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Poles and Jews: An Exchange

In response to:

The Survivor's Voice from the November 20, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Hanna Krall’s Shielding the Flame and of the Czas interview with Dr. Marek Edelman [NYR, November 20, 1986], Professor Davies puts forward a bizarre version of Polish-Jewish relations before and during World War II. The “professors of anti-Semitic studies, whose courses proliferate on American campuses,” he says (what courses? what professors?) have got it all wrong. Before the war, anti-Semitism in Poland was something of a fringe phenomenon: “The great mass of Poles and Jews…wanted nothing more than to live together in peace in the land of their birth.” Unhappily, this commendable desire was opposed by their respective “zealots” and “right-wing extremists”—the National Democrats and the Falanga on the Polish side, the followers of Jabotinsky and Begin on the Jewish side. The only Jewish party that fought the extremists (Davies’s variant of the “good Jews”) was the Bund, which cooperated closely with the Polish Socialist Party (PPS); all others (above all “the Zionists”) were steeped in “nationalism” and “chauvinism.” In 1939 things took a nasty turn, what with “many” Jews siding with the “Soviet invaders,” thus confirming in Polish eyes the “rooted Jewish hostility to the Polish cause.” During the war, the Jews and the Poles, “common victims of the Nazis,” regarded each other with “mistrust.” When the killings were over, “Begin’s group” achieved power, but the Bund was not so lucky, since its “entire constituency was destroyed by the Holocaust.” However, it’s good to have Dr. Edelman to set the record straight.

Professor Davies’s version is sustained neither by the evidence (which he mangles and distorts), nor by logical argument. As someone who comes from a Bundist background, and has written about the Bund; as someone, too, who knows and admires Marek Edelman, I naturally welcome Davies’s tribute to a remarkable movement and to one of its remarkable survivors. But I can assure him that the Bund, while subscribing to the orthodox Marxist notion that “anti-Semitism can be defeated only and exclusively by the abolition of the capitalist system” (Wiktor Alter, O Zydach i Antysemityzmie, Warsaw, 1936, p. 18), never underestimated its virulence and its magnitude. The Bund did cooperate with the PPS, but this cooperation was sorely tested in the 1930s by the rising tide of anti-Jewish bigotry within the ranks of the PPS, as leaders of both parties openly acknowledged (see J. Zarnowski, Polska Partia Socjalistyczna w latach 1935–1939, Warsaw, 1965, p. 245). Nor did the Bund, for all its detestation of the Revisionists and the Betar (a loathing shared by other, Zionist, parties), equate them with the cutthroats of the ONR and the Falanga, as does Davies. The Betar did take on some fascist characteristics, such as unabashed militarism and the cult of the leader. But neither the Betar nor the Revisionists ever preached racial hatred, or organized armed bands (bojówkas) to beat up Polish students, or incited Jews to reach for the axe and split Polish heads.

To prove Edelman’s lack of “rancor,” and to illustrate the ostensible symmetry between Polish and Jewish “extremists,” Davies resorts to outright textual falsification. Not only that, he misses the irony. To cite two examples:

Davies: “He [Edelman] calls the Poles ‘a tolerant people.”’

Edelman: “The Polish people, as you well know, is a tolerant people. Nothing bad has ever happened here to national minorities…. Casimir the Great [a Polish fourteenth-century king] welcomed the Jews, became fond of them, and loves them to this day. And that’s the long and the short of it.”

(Czas, December 1985, p. 36)

And:

Davies: “When [Edelman] talks of a beating he took before the war on Nowy Swiat in Warsaw at the hands of an ONR gang, he mentions that gentiles who strayed into the Jewish quarter could also risk a beating.”

Poppycock. Edelman does not speak of “gentiles,” but specifically of the ONR-Falanga gangs which were afraid to stray into a specific area (Plac Handlowy) lest they get a thrashing from the rugged Jewish porters who worked there (Czas, p. 29). In other words, one group attacked defenseless Jews, and the other would beat up the attackers. Some symmetry! Incidentally, Edelman speaks wistfully of those stevedores “who were no more after the war.” As well he might, since it was one of the Bund’s proudest achievements to enlist them into its “self-defense” units, organized for the purpose of protecting innocent Jews not from innocent Jews not from innocent gentiles, but from anti-Semitic thugs.

