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Apr 2013 Journal

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Poles, Jews and Germans in WWII: A horror story

This book was published under the auspices of the Polish Foreign Office and sceptics might therefore think that it is to be taken with a pinch of salt. However, it contains reports, memoranda, bulletins and edicts, either whole or in part and written at the time, with precise dates and locations, the authenticity of which cannot be doubted. There are also a number of lengthy articles written by Polish historians that attempt to analyse various facets of what was, during the war, a chaotic, deeply traumatic and confusing situation and for which there may never be a definitive resolution. The book shows clearly enough that the German occupiers were beastly to Poles and Jews alike, that the Polish population on the whole behaved badly towards their Jewish compatriots but not infrequently also behaved with great courage in hiding or assisting Jews, and that the suffering of the Jews was indescribable - they were between the hammer and the anvil.
The editors make it clear from the start that their book differs from others written about that period: (a) it reveals many authentic Polish and German documents; (b) the writings of Polish historians (one of them one of the ‘Righteous among the Nations’ at Yad Vashem) are made available to Anglophone readers for the first time; and (c) it illustrates the awful realities prevailing in Poland during the war. Thus, noble and ignoble attitudes co-existed, sometimes curiously intertwined. Evidently the Holocaust has become a major field for study in Poland since 1989 and the Poles are still trying to come to terms with what transpired in the war years. Readers who believe that Polish anti-Semitism has a lot to answer for will find their views confirmed, but those who feel that nothing was black-and-white in those terrible years and that many Poles showed compassion, often risking their lives, likewise can derive support for their point of view. As the title implies, Poland was indeed an inferno and the choices citizens often had to make were dire in the extreme.
The documents vary from an announcement in 1939 by the Executive Authority of the Jewish Religious Community on the time limit for the enforced move into the Warsaw ghetto, a circular from a senior SS Commander in November 1939 on the resettlement of Jews and Poles, to the minutes of a meeting, on 16 December 1941, of the cabinet of the General Government on Jewish policy ‘towards their total elimination’, and a bulletin, published underground, sternly banning Poles from joining an auxiliary force to guard barracks in labour camps. Underground publications frequently warned Poles not to collaborate with the Germans: ‘Whoever is silent in the face of murder becomes an accomplice in it. Whoever does not condemn - condones ... Let us, Polish Catholics, speak up’ (August 1942). Other underground publications speak of the Jews as ‘the enemy’ whilst at the same time calling for compassion.
The historical articles are detailed and varied. One deals with the life of Jews ‘on the Aryan side’, i.e. living in hiding outside the ghetto and therefore largely dependent on assistance from Poles. This assistance was sometimes given altruistically but, in the majority of cases, by payment. Another article gives details of denunciatory letters written by Poles, their motives very often being greed or the settling of scores rather than anti-Semitism per se (70 per cent of such letters concerned non-Jewish citizens). Others still discussed the problem of anti-Semitism and collaboration with the Germans, the problems of Jews hiding in the countryside, the help given to Jews in one particular area (Rzeszow), and the question of payments and extortions (and sometimes denunciations) on the part of ‘helpers’. In July 1943 the Foreign Affairs Section of the Government Delegation of Poland acknowledged that there continued to be strong resentment towards the Jewish population and called for the resettlement of its survivors in a ‘national centre’ (location unspecified)!
The final section deals with ‘szaber frenzy’ (the word ‘szaber’ stems from the Hebrew ‘szdbar’ (to break) that erupted in the Polish population near the end and in the first two years after the war - a frenzy of indiscriminate looting and pillaging on a grand scale by people who were by then totally demoralised by the dreadful and chaotic conditions in which they had had to eke out their lives for six long years.
This is a book I commend to anyone who wants to know what happened in that tragic country during the war years, in which as many as three million Poles are estimated to have died in dire circumstances. It may not give us a definitive picture but it is an important step towards that objective.

Leslie Baruch Brent

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