Featured Historian: Janek Gryta

Dr. Janek Gryta  is a Lecturer in Modern European History. His research focuses on the Holocaust and its impact on postwar Communist Poland, but also Europe more broadly. He writes about the history and memory of death camps, and about heritage sites, museums and memorials, and has more recently starting exploring the histories of health spas in Communist Europe. His book Jews and Poles in the Holocaust Exhibitions of Kraków, 1980-2013: Between Urban Past and National Memory has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Hi Jan! Can you tell us what Jews and Poles in the Holocaust Exhibitions of Kraków is about?

This book analyses how the Holocaust has been remembered in Kraków, the cultural capital of Poland, from the 1980s onwards. There are many assumptions about the memory of the Holocaust in my home country. My colleagues often insist that it is an artificial memory imposed on Poles by Western Europeans after 1989. They claim that no one in the relatively anti-Semitic country wanted to remember the Holocaust and that Poles trying to join the European Union were asked (forced?) to ‘become more European’ by remembering the Jewish Genocide.

Tracing the history of the museum exhibitions in Kraków I tell a different story. I show how local activists have been working hard to recover the memory of the Holocaust from at least the early 1980s onwards. They wanted to use the memory of the suffering of Poles of Jewish origin to remind their compatriots that Poland was not always a monoethnic state and the openness and tolerance are important aspects of being Polish.

portrait of Dr. Janek Gryta

Happier times: a library!

How did you become interested in memory of the Holocaust?

I was always very interested in memory and its relationship with history.

From my early undergraduate years, I wondered how the research of professional historians is translated into what people know and remember about the past. I think I was always a bit frustrated with the fact the people don’t actually that know much…

When I approached my MA supervisor, Professor Jan Rydel from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, with that idea, he suggested looking into the memory of the Holocaust, as it is a socially very sensitive and important topic in Poland. It snowballed from there.

First, I looked into the history and memory of the Nazi death camps that were located in Poland. Then, I moved to a far more ambitious project. When I started my PhD, I had a vision of writing a complete history of postwar memory in three different Polish cities. Fortunately, my supervisor, doctor Ewa Ochman from Manchester, quickly popped that bubble and helped me shape my idea into something more manageable.

I ended up focusing on Kraków only, writing about the heritage sites, monuments and museums in the city. In the past couple of years, I worked only on the museums to finally publish the book.

What is the importance of the memory of the Holocaust today?

Remembering the Holocaust in Poland, but also across Europe, is important not only because it enshrines a tragic fragment of European past in stone. It is also used to redefine what does it mean to be Polish or, for that matter, European. The heroes of my story grapple with big questions: who were the people killed during the Holocaust? What do we owe them? Were the victims part of the Polish nation, were they Polish Jews? Or were they some different, separate group that only happened to live in Poland?

If we admit that some of those Jews were indeed Poles, we can ask what exactly is the definition of Polishenss? Does one have to be ethnically Polish to be part of the nation?

Moreover, if we say that Jews living in Poland were Polish, then we have to ask ourselves, have we done enough to help our co-nationals at the time of need? Thinking about the plight of minorities of the past, we can take a leap from the past to the present. Are we doing enough now to support members of our nation who are somehow not like us? Are we supporting, in fact, do we owe any support to present-day minorities?

Some of those questions are specific to Poland but people ask similar questions globally. Looking into how we failed Jews during the Holocaust can help us redefine obligations we have towards ostracized or suffering minorities in the present.

What advice would you give to a student interested in memory studies?

Be prepared to get disappointed.

Looking into how our societies fail to tackle problems from our pasts is hardly the most cheerful topic. You’ll have to be ready to get disenchanted with humanity on a daily basis.

On a more practical note, chose the strand that interests you the most. In memory studies, we can analyse space and memorials. We can tour museums. We can study films. It’s an interdisciplinary field which is in equal measures fascinating and daunting so be ready for a great (and challenging!) adventure.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

A good dissertation is a submitted dissertation. A very good dissertation is a defended dissertation. Can I say that? Or is it giving a bad example and setting the bar low?

(Editor: You can say that, Jan.)

Ok. Well. It is true, though. As historians, we always push ourselves and always try to become better. There is always another book we can read, a different archival collection we can consult. Being able to stop in the right place is very important. We have to deliver something (an essay, a dissertation, a book) that is good. The best it can be at that particular moment in time. But we have to reconcile ourselves with the fact that our writing is never going to be perfect because ‘perefect’ doesn’t exist. And this is fine. Maybe master Yoda was wrong after all. Maybe trying is enough.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

I’m half-minded to say the Witcher saga which I’ve revised last Autumn. I’m Polish so I feel I should promote Polish fantasy. But I also suspect this question is not about my procrastination strategies but about my scholarship. So, I think I’ll go with Leisure Cultures and The Making of the Modern Ski Resorts a fascinating edited volume about … the history of skiing. It has a chapter on skiing and James Bond which is the most amazing topic ever. But it is also an inspiring read about modernity, tourism and environment; a set of problems that are topical and important to a lot of us.