The same contempt for the elementary tools of historical scholarship marks Davies’s treatment of the war period. He refers to the collaboration of “many” Jews with the invading Soviet forces in organizing “mass deportations to the gulag” as a reason for the “widespread Polish anti-Semitism in the Nazi-occupied zone between 1941 and 1944.” Note, first, the logic: We are asked to believe that “the great mass of Poles,” hitherto untouched by anti-Semitism, now became infected with it just because “many” Jews cooperated with the Soviet forces in 1939; and we are also asked to believe that the “great mass of Jews,” who hitherto “wanted to live in peace” with their neighbors, had actually all the time harbored a “rooted…hostility to the Polish cause.” Then note Davies’s evidence (or lack of it): Exactly how many Jews collaborated with the Soviets? How large a percentage of the Jewish population in the eastern parts of Poland did they represent? Was it really only the Jews (as he suggests) who collaborated? How many Poles did—and for that matter Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Lithuanians? And how many Jews were deported to the gulag? None of this is of the slightest concern to Professor Davies, who seems to be more interested in tarring the Jews with the brush of either pro-communism or anti-Polishness than in getting his facts straight.

A few words about Davies’s equation of Jewish and Polish “mistrust” during the German occupation. The sad fact is that the Jews didn’t mistrust the Poles: they were, by and large, afraid of them (even though many Poles risked their lives to help Jews). The Poles didn’t “mistrust” the Jews: they were, by and large, indifferent if not hostile to them. It was this hostility that the Home Army reported on—and not, as Davies would have it, “the deteriorating moods” on both sides. (See The Jews of Warsaw, 1939–1943, by Yisrael Gutman, Bloomington, Indiana, 1982, p. 252.) And it was this hostility, too, that Edelman, in his Czas interview, ascribes to the Home Army as a whole (p. 33). He joined the People’s Army not, as Davies suggests, because of his “Bundist upbringing,” but because the Home Army was suffused with anti-Semitism, and the People’s Army was not. Edelman does indeed speak with “fierce honesty,” but the kind of spurious “evenhandedness” attributed to him by Davies is altogether foreign to him.

In conclusion, I suggest that Professor Davies would be well advised, next time he wishes to settle his private scores with either some (unnamed) “American professors” or (it would seem) with Claude Lanzmann, not to invoke the authority of either Dr. Edelman or the Bund. Neither has ever been an apologist for anti-Semitism; neither, in striving for “a future where ethnic divisions would not matter” (Davies, p. 21), ever deliberately ignored or obfuscated reality. In addition, the Bund, almost fanatically committed to maintaining its ideological purity, vastly preferred open enemies to counterfeit friends.

Abraham Brumberg

Chevy Chase, Maryland

Norman Davies replies:

Abraham Brumberg’s rather desperate letter well illustrates an important part of the prejudices that continue to obstruct any sensible discussion of Polish–Jewish history. His intemperate reaction to a few ideas floated in my review, “A Survivor’s Voice,” about Marek Edelman is hardly conducive to a fruitful exchange of views. Perhaps he is rattled because the argument has at last stumbled onto the right track.

It is revealing, I think, that my appeal for fairness and balance should be dismissed as “bizarre.” That says a lot about Mr. Brumberg’s own position. If fairness and balance are to be judged bizarre, it follows that the conventional view of Polish–Jewish affairs, as propagated in America by people of Mr. Brumberg’s persuasion, must be suspected of being unfair and unbalanced. Which I believe it to be.

And to be clear, I was not appealing for some sort of phony balance of sympathies as between the Nazis and the Nazis’ victims. I was calling for an evenhanded approach to all the victims of the Second World War in Eastern Europe, and for an end to the practice of discussing the subject exclusively in ethnic categories. I know only too well that anyone who dissents from the conventional view has to risk being branded as an apologist for Heinrich Himmler. But it is in no sense demeaning to the unique case of the five to six million Jews murdered by the Nazis in 1939–1945 for various aspects of their fate to be examined within the framework of the twenty to thirty million other human beings who lost their lives in Eastern Europe at the same time.

