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Digging through the archives – reconstruction of Polish memory

Reconstruction, according to the dictionary definition, is the reconstruction of something on the basis of preserved fragments, remains or messages. But how to reconstruct something whose fragments are scattered all over the world? [1] How to recreate the Polish memory of difficult historical events when archives are hidden in twelve different countries? And how can our history affect the present times? The answer to these questions is brought by one of the longest-running international projects – “Reconstruction of Polish Memory” and other projects and activities of people for whom it is a fact that the awareness of the past builds the present.

Purpose: to restore memory

Why is Poland the subject of an international project aimed at reconstructing memory? The assessment carried out by UNESCO in 1997 clearly shows that Polish archives are the most dispersed around the world as a result of warfare, looting and border changes. The disclosure of this fact resulted in the adoption of the “Reconstruction of Polish Memory” program by the Council of Europe and the commencement of systematic work on finding information about the history of the country from 1772 to 1945, important for the development of Polish historical awareness [2].

The results of the search for fragments of Polish history

As part of the project, archivists have still found and described historical sources located in Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, the Czech Republic, France, Lithuania, Moldova, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Italy and the Vatican. All archives are collected in the “Reconstitution of the Memory of Poland” database and are intended to replace materials irretrievably lost by Poland as a result of the First Partition, two world wars and the change of borders after 1945. The program is currently managed by the Chief Directorate of State Archives, with dr. hab. Władysław Stępniak at the forefront, while the online database is being developed in cooperation with the University of Warsaw [3].

An important part of the project is also the cooperation of the General Directorate of State Archives with the Lanckoroński Foundation, which allowed to find such sources as the list of Polish soldiers resting at the cemetery of the Defenders of Lviv or correspondence with members of well-known Polish families – Czartoryski, Sapieha, Radziwiłł and Sanguszko in the Ukrainian archives [4].

The memory of the world about Polish history

Imagine a place where all the most valuable historical sources from around the world are collected, which protects them from oblivion. The realization of this idea is the international list maintained as part of the UNESCO project called “Memory of the World”. The list includes over 400 documents, including 17 from Poland – the most valuable are, among others, the collection of Chopin’s works, the Book of Henryków and the underground archive of the Warsaw Ghetto [5]. The aim of the project is precisely the reconstruction of memory, as explained by prof. Fackson Banda, Head of Memory of the World at UNESCO: “As an essential part of humanity’s collective memory, documentary heritage helps us learn from the past.” [6]

With reference to the UNESCO project, the Polish National List of the Memory of the World Program was created, into which documents and collections of great importance for Poland are entered. The list is managed by the Polish Committee of the UNESCO Memory of the World Program, chaired by Paweł Pietrzyk PhD [7].

How does our history affect the present?

Knowledge of history allows us to draw conclusions from it – and this in turn contributes to the development of the contemporary Polish community and the domestic market. Activities that reconstruct the Polish memory of important events enable us to understand international trade relations, the political situation and the dynamics of cooperation between countries, which significantly facilitates running a global business and undertaking entrepreneurial activities. History itself affects the present but our approach to the past turns out to be no less important.

The importance of not only having historical sources, but also how we use them and how we present the facts, is especially emphasized today by researchers of the history of Polish Jews: Prof. Jan Grabowski, one of the historians sued in court proceedings for his scientific research, Prof. Dariusz Stola, former director of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and Konstanty Gebert, journalist and creator of the Polish-Jewish monthly “Midrasz”, prove that today it is extremely easy to manipulate Polish past, which affects the choices made by society. For this reason, this practice is used to a large extent in politics, which also affects education, the media and legislation. As an example, Prof. Grabowski gives describing the Holocaust in a way he calls its “denying” – as Poles we confirm that the Holocaust happened, but at the same time we swear that our nation had nothing to do with it. According to Grabowski, such an attitude in our society is of fundamental importance for the image created abroad, but ultimately it can do more harm than good. 

In 2018, provisions were introduced that provided for criminal liability for people blaming Poles for Nazi crimes in their statements. Despite the withdrawal of the penal provisions, this right is currently used in civil courts against people who reveal the shameful truth about the involvement of certain groups of Poles in crimes. As the historian explains, this can have a chilling effect, i.e. researchers are discouraged from making certain facts public, due to the fear of being unjustly held responsible for it. So if in one passage of the book we describe the testimony of a Holocaust survivor who says that it was the mayor of a Polish village who notified the Nazis of the presence of Jews, as a result of which twenty of them were killed, today we may be sued for defamation by the former mayor’s niece. 

Konstanty Gerbert, on the other hand, emphasizes that each of the people saving Jews deserves to be commemorated and each of them is a hero, but this recognition often resembles a campaign promoting a positive image of the entire Polish nation. The solution to this is to accept the whole story, without hiding Poles who acted badly behind those who helped people – as Dariusz Stola says. Moreover, according to Jan Grabowski, we need historical debates – because history that is not questioned is false or dead. Polish society still has a chance – through these honest and fact-based discussions – to transform the courts and democracy, and thus the view on the history of the Holocaust. Not only history influences the present, but also the present can influence the shape of history known to us and disseminated [8].


  1. ,,rekonstrukcja”, Słownik Języka Polskiego PWN,;2573794.html
  2. ,,Międzynarodowy program “Reconstitution of the Memory of Poland”, Naczelna Dyrekcja Archiwów Państwowych, Interdyscyplinarne Centrum Modelowania Matematycznego i Komputerowego UW,
  3. ,,Odtworzenie Pamięci Polski”, Naczelna Dyrekcja Archiwów Państwowych,
  4. ,,Współpraca Naczelnej Dyrekcji Archiwów Państwowych z Fundacją Lanckorońskich w zakresie rejestracji poloników w archiwach ukraińskich”, Naczelna Dyrekcja Archiwów Państwowych, Fundacja Lanckorońskich,
  5. ,,Memory of the World”, UNESCO,
  6. ,,Interview with the UNESCO Documentary Heritage Unit on the Memory of the World Programme and Libraries”, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions,
  7. ,,Polska Lista Krajowa Programu UNESCO Pamięć Świata”, Polski Komitet ds. UNESCO,
  8. ,Rewriting History: The Politics of Memory in Poland”,  Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, oraz
Eryka Klimowska
A law student at the University of Warsaw, passionate about business, science and combining these two disciplines to effectively solve real problems on a large scale. Since childhood, I have participated in competitions both in the field of science and the humanities, which is why I do not like to describe myself as a "humanist" oraz "scientific" mind. I develop my interests as the president of a students business organization in Warsaw and a member of a Medical and Pharmaceutical Law Scientific Circle.
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Eryka Klimowska

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