Scholar at the Biuro Edukacji Publicznej/Instytut Pamieci Narodowej, Warszawa, Poland
Research Stay: 17 May to 16 June 2003
The Experience of the Holocaust in a Double Mirror – Reports and Trial Testimonies of Rescued Jews
I've published three editions of historical sources – a collection of testimonies from Jewish fugitives from Central Poland lived between 1939 to 1941 in the Soviet part of occupied Poland, returned to Warsaw on the breach of 1941 and 1942. The activists of underground Zionist Warsaw organization Oneg Sabat (Joy of Saturday) headed by Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum collected theirs testimonies. These materials, deposited in ZIH Archive, reflect the conditions of live during the Soviet occupation and first wave of German and local persecutions. The second source-book which I've published is the report of SS-Gruppenfuehrer Friedrich Katzmann, commander of SS and secret police in district Galicja, concerning the run and effects of Aktion Reinhard in this district. This is nearby General Jurgen Stroop report concerning the annihilation of Warsaw Ghetto the most important German source in Polish archives concerning the Holocaust of Polish Jews. The third collection concerns the Jewish and Polish sources on the fate of the Jews during the summer and autumn 1941 in the former Bialystok province. After finishing an article concerning Pogroms and Massacres of Jews during the Summer of 1941 I've decided to enlagded my account and write a book concerning the region of Jedwabne - small country town near Lomza in the north-east part of Poland occupied between 1939–1941 by Soviet Union – and presented this like my habilitation thesis. For one year Jedwabne is in Poland the best known locality in this region because of fast forgotten event before sixty years. The tenth of July 1941 almost all Jewish inhabitants of this borough were killed and burned alive by their own Polish neighbors in the wood barn located outside the town. This mass killing would be stimulated by German secret police, but remain sure that the main actors were Poles. This event described by Jan Tomasz Gross has opened the one of the biggest Polish historical discussion after WW II. To this moment the discussion about Polish–Jewish relations during the WW II was led only by high strata of Polish society, now the popularity of Gross book – there were published a lot of reviews – opened a new chapter. Before we've discussed about Poles as witnesses of the Holocaust, now we have to consider that in special occasion some Poles took active role in the persecution of Jews. To develop Gross conclusions, which I generally accept, I've carried more precise research in the archives of Jewish Historical Institute, Yad Vashem Archives, the archive of Polish Main Commission for Investigation War Crimes, Gen. Anders Collection from Hoover Institute and of course research in German archives (with help of Prof. Edmund Dmitrow from Bialystok). In ZIH I've find more than forty testimonies of Jewish survivors from this region, written in Yidish, describing the events in summer 1941. In the Main Commission I've searched a collection of judicial documents from criminal investigations and court processes of Poles, who took part in the killing of Jews organized by German (there are know as so called 'sierpniowki' - cases judged by virtue of the decree from 31.08.1944 about the collaboration with German authorities). I found the material concerning more than sixty Poles, accused of participation in about thirty cases of local pogroms of Jews. For the matter of perpetrators, I found between these Poles - condemned or acquitted -the representatives only of low strata of Polish society, the unemployed, poor farmers and craftsmen, lower officials as soltys or wojt. The most of them entered in the so-called local citizen police after departure of the Soviet Army, when the Germans were near theirs towns or passed by. A lot of them served in these units only some weeks, the Germans didn't employ them in the official auxiliary police. In the next years some of this people belonged to the Polish underground. Why all these men took part in the persecution of Jews? I'm not sure of all motifs. During the lawsuits they mostly refused that they took part in the pogrom, accused dead in the war time neighbors or charged guilty the German. The Polish judges rather them acquitted, but we must remember, that the courts always stated the sentences under the pressure of the solidarity of local society. It's also interesting that immediately after the liberation from German occupation the new Polish authority was above all interesting to overcome the massive political and military opposition and used very instrumentally the accusations of collaboration by some Poles in annihilation of Jews by Germans. Some Polish judges, especially in local courts, worked in the judicature yet before the war and were very suspect to new rulers. Very often the suspects gave the depositions under physical pressure. The most visible motif in researched sources is the envy of material goods, houses, clothes, kitchen utensils and of course money and gold. An anti-Semitic, very old indeed connection - a Jew and money, is first of all typical for Polish peasant stereotype of Jewish riches. The second motif was connected with the Soviet occupation, in the researched sources I found some traces that aggression toward Jews was motivated as revenge for their 'crimes' perpetrated during the Soviet times. But all this kind of accusations were very enigmatic, and in this time rather the Polish collaborators were denounced to Germans from this reason. The run of pogroms were very different and I didn't find other so blood-thirsty events as in Jedwabne and placed nearby Radzilow. The number of killed Jews usually didn't surpass thirty to hundred persons. The spectrum of hostile attitude and behavior was very large, from pillage and