On Polish–Jewish questions, my position is straightforward. I think that they can best be understood by taking a critical stance toward the claims of both interested parties, and by treating the problems of prewar Poland’s divided society in terms of the mutual experiences and mutual antagonisms of both sides. I see no virtue in limiting oneself to the recriminations of one side against the other. As a result, I must resign myself to being denounced as “anti-Polish” by the zealots of the Polish camp, and as a distorter and falsifier of the truth by their counterparts in Mr. Brumberg’s camp. They can’t both be right. Generally speaking, though I can make mistakes like anyone else, I feel cheerfully confident that my attempts at impartiality are well justified.

In that regard, I am happy to subscribe to a sentiment concisely expressed by Adam Michnik in his Letters from Prison. “When bombast replaces reflection,” he writes, “and accusations of anti-Semitism abound,…one should remember that common sense is not the same as philo-Semitism. Poignant declarations against anti-Semitism can be no substitute for sober analyses of the roots of this frightening illness. The cause does not lie only in the faults of the Polish people. It is also necessary to recognize negative phenomena on the Jewish side as well.” No doubt, Michnik’s fairness will be classed in some circles as self-hatred; but it is no less fair for that, and it is a pity that this fine quotation was editorially excised from my recent review of his book.1

As for Mr Brumberg’s attempt to discredit my piece on Edelman, the careful reader will see immediately that his précis of my alleged views is packed with assertions that were never made. Where, for example, did he find the idea that “anti-Semitism in Poland was something of a fringe phenomenon”? Not in my review. Where did he find the contention that “all Jewish parties” other than the Bund “were steeped in nationalism and chauvinism”? Not in my review. Where did he find the quotation that the professors of anti-Semitic studies “got it all wrong”? Not in my review. Yet Mr. Brumberg complains that the evidence is being “mangled” and “distorted.”

On the other hand, several statements which I did make, and which Mr. Brumberg tries to dismiss with contempt, are at least worthy of discussion. Yes, Mr. Brumberg, it is arguable that “the great mass of Poles and Jews…wanted nothing more than to live together in peace in the land of their birth.” Yes, it is perfectly accurate to talk of zealots and extremists on both sides. Yes, it is entirely reasonable to describe both Poles and Jews as “common victims of the Nazis.” What possible motive could there be in denying such things? Surely Mr. Brumberg does not advocate selective compassion, where his own people would enjoy a monopoly of our sympathies, and all the other peoples would be deprived of pity and understanding.

Mr. Brumberg raises the accusation of “symmetry,” and symmetry implies exact equivalence. This is an exaggeration. Nowhere, for instance, do I state that the Polish and Jewish experiences are identical. Nor do I “equate” the Polish Falanga with the Jewish Revisionists in any precise way, although one might maintain in that case that the similarities were greater than the differences. All I am pointing to is the fact that there were, and are, two sides to Polish–Jewish antipathies. Also, one must try to relate the political currents of Polish Jewry to the general trends of the day, and not to pretend that the Jews were somehow exempt from the full range of political attitudes and opinions which affected all other groups.

With regard to Menachem Begin and his associates, Mr. Brumberg volunteers the information that “the Betar did take on some fascist characteristics.” Personally, I chose to be slightly less dogmatic, confining myself to a viewpoint from the Encyclopaedia Judaica, which reports that the Betar groups were called “fascists” by their opponents in the Bund. Again, one could debate the details, but I doubt whether everyone will follow Mr. Brumberg’s logic (or his grammar) when he charges Begin’s faction on one line with “unabashed militarism” and then promptly denies that they “ever preached…or organized armed bands…to beat up Polish students.” (Who said anything about Polish students?) We must regret that the activities of the Beginites in Poland are not so well known as their later exploits with the Irgun in Palestine (where Begin quit the Polish Army that had rescued him from Russia), or in Israel’s occupied territories. But equally we cannot pretend that they came from another planet, or that their distinctive political profile should not be related to the numerous other ultra-nationalist groupings of prewar Poland, where their views were first formed. I see no reason why Jewish fascists and semifascists should not be classified with all other representatives of East European right-radicalism of the 1930s, just as one would classify Jewish socialists with Polish, Russian, or German socialists, or Jewish religious conservatives with other religious conservatives, or Jewish stamp collectors with other stamp collectors.

