Aphasia and a Legacy of Violence: Disabling and Enabling Knowledge of the Past in Poland

Jolanta A Drzewiecka. Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies. Volume 11, Issue 4. 2014.

Neighbors by Jan Tomasz Gross substantiates that gentile Poles burned their Jewish Polish neighbors in a barn in Jedwabne during the Nazi occupation. Its publication created an “earthquake” and spurred an intense public debate in Poland. Commentators reacted with shock, disbelief, ignorance, sickness and pain. Neighbors seemingly uncovered knowledge nobody knew about or remembered. The Polish Institute of National Memory (hereafter INM) opened an investigation. However, Polish courts had investigated the atrocity and convicted twelve Polish gentiles in 1949. A memorial boulder placed in Jedwabne in the 1960s was inscribed, “Site of the Suffering of the Jewish Population. The Gestapo and the Nazi Gendarmerie Burned Alive 1600 People July 10, 1941.” The Polish neighbors were not named as perpetrators of the crime. INM’s reinvestigation confirmed Gross’s main claims but lowered the number of victims to “no fewer than 340” based on a partial exhumation. It also disclosed twenty other pogroms of Jewish Poles committed by gentile Poles during WWII. A new monument for the 60th anniversary commemoration stated, “To the Memory of Jews from Jedwabne and the Surrounding Area, Men, Women, and Children, Co-Inhabitants of This Land, Who Were Murdered and Burned Alive on this Spot on July 10, 1941,” and it still did not name Polish gentile neighbors as the perpetrators.

Before WWII, 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland, and they were Europe’s largest Jewish community and the world’s second largest. Today, there are only 5,000–15,000 Jews who remain. Gross’s book confronted the violence to Poland’s long-term Jewish minority by their neighbors at a time of their gravest vulnerability during the Nazi genocide. As the book’s US publication neared, the intensification of the media debate revealed that Neighbors captured the gentile Poles’ desire and anxiety in the post-communist order. While Gross’s book was not the first to probe gentile–Jewish relations in Poland, it stimulated the most intense public response, which included scholarly investigations into Polish Jewish–gentile history. It is still a flash point in public discourse. Neighbors was a “transducer of affective forces” exposing structural impairments that were obstructing knowledge and emotional attachment to the nation in memory discourses.

The media debate erupted prior to the publication of the book and ended abruptly after the 60th-anniversary commemoration when the new monument was unveiled. I analyzed 172 news articles, op-eds, editorials, and letters to the editor published in the main Polish national daily, Gazeta Wyborcza (hereafter Gazeta), roughly equivalent to the New York Times, between January and July 2001, when the debate ended abruptly. In grappling with the circular nature of arguments and disconnections between words used by the commentators and claims made by Gross, I was struck that most commentators showed great difficulty in addressing what had occurred 60 years earlier. One commentator observed that “our memory is a place where there are no Jews,” even as material evidence of their presence abounds. This points to active forgetting and labored ignorance of the past. Simultaneously, the arguments and explanations sounded eerily familiar. They were well rehearsed in past circumstances, and they were now retrieved to respond to claims described as new and shocking. INM’s confirmation of the violence in Jedwabne and uncovering of other Jewish pogroms happened quickly given the claims of ignorance and disbelief. Neighbors unblocked access to knowledge about violence against Jews that was known but not spoken and animated affective investments in the nation. I argue that the debate demonstrated an aphasic structural disorder that rendered knowledge and implications of the past violence incomprehensible and its victims unrecognizable. My psychoanalytic reading shows that misrecognition of that knowledge to protect the fiction of the Polish gentile Self was the fundamental dynamic in the media commentaries. I examine the aphasic mechanisms of misrecognition and metonymy for insights into how ignorance is repeatedly legitimated and disregarded, and how the Self’s dependency on the Other is barred from recognition. I take a cue from Susan Owen and Peter Ehrenhaus, who contend that distortive legacies of racial violence are productive resources for learning to live in relation to the past, depending on how they are confronted and how the anxieties they generate are assuaged.

I begin with the connections between commemoration, aphasia, knowledge, and psychoanalysis that serve as my framework. Next, I ground the study in Jewish–gentile history and memory in Poland. Then, I examine aphasic responses to Neighbors that misrecognize and disable knowledge. I also show how knowledge retrieval was strategically performed both to recuperate the nation and constrain the atrocity’s entailments. I then analyze responses that promote critical learning. Finally, I discuss the theoretical and cultural implications.

Memory, Aphasia, and Knowledge

Neighbors provoked the Polish gentile society to address its violent past when the systemic collapse opened spaces for new voices and demands. In response, the commemorative debate about how the atrocity should be remembered revealed political needs and cultural anxieties about how to mend the rupture in Polish national identity on a global scene. It brought out emotions and competing interpretations revealing present needs. Production and legitimation of knowledge and memory are strategic goals of commemorative debates. However, we lack critical tools for understanding how knowledge is disabled and ignorance legitimated in such debates.

