The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

New Perspectives on Catholic-Jewish Relations in Early Postwar–Poland

There have been several new studies resulting in considerable revision of existing views on Polish history during and after the Holocaust. These studies have complicated the general understanding of this body of knowledge, especially regarding the question of Polish complicity with Nazi Germany and the aftermath of the near-complete annihilation of Polish Jewry. However, the issue of Polish Catholic perspectives and attitudes around this period has been less explored. This paper addresses that gap by evaluating public statements and official correspondence issued by Catholic thought-leaders and examining how in the immediate postwar years the stances taken by the main institutional ‘bystander’ to the Holocaust in Poland, the Roman Catholic church, shaped public opinion in the country and, by extension, affected Polish Jews and Polish-Jewish relations in the years to come.

While reconstructing the church’s postwar interpretation of the fate of European Jewry during the Holocaust and addressing the legacy of the pre-war Polish Catholic discourse as represented during the examined period, the paper provides a sociohistorical analysis of the approaches taken by the Catholic church in Poland during the communist consolidation of power, highlighting aspects related to discursive strategies pertaining to the Holocaust and Jews in general. The paper considers the issue of the relationship between the newly-installed communist government and the episcopate. It thus probes the secondary question of whether the Catholic church contributed to the legitimation of the communist government.

Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of legitimate political domination, and anchoring the argument in sources ranging from the official Catholic press, Polish ecclesiastical and state archives to the newly-opened Apostolic Archive and Historical Archive of the Vatican, the paper uncovers the discursive mechanisms of instrumentalisation employed by Polish Catholics in their discussion of matters related to Jews, anti-Jewish violence and the Holocaust. The paper demonstrates that the church, despite its apparent intentions and contrary to general perception, adhered to the ethno-nationalist policy adopted by the Polish communists. As a result, the church at times advanced symbolically violent discursive strategies pertaining to Jewish people and bolstered the exclusivist ethno-nationalist traditions present in Polish political culture.