Jews have lived in Poland for one thousand years and until 1939 flourished on Polish soil. At the outbreak of World War II, more than three million Jews lived in Poland, ten percent of the general population. They were resented by Christian Poles. In the wake of growing nationalism which followed the First World War, Poles begun increasingly to mistrust and disparage the Jews and to perceive them as alien, infiltrators, as “foreign bodies.” Many Polish Jews clung to seemingly arcane customs, wore strange clothes, spoke a foreign language (Yiddish). At the same time, a sizeable minority had assimilated, and for some Poles this was a provocation (who do they think they are to assume Slavic names, move into our neighborhoods, take our jobs, marry our women?), especially to university students and professionals (doctors and lawyers) and to business owners who believed that Jews used unfair methods to get ahead of the competition. Antisemitic sentiment was whipped up by right wing Polish political parties to divert attention from the country’s economic woes and the shortcomings. Jews were portrayed as Communists, Soviet sympathizers, Germanophiles, unscrupulous swindlers, cowards, Christ-killers, arrivistes. Once the Second World War began, and since Poles of all religious faiths were being massacred, one might have expected a certain solidarity to prevail, which would make differences disappear. A common enemy usually does that. But there were complications. Poland had two enemies, two attackers, one on each front. Jews were accused of welcoming the Soviet army on the Eastern front, which was treason in the eyes of Polish Gentiles. Nationalist Poles resented the fact that some Polish Jews were prominent in the ranks of the Soviet occupation apparatus in eastern Poland between 1939 and 1941. Moreover, the segregation of Jews into ghettos on the Western front benefitted Christian Poles. Jewish homes and businesses stood empty and Jewish goods all but abandoned, — all these were there for the taking, — and Jewish competitors were out of the picture. With the Jews gone, life actually improved for some Poles, the most unscrupulous among them who saw in the new situation genuine economic opportunity.
It has been argued that Polish-Jewish relations in German-occupied Poland cannot be taken as a true portrayal of Polish attitudes toward Jews. Poles were not totally free agents during the War and the post-War period. Under German occupation, saving Jews meant risking one’s life and the life of one’s family. Under Soviet rule, Jews became scapegoats for what appeared to be the permanent dissolution of Poland as an independent nation. When they came, the Soviets liberated the surviving Jews from almost certain death, but they subjugated the Poles with iron fist. But when, during two summer months of 1944, the Warsaw Uprising took place, the Poles of Warsaw were temporarily free. A study of Polish attitudes during this brief period can cast a close-to-true light on the controversial issue of Polish anti-Semitism. This is what the book by Barbara Engelking and Dariusz Libionka attempts to describe.
Engelking is a professor of sociology and psychology and Head of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Holocaust Research Center and the co-author of one of the most authoritative book (written with Jacek Leociak) on the Warsaw Ghetto. Dariusz Libionka is a historian and editor of the Center’s scholarly journal Zaglada. Both have written extensively on the most painful aspects of Polish-Jewish relations. They have gathered the material for this book from archives in both Poland and in Israel. They have unearthed previously unknown facts from journals, memoirs, correspondence and other documents that survived the War. Their aim was to describe the extent of Jewish participation in the Warsaw Uprising, record obstacles to their admission into the ranks of the various fighting factions, gauge the safety of acknowledging one’s Jewish identity, and note incidents of bravery, or cowardice, of loyalty and deceit. The book discusses the hidden Jews who did not take part in the fighting but fought to survive in the city after the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto by using “Aryan” identity papers, that is if they spoke proper Polish and did not “look Jewish.” The book describes how some were murdered, — the exact number is hard to ascertain, — victims of robbers or of Polish resistance fighters who took them for spies or simply did so out of hatred for Jews. It also described blackmail, szmalcownictwo, and betrayal in the midst of heroism and sacrifice.
There is the famous affair of the Hotel Polski. Because the Germans declared that Jews from Warsaw with foreign passports of neutral countries could leave, Jewish organizations organized shipments to Warsaw of citizenship papers from various neutral countries (mostly forged). Since many of the people for whom the documents were initially meant had died by the time the papers arrived in Warsaw, Jewish collaborators, — yes, there were Jewish collaborators, — began to sell these documents to Jews hiding on the ‘Aryan’ side. Despite warnings by the Warsaw underground, about 2500 Jews abandoned their hiding places and gathered at the Hotel Polski in preparation for the journey out of the country. The South American governments whose stamp appeared on the forged documents refused, however, to honor them. In July 1943, 300 Jews living at the Hotel Polski were transferred to the Vittel camp and about 2,000 to Bergen-Belsen. The 420 Jews remaining in the Hotel were executed by the Germans at the infamous Pawiak prison.
The book gives the reader many such vignettes, some describing the same event in the same way and some showing very different perspectives on the same occurrence. Many are stories of heroic deeds on the Polish side and on the Jewish side. Many show solidarity, sympathy, and feelings of fellowship. Some are stories of duplicity.
After the 1942 deportations from the Warsaw ghetto, nearly a quarter of the ghetto’s remaining Jews managed to escape to the “Aryan” side. According to some estimates, as many as 28,000 who had neither escaped nor entered the ghetto in the first place, lived on the ‘Aryan’ side. Approximately 40% survived, which means that thousands of non-Jewish Varsovians helped them. Otherwise, such a large proportion could not have survived. Of course, this was true even as many of their neighbors behaved in far less honorable fashion or simply displayed indifference.
