Righteous Among the Nations, Reconciliation and the Eagle Pharmacy

 

During the German Nazi occupation of Poland in 1941, the Podgórze district in Krakow was fenced off as a Jewish ghetto. The Germans offered to relocate all non-Jewish businesses within the ghetto, and out of the four pharmacies, only one remained. Tadeusz Pankiewicz refused to leave and kept his “Under the Eagle Pharmacy” open. The pharmacy was not only a place where the Jewish people could get medicine, often for free, but it became a shelter and a hub for underground missions to help the Jewish people. Tadeusz Pankiewicz was recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” for helping his Jewish neighbors in 1983, the same year his pharmacy became the Museum of National Remembrance. Today the Eagle Pharmacy hosts an exhibition that is based on the memoirs of Tadeusz Pankiewicz and the personal stories of the ghetto residents. In this paper, I explore how the exhibition addresses the role of Poles as allies to the Jewish people, with particular focus on why the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” is highlighted throughout. I will attempt to conduct this analysis within the context of historical and current political and social discussions surrounding the topic.

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The Heroes Square

The exhibition starts before entering the site of the actual pharmacy, in Krakow’s Ghetto Heroes Square, which is filled with large empty chair monuments symbolizing the void left behind by absent Jews. The location and choice of sculptures references that the square was where the Jews were ordered to assemble before being deported to concentration and death camps and where their furniture was dumped after the ghetto was liquidated in March 1943. At the end of the square which is opposite the pharmacy, a plaque reads “ “From our path there is no turning back… we are fighting for three lines in history, if only to show that Jewish youth did not go like sheep to the slaughter.” – Aharon (Dolek) Libeskind, November 1942. One of the leaders of the underground movement “The Fighting Pioneers” and commander of the uprising.”

Curiously, there is no plaque in sight which explains the history of the square or the meaning behind the sculpture installation. Furthermore, even though the posters and flyers for the Eagle Pharmacy consist of an illustration depicting Pankiewicz with the chair sculptures filling the entire background, there is no reference or explanation of the square or sculptures inside the Eagle Pharmacy. Evidently, this confusion was also felt by Krakow’s citizens; the chairs were installed in 2003 and throughout 2004 and 2005 titles of newspaper articles about the memorial included titles such as “Mysterious chairs puzzle viewers”, “Local council against the chairs”, “Square, not a graveyard”, “Chairs of contention”, “Less chairs, more trees” (Szymański, 2015).  This negative reaction could actually be construed as a compliment to the monument, it’s not meant to be pleasing to the eye, it’s meant to look out of place to signal the displacement of the Jewish residents. The chairs can also add a dimension of quantitive illustration of the enormity of the Holocaust casualties to supplement the individual stories inside the Eagle Pharmacy.

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Personal Stories

Inside the pharmacy, the exhibition is set up to resemble the original pharmacy, with interactive cabinets concealing documents and photos of ghetto residents with their personal stories on the back, which make up the majority of the texts of the exhibition. The main area leads into the private room of Tadeausz Pankiewicz which hosts the part of the exhibition dedicated to him. The main area also leads to another room hosting more personal stories, this room also features old rotary telephones which you can pick up to hear an actual audio account of former ghetto residents. This room leads to the “laboratory” which is the only room that has not been made to look as it once did, but is a modern exhibition space. This room features hanging photographs of Jews and Poles and events after the occupation leading up to today, each photograph has a caption hanging from it. Imbedded in one of the walls of this room is a display case containing the Righteous Among the Nations medal awarded to Tadeausz Pankiewicz. The honorific is given by Yad Vashem to non-Jews who risked their lives to help the Jews during the Holocaust. A plaque on the back door of the room states that it was used to smuggle out hiding Jews when the Germans and the police came around.

The main feature of the Eagle Pharmacy exhibition is its focus on individual personal stories. In contrast to other Holocaust remembrance sites in the area such as Auschwitz, where the magnitude of the Holocaust is communicated through heaps of victims’ belongings, the Eagle Pharmacy zooms in on these victims as individuals. Every detail in the exhibition promotes a feeling of familiarity; going through drawers full of unorganized old photographs and documents is reminiscent of being in an old family home; picking up a phone to hear someone telling their story feels intensely more personal than if it was through headphones. The compassion bred through this familiarity is also discussed in Michal Bilewicz and Manana Jaworska’s article as a way to achieve reconciliation between perpetrator/bystander and victim groups:

But there is also another way of fulfilling the historically threatened needs of groups engaged in past violence, based on restructuring entitative representations of the past into more individualized representations. By learning about individual life stories, visitors should think less of groups as collective actors and come to see that each group consists of distinct individuals who acted in different ways—some of them being passive bystanders, others being perpetrators, victims, or even heroic helpers. Discussing individual life stories provides a unique opportunity for reconciliation between members of historically conflicted groups. It may restore the threatened moral image of descendants of historical bystanders or perpetrators, as well as the threatened sense of control among descendants of victims. (Bilewicz & Jaworska, 2013).

This feeling of familiarity could also make this site a pseudo “family home” of the ancestors which were never met to what Marianne Hirsch calls the “generation of postmemory” of visitors (Hirsch, 2008).

