Reptile Journalism: The Official Polish-Language Press under the Nazis, 19391945
‘Jews in the Polish Underground Press, 19391945’ in Poland
Biedni Polacy Patrza Na Getto
Reptile Journalism is a solidly documented account of the Polish publications that appeared under Nazi rule, based on material the author found in Polish archives when he was a member of the Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. He is now a historian at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and Yeshiva University in New York. His book will be a precious source of information about wartime Poland for scholars, but it closely follows the original Polish version, and the author apparently felt he did not have to provide some basic facts for the American reader concerning the Nazi occupation.
In Germany during World War I there was a public discussion about what to do with the conquered eastern territories. German nationalist politicians advocated that only the regions which could be made to fit into German life should be incorporated into the Reich, since lands with ethnic elements that were too alien would be hard to digest. The same thesis was applied during World War II to the Nazis’ conquests in the East. The western provinces of Poland were made a part of the Reich, while the central provinces were formed into an administrative unit called the General Government (GG), under control of a German governor, Hans Frank, who was tried after the war in Nuremberg for war crimes, found guilty, and hanged.
Contrary to some views, there was no Polish satellite state during the war years. Dobroszycki puts this succinctly:
Poland was a country without a Quisling. But for the sake of historical precision, it must be said that in the course of their more than five-year rule in Poland, the Germans never seriously attempted to produce such a figure; for without some tangible concessions, including a margin of sovereignty (no matter how narrow), there was no place for Quislingism in Poland.
Would the Germans have been able to create in Poland a puppet state as they did in neighboring Slovakia? In Germany the GG was called “Gangster Ground,” which conveys a sense both of the quick financial gain that was to be found there and the physical dangers as well. Germans like Oscar Schindler were lured to Poland by a hope of getting rich, but the region was far from safe for them. Resistance networks were organized into a Polish “Secret State,” about which the American government learned from Jan Karski, a courier and eyewitness of Nazi atrocities in Poland. The Germans called the underground fighters “bandits,” a word since used against freedom fighters in many other countries. A nearly hysterical patriotic conformity was imposed on Polish society by the Polish resistance groups, which were loyal to the Polish government in exile in London. The members of a potential Quisling government would have had a poor chance of surviving. And yet the very logic of Poland’s hopeless position between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia should, at least theoretically, have inclined some Poles to think about a possible accommodation with Germany, especially if they belonged to the political right. Hardly any did so.
Still, the Germans were eager to organize newspapers. “Reptile Journalism,” the name given them in the American translation of Dobroszycki’s book, is not quite a faithful translation of “prasa gadzinowa,” since the word gadzina refers to the adder, Europe’s only poisonous snake. Thus the correct translation should be “The Adder Press,” the name used by members of the Polish public to brand the Nazi-directed newspapers as poisonous. Yet they were read. People had, after all, to buy them, if only for weather reports (all radio receivers were confiscated), advertisements, and obituaries. As Dobroszycki reminds us, no Polish newspapers were allowed except those of the “adder press,” which were published by the German “Department of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.” The underground papers were able to provide news based upon the BBC broadcasts, but for details of everyday life you had to buy at a newsstand the only newspaper available.
In this as in many other respects, the situation in occupied Poland was different from that in many other countries where the prewar press, though censored, was allowed to continue. Thus, as Professor Dobroszycki points out, in Bohemia-Moravia, during 1941 alone, “1,733 periodicals appeared, including 55 daily newspapers, as well as 350 journals devoted to culture, pedagogy, and various sciences…At the same time,…not counting the professional journals, about a hundred daily and weekly newspapers were published” in occupied France. Apart from Poland, the local press was entirely liquidated only in the parts of Ukraine, Belorussia, and Russia that were conquered after 1941. Also, though listening to foreign stations was forbidden, radio receivers in most other countries were not confiscated as they were in Poland.
I read the papers of the adder press when I lived in occupied Warsaw, and Professor Dobroszycki describes their contents well. With the aim of spreading despair and paralysis, they extolled the invincible power of Nazi Germany. They mocked the Western allies and the Polish government in exile; they tried to make the Poles feel racially inferior as members of the Slavic race. The other goal, as Professor Dobroszycki stresses, was to act as a smoke screen: no information was published on what was really happening in Poland, on the manhunts in the streets and the executions of hostages, or on what was happening in Auschwitz and Majdanek, and the “pacification” of villages by mass killings. Above all, there was no mention of the ghettos and the mass murder of the Jews. If one were to judge from these papers, the GG’s inhabitants led normal lives, and no ordinary citizen had anything to fear if he did not transgress against “German justice.”
