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Jews, Poles & Nazis: The Terrible History

The major Jewish armed rebellion against German rule in the General Government, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April–May 1943, had aimed not at survival but rather at the choice of the manner of death. It had involved a certain alliance between Poles and Jews, but one that did not endure. The Warsaw branch of the Home Army had given Jews a substantial part of its modest weapons cache. Seven of the first eight armed actions taken by the Home Army in Warsaw were in support of the ghetto. This was symbolic: as everyone knew, the Home Army in Warsaw could not have saved the Jews of the ghetto in April 1943, even had it devoted all of its troops and weapons to this purpose. After the Ghetto Uprising was crushed, Home Army commanders failed to enlist surviving Jewish fighters. Thus even Jews with combat experience found themselves hunted in occupied Poland in 1943. Jews had to fear not only the Germans, but also local units of the Home Army who (on several documented occasions) shot them as bandits or (on a few documented occasions) shot them to steal their belongings.

From the perspective of the Home Army, 1943 was the year of an irresolvable dilemma: the Germans were losing the war, but the Soviets were winning it. In February the Red Army had dealt the Wehrmacht its first major defeat, at Stalingrad. Henceforth, the Home Army had to resist the Germans while preparing for the arrival of the Soviets. German propaganda drove the point home that April, revealing that the Soviets had shot thousands of Polish officers at Katyn. Stalin used the revelation of his own mass murder as a pretext to break diplomatic relations with Poland.6 This was an unmistakable sign of imperial ambition. If Stalin would not recognize the legitimate Polish government during a common war against Nazi Germany, why would he endorse Polish independence after a Soviet victory?

Some Home Army commanders feared that arming Polish Jews would ease the spread of Soviet power. Though this sometimes took the form of an anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jew as Communist, the concern was not entirely unjustified. The Polish Communist party was part of the Jewish Combat Organization, which the Home Army had supplied with arms. The man who negotiated those arms transfers, Aryeh Wilner, was also negotiating with Communists. The Jewish representative within the Polish government department charged with rescuing Jews, Adolf Berman, was also in touch with the Communists. (His brother Jakub would later preside over the Communist security apparatus that would persecute Home Army veterans—including those who had aided Jews.)7 For the Home Army, the Soviet advance meant the arrival of a dubious ally against the Germans as well as an impending threat to Polish independence. For Jews it meant life. This basic difference in perspectives, a result of the Holocaust, was difficult to overcome.

For Jews at Starachowice, only labor counted. As Browning masterfully reconstructs daily life within the factory camps, he reveals what Jews knew about their fate and the limits of their local perspective. When typhus broke out, for example, the Germans at first simply shot the Jews who were infected. So long as Jewish labor was available for rent from the SS, shooting sick Jews was the economically rational thing to do. As the war continued and the number of living Jews plunged, the Germans treated sick Jews rather than killing them. Jews remembered this as a change in the camp regime; Browning recalls the larger causes.

In late 1943, Heinrich Himmler liquidated most of the camps in the General Government where Jews were used as labor, and had tens of thousands of Jewish workers shot. The directors of Starachowice sacrificed some of the women and children to Himmler, but preserved the men. Because their business was making arms, they could evade the policy of murdering all Jews. Only the Red Army’s successful offensive in June 1944 forced the closure of the factory camps at Starachowice. In July the Jewish laborers at Starachowice were sent to Auschwitz. Mortality rates in one of the railcars was high, but not only because of the transport conditions: some of the stronger prisoners took the opportunity to beat the members of the camp council to death.

The Red Army was disarming Home Army units as it entered eastern Poland. The Home Army’s only hope seemed to be an uprising against the Germans in Warsaw, timed to exploit the Soviet advance but precede the actual arrival of Soviet troops. The aim was to liberate Warsaw from German occupation by Polish efforts, and to install a Polish government before the Red Army arrived. In late July 1944, as the Wierzbnik Jews were sent to Auschwitz, the Red Army approached Warsaw. On August 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising began. The Home Army fought the Germans there for eight weeks: a longer battle than either the Polish campaign of 1939 or the French campaign of 1940, and with casualties comparable to both. As Dariusz Libionka and Barbara Engelking demonstrate in their pioneering study, Jews took part in the battle, most of them in the Home Army.8 Some of these were people of Jewish origin who regarded or presented themselves as Poles and had been in the Home Army all along. Others were veterans of the Ghetto Uprising. More were survivors who left their places of shelter in Warsaw in order to fight, seeing it as self-evident that they would help Poles fight Germans. As Michał Zylberberg put it, “The Poles had risen to fight against the mortal enemy, and it was our obligation, as victims and as fellow citizens, to help them.” The Warsaw Uprising was a major example of armed Jewish resistance to the Germans during World War II. Indeed, it is quite possible that more people of Jewish origin took part in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 than in the Ghetto Uprising of 1943.

The Warsaw Uprising, like the Ghetto Uprising before it, was defeated. The Home Army, like the Jews the previous year, fought essentially alone. Stalin forbade Allied air drops when they might have helped. The Germans held the line at the Vistula River, and the Red Army halted. Some of the most brutal German SS and police formations defeated the Polish resistance in Warsaw, killing at least 120,000 Polish civilians.