A major success in the early days of the Uprising was the liberation of the Gesiowka prison camp. After the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, the Germans had established a concentration camp on the burned out site of the former ghetto. Inmates included some ghetto survivors but were mostly Jewish workers imported from other countries. There were no gas chambers at Gesiowka, but conditions there were brutal and many perished during their incarceration. The Polish Home Army stormed the camp and freed the prisoners, liberating 348 people including 24 women. Eighty-nine were Polish Jews. The others were Greek, Romanian, Dutch and Hungarian. Most were then taken into the ranks of Polish fighting units, proof that the Home Army did not always keep Jews out. Subsequently most died in combat.
The Polish Home Army, the Armia Krajowa, (AK) was one of the two main military organizations of the Polish underground resistance. The other smaller organization was the Communist-oriented People’s Army, Armia Ludowa. There was also the right-wing National Armed Forces (NSZ), partly incorporated into the AK. The Home Army had between 250,000 and 350,000 members in 1944. Despite its reputation for not allowing entry to Jews, the Warsaw arm of the AK accepted some Jews during the Uprising, especially those who passed as ‘Aryans’ but including a few whose identity as Jews was known. Others fought with the Armia Ludowa.
Prior to the Uprising, the AK provided very limited support to the persecuted Jews of Poland. In February 1942, a Section for Jewish Affairs was started, which collected information about the fate of Polish Jews and sent reports to London. This section acted as the liaison between Polish and Jewish military organizations. The AK supported Żegota, the Council to Aid Jews. Half of the Jews who survived the war in Poland (about 50,000 managed to do so) owe their survival to Żegota. The best known Polish activist of Żegota was Irena Sendler, head of the children’s division, who saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto, providing them false documents, and sheltering them in individual and group children’s homes outside the Ghetto. During the Warsaw ghetto Uprising in 1943, the Warsaw branch of the AK provided ghetto fighters with a small number of firearms, ammunition, and explosives and distracted the Germans outside the ghetto walls by attacking sentry units. Though the AK did not actively recruit the surviving ghetto fighters, it is nevertheless believed that the total number of Jews who subsequently fought with the AK in the Warsaw Uprising was larger than the number who fought in the Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.
At the same time, one unit of the AK, under the command of a certain officer, Waclaw “Hal” Stykowski, murdered 10-15 Jews when they emerged from hiding during the Uprising (the Prosta Street murders). The Commander of the AK was reportedly outraged and ordered an immediate investigation that led to the arrest of one person and an arrest warrant for another. They were to be executed under martial law but one died in the fighting before he could be arrested and the fate of the other is unknown. Further investigations were suspended, but Stykowski’s men shot one of their own, the one who was supposedly responsible for the murders. The motives for the murders may have been robbery rather than antisemitism.
The AK was more anti-communist than antisemitic. During the Spring of 1940, the Soviets had shot thousands of Polish officers in Katyn forest, a fate my own father narrowly escaped by exchanging a gold watch for his freedom. He was an officer in the Polish army and was captured by the Russians in 1939. The fact of the Katyn massacre was unknown in Poland until the Germans exposed it in April 1943. Stalin used the revelation as a pretext to break diplomatic relations with Poland, a sign of things to come. The Polish Home Army realized that it had two tasks, — to resist the Germans, and to hold off the Russians. If the Russians did not recognize the legitimate Polish government then, what would it do after Germany was defeated? The Jews were fighting against the Germans; the Poles were fighting against both Germans and Russians, and many Christian Poles were afraid to put arms into the hands of Polish Jews who might side with the Soviets. But AK members’ attitudes towards Jews varied widely from unit to unit. Much of the antisemitic behavior reported in the book is attributable to the NSZ, the far right wing of the AK. In fact, some members of the AK were subsequently awarded medals as Polish Righteous among the Nations.
The authors stress that it is impossible to estimate accurately the number of Jews who participated in the Warsaw Uprising, and the figures vary widely from several hundred to several thousand. Most were killed in battle. It should be noted that a quarter of a million civilians were killed by the Germans following the Uprising. According to Engelking and Libionka, this figure includes several thousand Jews. The fighting took place while the Soviets watched from the opposite bank of the Vistula River while Warsaw was razed to the ground. The more Polish soldiers killed by the Germans, the better it suited the Soviets. When the Soviets finally entered the city, they were, understandably, hailed as saviors by the surviving Jews but feared with good cause by the remnants of the Polish Home Army.
Engelking and Libionka have succeeded in collecting many personal accounts and woven them together so that several, sometimes incompatible, perspectives can be viewed simultaneously. They have preserved the personal recollections of many of the combatants and many of the civilians, as well as their names and photographs. They have ferreted out many previously unpublished sources. Names and double (triple) identities are now indexed. All this extra material adds to the authenticity of the details provided, but the conclusions of book do not substantially change our understanding of Polish Christian and Polish Jewish relations during World War II.
Mary V. Seeman, Professor Emerita in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, was born in Lodz, Poland. She has published in the area of women’s mental health and psychosis, receiving numerous awards, including an honorary degree from the University of Toronto and appointment as Officer in the Order of Canada.