Aphasia offers a powerful tool for understanding how the past can be known but disregarded, known but unspeakable. Ann Stoler derives the concept from psychological linguistics where aphasia describes “difficulty generating a vocabulary that associates appropriate words and concepts with appropriate things” as a result of brain damage. Aphasia refers to discursive “losses and compensations” resulting from the failure to interpret linguistic signs through their connections to the linguistic code or the context. Aphasics are not able “to see the whole, seeing only details”; their misrecognition and inability to properly name things are key problems. Michel Foucault, Sergei Oushakine, and Ann Stoler apply aphasia to discourse at the social level; it is a structural affliction that is shaped by and is shaping systemically coded and available ways of speaking. As Oushakine argues, aphasia addresses “the peculiarity of intersection of the individual’s ability to speak and society’s ability to provide a language with which to speak,” and thus produces “the pathology of the symbolic.” Aphasia works as a metaphor to describe the dynamics of simultaneous knowing and not knowing as well as dissociation, blockage and limits of the sayable that render knowledge unspeakable. It is present but unrecognized. Aphasia is a condition of knowledge being both available and unspeakable, e.g., France’s colonial violence is remembered but systematically disconnected and ignored. Atrocities committed against Native Americans are known and yet so many speak as if they did not know; this knowledge is disregarded and silenced. Denials of unwanted, uncomfortable or disturbing knowledge—both knowing it and not knowing it—are a pervasive dynamic in everyday life. The concept of aphasia focuses analysis on “how occlusions of knowledge are achieved, […] knowing is disabled, attention is redirected, things are renamed, and disregard is revived and sustained.”

Occlusions and denial of knowledge are crucial features of racial formations that silence race as an analytical category, deny effects of racism, and silence or marginalize dissent by people of color. Scholars show that forgetting racial violence is a product of specific efforts. Museum exhibits, popular media, and news encourage “amnesiatic looking” that cleanses past racial violence in ways that also encourage ignoring present day racism. Selective amnesia erases past injustices and thus undermines collective struggles for justice. As Brian Ott, Eric Aoki, and Greg Dickinson argue, such erasures create conspicuous absences of the abjected racial Others in memory sites that constitute dominant white nationality and invite visitors to concordant viewing positions. Remembrance is an inherently pedagogical practice, but forewarned against remembering that allows us to forget in “memory’s shadow,” we must attend to how different forms of remembrance enable and constrain knowledge. Owen and Ehrenhaus warn that memories of racial trauma require working through; otherwise, they keep returning. Memories can be kept away only for periods of time by forgetting and ignoring, which, as Stoler reminds us, are active repetitive acts requiring imagination and effort to keep the history of racial violence out of sight. Ignorance is produced systemically; it is a social achievement with strategic value that functions as social regulation in societies structured in a racial hierarchy.

Aphasia offers two analytical concepts: misrecognition and metonymy. From a psychoanalytic perspective, they reveal the connections between the production of knowledge and subjectivity. Misrecognition is an inability to interpret statements within the context on which they are contingent. It disassociates certain kinds of knowledge, and such dissociation certainly operates within a racial epistemology. Misrecognition plays a fundamental role in the Lacanian understanding of subject formation. In the mirror stage, a child misrecognizes its bounded coherent image for its fragmented and dependent self. This misrecognition forms the imaginary Ideal-I that “situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction” whereby all identities assumed henceforth will be illusions of autonomy. When certain statements are misrecognized at the linguistic level, it is the Self’s dependency on their context that is misrecognized. When these statements are then replaced with statements that can be answered within a speaker’s discursive context, the fiction of the Self is maintained.

A metonymy substitutes a simpler term for a more complex term through a word to word association and thereby displaces meaning “as the unconscious’ best means by which to foil censorship.” Substitutions are symbolic compensations for an inability to name certain things. Lacan considered metonymy—and metaphor—particularly important to understanding unconscious drives, not the least because it is a symptom of aphasia caused by anatomical brain lesions. Analysis of metonymy reveals the enigmas of desire “caught in the rails of metonymy, externally extending towards the desire for something else.” Misrecognition and metonymy are structural discursive impairments where affect “sticks” and they themselves stick together and move through texts performing emotions. I show how they manifest racists and other affective attachments “dependent on past histories of association that often ‘work’ through concealment” as they disconnect knowledge whereby the implications of the atrocity are refused or sidelined. Concealment requires a psychoanalytic reading that follows desire driving the debate to where it extends for something else and thus reveals the effects of symbolic actions.

The object-cause of desire in Lacanian psychoanalysis is the constitutive lack installed when the subject is split by the entrance into the symbolic order. The moment of entry into language cancels out the Real and displaces it into impossibility. The Real does not exist and yet produces discursive effects through distortions and displacements, e.g., misrecognitions and metonymies. The structural effects of the Real, irreducible to discursive construction, must be accounted for after the fact. According to Žižek, “antagonism is precisely such an impossible kernel, a certain limit that is in itself nothing; it is only to be constructed retroactively from a series of its effects, as the traumatic point which escapes them.” Antagonism threatens the pursuit of mythical fullness filling the constitutive lack of collective identity. Since the subject’s relation to the object-cause of desire has no genuine object, it is the shared pursuit of enjoyment threatened with theft by the menacing Other that constitutes the collective Self. This brings us to the dialectic of desire, and thereby to the abjection of “the Jew” in the formation of Polish national identity.