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Reconciliation

The “Righteous Among the Nations” topic is a controversial one in the Polish context. There are many accusations of pogroms perpetrated by Polish people hunting and killing their own Jewish neighbors, most famously in Jan T Gross’ Neighbors, during the German occupations. Conversely, the Polish people maintain that they themselves were never “officially” collaborators because the Nazi ideology regarded them as “inferior” as well. Celebrating a Polish “Righteous Among the Nations” then is a powerful tool to counter the narrative of Polish pogroms, which are almost never mentioned in any of the sites we have visited.

In her article, “The Unrighteous Righteous and the Righteous Unrighteous”, Joanna Tokarska-Bakir summarizes the schism between Polish and Jewish memory of the German occupation: “According to the self-exonerating version of their history, in which they present themselves as righteous, the Poles deny that any members of their nation murdered Jews during the period of German occupation. On the other hand, Jews, with their post-Holocaust anguish, reflexively deny that any Poles helped or saved Jews” (Tokarska-Bakir, 2008). In light of this, the portrayal of the Righteous Among the Nations in Poland becomes very loaded. A large exhibition dedicated to a Righteous Among the Nations such as that of Pankiewicz at the Eagle Pharmacy becomes larger than just the story of a hero, but a portal for the redemption of a nation. The key word here is redemption, as in the quest for innocence as opposed to reconciliation which is more apologetic and inclusive of the victim.

In their article, “ Reconciliation through the Righteous”,  Michal Bilewicz and Manana Jaworska explain how each group requires different narratives to accomplish reconciliation. They brought together a group of Polish youth and a group of Jewish youth.  They used a needs-based model of reconciliation by Shnabel, Nadler, Canetti-Nisim, & Ullrich which proposes that “a history of genocide threatens basic psychological needs of the descendants of all affected groups—the need for a moral image among perpetrators and bystanders and the need for power and control among the victims” (as cited in Bilewicz & Jaworska, 2013).  They found that using a Righteous Among the Nations figure such as Pankiewicz is only beneficial for the perpetrator/bystander group because it fulfills their need for acceptance and redemption while it was not beneficial for the victim group because it did not fulfill their need for regaining power and control, furthermore ignoring the perpetrators crimes and focusing instead on the non-Jewish heroes was considered tone-deaf. They found that instead, the victim groups responded well to stories of their own people’s heroic resistance. This could be a good reason for the placement of the plaque honoring the Jewish youth resistance right across from the museum honoring the Righteous Among the Nations. Together they could fulfill the needs of the cites’ visitors and forge a road to reconciliation for the visitor of this site of trauma.

Certainly, any reconciliation born out of this would only reach a certain personal extent. There are underlying political forces at play which make this issue far too complex. Moreover, even at a personal level, while individual stories may be powerful in evoking empathy, they can also steer the narrative away from the broader picture which illustrates the enormity and violence of the Holocaust.

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Presentation

The Eagle Pharmacy is part of The Historical Museum of the City of Kraków and is a national museum. While researching the topic of the usage of the Righteous Among the Nations to combat both the accusations of Polish collaboration and the strong and negative Polish reactions to the writings of Jan T. Gross who in his book Neighbors accused Poles of hunting and murdering their Jewish neighbors, I was expecting a national Polish museum such as the Eagle Pharmacy to completely omit any mention of Polish anti-semitism. However, there are several instances in the exhibition where such actions are  highlighted. A  former Jewish Podgórze resident mentioned in an account how Polish children in the street would harass him for being Jewish. Among the hanging photographs in the laboratory is a photo of anti-semitic football rivalry graffiti from 2013 found on a residential building, acknowledging that anti-semitic sentiments still exist in Krakow to this day. Lastly, a plaque in the laboratory states: “ [the pharmacy’s photo exhibition is] an artistic installation encapsulating the complexity of post-war experiences in blotting out and, consequently, restoring memory about the Jewish legacy of Krakow.” This admission of attempts to blot out Jewish legacy is also not something I personally expected from a Polish national museum.

Overall, the site was well presented for what it is, a tribute to the Jewish residents of the ghetto and the man who tried to help them. The guided tour we received was too focused on the objects in and the reconstruction of the pharmacy, however these objects are only aids to set the mood for exploring the narratives hidden throughout. The way I would have presented this site differently is to instruct the guides to focus on these stories instead as well as incorporating the stories of Jewish resistance within the exhibition itself and not just on a plaque across the square.

Bibliography:

Bilewicz, M., & Jaworska, M. (2013). Reconciliation through the Righteous: The Narratives of Heroic Helpers as a Fulfillment of Emotional Needs in Polish−Jewish Intergroup Contact. Journal of Social Issues, 69(1), 162-179.

Hirsch, M. (2008). The Generation of Postmemory. Poetics Today, 29(1), 103-128.

Shnabel, N., & Nadler, A. (2008). A needs-based model of reconciliation: Satisfying the differential needs of victim and perpetrator. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 116–132.

Szymański, W. (2015). A place of memory – monument – counter-monument. Artistic strategies of commemoration in Krakow’s district of Podgórze. RIHA Journal, 123, RIHA Journal, 01 June 2015, Vol.123.

Tokarska-Bakir, J. (2008). Sprawiedliwi niesprawiedliwi, niesprawiedliwi sprawiedliwi. Zagłada Żydów, (4), 170-214.

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