Mr. Brumberg was clearly upset by a string of teasing quotations from Edelman, among them the one about the Poles being “a tolerant people.” He calls this “outright textual falsification.” Actually, the quotation turns out to be pretty accurate. What Edelman said was: “The Polish people, as you well know, is a tolerant people.” But Brumberg claims that Edelman was being ironic, and that one has to read his words with a pinch of salt. Well, that is quite possible. All I ask is that Davies, too, be allowed to be ironic once in a while, and that his words, too, be read with a pinch of comprehension. I did not elaborate on the quotation, nor indicate that it represented either my own or Edelman’s final verdict on the subject. It was put forward in the spirit of what I mentioned later on, namely Edelman’s habit of “never saying what is expected of him.”

However, since Mr. Brumberg chooses to make an issue of it, I would refer him to my God’s Playground: A History of Poland2 where there is an extensive discussion of Polish toleration. There he will find my considered opinion that “toleration did prevail in Poland” even though “the spirit of tolerance was as rare a virtue as elsewhere” (Volume I, p. 199). Of course, these comments were directed mainly at the earlier centuries, just as Edelman’s were. That is why Mr. Brumberg and his ancestors found themselves being tolerated in Poland, and not in some less Godforsaken country. That is why three quarters of the Jews in the world today can trace their origins to the old Polish Commonwealth. Later on, it is no secret that the stresses of Poland’s unhappy history heightened religious fanaticism and racial bigotry. All of Poland’s ethnic communities, including the Jews, were affected by it. What is surprising, perhaps, is that the perpetrators of large-scale violence should not have come from Poland, where the Jews were most numerous, but from Germany and Russia. As the British ambassador in Warsaw wrote in 1920, in a bid to stem the latest wave of inflated stories about pogroms in Poland, “It is of very little service to the Jews to single out for criticism and retribution the one country where they have probably suffered least.” Certainly, the quarrels between Poles and Jews bear little relation to the murderous campaigns conducted at various times by their neighbors.

On the question of the rugged Jewish stevedores on the Plac Handlowy in Warsaw, and the Bundist “self-defense units,” I am happy to accept Mr. Brumberg’s correction. It was my mistake. Edelman was indeed talking about the street gangs of the ONR-Falanga, not about gentiles in general, and the fact that in some parts of Warsaw they could expect spirited resistance. Of course, I suspect that the ONR-Falanga was largely composed of gentiles; but I should have made it clear that they were not representative of the gentile population as a whole. I should also underline that my personal sympathies in that particular quarrel lie strongly with the Jewish stevedores. What is interesting, though, is Mr. Brumberg’s unwitting confirmation of a political scene in prewar Poland where the Jewish parties were free to organize their own “self-defense units,” and to defend their people from attack. Both the Zionists and the Bundists availed themselves of this freedom, as did the Polish Socialists. One might argue that the government of Poland was unwise to acquiesce in such developments. A more intolerant regime would have crushed them without mercy. But one can’t help comparing the latitude granted the Jewish minority in prewar Poland with the policy of certain regimes in the postwar world, which, if an ethnic minority ever tries to organize its young people into a “self-defense unit,” do not hesitate to arrest them as “terrorists,” or to detain them indefinitely in the interests of “state security.”

It really is rather tedious to see, whenever Mr. Brumberg is describing these Polish–Jewish disputes, that he always and exclusively accuses the other side of intolerance and hatred. There were strains between the Polish Socialist Party and the Bund. (No one said anything to the contrary.) Mr. Brumberg’s comment: “Cooperation was sorely tested…by the rising tide of anti-Jewish bigotry within the ranks of the PPS.” (No one doubted it.) But is it not also conceivable that comradely relations were undermined by just a soupçon of anti-Polish bias in the Bund, as left-wing critics maintain, especially if the likes of Mr. Brumberg were involved?

The same goes for the wartime Home Army (AK), which Mr. Brumberg wants us to believe “was suffused with anti-Semitism.” This statement is quite moderate for him, since he usually tries to press the notion that the AK refused to admit any Jews at all. (For example, The New York Times Book Review, October 19, 1986, p. 11.) In fact, there were Jews at all levels in the AK, among them the late and lamented Pawel Jasienica (Leon Bejnar), and Marceli Handelsman, both distinguished historians, Henryk Wolinski, whom Edelman talks about at some length, Jerzy Makowiecki, and many others. Recently, Mr. Brumberg has changed his tune, complaining instead that Jews in the AK were not allowed to serve “as Jews.” In other words, the Polish Home Army adopted the same policy as the US Army, or the British Army (except for the Jewish Legion in Palestine).

