By Rattana Lao
Polish, Israeli and Thai diplomats, academics, and students gathered together to listen and learn about the courage of the 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 40 years 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. Towards the War (In what year), 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 million 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 to commemorate this historic event.
Understanding the complexity of the Holocaust has far reaching ramifications not only to those directly affected, but also to students and the public who miles apart and are far removed from it.
Firstly, learning about the Holocaust from multiple perspectives allows the human race to come to terms with its painful history with a greater compassion. Learning about war and its awful aggression should not and must not instill hatred, but rather 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, explained that one should not study the Holocaust as a singular event in history. It is not something that happened once and won't be repeated. Rather, it should be understood in relations to other genocidal events such as the Khmer Rouge, Darfur and Rwanda.
“While we should not downplay the unique characteristics of the Holocaust, students must learn that massive killings have occurred 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 the 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 SSSR, 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 !!”
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 beings, change, can take place even at times of aggression, suppression and extermination.
The Polish families in Markowa shed the beaming light of hope in times of darkness, the symbol of life at times of despair. Stories of these brave and courageous ordinary people reminds us that that there is hope for humanity even in the middle of war.
Talking about Poles saving Jews and Hitler's atrocities during the Second World War in Bangkok has specific significance both educationally and diplomatically.
Not so long ago, there were public debacles 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 the 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 which promotes rote learning, enforces obedience and offers single-minded nationalistic learning of history. The textbooks tell what the powerful 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 in a critical and creative way.
Anna Lawattanatrakul, a student from the Faculty of Arts at Chulalongkorn, reflected on her educational experience in a Thai school. “I was taught about the history of the Second World War simplistically, with an emphasis on memorization rather than understanding, and frankly I do not think it was enough.”
It is not enough.
Changing the Thai educational system will take a long time and changing public attitude will take even longer. Nevertheless, it does not mean we should not try. In fact, it is the role of a university to be the wind of change.
Dr. Verita Sriratana, Head of Central and Eastern European Studies at 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 towards the larger goal of educating Thai students and the public to break away from ignorance and understand the complexity of the world outside of Thailand.
All of these won't happen overnight but it has to begin somewhere.
The first step for Thai students is to receive the truth.
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