“Jews” in Gentile Memory

Jews began migrating to Poland in the 9th century fleeing from persecution elsewhere. They became the most significant and enduring Other of “Polish” social identity; violently cast out in the formation of both early Christian and national identities. They were both reviled and desired as the defining mirror image of Christianity which much later defined nationhood. Jewish Poles constituted ten percent of the Polish population before WWII; they reached fifty and in a few cases even ninety percent of the population in many towns. About ninety percent of Jewish Poles, three million people, were killed during WWII. Most of the 244,000 survivors emigrated to other countries. Their long presence and cultural integration are actively denied by the persistent linguistic separation between “Poles” understood to be Catholic and “Jews” understood to be non-Poles. This linguistic erasure blocks understanding the legacy of endemic and constitutive antisemitic violence. The small and scattered numbers of Jewish Poles and the suppression of differences by the state socialist government after WWII did not allow for a negotiation of naming. The recent flourishing of interest in Jewish culture has not yet cured, and might depend on, the aphasic naming affliction. I use the terms “Jew” and “gentile” to call attention to the linguistic naming dysfunction, particularly since “gentile” does not resonate in Poland; the quotation marks around “Jew” and “Poles” denote exclusion of Jews from the Polish category.

The Jewish Historical Commission (now Institute) in 1947 began documenting Shoa immediately after the war. However, the post-war public memory was formed through distortions, erasures, and blockage of historical knowledge and the imposition of the communist regime. Initially, the Soviet controlled government commemorated Jewish suffering as it fit its internationalist communist ideology and earned Western goodwill. The fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was commemorated with Nathan Rapoport’s “The Ghetto Heroes Monument.” The only other WWII memorial was dedicated to fallen Soviet soldiers; there was no monument to the bloody Warsaw Uprising on the gentile side. In public imagination, the Soviet controlled government’s monument reinforced the connection between communism and “Jews” as foreign to the nation. When the Commission began publishing accounts of Polish Jews saved by gentiles, those named complained and those to be named requested complete anonymity for fear of their neighbors’ retaliation. Antonina Wyrzykowska, who saved nine Jewish Poles from the Jedwabne pogrom in spite of being badly beaten when refusing to abandon them, left Jedwabne and changed her address several times to escape persecutors and eventually emigrated. Even until the late 1990s, she was still afraid to show her face in a documentary.

After initial commemoration, the specificity of Jewish WWII experience was erased; victims were identified only as “Poles” in history and public memory sites. This was an act of erasure, not inclusion, from memory exemplified by the coding of the Auschwitz death camp museum as a site of both Polish and international suffering. Jews, “Żydzi” in Polish, were alphabetically listed as last among numerous “nationalities” imprisoned and exterminated at the camp. Gentile acts of violence were erased as exemplified by the first monument blaming the Nazis for the Jedwabne atrocity. The 1967 “reinvestigation” confirmed Nazi blame without evidence. Polish defensive historiography emphasized obstacles to providing help to Jewish Poles and interpreted accusations of antisemitism as anti-Polish and anti-communist attacks from the West. The systematic ignorance created acceptance for a sinister and paranoid narrative of worldwide Jewish conspiracy against “Poles” spun by the failing Polish government in the 1960s. “Jews” were represented as an internal foreign threat to be blamed and eradicated, culminating in antisemitic cleansing in March 1968 when many Jewish Poles were fired from their jobs and “allowed” to emigrate. The defenses and the “Jewish menace” were articulated into an enduring defensive framework invoked during subsequent public discussions of gentile–Jewish relations. However, the closure was not complete. The 1970s and 1980s brought small-scale Jewish culture projects and texts challenging “our lack of knowledge” of culture, history and annihilation of “Jews.” Commenting on Neighbors, Tokarska-Bakir referred to these and other important texts as “memorable and completely forgotten.” Even Stanislaw Krajewski, a prominent Jewish Polish intellectual, wondered how he did not know about the violence in Jedwabne.

A previous analysis of the media debate about Neighbors categorized the contributions as either self-critical or self-defensive of national myths. I argue that such a binary misrepresents the debate and hides important dynamics of the misrecognition of knowledge. I now turn to the debate.

Knowledge and Recuperation

The commentary in Gazeta generated three distinct responses, the defensive refusal, cleansing the nation, and enabling knowledge. These responses differ in how the rhetors understood Neighbors and its entailments for Polish identity, how they advocated that readers should remember the atrocity, and what affective attachments they revealed.

Defensive Refusal of Knowledge

Some commentators debating Neighbors accepted that the atrocity is a historical fact but rejected its entailment for Polish identity and history. They repelled shame from the nation by retreating to the familiar framework of defenses against accusations of antisemitism while they claimed a higher moral ground above the deniers in the right-wing press. The defensive aphastic misrecognition of the book’s claims and metonymic substitutions revealed memory’s affective attachment to antisemitism.