Not surprisingly, Mr. Brumberg misreads Edelman’s account of why in 1944 he joined the communist-led People’s Army (AL) rather than the main underground army, the AK. Edelman writes quite plainly that the local AK unit in his particular district of Warsaw happened to be in the hands of the ONR, “pure Falanga.” Brumberg inflates that one local situation into Edelman ascribing the attitudes of that one small faction to the Home Army as a whole.

Mr. Brumberg is wrong, too, in giving an unconditional bill of non–anti-Semitic health to the People’s Army. One never knows, but it is not altogether certain that some who argue as Mr. Brumberg does would still be around to treat us to their unwarranted generalizations if, in the Polish backwoods of 1944–1945, they had thrown themselves on the mercy of General Moczar.

At which point, one must begin to wonder whether the real culprit is not the concept of anti-Semitism itself. Mr. Brumberg’s frantic efforts to pin the anti-Semitic label onto all manner of Polish individuals and organization—with occasional gestures toward the exceptional “good Pole” or righteous gentile, to prove his rule—can only serve to emphasize the crudity of his favorite weapon. One must seriously inquire whether the concept of anti-Semitism is adequate to the task of defining and explaining the historic conflict of two nations. For one thing, the word “anti-Semitism” appears to be infinitely elastic, being applied to everything from the advocacy of genocide to a dislike for bagels. Nowadays in America, it is widely used to condemn any criticism of Jews, or of the Jewish state, Israel, irrespective of the merits of such criticism. Furthermore, like all its dialectical counterparts, such as “anti-Sovietism,” it can easily be used to smear all expression of dissenting opinion, since any protesters to the smear can automatically be tagged with the same lousy label.

Worst of all, when applied to complex international or intercommunal relationships, it assumes from the start that the main source of any antagonisms where Jews are involved must lie with the Jews’ opponents. In the nature of things, anti-Semitism cannot be invoked to explore the attitude and conduct of the Semites, nor to consider the happier aspects of the Semites’ relations with their neighbors. When applied to the history of Poles and Jews, it cannot do other than suggest firstly that there are no redeeming features to the tale, and secondly that the Poles are to blame for all the misery.

Anti-Semitism, therefore, looks to be a sadly blunt and one-sided tool, capable of probing only one side of multidimensional problems. It is as though one were asked to write the history of Ireland armed solely with the concept of “anti-Protestantism,” or to analyze Moslem–Hindu relations in India on the sole basis of “anti-Islamism,” or to expound on Russo-American relations on the sole basis of the “anti-Americanism” of the Russians. No one in his right mind would deny that an irrational hatred of Jews has been a recurrent and deplorable ingredient of Poland’s many social and political conflicts. But that ingredient is but one item in a far more complicated and unsavory menu. Another ingredient is the irrational hatred of some Jews for Poles.

Mr. Brumberg’s reaction to a couple of sentences about Jewish collaboration with the Soviet invaders of eastern Poland in 1939–1941 is puzzling. If I had actually written even half of the things which he so eagerly demolishes, he might have had a point. But I didn’t, and he hasn’t. Only a fertile imagination would quote me as saying that prior to 1939 the Poles were “untouched by anti-Semitism.” Only a contortionist could bend my words to mean that the sole reason for Polish hostility to the Jews lay with the Soviet deportations. Only Mr. Brumberg could read into my remarks such farfetched suggestions as that “only Jews” collaborated, or that the deportees to the gulag did not include Jews. What I wrote, and can now confirm, amounts to this: firstly, that among the collaborators who came forward to assist the Soviet security forces in dispatching huge numbers of innocent men, women, and children to distant exile and probable death, there was a disproportionate number of Jews; and secondly, that news of the circumstances surrounding the deportations helped to sour Polish–Jewish relations in other parts of occupied Poland.

I might have added, for Mr. Brumberg’s comfort, that the majority of Polish Jews (like the great majority of Poles, Byelorussians, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians) did not sympathize with Russian communism, did not welcome the Soviet invasion, and did not collaborate with the deportations. As reported in God’s Playground, there were an estimated 100,000 Jewish victims among the estimated 1.5 million Polish citizens deported to the depths of Russia and Central Asia in 1939–1941.3 None of which alters the original contention. Among those persons, who to their discredit did collaborate, there were “many Jews.”

