Adam Warzel, Address for Symposium “Why Poland? Facing the Demons of Polish- Jewish History”, Melbourne, 28 October 2012
“Why do you hate me, brother?”
A feeling of dislike that many Jews hold towards Poles may have various causes. One of the most common is what some describe as ignominious behaviour of Poles towards Jews during the Second World War. For many Poles this feeling of dislike is baffling, particularly in light of the fact that among those recognised by the Yad Vashem Institute for rescuing Jews during the war, Poles constitute by far the most numerous group. Poles like to see themselves in general as a nation which, unlike most of other countries of continental Europe, rejected collaboration with the German occupier and did not produce its Quisling. In this context, they find the attitude expressed by Jews unjust and difficult to comprehend.
This misreading of each others’ feelings, and general confusion about mutual relations during the war, is one of the more interesting present-day phenomena of political-social psychology and appears to have much to do with ignorance and a prolonged lack of access to proper historical documentation of this period. Jerzy Jedlicki, a Polish intellectual referring to the war-time relations between Poles and Jews remarked that:
“There is probably no other historical topic that would so strongly, despite the passage of time, touch the hidden string of moral sensitivity …..1/
For 45 years, between 1945 and 1989, Polish historians were effectively barred from venturing into this research territory. This resulted in the creation of a wide knowledge gap in relation to the subject of war-time Polish-Jewish relations.
In my brief presentation, I will focus on one such gap, namely the situation of Jews seeking shelter in war-torn Poland, particularly in the country-side, during the final phase of the Shoah. This subject is now, 20 years after the fall of communism, one of the key research areas of many Polish historians. In my presentation, I will refer to an outstanding book by Barbara Engelking, Director of Poland’s Centre for Research on the Holocaust, titled “It’s such a Beautiful, Sunny Day” which was published in Poland last year 2/. My presentation will primarily explore the Jewish experience and it is the feelings and emotions experienced by Jews that I am interested in. Due to time constraints, I will not be exploring other aspects of the complex history of Polish-Jewish relations during the pre and post-war period.
The Holocaust in Poland consisted of three phases: first – exclusion and ghetto building; second – mass extermination; and the third and final one- hunting for the remaining Jews. While the Poles had a minimal role in the first two phases, the historians are generally in agreement that it is in the third phase, known in German as “Jugenjagd”, that Poles had more than just a token role. I will mainly focus my presentation on this third stage.
A Jew wandering around the Polish country-side seeking shelter, was hopelessly alone in both physical and existential terms. The vicious anti- Jewish propaganda which the Germans unleashed in Poland, likening Jews to vermin that needed to be eradicated, was not without its effect on the morale of the Polish population which, apart from some noble examples, were either afraid of or unwilling to offer help. Germans introduced a system of awards, in the form of food and sometimes clothes, for betraying Jews, which was particularly vile given the degree of hunger and destitution of the Polish society. The brutalisation of daily life in Poland and the frequent exposure of Poles to scenes of denigration and killings of Jews, further strengthened this attitude. The separation between both peoples resulting from the establishment of ghetto walls lengthened the psychological distance between Poles and Jews. In the words of the Polish-Jewish author, Michal Borwicz, this led to the situation in which the attitude towards Jews ceased to be that of one people toward another, and became that of one people toward an abstraction. In consequence, large sections of the Polish society became effectively numb to the fate of Jews despite the fact that they themselves experienced significant deprivation and were subjected to all sorts of repressions from the German occupiers, including mass executions. This situation was further exacerbated by information filtering through from the Soviet-occupied eastern areas of Poland about the apparent sympathetic attitude of Jews towards the Soviet authorities. The above factors contributed significantly to a rise of anti-Semitism within Polish society in the early 40s. In his radiogram to the Prime Minister of the Polish Government in Exile, the Chief Commander of the Polish Armed Resistance Structures, General Stefan Grot-Rowecki, reported in September 1941 “ Please accept as an absolute fact that the country’s attitude is overwhelmingly anti-Semitic” 3/.
This attitude found its most pronounced expression in statements made by one of the bigger underground military organisations, NSZ, “National Armed Forces”. In a leaflet published in 1942, NSZ stated: “One should condemn those who want to hide Jews among themselves and declare them traitors of the Polish cause. As every Pole knows, in the re-born Poland there won’t be place for either the German or the Jew” 4/.
Hearing stories of betrayal and antisemitic sentiments of the Polish society, Jews felt completely helpless, isolated and deeply frightened about whether they could leave their lives in the hands of their Polish brethren, who in most instances were their only hope for survival. Engelking calls the environment surrounding Jews seeking shelter during this final stage of the Shoah, as ”a human desert” and the Jews knocking on the Polish doors as “infected with death”.