material extortion up to brutal tortures and murder. The region of Lomza was not unique place where in the summer of 1941 the so-called local pogroms had aroused. Ten years ago, when I started my research about Polish Kresy (territories occupied by Soviets) I estimated that only in the southern part of pre-war Poland (Galicia and Wolyn) broke out more than fifty pogroms, mostly ending with fatal casualties. The main perpetrators were local Ukrainians and their motivation based upon vicious statement that the Jews were responsible for the mass murders of thousands prisoners by escaped Soviets. But as well as in region of Lomza the main target was Jewish property. As concern my possibly stay in Leipzig I'm interesting in comparison the activity of the Polish secret service and judicature in the first years after the war with the practice used by the same services in the others country by Soviets after the two WW. The other question concerns the participation in pogroms the German killings units, Einsatzgruppen and detachments of regular police. Not all recent German books concerning these questions are available in Warsaw. I like to stress that we should connect only some of pogroms with German initiative. Of course the Germans murdered Jews and communists from the beginning, but in the middle of summer 1941 the main German forces were far-off the region of Lomza. Up to creation the fixed occupational administration (independent Bezirk Bialystok) there were here only few small posts of military police and may be one mobile secret police unit sent from Zischenau or Allenstein. So limited forces were not able to organized about 25–30 bloody pogroms. But it's also sure that the presence of Germans dared the local people to persecute their Jewish neighbors. It's seems that the comparable situations were in the summer of 1941 in northern part of Romania (Besarabia) also occupied before by Soviets.
I think that my survey contribute to the better understanding of the very complicating wartime Polish-Jewish relationship. In war times Poles were consolidated by the strong feeling of common danger from the occupant and filed responsible for those who risked their live for national matters. Three million Jews – Polish citizens – were excluded from this war time partnership. Their fate was from the starting point determined by the Nazi racial policy. Poles had no influence nor for German proceeding toward the Jews, nor for the run of the war. Strongly persecuted themselves they wasn't able to intercede for Jews condemned for starvation and later murdered. Polish majority didn't take a mortal risk to hide (en mass scale) their Jewish neighbors when German started so called »Final Solution« of Jewish questions - mass murdering in executions and dead camps. The Jewish-Polish relations changed their character after the mass deportations in 1942. In ghettos Jews were isolated and any help was very difficult. When the deportations had been started a lot of Jews tried to flee from ghettos and looked for hiding-places on the so-called Aryan side. There they were totally depended from the aid of Poles or the other Gentiles. They need exceptional resources to survive, false identity papers, some orientation in Polish and catholic culture, and above all place to go. A considerable part of their Gentile neighbors refused to help them. The question how it was possible, it felt uneasy the Polish society today. First of all the Poles were very frightened, from 21 October 1941 for sheltering the Jews were death-penalty, and to the end of the war some hundreds Poles were executed. Secondly antisemitic feelings were very popular, and a biggest part of Polish low–middle class had been contented from Jewish isolation in ghettos and removal from economy. They took also a certain part of their property. Historians often maintain that the most popular attitude was not an open hostility but a slight forgiveness and indifference. But survivors memorized first of all those who collaborated with German in persecution of Jews and not so numerous righteous men who helped them. For this moment we have some books about Polish Council for Aid to Jews »?egota« and no one about a plague of szmalcownicy (common name of men who delivered Jews to German police or blackmailed them). The third reason was the Polish cliché about Jewish collaboration with the Soviet between 1939-1941, the cliché accepted by broad section of the Polish society. The assistance given by Polish conspiracy to the Jews imprisoned in ghettos or hidden on the Aryan side were insufficient. Some Jews who escaped the ghetto took refuge in the forest, especially in Eastern Poland, but only a few survived the constant German roundups. Peasantry and partisan units, not only Polish, was generally hostile to them for fear of German retaliation. Some peasants collaborated with German and local police in Jews hunting because of the small reward – some kilo sugar, one, two bottle of vodka or cloths from caught up. In Central Poland liberation has waited and seen only one Jewish family unit commanded by Jechel Grynszpan in Parczew forest, more fortunate were Jewish partisans in Eastern Poland, in particular in Naliboki forest (for example Bielski unit). The Second World War had survived on the Polish territory - in hiding, forests and concentration camps – no more than fifty thousand Jews. About two hundred fifty thousand returned from Soviet Union in Polish army or as repatriates. Jewish survivors couldn't return home. Their communities were shattered, their homes and synagogues destroyed or occupied by strangers. They were not welcome in the land of their birth. Some of them decided at once to emigrate to USA or Palestine via displaced persons camps in Western Europe, majority however stayed in Poland two or more years. I hope that my book contribute to better understanding the Polish-Jewish relationship in the time of German occupation.