Unfortunately, while exposing my alleged “contempt for the elementary tools of historical scholarship,” Mr. Brumberg gives the distinct impression of knowing and respecting the historical sources. One should not take it for granted. As an eyewitness to the events in eastern Poland in 1939–1941, he has reported that the charge of Jewish collaboration is “particularly obnoxious” and that the collaborators only included “small groups of procommunist sympathizers” (NYR, June 2, 1983). Regrettably, without disparaging either his memory or his eyesight, one has to report that almost all other witnesses disagree with him. Thousands of survivors now in the West, and scores of published memoirs tell a different story. Among the informers and collaborators, as in the personnel of the Soviet security police at the time, the high percentage of Jews was striking. One could check the following accounts: Jan and Irena Gross (1983) (see below), Anatoli Krakowiecki (1950), Alexander Blum (1980), Alexander Wat (1977), Klara Mirska (1980), Ola Watowa (1984), Marek Celt (1986), or the collective work, Moje zderzenie z bolszewikami we wrzesniu 1939r (“My Clash with the Bolsheviks in September 1939”),4 and very many more.

These reports about the conduct of Jews do not necessarily make pleasant reading, especially when one reflects on the appalling fate of those same Jewish communities following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet-occupied zone in June 1941. But one should not for that reason discount them, or try to read history backward.

Mr. Brumberg is fond of quoting a Home Army Report of September 1941, signed by the commanding office of the AK, General Grot-Rowecki, and containing the famous sentence, “Please accept it as an established fact that the overwhelming majority of people in the country are anti-Semitically disposed” (Przygniatajaca wiekszosć kraju jest nastawiona antysemicko).5 Mistranslated by Mr. Brumberg,6 the quotation takes on a new slant, and might seem to imply either that Polish attitudes were based on fixed prejudice, or even that the Poles approved of the Nazis’ genocidal policies. Significantly, and very conveniently, Mr. Brumberg keeps quiet about the second half of the quotation. The original text of the report, in describing the factors influencing Polish opinion at the time, goes on to say three things: firstly, that virtually nobody approved of German actions; secondly, that Nazi persecution of the Jews was causing a backlash of sympathy; and thirdly, that pro-Jewish sympathies were inhibited by knowledge of Jewish activities in the Soviet zone. And that is exactly what I was trying to convey.7

One might equally recall the report written in February 1940 by Jan Karski—one of those fearless Polish couriers who kept London in touch with occupied Poland, and who was subsequently decorated in Israel for his attempts to warn the West about the realities of the Holocaust:

The Situation of the Jews on Territories Occupied by the USSR”

The Jews here feel at home, not just because they are not humiliated or persecuted, but because their smartness and adaptability has won them a certain measure of political and economic advantage.

The Jews are entering the political cells. They have taken over the majority of political and administrative positions, and are playing an important role in the labor unions, in the schools, and above all in commerce, both legal and illegal….

Polish opinion considers that Jewish attitudes to the Bolsheviks are favourable. It is universally believed that the Jews betrayed Poland and the Poles, that they are all communists at heart, and that they went over to the Bolsheviks with flags waving. Indeed, in most towns, the Jews did welcome the Bolsheviks with bouquets, with speeches and with declarations of allegiance and so on.

One should make certain distinctions, however. Obviously the Jewish communists have reacted enthusiastically to the Bolsheviks…. The Jewish proletariat, petty traders and artisans, whose position has seen a structural improvement, and who formerly had to bear the indifference or the excesses of the Polish element, have reacted positively, too. That is hardly surprising.