A Jew wandering around the Polish country-side seeking help, encountered a whole range of reactions from Polish peasants. I would like to quote from Engelking’s book the account of Irena Bokowska who together with another Jewish person escaped from the train to Treblinka:
“The first peasant we met, looked at us and said only “God Be with You” and quickly passed by. We then went down the edge of the forest to the first cottage. I wanted to check my face, so I entered the cottage alone and said freely – can you sell me some milk? The peasant replied: “I don’t have milk, I’ll give you coffee and then you should run away because you’ll be found, as you are now half a kilometre from Treblinka”. So I checked my face. He gave us coffee and advised to go to Kosow Lacki….While there, we met another peasant, who said that there were Ukrainians around and that they would kill us. He proposed that we come to his place and in the evening he would take us to the station from where we’ll take train to Warsaw. We went to him. I washed myself and ate bread with coffee. Then he asked whether we had money. I asked ‘how much?’ 700 zloty per person – he said. He explained to me that he did not have a horse and would have to hire a wagon which cost money…I paid for the bread and coffee and off we went. After 4km he stopped the wagon and said “the game is up you filthy Jew, give me what you have” He searched me thoroughly. The Germans knew how to search, but he did it even better. I had some money sown into my belt – he took it. I had my head covered with wool sweater, he took it too. I asked him, crying, to give me back at least 50zl because I had nothing and had to buy tickets. Finally, he gave me back 20 zl. He also showed me the way to the train station and said that the train to Warsaw would depart at 6am” 5/.
As you see, the reactions demonstrated by Polish peasants varied from support and pity, to deceit and plunder, which according to Engelking, represented fairly common elements of relations between Poles and Jews seeking help.
A completely different reaction to Jews seeking help was to inform on them to the German gendarmerie or gestapo, which in reality meant sentencing them to a certain death. A Melbourne-based holocaust survivor, the late William Dunwill, in his excellent autobiography “Three colors of my Life” captured this attitude towards Jews, while describing attempts to escape from the Siedlce Ghetto in 1942: “Some people, not being able to put up with the situation, tried to escape from the ghetto by various routes. Unfortunately many of them were herded back to the ghetto’s gate by the Gestapo in early hours of the morning…Many of them were dobbed in by Polish informers, who were hunting for the hiding Jews” 6/.
But some Poles went a step further, resorting to murdering Jews themselves. These incidents are not unknown as many of the perpetrators were tried and sentenced in Poland after the war, although the extent of this phenomenon had not been analysed by Polish historians until recently. I would like to present two brief accounts depicting betrayal and the killing of Jews seeking shelter:
“In June 1943, school friends of Jankiel Kopiec from Koprzywnica attacked a group of 8 persons from Kopiec’s family, including his brothers, hiding at the place of a peasant from kolonia Piaseczno, near Sandomierz. They robbed them of everything and even took the shoes off the little one, then took them to the forest…In the forest they tossed a coin to see who would execute them. Knowing that my brother and I were alive, none of them wanted to commit the murder, fearing reprisal. Finally, they decided to take all the victims to gendarmerie… On the way my brother tried to escape, the guard caught him, took the fence picket and beat him up until he lost consciousness. Then he called for a few peasants who dragged my brother to the wagon, tied him up and gave him to the gendarmerie. The next day I received the news that all were shot dead at the Jewish cemetery” 7/.
And another story:
A forestry official, Janinas Wycech and his assistant Kosiak, discovered a dugout in the forest, where a barrister from Bransk of unknown name and his pregnant wife were hiding. The men shot dead the barrister but because they had run out of bullets, they sent someone to the forestry office for two bullets. When the bullets were delivered “Kosiak…gave one shot to the sitting Jewess from 15-20 m distance but missed. Then he passed the rifle to Janusz Wycech who also shot at her but also missed, perhaps because both were drunk. As they did not have any more bullets they took her on the wagon and rode to an earlier prepared burrow…After throwing her into the burrow they started covering her up with sand while she was trying to wipe it off her face with hand” 8/.
How widespread were such incidents as those described above? According to Barbara Engelking, if we assume that 250,000 Polish Jews were seeking hiding and only between 30,000 to 60,000 survived the war, it means that during the third and final phase of the Shoah, approx. 175,000 to 210,000 Jews perished. It is, however, impossible to establish how many of them were killed by the Germans, how many died from exhaustion, hunger and illnesses and how many were betrayed or even killed by the Poles themselves. In preparation for her book, Engelking identified 511 incidents in which 1559 Jews were dobbed in to the Germans, and 281 murder cases in which 1015 Jews were killed, giving the total number of Jewish deaths caused by actions undertaken by Poles to 2574. These numbers, however, are by no means complete and further analysis of all the available sources is still needed.