The author raises a valid question about the influence of this sort of propaganda. He suspects that it was significant, and I would agree with him, especially so far as rural Poland was concerned. The quality of the adder press was low. No Polish journalist who was well known before the war worked for it. The papers were mostly written and edited by improvised teams of “Volksdeutsch“—Poles who declared themselves as having German ancestry. Although their prose and editing were clumsy, the papers could convey their message clearly enough to their readers, especially to those who had no more than a primary school education. Unfortunately, they had considerable success in fostering hatred of Jews, because some members of the Polish underground who had rightist and extreme rightist tendencies were spreading similar feelings.
Throughout Europe there was a large number of underground publications, and the author lists more than 1,500 titles of newspapers and periodicals in Poland, as compared with 1,200 titles in Netherlands, 1,200 in France, 550 in Denmark, 545 in Italy.
The underground press in Poland was put out by all the parties, organizations, and groups which had existed before the war and even the new parties and organizations that came into being during the war were patterned on the prewar social and political movements.
I must add that contrary to other countries in Europe where the Resistance was identified with various shades of the left, in Poland the parties of the right and of the extreme right were also part of the “secret state,” along with socialists and populists. Some members of the clandestine network in Warsaw were suspected of liberal leanings and were murdered by their political opponents. The nationalist and fascist political parties from the prewar period continued their anti-Jewish propaganda throughout the war, sometimes openly rejoicing in the prospect of a Poland without Jews. “All these groups,” Professor Dobroszycki writes, “published about three hundred clandestine papers (not counting brochures and fliers).” Taken together with the propaganda in the adder press, the hate-mongering in these publications created an atmosphere that was dangerous both to Jews who escaped from the ghettos and to those who wanted to help them. Yet when the rightist underground editors and printers were caught, the Germans treated them with the same brutality that they applied to all the other clandestine militants, notwithstanding the anti-Semitic content of the rightist papers.
Professor Dobroszycki’s account of the Polish wartime press corresponds to my own experience, and I will add only a brief supplement to it. The Thirties were an ominous period in Europe, and when we see today the explosions of nationalism such as those in the former Yugoslavia we realize how similar they are, in many respects, to the aberrations of the period preceding World War II. Most characteristic, then and later, has been a coupling of nationalism with religion. The Serbs’ Eastern Orthodox Church openly or implicitly blesses the horrors of “ethnic cleansing.” In Poland the nationalists invoked Catholicism in support of their doctrine exalting “Polishness,” and they had the backing of a large part of the Church hierarchy. And nowhere was the internal contradiction of that partnership revealed more clearly than in attitudes toward the Holocaust. For whatever the relations between Poles and Jews, no Pole could pretend indifference to what the Germans were doing to the Jews without exposing his or her Christian faith as a sham. Many Catholics were aware of this.
In a separate study, “The Jews in the Polish Underground Press, 1939–1945,” Professor Dobroszycki dedicates a long passage to Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, a Catholic novelist and founder of the underground Front for the Restitution of Poland (FOP). A heroic woman, she saved many Jews, both adults and children, and headed Zegota, the Council to Aid the Jews, in which several political parties were represented, including two delegates of the Jewish underground. The groups associated with Kossak-Szczucka’s organization published a large number of underground papers. Among them the most influential and widely circulated was Biuletyn Informacyjny, which presented the “official” line of the underground government. Professor Dobroszycki writes:
Biuletyn gave up-to-date information on the situation of the Jews in Poland, condemned the crimes perpetrated by the Germans, appealed to its readers to help the victims, and warned that measures would be taken against those who collaborated in any way with the Germans in the extermination of the Jews.
Zofia Kossak-Szczucka deserves special attention here, for her thinking reflects a conflict of two opposing tendencies within one mind and one heart. She was both a nationalist and a Catholic, unwilling and unable to renounce either commitment. Yet she believed that religion should take precedence over nationality; thus her Christian faith imposed upon her a duty to help Jews, while national loyalties bound her to her ideological brethren who maintained that the Jews were enemies of Poland. A person of strong religious faith, she resolved that contradiction morally, but was unable to find a way out intellectually.
Professor Jan Blonski in a book published recently in Poland continues the exploration he began a few years ago in his article on the Poles’ passivity in the face of German persecution of Jews. He analyzes a text entitled “A Protest,” a clandestine manifesto published by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka in 1942. Blonski has a deep respect for her heroic acts but has some difficulty in grasping her frame of mind. Her manifesto clearly denounces the crime of genocide, yet he finds in her position elements of latent anti-Semitism—an anti-Semitism of which she was probably unaware, particularly in her opposing the Poles and the Jews to each other as two separate nations. In this she probably was typical of many Catholics at the time, and her logic was shared, Professor Blonski apparently suspects, by many monasteries and nunneries which, although they saved Jewish lives, did not take a clear public position against anti-Semitism. He confesses that he is puzzled by “the question how evident anti-Semitism could go together with risking (or sacrificing) one’s life to help Jews, a case not rare, particularly in Poland.” To judge by the attitudes of some of the prewar political parties and their underground publications during the war, he writes, “The Poles’ behavior could have been worse.”