These people perished not only because German forces were ordered to kill them, but also because Joseph Stalin allowed them to die. The Red Army was indeed halted by the stubborn German defense at the Vistula, but its encampment there for five months must be understood as a political act. It doomed the Poles (and the Jews) who were fighting the Germans in Warsaw. The Germans killed people who, as Stalin knew, would also have resisted the imposition of Communist rule.

The Germans were able to empty not only Starachowice, but also the last ghetto in occupied Poland, in Łódz´. In July 1944, Łódz´ Jews knew that the Red Army was nearby, and thought they could be liberated in a matter of days. Some 67,000 Jews were transported from Łódz´ to Auschwitz while the Warsaw Uprising was taking place. Whereas the Wierzbnik Jews were not subjected to a selection at the ramp at Birkenau, most of the Łódz´ Jews were gassed upon arrival.9

By the time the Red Army finally reached Warsaw in January 1945, the Wierzbnik Jews, Łódz´ Jews, and other Jews were being marched from Auschwitz to labor camps in Germany, where they would remain until the end of the war. This ordeal was deadlier for the Wierzbnik Jews than Starachowice and Auschwitz; hundreds died in a matter of a few months. After the Red Army took Berlin in May, Polish- Jewish survivors found their way to displaced-persons camps in Germany. A few dozen Wierzbnik Jews were able to return to Poland and their hometown, where they were greeted with ugly threats from the Poles who had stolen their houses. In June a few returning Wierzbnik Jews were murdered by Poles. One Jew was beheaded. In Poland as a whole, hundreds of Jews were murdered by Poles in the months after the war was over.

Browning concludes from this horrible finale that the goal of the Polish underground was the end of Jewish life in Poland. He adds that the Polish nation was defined in opposition to an enemy image of the Jew. As Browning acknowledges, it is not at all clear that members of the Home Army committed the murders and robberies in Wierzbnik; the Jews upon whose testimony Browning relies could not have known this. However that may be, it is misleading to discuss Polish political aims only in the light of these events. If Polish patriotism was simply a matter of hating Jews, why did the Home Army fight the Nazis with such determination?

Officially, the Home Army was fighting for constitutional liberal democracy and equal rights for all citizens; what its victory or indeed what democratic elections would have brought to Poland we will never know. After intimidation campaigns and faked elections, Poland became a Soviet satellite governed by a Communist regime. We owe the description of the Home Army as a reactionary nationalist clique to Soviet and Polish Communists, whose forces defeated its stubborn remnants, tortured its best officers, and hanged its last commander after a show trial.

In Stalinist Poland, only Communist resistance to the Germans was recognized as such; everything else was fascism. Communists had no difficulty whatsoever in conflating the people who had fought the Nazis with the Nazis themselves. The Ghetto Uprising was celebrated as Communist (though it was not); the Warsaw Uprising was denounced as fascist (though it was not). Yet we owe the stark separation of the two events to national as well as to Communist politics. The Ghetto Uprising is a founding myth of the State of Israel, and the Warsaw Uprising is a founding myth of today’s post-Communist Poland: this, too, keeps the two events further apart in memory than they were in history.

Though the record of the Home Army toward Jews is ambivalent, the dark legend must be abandoned. Important as Jewish testimonial material is to the history of the Holocaust, the recollections of Jews who spent years in camps cannot serve as the basis for historical reckonings with the Home Army. If its history were to be written from Jewish perspectives, these would have to include those of people such as Chaja and Estera Borenstein, who volunteered as nurses at the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising, or Marian Mendenholc, who died trying to rescue Polish comrades right at its very end. It would have to allow for the experiences of Jews such as Stanisław Aronson. Fighting in the most celebrated unit of the Home Army in the Warsaw Uprising, Aronson stormed Umschlagplatz, from which he himself had been deported to Treblinka two years before. Then he and his Polish comrades liberated a concentration camp on the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, and freed several hundred Jews.

That said, the pristine legend of an unblemished Home Army, cultivated by Polish veterans and patriots, is also unsustainable. There was distance between soldiers in the field and declarations from London, variation among regions and units, reluctance to see Jews as part of the Polish nation, insensitivity to the particular dangers faced by Jews, and occasional outright murder. Getting the balance right is not just a matter for Jews and Poles. The Home Army was the most significant non-Communist resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Europe. Those who regard opposition to Hitler as a measure of morality will have to take its history seriously.

  1. 6

    See Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment, edited by Anna Cienciala, Natalia Lebedeva, and Wojciech Materski (Yale University Press, 2007).

  2. 7

    One of these was Władysław Bartoszewski (1922–), a fascinating figure who awaits a scholarly biography.

  3. 8

    The (nationalist) National Armed Forces and the (Communist) People’s Army also fought in the Warsaw Uprising.

  4. 9

    Andrea Löw, Juden im Getto Litzmannstadt: Lebensbedingungen, Selbstwahrnehmung, Verhalten (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2006), pp. 466–476.

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