That these incidents were not, however, uncommon is confirmed by another Polish researcher, Elzbieta Raczy, who estimates that only in the Rzeszow region, the incidents of dobbing in of hiding Jews took place in 110 places 9/. Immediately after the war, there were 60 trials, conducted in the Bialystok and Podlasie region in relation to crimes committed by the Poles on Jews, as a result of which 27 persons were sentenced. The entrenched pattern of virulent anti-semitism was particularly evident in the Lomza region where pogroms were carried out in 14 places (including in Jedwabne) 10/.
In light of the above facts, it is not difficult to see why so many Jews, who survived the war, no longer wanted to live in Poland and why anti-Polish sentiments were, or perhaps still are, so prevalent among Jews. However, it is important that we allow for more nuance in our analysis at this point. As stated before, what most Poles find so baffling and disappointing, is why many Jews who survived the war in Poland, which in most cases meant relying on the support and help of their Polish compatriots, maintain anti-Polish resentments. In analysing this phenomenon, Engelking refers to the so called positive- negative asymmetry, a psychological concept according to which people treat differently positive and negative experiences. While many positive experiences may outweigh one negative experience, when the number of positive and negative experiences equals, the negative ones dominate over the positive ones. This syndrome, which is well in-grained in the human psyche, has developed through the process of adaptive-evolution which gives human beings extra sensitivity to threats thus enhancing their ability to survive. Its relevance to the topic of this presentation is this: Jews who survived the war in Poland, where they had to rely on Polish help, usually had mixed experiences in dealing with Poles. Living in hiding, they were constantly exposed to mortal danger stemming from the ubiquitous presence of Germans, but were also afraid of nosy Polish neighbours. They could never be sure whether their helpers could be fully relied on to provide ongoing support. The Polish side also lived in fear as the penalty for helping Jews was death – for them and their families. This resulted in creating an unpredictable environment around those seeking rescue, often necessitating the frequent changing of hiding places. This left a deep scar on the Jewish psyche, a memory of a never-ending, extremely arduous and harrowing experience which could not have been blotted out even by positive experiences with their Polish neighbours. An experience of good does not blot out an experience of evil. Help does not balance out grievance.
But in analysing the resentment which Jews felt towards Poles, we should not ignore two other factors. The German Nazi machine sentenced Jews for annihilation. The Poles were assigned the role of observers in this process. Some, despite severe reprisals, offered help. Most did not. Jews, perhaps reluctantly, understood that. But there were also those Poles who betrayed Jews, even if they were not directly forced to do it by the German occupiers. This had a powerful impact on Jews and their memory of Poles. This betrayal, according to Barbara Engelking, severed a feeling of belonging to the same community – civic, social, brotherly and human and was the ultimate manifestation of what she calls “the human desert”. Let me quote from a war journal of Aleksandra Solowiejczyk-Guter: “ ‘You see, Zygmunt’, said Luka one day, it’s funny but in the ghetto I feared Germans more, here on the outside I fear only Poles. Because German will not recognise me on the street, because German will not figure out that here, in the attic, live two people not yet killed off….Ok, argues Zygmunt, but Poles as such are not dangerous for you, only those who can betray you to the Germans. – Yes, but German is my enemy but Pole is my co-brother” 11/.
And a final observation, Jews who survived the war in Poland must have had Polish friends, an Aryan look, a flawless command of Polish and a familiarity with Polish customs and culture. Only those could survive in hiding. A majority of Jews seeking rescue during this third phase of the Shoah were either assimilated or reasonably well integrated and often identified themselves strongly with Polishness. These were the people who survived the war but these were also the people who experienced disappointment from their Polish compatriots, particularly at the most immediate, personal level. They considered Poland their homeland and expected that they would be treated no differently to their non-Jewish brethren. But the homeland did not always respond to their cry for help. For them this disappointment became a deep emotional wound which did not want to heal and in many instances never healed.
1/. Jerzy Jedlicki, Jak sie z tym uporac?, „Polityka”, 10/2/2001, no 6
2/. Barbara Engelking, „Jest Taki Piekny Sloneczny Dzien”, Stowarzyszenie Centrum Badan nad Zaglada Zydow, Warszawa, 2011
3/. „Memory, The History of Polish Jews Before, During and After the Holocaust”, Ed. Feliks Tych, Shalom Foundation, Warsaw 2008, p.165
4/. Alina Skibinska, “Powroty ocalalych i stosunek do nich spoleczenstwa polskiego” in “Nastepstwa Zaglady Zydow. Polska 1944 – 2010”, Wyd. Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Sklodowskiej, Zydowski Instytut Historyczny, Lublin 2011, p67
5/ Engelking, p47
6/. William Dunwill, Three Colours of My Life, Warszawa 2000, p.86
7/ Engelking, p.164
8/ Engelking p.235
9/ Engelking p.258-259
11/ Engelking p. 132