill-disposed towards the Polish state and demonstrated it during...Polish national holidays, and similar events" (Sage Publications). Apparently, from 1795 to 1918, Stepan had actually been part of Russia. In 1918, Stepan then became a Ukrainian territory, until 1921, when it became part of Poland until 1939 (Jewish Gen).

In September of 1939, when the Russians invaded Eastern Poland, "it became clear that the war would not be victorious for Poland" (Sage Publications). Ukrainians seems to have enjoyed this possibility as a chance to reclaim their country, and, 

...secret Ukrainian organizations started preparing themselves to take over the power. Their leaders believed that the new events, unfolding in front of their eyes, would be a continuation of the 1918 to 1919 Polish-Ukrainian war, that the Germans would help the Ukrainians to destroy the status quo imposed on Eastern Galicia by the Poles (Sage Publications).

During the Russian occupation, The Red Army often labeled the Poles as "oppressors," and Polish underground partisan groups began to form as living conditions worsened under the communist government. Tensions between the two ethnic groups rose until the German occupation of Eastern Poland in 1942, when the Jews became the target for aggression. Prior to that, there had been no particular targeting of the Jewish people, as my grandmother had referenced in her story. 

Apparently, both the German and Soviet occupiers often antagonized Poles and Ukrainians, increasing tensions between the two groups for their own, geopolitical gains. The Ukrainians seem to have agreed to help the Germans as a means of gaining back their territory from Poland, but there is inconsistency as to whether or not ethnic Poles also contributed to the anti-Jewish pogroms across the region. The ethnic Poles seem to have been on the defensive, fighting for what they felt was their land. As with my grandmother's Polish family, many Poles fled Eastern Poland during World War II until liberation. That said, the large Jewish population in Eastern Poland seems to have been caught unaware when they (seemingly at random) became the target for German persecution. 

Why the gap existed: The tensions between Polish and Ukrainian people are highly complex. As with many of my gaps in understanding, this particular lack of knowledge is most likely the result of the issue's complexity: Polish-Ukrainian relations are simply too dense, with too long of a history, to cover when other details of the Holocaust have been made more important in history books and media representations. 

The gap: Russian liberators in Germany ousting German civilians and encouraging survivors to raid abandoned German homes.

The moment in her story: In April of 1945, my grandma was working at the home of a German couple in Schneidemühl, Germany, (now Pila, Poland) when the Russians came to liberate. The Russian soldiers who had liberated my grandmother and the Janickis, who were considered Polish refugee workers, told them that they had three days to go into the abandoned German homes and take whatever they wanted. 

The research: The expulsion of the Germans at the end of World War II can be broken down into three historical moments: (1) In April of 1945, about 3.5 million Germans fled from the oncoming Red Army; (2) In the summer of 1945, between 700,000-800,000 Germans were forced to leave their homes; and (3) At the end of 1947, after the Potsdam Agreement was signed, another three million Germans were expelled from Germany (Population Resettlement in International Conflicts). 

According to a history of WWII by the BBC, German-owned farms and houses in Poland "were handed over to Poles...[and] Germans were rounded up by Polish militias and put in camps, before being removed from the country" (BBC). While I found no explicit references to the Red Army allowing raids into these abandoned homes, the general rough treatment of German civilians at liberation seems to indicate that such a thing was possible, if not likely. It has been estimated that between 600,000 and two million Germans were killed during their expulsion from Germany. (Telegraph.)

Why the gap existed: Post-liberation clean up had not been a topic of discussion in my history classes much further than the details of the Potsdam Conference. War movies tend to end at liberation, as with many novels. The aftermath of World War II seems secondary to the fact that the war had, in fact, ended. Most likely, the reason for this gap in my knowledge is the idea that complicating the clear victory against the Nazis with details of the expulsion of German civilians would undermine the archetypal triumph over evil.