The contributors misrecognized Gross’s arguments, conclusions, and questions as charges that all Poles are antisemites who perpetrated Shoa. A historian asserted that “I cannot accept placing Poles in the same line as the Nazis.” Another reminded that “the only source of systematic extermination of Jews was Hitler’s totalitarianism.” These responses replicated the defensive framework that blocked knowledge of violence and thus misrecognized all charges of antisemitism as unfounded attacks against “Poles.” The commentators retreated “to an old safe tool, namely, the obsessive aphasic reproduction of the already familiar, to the metonymic cataloguing of the already available and articulated ideas.” Locked in defensive references as their context, instead of answering Gross’s claims, the contributors substituted them with an accusation that “Poles” were responsible for Shoa along with the Nazis, a claim that Gross did not make but which they could easily reject as false. This substituted accusation is produced through a metonymic reduction that displaces the meaning of the Jedwabne atrocity through a negation onto the signifier of Shoa as antisemitic violence perpetrated exclusively by Nazis. Polish gentile violence against Jewish Poles is thereby subsumed under Shoa and the autonomy of violence in Jewish–gentile relations as separate but related to Shoa, on which Gross insisted, is blocked and made unthinkable and unnameable. Metonymies stick based on past associations and reveal emotional traces of memories, “the ‘press’ of an impression,” that persist and move across texts. The “press” of the defensive framework (i.e., the affect sticking to its structural blockages) limited reading Neighbors beyond the immediate discursive possibilities of the defensive brand of Polish historiography. Consequently, it precluded answering the more difficult questions about long-term antisemitic violence and complicity in rather than responsibility for Shoa. Misrecognition of these questions thus also rejects recognition of antisemitism. The misinterpretation of Gross’s argument and the metonymy enable misrecognition of antisemitic violence constitutive of the national Self. The subject thereby misrecognizes its own conditions of existence (i.e., that its national identity founded on bravery and suffering is a fiction).

The refusal to recognize antisemitic violence denied the victim and repelled shame from the fragile national Self. Many contributors were professional historians reacting not only to the rupture in the national fabric but also to the book’s charge that Polish historians neglected not just the atrocity in Jedwabne but other antisemitic violence. While invoking professional authority to dismiss the book’s methods, particularly the weight Gross gave to victim’s testimony, as unreliable and dishonest, the historians did not offer any contrary evidence or challenge any specific argument. The strenuous objections to accepting testimony of the victims as historical evidence and the charges that Neighbors would make the “Polish-Jewish” dialogue “more difficult” and renew “diminishing and softening” antisemitism reveal the antagonism against “the Jew” constitutive of “Polish” national identity. It is “Jews” who are really guilty, not victims, and “we” have been injured by unjust accusations. Accordingly, contributors predicted that the investigation would uncover that “Poles” retaliated for “Jewish” support of the Soviet communists when the Soviet forces invaded in 1941. The Jewish communists, the so-called “Judeocommune,” is a potent metonymy marking “Jews” as not just alien but guilty as adherents and implementers of communism imposed on Poland by its oppressor, the Soviets. The historically disproven “Judeocommune” argument is incessantly repeated in everyday talk about “Jews.” Gross expected this and presented evidence that the local Polish underground fighters were betrayed to the Soviet occupiers by gentile Poles. But the rhetors ignored this evidence and instead denied the victim by representing “Jews” as the original wrongdoers who betrayed Poland by supporting communism. By denying the victim, they disassociated signs of gentile Polish violence against Jewish Poles from “Polish” identity and thereby rejected shame as an illegitimate affect for the nation. They accepted only that the few individuals who committed the crime of excessive retribution were at fault. Stoler explains that aphasia manifests itself as a “loss of access and active dissociation” from the past with only schematic connections surviving. Judeocommune is such a metonymic schema, “sticky” with antisemitism and disconnected from knowledge about the complexity of adoption of political ideologies by different groups in Poland: it survives and moves across texts simplifying complex historical evidence.

The Judeocommune metonymy reveals the centrality of the antagonistic affect to national identity. The contributors asserted that gentile crimes were equivalent to Jewish communist crimes against the nation. One argued: “there were mistakes on the ‘Polish’ side and the ‘Jewish’ side. We need to talk about them bravely and apologize to each other.” Likewise, the much-publicized mass of Polish bishops “asking God’s forgiveness for crimes against Jews,” praised for its healing effect, was preceded by their statement expressing hope that “the Jewish side will examine its conscience and apologize to Poles for the wrongs perpetrated by Jews, among other times, during the implementation of communism in Poland.” The demand for an apology from a group whose members were massacred by members of one’s own group under the vulnerability of the Nazi genocide exposes the obscenity of pursuit of enjoyment binding the national community. Enjoyment, jouissance, drives identification acts attempting to fill the lack—the impossibility of the full complete identity. As Žižek elucidates, enjoyment explains the persistence of affective attachment to the nation: “the national Cause is ultimately nothing but the way subjects organize their enjoyment through national myths.” Neighbors interrupted the national “Cause” after the collapse of communism: intense historical revisionism exposing the wrongs against the Polish nation committed by communists. Evidence that gentile Poles massacred Jewish Poles (i.e., that “Poles” were not just WWII victims) stole enjoyment of the national post-communist collective seeking to recover its mythic pure state by blaming others. Metonymy, as Lacan observes, is invested with “desire aiming at the lack that it supports” as it displaces meaning through “signifier-to-signifier connection.” It serves the national “Cause” for all “Jews” to be perpetrating crimes in the name of communism, while gentile “Poles” fight for truth and freedom.

