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Jews, Poles & Nazis: The Terrible History

Z˙ydzi w powstan´czej Warszawie [Jews in Insurrectionary Warsaw, 1944]

by Barbara Engelking and Dariusz Libionka
Polish Center for Holocaust Research, 358 pp., zł44.0
US Holocaust Memorial Museum/Miles and Chris Laks Lerman
The sisters Renia, Rosalie, and Chanka Laks, from a prominent Jewish family in Wierzbnik, Poland. Rosalie Laks—whose testimony appears in Christopher Browning’s Remembering Survival—said that when their father was pushed into a gutter and kicked repeatedly by a German during the early days of the Nazi occupation, ‘This was the first time I understood what the war was all about.’ All the sisters survived the war and are still alive.

The hangings took place on the last day of August 1941, on the town square of Wierzbnik, in what had once been central Poland. Two years had passed since the joint German-Soviet invasion that had destroyed the Polish state; ten weeks before, the Germans had betrayed their ally and invaded the Soviet Union. Wierzbnik, home to Poles and Jews, lay within the General Government, a colony that the Germans had made from parts of their Polish conquests. As Poles left church that Sunday morning, they saw before them a gallows. The German police had selected sixteen or seventeen Poles—men, women, and at least one child. Then they ordered a Jewish execution crew, brought from the ghetto that morning, to carry out the hangings. The Poles were forced to stand on stools; then the Jews placed nooses around their necks and kicked the stools away. The bodies were left to dangle.1

Demonstrative killing of civilians was one of several German methods designed to stifle Polish resistance. The Germans had murdered educated Poles: tens of thousands in late 1939, thousands more in early 1940. Since June 1940, the Germans had been sending suspect Poles to Auschwitz and other camps. Polish society was to be reduced to an undifferentiated mass of passive workers. German policy toward Jews was different, though the nature of the difference was not yet clear. Jewish elites had been preserved; some of them as members of the Judenrat (Jewish council) or as policemen directing the local affairs of Jews in a way that suited Germans.

Although fatality rates in some ghettos were high, Jews in summer 1941 had little idea that they had been gathered into ghettos in preparation for a “Final Solution.” The Germans had first planned to deport the Jews to a reservation in eastern Poland, or to the island of Madagascar, or to Siberian wastelands. As these schemes proved impracticable, the Jews remained in the ghettos. It was in that final week of August 1941 that the German “Final Solution” was taking on its final form: mass murder. Two days before the hangings at Wierzbnik, the Germans had completed their first truly large-scale murder of Jews, shooting some 23,600 people at Kamianets-Podil’s’kyi in occupied Soviet Ukraine.

I knew I hanged the right people,” one of the Jewish hangmen in Wierzbnik recalled more than fifty years later. He thought that those who were executed belonged to the Polish Home Army, and as such were guilty of murdering Jews. The people in question died, of course, not because Poles were killing Jews, but because Poles were resisting German rule. The hangings at Wierzbnik were a typical German reprisal, aiming to spread terror and deter further opposition. If it were not for the testimonies of the Jews from Wierzbnik, this particular event would have been lost. For most of them, it was a first stark demonstration of German mass murder, if only a small foretaste of what was to come.

In his magnificent and humane microhistory, Christopher Browning has drawn on the “written, transcribed, and/or taped accounts of 292” Jewish survivors, most of them from Wierzbnik, who shared a similar experience of the war. He treats these testimonies as historical sources, believing that according them “a privileged position not subject to the same critical analysis and rules of evidence as other sources will merely discredit and undermine the reputation of Holocaust scholarship itself.”

Here, in recounting how a Jew forced by Germans to kill Poles blamed the Poles for their fate, Browning reaches the problem of Polish–Jewish relations.2 While he is quite aware that this particular testimony must be subjected to scrutiny, his analysis consists mainly in the comparison of multiple Jewish testimonial sources. Addressing the evidence of the Jewish hangman, Browning characterizes the Home Army as a “conservative nationalist underground movement” that did indeed kill Jews, but perhaps not at early as 1941. This description may reflect a consensus among surviving Wierzbnik Jews; it does not fit the historical Home Army.

Interestingly, the “Polish underground” makes several appearances in Browning’s book, usually behaving in ways that are remembered positively: shooting Germans, attacking camps, helping Jews. The Home Army, meanwhile, appears in this negative light, as murderous and anti-Semitic. There is a problem here: the Home Army was the Polish underground. Aiming to restore Polish independence from German rule, it united hundreds of resistance groups. It represented a very wide spetrum of opinion, excluding only the communist left and the extreme nationalist right. And it was not just an underground movement: it was an integral part of the Polish armed forces, under the command of the exile government in London, allied with Great Britain and the United States in the war against Nazi Germany.3

Although the Home Army’s enemy was Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism was indeed a problem in its ranks. On Rosh Hashanah, three weeks after the hangings in Wierzbnik, Polish Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski sent his good wishes from London to the Jewish citizens of Poland via the BBC. Stefan Rowecki, the commander of the Home Army in Warsaw, was irritated; such gestures, he thought, made “the worst possible impression” among Poles. This revealed a basic tension, apparent throughout 1941, between the Polish exile government and its underground army. Anti-Semitism, Rowecki seemed to think, was so pervasive that the Jewish issue should be tabled until war’s end. Many Poles had been inclined to support anti-Semitic parties in the 1930s, and the experience of German and Soviet occupation had not helped.4

Some Poles claimed to resent the Jews who had taken up positions of authority in the Soviet occupation apparatus in eastern Poland between 1939 and 1941, after the Soviet invasion of that part of the country. Other Poles were corrupted by having taken over Jewish houses or apartments when Jews were forced into ghettos in 1940 and 1941. Throughout 1941, Poles were debating the political and civic status that Jews should have in Poland after the war. The exile government took the view that postwar Poland would be a democracy without racial discrimination. Within the government, however, nationalists questioned this position.

