16 November 2021

A collection of early Holocaust testimonies in Sweden includes several cases in which Jewish and non-Jewish Polish survivors interviewed each other during the immediate post-war period. A history of conflict stood between the survivors, but this does not appear to have influenced the testimonies. Rather, the interviews give evidence of deep empathy and understanding, according to a study from Linköping University.

Photo of older notebooks.
Charl Folscher/Unsplash

Between October 1945 and November 1946, the Polish Research Institute in Lund collected 512 witness testimonies from Polish Holocaust and other survivors of Nazi persecution. The working group comprised nine people who had themselves survived the Holocaust and come to Sweden as refugees. The collection is held by Lund University Library.

Victoria Van Orden Martínez is a PhD student in history at Linköping University and has analysed the collection as part of her doctoral studies. She made a previously unrecognized finding - 43 of the witness testimonies were the result of interviews between Jewish and non-Jewish Polish survivors.

It was relatively unusual that Jewish and non-Jewish survivors shared their experiences of Nazi persecution in this way. It was even more unusual that Polish Jewish and non-Jewish survivors documented each others’ experiences. For the Poles, the reason was a complex history of conflict that centred on identity and nationality, and that had become deeper during the Holocaust.

“This may be a unique case, and it is one that gives important insight into how Polish Jews and non-Jews who had survived Nazi persecution were together mediating Polish memory of the Holocaust in the immediate aftermath”, says Victoria Martínez.

Empathy and deep understanding

She has analysed the 43 testimonies with a focus on whether the historically complex relationship between Polish Jews and Polish non-Jews influenced the interviews. In particular, she has taken into consideration the conflicts associated with antisemitism and national identity that existed between the two groups. Her conclusion is that the testimonies appear to have been mostly unaffected by these tensions.

“When individuals from distinct but related victim groups have a history of conflict, it can be extremely difficult for the parties to discuss the horrors they have experienced. In these interviews, however, it seems that the interviewees have described their experiences and have not changed or adapted their narratives according to who was conducting the interview”, says Victoria Martínez.Photo credit Thor Balkhed

She has discovered some cases in which the interviewer has commented on the testimony in a manner that demonstrates the historical conflict between Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, but these comments have not affected the testimony itself. Overall, Victoria Martínez shows that the interviews were held in a spirit of empathy, and each party shows deep understanding of the experiences and suffering of the other. There is little evidence of what is known as competitive victimhood, in which one group claims to have suffered more than another persecuted group or minimizes the experiences of those with ‘competing’ claims to victimization.

In line with previous research

This finding is compatible with results from previous research showing that personal encounters involving members of conflicting groups sharing their experiences with one another can contribute to empathy and understanding. Previous research has also shown that survivors were, in the immediate aftermath, recounting their experiences based on their own needs and objectives, rather than established narratives and themes as with later testimonies.

One of the main reasons that testimonies collected immediately after the end of the war are so important is that they have not been influenced by the passage of time. Such testimonies, however, are significant for several other reasons.

“These testimonies are important in their own right, but it is also necessary to appreciate the context in which they were given. These narratives demonstrate an important interaction between Polish Jewish and non-Jewish survivors, particularly women. They worked actively together to collect and document each other’s experiences. For justice, for history and for the future”, says Victoria Martínez. 

The study contributes to research into early documentation and its role in shaping memory of the Holocaust, in particular Polish memory of the Holocaust 

“There may be other instances where interviews between Jewish and non-Jewish Polish survivors took place in the early post-war period. I hope that this study can reach other researchers who may be aware of other instances”, says Victoria Martínez.

About the article and the collection

About the article

The analysis is presented in the article Witnessing against a divide? An analysis of early Holocaust testimonies constructed in interviews between Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, published in the journal Holocaust Studies, Taylor & Francis (2021).

The article

About the collection

Between October 1945 and November 1946, the Polish Research Institute in Lund collected 512 witness testimonies from Polish Holocaust and other survivors of Nazi persecution. The collection is held by the Lund University Library and is fully digitized. Learn more here.


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