The obscene dimension of enjoyment, i.e., the suspicion that it has been stolen by the Other, imputes excessive enjoyment to that Other. Gazeta published commentaries critical of Jews’ obsessive focus on Shoa, and betrayed antisemitism as the hate of the Other’s enjoyment (i.e., Jews’ supposed preoccupation with their own suffering). Neighbors “stole” “Polish” enjoyment not because it supposedly “put Poles in the same line with the Nazis,” but because it showed that Jews suffered more at the hands of those claiming to be victims. The Other must then apologize for stealing enjoyment. Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, was repeatedly asked by interviewers if “Jews” had ever committed crimes and he finally stated, “We Jews must admit that there were such Jews in communist or even Hitler’s service who committed crimes against Poles and also against Jews.” This sentence was subsequently highlighted out of context by Bishop Gadecki, Chair of the Polish Episcopate Council on Religious Dialogue. In an interview headlined, “I agree with Rabbi Schudrich,” he stated that Schudrich, “puts the matter in a radically different light than Jan Tomasz Gross’s book which narrows the perspective only to the Jewish one.” The Other’s admission offers a resolution of the antagonism and covers over the lack. It confirms “our” suspicion—it reveals their “secret”—that Jews are after all “dirty.” This retroactive working through the past transfers “our secret” (violence against Jews, collusion with Nazis) onto “Jews” in the act of misrecognition. Since “they” worked in Hitler’s and the communist service, “Poles” can recapture their superiority in relation to “the Jew” and the lost enjoyment of the memory of national suffering. The Polish Jewish perspective was thus denied and disabled. The Polish Jew is cast out, again, presented as “a magical enemy, hiding in the shadow and constituting an irrational threat” to the national body by accusing it of crimes.

Lacan called metonymy humanity’s foil and a ruse. The two metonymies at work here, “Shoa as Nazi violence” and “Judeocommune,” block recognition of the Polish national Self’s fundamental dependence on (the violence against) the Other. They also reveal desires for a sense of superiority over “the Jew” and a need for righteousness, and thus affirmation in the desire of the Other. These metonymies blocked recognition of the knowledge about the subject’s dependence on antisemitism, or its racist epistemology. The antisemitic affect both sticks to structural impairments and moves across texts. As I will show below, the affective relational potential can be activated differently.

Cleansing the Nation

Some commentators urged that atrocities in Jedwabne required a reckoning with the past and a revision of Polish national history to include “forgotten” violence and antisemitism. This response presented itself as courageous and enlightened, bravely facing the challenge to the nation’s history and identity. It was nevertheless impaired by the defensive framework, as it also misrecognized and metonymically distorted Neighbors. However, this response actualized affect differently by admitting shame and converting it into a renewed pride in the nation as it simultaneously renewed exclusion of “the Jew.”

The commentators argued that collective shame was a proper reaction to the revelation of the atrocity. They described several seemingly forgotten incidents of violence and antisemitism, and argued that the “recovered” knowledge means, “we must abandon the traditional and widespread idea of the nation without sins” and “Poles must face the bitter history of their own nation.” They saw the nation as sinful, its history as bitter, and urged abandoning the national narrative of heroic suffering and bravery ruptured by Neighbors. The rupture was terrifying, Neighbors exposed the lack in Polish identity, and for a brief tortured moment it appeared nothing could fill it. A path opened for relational learning. That moment was brief. As one rhetor admitted,

When the debate about Jedwabne started several months ago, I was terrified. […] Today […] I think that this matter is a huge opportunity for Poland. This is not only about “cleansing memory” in Polish-Jewish (sic) relations […]. There is also a chance to rebuild a decent nation. Nation not without guilt but with a civil courage to take account of its own past and say “sorry.”