Polish wartime debates about the “Jewish question” ceased only when Adolf Hitler’s answer became clear. The condition of Polish Jews became a pressing question for the exile government and the Home Army when the Germans began to gas Jews in the final weeks of 1941. In early 1942, Polish leaders believed that news of the shocking German campaign would prompt action from Great Britain and the United States. The Home Army thought that the revelation of the existence of gassing facilities would force the Germans to stop. It transmitted to London the documentation about the death factory at Chełmno that had been gathered by the ghetto historian Emanuel Ringelblum. This led to BBC broadcasts about the mass extermination of Polish Jews. The Polish government in London, though always presenting Jewish suffering as part of a larger story of Polish martyrdom, gave the mass murder of Jews as a reason for the British and the Americans to carry out retributions against German civilians. In vain: the Germans were not shamed by the publicity, and the Western allies took no meaningful action.5

In 1942, in Operation Reinhard, the Germans deported some 1.3 million Polish Jews from ghettos in the General Government to death factories at Treblinka, Bełzėc, and Sobibór. The associated mass deportations of the Jews of Warsaw, which began on July 22, forced the local Home Army into action. It supplied false documentation to Jewish survivors, supported Żegota, the Polish government organization that aided Jewish survivors, and assisted Jews within the Warsaw Ghetto who were planning an uprising. Operation Reinhard reached the town of Wierzbnik on October 27. As Browning shows, an unusually high proportion of Wierzbnik Jews, some 1,200 men and four hundred women, were selected for labor. Browning provides a heartrending depiction of the selections that separated those who would work for the Germans from the nearly four thousand who would be gassed at Treblinka.

This scene was repeated thousands of times in occupied Poland, but rarely if ever has it been rendered in such detail from so many perspectives. Some families were forced apart. Others divided themselves, not knowing which group was the better one. Some people left their families behind. Others stayed with their families when they might have saved themselves. Others still contrived to take their families with them into labor duty. Browning gently evokes the kinds of morality that could function in such a situation of extremity. He does not expect his sources to provide an example of ethical behavior: “We must be grateful for the testimonies of those who survived and are willing to speak, but we have no right to expect from them tales of edification and redemption.” But he does draw attention to the loyalties that did function: the bonds among families, lovers, and friends.

The Wierzbnik Jews selected for labor were in an exceptional position. By late October 1942, more than two million Polish Jews were already dead, shot in what had been eastern Poland or gassed at Treblinka, Bełzėc, Sobibór, or Chełmno. In 1943 and 1944, as hundreds of thousands more Polish Jews were gassed at Auschwitz or shot in the East, Wierzbnik Jews continued to live and work. They owed their survival to an accident of geography: their homes were very near the Polish arms factory at Starachowice, now taken over by the Germans. Jewish labor at Starachowice was important to the German war effort. The Starachowice camps were not under the direct authority of the SS, but rather run by a private business, operating within a larger holding company. As in the Wierzbnik ghetto, daily authority over Jews in the Starachowice camps was in the hands of a Jewish council and Jewish police force. These institutions, which drew heavily from families that had been prosperous before the war, distributed labor assignments on the basis of connections and bribes. German personnel were few, and the guards were stationed outside the camps.

There was little need to guard the camps: in 1943 in occupied Poland, Starachowice was a place Jews escaped to, not a place they escaped from. When Jews from Majdanek were transferred to Starachowice, they could hardly believe their eyes. The place was filthy and the work was dangerous, but Jews remained alive in large numbers, sometimes even with their children. Some were able to supplement their minimal food rations by selling belongings that they had left for safekeeping with Wierzbnik Poles. Jews at Starachowice bribed camp guards to accompany them to Wierzbnik, where they would carry out these transactions. Then they returned to the camps with the food. To escape from Starachowice would be to court death. Jews found by Germans would be shot. Although thousands of Poles aided Jews despite the death sentence they faced for doing so, it would be an extraordinary gamble to trust any given Pole. In this part of occupied Poland there was no underground army that Jews knew would accept them, and no Jewish armed force that could protect them.

  1. 1

    On Christopher Browning’s evidence, the hanging might have taken place one week earlier or later.

  2. 2

    A similar issue arises in Snyder, “Nazis, Soviets, Poles, Jews,” The New York Review, December 3, 2009.

  3. 3

    It was known as the Union of Armed Struggle through 1941. The Polish government left Paris for London in 1940.

  4. 4

    Arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, Rowecki was executed in Sachsenhausen in 1944.

  5. 5

    See Adam Puławski, W obliczu Zagłady: Rza˛d RP na Uchodz´stwie, Delegatura Rza˛du RP na Kraj, ZWZ-AK wobec deportacji Z·ydów do obozów zagłady (1941–1942) (Lublin: IPN, 2009).

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