By Rattana Lao
Polish, Israeli and Thai diplomats, academics and students gathered together to listen and learn about the courage of Polish people saving the Jews during the Second World War.
Chulalongkorn University hosted “The Good Samaritans of Markowa” exhibition to honor the innocent and brave Polish families in Markowa who risked their lives saving the Jews from Nazi extermination. The event took place in Bangkok to celebrate the 40th year of lasting friendship between Poland and Thailand.
During the course of World War II, more than 50,000 Jews were saved by Polish people. Each Jewish survivor needed to change their shelter at least 7 times and required as many as 10 people to be involved in the process.
Irena Sandler, a Polish nurse, was one of the brave Poles who saved at least 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto. At the end of the War, 6,600 Polish people were awarded with the Israeli Righteous Amongst the Nation. However, not every brave Pole survived Nazi capture. Approximately, 1,000 to 2,000 Poles were executed as punishment to save the Jews.
The brutality of War took away more than 6 millions Jewish lives and has inflicted deep wounds to those who have survived. The Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II in Markowa is one of the Museums established to offer a place of solace and for those who are left behind to come to term with this atrocity.
Understanding the complexity of the Holocaust has far reaching ramification not only to those directly affected, but also to students and public who live world apart and far removed from it.
Firstly, learning about the Holocaust from multiple perspectives allows human race to come to term with painful history with greater compassion. Learning about war and its awful aggression should not and must not instill hatred, but rather to promote greater understanding across nations, races and religions.
Secondly, through better understanding, it is hoped that we can prevent such crime against humanity to ever take place. His Excellency Mr. Zenon Kuchciak, the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to Thailand, added to this: “These memories oblige us to act against the policies of religious hatred and racial prejudice.”
Religious hatred and racial prejudice are not problems of the past. They are still here and now. There are still many leaders and extremists who preach war and call for racial discrimination.
Professor Jolanta Zyndul, expert from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, however, reminded that one should not study the Holocaust as a singular event in history. Something that happened once and won’t be repeated. Rather, it should be read and learned in relations with other genocide such as Khmer Rouge, Darfur and Rwanda.
“While we should not downplay the unique characteristic of the Holocaust, students must learn that massive killing has happened in so many places around the world and they are closer to us than we realize,” Professor Zyndul added.
This strongly invites us to revisit and reaffirm often disregarded truths of the WWII, like those in words of prof. Anis Bajrektarevic: “while Jews where the preferred non-territorial target of Hitler’s Nazi policy, Slavic states of the East/Southeast were the prime territorial target. As many as 36 million nationals (mostly civilians) of the Europe’s Slavic states such as USSR, Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, (including their Jewish minority) have been killed by Germans and their servant fascists. Comparing it with the casualties of the Atlantic Europe at around 1 million, gives us a stunning proportion: 36 to 1 !!”
Despite all its might, forces of darkness were defeated and peace gradually prevailed.
The story of Poles – Nazi victims themselves, saving its Jewish minority empowers us all with the sense of courage and power of human sensitivity. Through the act of kindness toward fellow human being, change, a significant one, can take place even at time of aggression, suppression and extermination.
The Polish families in Markowa shed the beaming light of hope in time of darkness, the symbol of life at time of despair. Stories of these bravery and courageous ordinary people remind us that that there is hope for humanity even in the middle of war, World War.
Talking about Poles Saving Jews and Hitler’s atrocity during World War II in Bangkok has a context specific significance at a whole new level; educationally and diplomatically.
Not so long ago, there were public debacle about Thailand’s ignorance on the history of the Holocaust. A group of Thai students used the image of Hitler to signify heroism, while the Thai military government propaganda of 12 core values used Nazi symbol as a representation of democracy.
While the military’s ignorance is unacceptable and unexplainable, students’ mistake was perhaps the product of Thailand’s infamous educational system that promotes rote learning, enforces obedient and offers single-minded cum nationalistic learning of history. The textbooks tell what the powerful and authority wants students to read, and classroom pedagogy is top-down, lecture intensive and exam-driven. There is very little space for students to engage in any topic critically and creatively.
Anna Lawattanatrakul, a student from Faculty of Arts at Chulalongkorn, reflected on her educational experience in Thai school. “I was taught about the history of the Second World War simplistically, with an emphasis on memorization than understanding, and frankly I do not think it is enough.”
It is not enough.
Changing Thai educational system will take a long time and changing public attitude will take even longer. But that does not mean we should not try. In fact, it is the role of university to be the wind of change.
Dr. Verita Sriratana, Head of Central and Eastern European Studies Section, Chulalongkorn University, succinctly encapsulated this “the goal of an educational institution is to create a platform where knowledge, and in this case, the history of the Holocaust to be discussed from as many as different perspectives as possible.”
Historical sensitivity with cultural awareness is lacking in Thailand. This dialogue serves to fill that gap. It is a small step toward the larger goal of educating Thai students and public to break away from the small box of ignorance and understand the complexity of the world outside Thailand.
All of these won’t happen over night but it has to begin somewhere.
The first step for Thai students is to get the facts right.
Hitler is not a Hero and the Nazi is not a symbol of democracy.
Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and is currently teaching in Bangkok.