Almost immediately the contributors saw the wounding exposure of the lack as an opportunity and spun a new narrative of the nation as fallible and guilty but courageously facing its past frailty and thus all the more fit for the global post-communist future. They resymbolized knowledge that was threatening the subject and wove it into a new narrative that conceived of the nation as liberated from communist oppression to become true to itself and face its antisemitic past. As the President stated at the Jedwabne commemoration, “Today’s Poland has the courage to look in the eye of the truth about the nightmare.” The rupture and the admission of guilt were converted into pride in an attempt to regain enjoyment of national identity lost by the Other’s provocation. As a rhetor asserted, “since we feel collective pride in Poles’ individual accomplishments, we must also feel collective shame. Shame for murder, exceptionally bestial, by Polish hands of women, children, and elders in Jedwabne.” The exhortation of pride constrains shame’s potential to disrupt national ideology and instead assuages anxiety, purifies and renews attachment to the nation. The shamed subject declared pride, “on the one hand we can be proud that many Poles risked their lives saving Jews, but on the other, unfortunately, in the Jedwabne case, we have to bow our heads with humility.” The claims of pride in the Righteous Among the Nations further cleanse and confirm affective commitments, while they ignore how new this pride is in individuals who risked their lives and feared their gentile Polish neighbors even after WWII. The fantasy of “Poles helping Jews” is fathomed as a shield against the confrontation with the Real as abjection is reenacted. “Poles” are of the shamed and pride-worthy nation; “Jews” are not. Pride in the nation entails collective shame for misdeeds committed by its members, but apparently not to its members as Jewish exclusion is linguistically reenacted. Freed from the constraints of communism, the nation without Jews was pronounced true to itself and its honorable traditions, and violence against Jewish Poles was consigned to a specific event in the past.

This new moral narrative was also structured by the defensive framework and reenacted its misrecognition and metonymic distortion, displacing “the Jew” outside the nation. The Prime Minister misrecognized Neighbors’ implications:

We are ready to face even the darkest facts of our history, but in the spirit of truth, without looking for seeming justifications […]. But we will not accept the spreading of false hypothesis about the Polish responsibility for the Holocaust or an inborn Polish antisemitism.

Readiness to look into their own darkness is qualified by “the spirit of truth” shining a light into the darkness to reveal the false hypothesis about “Poles.” Here again, misrecognition is enabled by a metonymic displacement of violence onto Shoa (i.e., there is no antisemitic violence but Shoa by the Nazis). But the failure to recognize the atrocity as a symptom of antisemitism creates a condition for the charge of antisemitism to become true; as Lacan observed, “truth arises from misrecognition.” The denial is already part of antisemitism forming the subject. The claim of the false hypothesis by the Jew reflects the falseness of gentile denial, but without the rhetor recognizing the denial as his subjective position. The truth in misrecognition is particularly important to understanding this response, because it labors so hard to present itself as enlightened and regenerative—and has been perceived as such by many—and thus to conceal its racism. While these respondents accepted that “our countrymen killed Jews in Jedwabne” and declared that “we must listen, not deny,” they strenuously asserted, “it was not Poles who started WWII and we cannot take responsibility off the real perpetrators, Germany and USSR.” These statements, repeated over and over again, “refrain” the affective intensities of racist attachment to the nation. This refrain, by the disabling and the cleansing responses, closes off “Polish” subjectivity in an ethno-religious singularity, expelling “the Jew” once again. It creates a border and a certainty in national exclusion. But, as Kristeva observes, “we may call it a border; abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it—on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.”

The declaration of shame is not sufficient for redemption and requires that a recognition from others be secured through an apology. The Other is central to feelings of shame; as Sartre stated, “I feel ashamed of myself as I appear to the Other.” But who is the Other witnessing the wounding exposure? It is key that the media debate erupted when Neighbors was about to be published in the US. Gazeta’s reports on the INM director’s meetings, with the leadership of the US Holocaust Museum showing fear of condemnation. The editor-in-chief published a lengthy commentary simultaneously in Gazeta and the New York Times defending the nation. These reveal that the Other before whom Poland is shamed are not its wronged Jewish Poles, but the West in whose eyes Poland belongs to the inferior Eastern European margin and must prove itself as a civilized nation. Neighbors’ light on racial violence and politics of ethnic nationalism affirms Poland’s backwardness in the West’s view.

The contributors attempted to contain the damage and strategized what responses to Neighbors would repair Poland’s image. A rhetor asserted,

We must apologize. An apology will be an honorable act, evoking respect and sympathy, it will free Poland from the imposition of responsibility for the crimes in Jedwabne. The act of apology will preserve our own image, of which we have the right to feel proud.

The shamed nation must apologize to cleanse itself of accusations and affirm its position in Europe and the world. The rhetors attempted to “free” Poland’s “good name” and thus its belonging in the post-communist world and prevent its dismissal as anachronistic and inferior. While the apology would ostensibly be to “Jews,” Poland would ask the dominant West, its Ego-Ideal, to forgive. The commentators fearing reactions from abroad did not desire to listen and learn from the (Polish) Jewish diaspora. Since Neighbors sparked the first public discussion about gentile violence against Polish Jews, what gentiles and Jews in Poland needed to reconcile was not yet fully examined. Despite the hasty rush to produce findings for the 60th anniversary commemorations, the INM investigation was still uncovering more information and new witnesses were being interviewed. What needed to be faced had not yet even been retrieved. But, the rhetors desired healing of their own wound by the assurance of the West’s desire via “the Jew.” The apology produced an obscene pleasure in affirmation of how the nation imagines itself. The contributors addressed the West and entered into “the new moral order” where “shame becomes a ‘passing phase’ in the passage towards being-as-nation” in the post-communist global scene.