But what is worse, Jews are denouncing Poles (to the secret police), are directing the work of the (communist) militia from behind the scenes, and are unjustly denigrating conditions in Poland before the war. Unfortunately, one must say that these incidents are very frequent.8

The Yad Vashem archive in Israel, too, provides detailed substantiation of the same picture. “The Jews welcomed the Red Army with joy. The young people spent all their days and evenings with the soldiers.” In Grodno, “all sorts of appointments were filled predominantly with Jews, and the Soviet authorities entrusted them, too, with the top positions.” In Lwów, “I must admit that the majority of positions in the Soviet agencies have been taken by Jews.” A Jewish observer to the pro-Soviet demonstrations in Lwów related, “Whenever a political march, or protest meeting, or some other sort of joyful event took place, the visual effect was unambiguous—Jews.” In Wielkie Oczy, the Jewish doctor recalled how local Jewish youths, having formed themselves into a “Komsomol” toured the countryside smashing Catholic shrines. The references can be found in a recent study of the Soviet deportations from eastern Poland by J.T. and I. Gross, W Czterdziestym nas Matko na Sybir zeslali: Polska, a Rosja, 1939–1942.9

In Pinsk, where the population was over 90 percent Jewish, young Jews built an “Arc de Triomphe.”

The purpose here, of course, is not to demonstrate what one hopes would be taken for granted, namely, that Jews given the chance will behave as well or as badly as anyone else. The purpose is simply to show that the marked increase in anti-Semitism in occupied Poland in 1939–1941 was linked to Jewish conduct. To put the perspective of many Poles emotively, Jews were seen to be dancing on Poland’s grave.

Naturally, there is more to the story than that. Objectively speaking, there was no reason for Polish Jews as a whole to react to Poland’s downfall in the way that most Poles did, nor for them to share the Polish feeling that collaborating with the invaders was in itself an act of disloyalty. Nor should one forget that the prevalence of Jews in the Soviet organs of oppression did not stop the Soviets, once established, from devastating Jewish life in the Soviet zone. The Jewish communes, which had flourished under Polish rule, were peremptorily abolished. The Jewish middle class was reduced to penury. Hebrew schools, Zionist clubs, all independent Jewish organizations were closed down overnight. Conditions were so good that thousands of Jewish refugees swarmed westward toward the Nazi zone, passing swarms of other refugees fleeing in the opposite direction. Gross even reports one incident, where a visiting Nazi commission was greeted by crowds of Jews chanting “Heil Hitler” in the hope of getting permission to cross the frontier. And on the frontier bridge over the River Bug, they were met by a Nazi officer shouting, “Jews, where on earth are you going? We are going to kill you.”

All Polish citizens shared in the confusion. Many fled from west to east to escape the Nazis. Many fled from east to west to escape the Soviets. Many, quite literally, went around in circles. Those few surviving members of the Polish Communist Party, who had so far avoided the consequences of Stalin’s recent purge, were among the refugees heading westward. Wladyslaw Gomulka, for instance, who had the good fortune to have been incarcerated in a Polish government jail in Lwów in the late 1930s, fled on his release to the Nazi zone, knowing full well that if he stayed for long in the Soviet zone he would be liquidated like the rest of his comrades.

The hopeless predicament of such people, trapped between Hitler and Stalin, eloquently illustrates the predicament of Eastern Europe as a whole. Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, and all the other peoples of the region were caught in the same double bind, overtaken not just by one occupation, but by two. Eastern Europe lay astride the battleground of the two greatest tyrannies which the world has yet seen; and the full horror of its fate can never be comprehended unless events on either side of the dividing line are related to each other.

Mr. Brumberg does not provide any statistics, but in accusing me of lack of evidence merely asks rhetorically, “Exactly how many Jews collaborated with the Soviets”? He doesn’t know the mathematical answer any more than I do; but the question is a fair one, and it would be good to know the answer. Generally speaking, there is a gross imbalance between the amount of research devoted to the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe as opposed to the Soviet occupations; and the field awaits fuller investigation. Polish–Jewish relations deteriorated sharply on each of the three occasions when the Soviet Red Army has invaded Poland—in 1919–1920, in 1939, and in 1944–1945; and it would throw much light on the phenomenon if we could obtain a firm estimate of the dimensions of both Polish and Jewish collaboration.