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

This is an easy one. I always wanted to experience life in a medieval castle. I’d have to choose the right moment very carefully though. More plagues, religious prosecution, sieges, famines are not something I want to face. If there was a moment in time when life was peaceful, stable and safe then I’d be in!

So maybe, this question wasn’t easy after all… 

Falafel King or Eat a Pitta?

Can I admit, I’ve never tried any of those? I know. Eat a Pitta is basically a Bristol institution. In fact, there is one just around the corner from my place so I should have visited. But there is also another place which is even closer to my flat and that is where I normally end up going: Pinkmans. Pinkmans is the place to try.

I’m Polish so I’m very picky when it comes down to bread. Pinkmans sourdough is amongst the best breads I’ve ever tried.

But what is truly addictive is their chocolate and salted caramel sandwich cookie…

What are you working on next?

Right now, I’m writing one last article stemming from my PhD project.

At the same time, I’m deciding on the next big project. I’m torn between three ideas as different as the memory of the Second World War, history of Carpathian spas, and history of persecution of Jews by ethnic Poles during the Holocaust in Kraków. So, to answer your question I can only say… watch this space!

Stranded in Antarctica

view of Shackleton's hut

Shackleton’s hut

Getting stuck in Antarctica is not quite as exciting as it sounds, writes Dr. Adrian Howkins.

Most of the time it involves checking monitors, being driving to and from the runway, and just sitting and waiting.  But at the very end of my recent extended stay at the US McMurdo Station I had an opportunity to visit Ernest Shackleton’s ‘heroic era’ hut at Cape Royds.

For a polar historian, it was an evening that made the delay seem worthwhile.

I was in Antarctica working with the soils team of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site.  We were visiting sites of former scientific field camps in this predominantly ice-free region of Antarctica to collect soil samples to see if we could detect any continuing environmental legacy of human presence, thirty or forty years after the structures were removed (the initial results suggests that we can).  It was a very productive and enjoyable season until bad weather and mechanical problems with the plane delayed my flight north to Christchurch in New Zealand for almost a week.

On what turned out to be my last evening in Antarctica, some colleagues from the McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER were flying by helicopter to Cape Royds on Ross Island to take samples of the soils and ponds around the site of the hut of Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-1909.  Knowing that I had done the training to be a ‘hut guide’ for entering the three historic huts in and around McMurdo Station (Captain Scott’s huts from the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, and Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds from the Nimrod expedition) they invited me along so that they could see inside.

Adrian Howkins poses in an Antarctic hut

Not as fun as it looks, or so Adrian claims.

I’d visited Shackleton’s hut a couple of times before on previous trips to Antarctica.  But the experience of stepping back in history as you enter the hut never gets old.

The Cape Royds structure feels light and airy, especially in comparison to Captain Scott’s two huts.  The different designs of these early twentieth century huts have been used to highlight the different leadership styles of these two famous Antarctic explorers, with Scott’s naval discipline reflected in the compartmentalised design of the Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans and Shackleton’s more egalitarian leadership style reflected in the more open plan layout at Cape Royds.

Such comparisons are not entirely fair, since Shackleton’s hut would have seemed a lot less light and airy when it was crowded with men in the middle of the darkness of the Antarctic winter.  But the architectural choices made by the two explorers can still tell us something about their differing approaches to Antarctic exploration.

Photo of shelves in Shackleton's hut, stacked with tins and provisions

Corned beef and lemons: a balanced diet

The Royds hut is full of the material culture of early twentieth century exploration, which has been painstakingly restored by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust.  Tins of corned beef, canned fish, and ‘Irish Brawn’ give us clues about their diet.  A jar of decayed pickled lemons demonstrates an awareness of the dangers of scurvy, which had blighted Shackleton’s first trip to Antarctica on Scott’s Discovery expedition.  Copious quantities of table salt hints at the need to preserve and eat penguin and seal meat as a supplement to the diet of canned food.

Less obvious as a historical source are the ice-covered ponds located near Shackleton’s hut. The biologist on the expedition, James Murray, collected samples of algal mats, which he deposited with the British Museum of Natural History on return from Antarctica.  The microscopic diatoms contained in these samples can be used to compare the Antarctic environment in the early twentieth century with the Antarctic environment today.  Most of the diatom populations in the ponds remain largely unchanged.  The only pond where there has been a major shift in diatom taxa is Pony Lake, immediately in front of the hut.  We initially thought that this might have been caused by the presence of humans at Cape Royds, but it appears that the change is more likely the result of fluctuations in the local penguin population.

close up of sampling from the algal mat in the pond at Cape Royds

Penguins did this?

As I flew back to McMurdo Station from visiting Cape Royds I reflected on the feeling of being delayed in Antarctica.

Home feels a lot further away when your efforts to get back are being frustrated, even just for a few days.  On Shackleton’s third expedition to Antarctica on board the Endurance, his ship sank and his men ended up spending four and a half months stranded on Elephant Island with only a small chance of rescue.

In the event all members of this expedition were saved, and Shackleton gained a reputation as the Antarctic explorer who ‘never lost a man’.  Getting back to Bristol a few days late pales in comparison to the experience of these early explorers, but it still offers a timely reminder of the power of the Antarctic environment to frustrate the best laid plans.