This response constructed a seductive narrative of new moral courage affecting remembrance of the atrocity. It painted a vision of a purified nation reconciled with abstract “Jews”; the violent past is remembered but is sanitized and sidelined while Poles claim their prideful place in the global arena. The President stated in an interview, “we would like to move the stone that blocks the building of Polish-Jewish (sic) reconciliation to the cemetery, (…) Jedwabne is a conversation about ourselves (…) we can emerge from this debate stronger, wiser, better.” What does the stone represent? Does it perpetuate the gravesite and ask for remembrance as placing of stones on graves does in Judaism? It represents a desire to silence accusations and block the memory and the recognition of the trauma of abjection, whereby gentile Poles can regain their enjoyment as a brave nation. The new moral conscience thus rejected the “politics of relationality” that compels us to learn from others without reducing their experiences to our own traumas.

Enabling History

Some commentaries, interviews, news reports, and letters began a “difficult return” to the past by posing questions and offering information that unsettled instead of reassuring. These cast a critical light not only on the current state of historical knowledge but also on the processes of its construction. They attempted to work through the misrecognition and articulate the desire of the Other. Scholars as well as citizens critiqued published historical accounts that diminished or erased antisemitism in Polish nationalist politics and discussed other pogroms and killings of Jews by gentiles. News reports from the ongoing investigation revealed that the pogrom had not been fully investigated after WWII, there were witnesses still alive who had not been interviewed, and archival data had not been examined. It was difficult to establish how many Polish Jews lived in Jedwabne or the origin of the number of casualties, said to be 1600 (on the original monument and repeated by Gross). Gazeta reported discoveries of unexamined archives containing information about the Jedwabne pogrom. A journalist examining local archives described intensely antisemitic nationalist politics and violence before WWII directly contradicting claims made by defensive historians. These rhetors called for collective responsibility for Jedwabne to know and propagate knowledge about antisemitic discrimination. As one rhetor observed, “attitudes towards Jews survived in unchanged forms […] a responsible person must know and understand the history of his [sic] nation.” This response did not predetermine redemption or reconciliation as an outcome of commemoration. Instead, it invited discomfort and posed questions opening pathways for critical learning from the past.

This response revealed deep relational connections between gentile and Jewish lives. While in the previous two responses “Pole” and “Jew” appear separate in their singularity, articles forming this response demonstrated social and cultural intimacy between Jews and gentiles who later became their tormentors and killers in Jedwabne and neighboring towns. A Jewish Polish witness living in Israel, who “to this day speaks beautiful Polish,” explained in an interview that in the neighboring town Wizna, gentile Poles started to round up and beat Jewish Poles two days before German soldiers invaded and while it was the Germans who killed Jewish Poles in Wizna, “there were no Hassidic Jews in Wizna so we all looked like the Poles. Germans could not distinguish us without the neighbors’ help.” The witness’s Polishness is palpable in his language. Jews and gentiles all looked the same, they lived next door, and some survivors continued to do so after atrocities. The persistent categorization of “Jews” and “Poles” does not fit. A gentile man married to a Jewish woman he saved from a pogrom in another town, Radzilow, recounted many compromises and self-denials necessary to living in intimate proximity with killers and enemies in a small village after the war. His wife did not want to emigrate because her family had lived there for generations (and died in the pogrom). These were “Polish Polish Jews.” These news reports and commentaries highlighted entanglements and proximities between Jews and gentiles that required a persistent effort to disable vocabulary that addresses them. More than remembering, they were destabilizing the discursive horizon where antisemitism and violence against Jews were marginal episodes with no consequence for gentile self-understanding. A well-known author, describing how he and his family were both helped and betrayed by Polish gentiles during WWII, observed that we were still not free of such entanglements as “now everything comes back to Jedwabne.” The deep connections could not be completely silenced and knowledge completely erased. A gentile man who grew up in Jedwabne highlighted the return of knowledge:

my mother talked about it, […] my parents knew […]. I reached this knowledge slowly, I learned about many events only after the 70s […]. One does not talk about it. […] What a different perspective one has coming from Jedwabne and knowing what we know. […] And this falsity comes back today like a boomerang.

The Real always returns to its place, and thus knowledge cannot be disabled completely; it comes back in affective intensity and potential that can be realized differently.

The rhetors challenged disconnections from context by analytical categories that prevent recognition of antisemitism. One historian challenged another’s refusal to name 1936 violence in Przytyk a pogrom because the situation was too complicated, and violence was widespread at that time. She presented evidence of antisemitism both in the town and in the national legislation. She thus pointed to the lack of consideration of the larger context in interpretations of violence against “Jews,” the characteristic aphasic inability “to see the whole” as “Poles” erase pogroms from their collective memory predicated on innocence. The inability to see the context was highlighted by Konstanty Gebert, a prominent Jewish Polish intellectual, explaining that he would not be attending the forgiveness mass because, among other reasons, it was to take place in a church whose bookshop sold antisemitic literature that only recently had been “mostly removed.” Bringing this in as part of the context broadens interpretive possibilities and recognition of the Other’s stories. The context was also addressed by rhetors offering analogies between gentile–Jewish relations in Poland and racism in the US and Australia. These analogies highlighted a deficit in frames of comprehension and vocabulary for addressing not just racial violence but continuing antisemitism in a country where neither topic had been systematically addressed. These rhetors translated Polish blockages and disregard through language of racism and provided resources for understanding and learning. These examples broke the refrain of defensive affect by talking about different contexts that were not “sticky” with Polish antisemitic intensities. They also began to construct a vocabulary for rebuilding severed linkages and speaking what has not been spoken.