Four years ago, Mr. Brumberg used these columns to air his views at length on communism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism in postwar Poland (NYR, June 2, 1983). Among other things, he gave prominence to the Kielce pogrom of July 1946, without explaining the political context of the referendum, and lent support to Dr. Dobroszycki’s (entirely credible) estimate of the 1,500 Polish Jews who were killed in the period 1944–1947. What he does not care to mention, however, since human beings in general are not his subject, is that those same years saw tens of thousands of people killed in Poland. The Jewish victims represented perhaps 2 or 3 percent of the whole. In Mr. Brumberg’s version, the 97 or 98 percent do not even merit a sentence. And if anyone doubts these circumstances, they should first consult the opinions of Poland’s leading Stalinists, including the chief security boss, Jakub Berman himself, as related to Teresa Toranska and recently published in English as ONIStalin’s Polish Puppets.10 Mr. Brumberg’s persistent failure to recognize the wider setting of his own concerns, and his apparent disregard for other people’s experiences, must surely throw doubt on his credentials. Evidently, the gentle rebuke administered by the senior American scholar in the field, Professor Piotr Wandycz of Yale, was somewhat too gentle (NYR, August 18, 1983).

All of which underlines the glaring need, not so much for detailed research, as for the full and free dissemination of the facts about the war in Eastern Europe, which are already well established. The great American public is not well informed on many essential topics. One would not want to diminish the immense publicity which is rightly given to the Jewish Holocaust. At the same time, one could reasonably hope for a better awareness of other, related tragedies. Almost every American seems to have heard of the “six million” Jewish dead. Hardly anyone seems to know, for instance, that the Poles or the Ukrainians suffered losses of the same order. Even so distinguished an authority as Elie Wiesel has recently subscribed to that most tendentious of all statistics, namely the “twenty million Russian war dead,” without so much as a glimmer of recognition either that Russians made up only a small part of the people killed on Soviet territory in 1939–1945, or that a large proportion of those losses must be attributed to the actions of the Soviet government. So long as the broad parameters of the subject remain obscure, all debates are likely to miss the main issues.

No historian can claim to possess a monopoly of the truth; and we must all welcome criticism. Modesty, no less than courage, must be the mark of our profession. We all see the past imperfectly, and it is only natural that we should view it from different perspectives. But this does not mean that everyone who begs to differ from the conventional view can be fairly accused of distortion and falsification. As one despairing scholar remarked, in the days when English historians were notorious for their academic vendettas, “an erring colleague is not a Malachite to be broken hip and thigh.” Mr. Brumberg and his friends, therefore, would be foolish to imagine that they can go on treating their opponents as scoundrels, without their own good judgment being questioned. And they would be well advised to remove the beam from their own eye before pointing at the mote in the eye of others. Their habitual parrot cries about “Polish anti-Semitism” can only be likened to the old-fashioned donkey chorus in Poland about a “Jewish–Masonic conspiracy.”

This does not mean that ethnic hatred was other than a painful reality, nor that Poles or Jews, or anyone else, have always refrained from cooking up the occasional plot. But as a general approach to the history of two suffering nations over a thousand years, the ethnic selectivity method is pathetic. It serves only to drown out any chance of genuine dialogue, and to reduce the very necessary debate on Polish–Jewish affairs to a meaningless exchange of insults. What is required is greater respect, greater restraint, and a greater leap of the imagination toward other people’s valid viewpoints.

  1. 1

    The New York Times Book Review (October 5, 1986).

  2. 2

    Columbia University Press, 1982.

  3. 3

    God’s Playground, Vol. II, p. 451.

  4. 4

    London: Polish Cultural Foundation, 1986.

  5. 5

    For example, see The New York Times, Letters (November 23, 1986).

  6. 6

    Mr. Brumberg’s mistranslation reads, “The overwhelming majority of the country is anti-Semitic,” wrongly implying that anti-Semitism was a fixed attribute of the Polish population. Grot-Rowecki, however, used the phrase “nastawiona antysemicko,” which is rather different, implying a nastawienie, an “attitude,” “adjustment,” “disposition,” or “inclination” that can change according to circumstances.

  7. 7

    See Alexander Smolar, “Tabu i Niewinnosć,” in ANEKS, No. 41/42 (London 1986), especially pp. 96–98.

  8. 8

    Hoover Archival Documentary Series, Stanford, Mikolajczyk Collection, Box 12, File: “The Jews in Occupied Poland,” 1939–1945, pp. 5–7.

  9. 9

    London: ANEKS, 1983. A shorter version published in the US in English, War Through Children’s Eyes: The Soviet Occupation of Poland and the Deportation, 1939–1941, published in Hoover Archival Documentary Series, 1981.

  10. 10

    London: Collins-Harvill, 1987, especially pp. 109, 139, 321.

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