This response offered no comfort in certitude of innocence or prideful moral courage, but began to produce resources to approach the legacy of racial violence. By beginning to work through misrecognition, it approached knowledge of violence as constitutive of the Polish gentile subject. Such knowledge is dangerous: “the subject must pay for the approach to it with his own being” and loss of enjoyment. This response retreated from such a radical transformation and maintained the dysfunction in naming “Poles” and “Jews” as mutually exclusive groups and thus preserved the symbolic order. The language affirmed ethno-religious singularity of identities and the ambiguous border that keeps out the Other desired to recuperate the nation. This continued erasure of Jewish Poles, the death in language, cannot adequately address racial violence or open up the past to critical interrogation.

History and Critical Consciousness

The commemoration ceremonies, the president’s apology, and erection of the new monument abruptly ended the media debate. The new monument inscription did not name the perpetrators and generated a few strenuous objections that it sustained “a sphere of half-truths that are the whole lie.” The cleansing response’s seductive moral narrative of the purified and renewed nation defined the terms of the concord. The aphasic blockage of knowledge was now cast in the monument’s stone. However, the attempts at recovering vocabulary to express how violence against intimately connected long-time neighbors was possible give hope that knowledge about the past can be enabled, and the difficult work of reckoning with the past can be undertaken.

This essay argues that misrecognition of the knowledge of violence to protect fictions of identity was the fundamental dynamic in the commemorative debate. Misrecognition in its psychic sense was accomplished through misrecognition of specific statements and metonymies at the discursive level. These aphasic mechanisms are structural impairments in the discursive field that repeatedly limit the ability to express and comprehend a legacy of racial violence and thereby enable misrecognition of abjection of the Other forming the Self. These discursive configurations are aphasic, as they structurally shape the construction of public memories by limiting what is sayable and thus protecting social domination. Aphasia enabled a psychoanalytic analysis of the Symbolic order as rhetorical. The impaired discursive field silences, distorts, and blocks uncomfortable knowledge as it is spoken by and speaks subjects constituted within its order. As Gross explains, it took him some time to break out of the regime of historical interpretation where Shoa was a separate event from the rest of WWII and to fully understand what actually happened in Jedwabne. Misrecognition and metonymy are structurally embedded and “sticky” with affect, and move across texts as demonstrated in the replication of the historical defensive framework. Misrecognition and metonymic reductions at the linguistic level are mechanisms for preserving—misrecognizing—the sense of “good self” and “good nation” when confronted with accusations of atrocity. These mechanisms affected all three responses to Neighbors as all of them protected the fragile and fictional gentile singularity of the “Polish” self. All three of them also expressed desire for the Other’s desire. My psychoanalytic reading connected the specific discursive impairments and affect by attending to collective desires to disavow the lack and protect the impossible fullness of collective identity. It revealed the persistently overlooked truth, the abjection of the Other as it became true in the error of misrecognition.

The responses demonstrated the power of racist affect that “sticks” to and moves through discursive impairments driven by a desire to achieve enjoyment in the pursuit of the national “Cause,” i.e., the attachment to the nation. Affect is animated by and animates structural discursive impairments. Some responses to Neighbors claimed that historians did know about what happened in Jedwabne. Those responses sought to discredit Gross because he did not find anything new. Inadvertently they betrayed so clearly that that knowledge was disabled so that “Poles” could go on as if the atrocity never happened. The knowledge of atrocities was prevented from altering the dominant sense of self by being derailed onto a side track where it could be said to exist (i.e., the historian did their job after all!), but nobody has to remember it, and “we did not know” sounds plausible. As Poland conceives itself as the victim of European history, the affective attachment to the nation is particularly potent. Those on the liberal nation cleansing side can displace the obscene attachment onto the defensive denial side and pursue their purified and refined enjoyment of the post-communist nation (to be) accepted by Europe and the world. But as the enabling response shows, the discursive field can be restructured, and the affective relational potential can be realized differently. This requires not only that the context for understanding be enlarged to include knowledge that has been erased or silenced but also that the speaking subject be reconstituted and passions of national identification be engaged differently. In other words, we must continually work through our misrecognition and our desire.

I write these conclusions from Warsaw, where I visited an exhibit of antisemitic cartoons from 1920s and 1930s newspapers at the Jewish Historical Institute. The cartoons so clearly showed that abjection is “a composite of judgment and affect, of condemnation and yearning, of signs and drives.” One of the captions, “Poland for Poles,” confirmed that it is indeed necessary to insist that as long as we speak of “Poles” and “Jews”—Polish language admits “Polish Polish Jews” but not “Jewish Poles”—we will never fully connect knowledge that had been barred.