A tangled web

All inmates of the Szkolna Street camp [in Radom] were lined up by the Germans and ordered to march in the direction of Opoczno. The S.S. men hurried the tardy marchers along with the aid of their clubs and whips. The Jews all marched together—old men, women, children and the sick. … They passed farms and hamlets and noticed how the Polish villagers locked themselves behind their doors, hoping thus to shut out the sight of the Jewish prisoners walking and falling again toward an unknown destination. …

They were marched to the railroad station to board a train; no one suspected that these were death trains speeding to the crematoria. Some of the Polish railroad men working on the wheels of the locomotive whispered to the prisoners:

“You poor beggars, they’re taking you to Auschwitz. Save yourselves, if you can.”33

A Jewish underground journal, Undzere Weg, wrote on March 1, 1942:

The Poles, who avoided any negotiations and contacts with the Germans and who didn’t want to hear anything about establishing a Polish government which would obey the Germans and their rulers, announced their sympathy for the tortured Jews on every occasion. That was the reaction from members of the Polish intelligentsia, the Polish workers and peasants; they stressed that the Poles, as a people with beliefs, a politically mature people, would not be tempted to catch the racial hook. … The occupier did everything in his power to isolate the Jews from the Poles.34

A thorough review of the Polish underground press of all political stripes has not found any evidence of approval for the Holocaust; on the contrary, those involved in atrocities committed against the Jews were unequivocally condemned by all political factions, including those on the extreme right.35

We must be cautious in attributing mere “indifference” to the passivity most of the population (including the vast majority of the Jews) demonstrated in the face of relentless German terror. Such charges are unpalatable if they come from the mouth or pen of someone who personally does not have an exemplary record of heroism. Fair-minded Jews who lived through those times aschew such generalizations. Rabbi Abraham D. Feffer, a Holocaust survivor from Drobin, wrote:

Yet many fortunate survivors from my own shtetl, remember well and with great fondness and admiration the help of the brave Christian farmers who lived in nearby villages where we worked on cold winter days. (In Poland, hiding a Jew, or feeding him was punishable by death, usually hanging). We remember how these men and women, at great peril, opened their poor “chatkis” [cottages] to share with us warm soup, bread and potatoes.36

Z. Ben-Moshe from the town of Łask wrote about both named and unnamed rescuers none of whom have ever been recognized as Righteous by Yad Vashem:

We must remined [sic—be mindful of] all those people, not Jews, who gave their hand to save many of our town when they escaped from the Nazi murderers. Also in Lask [Łask] there were good christians [sic] who suffered seeing how the Jews of their town suffered. In the hard days of distress and banishment, they endangered themselves by hiding Jews and giving them from their bread. Gabrionchik and his wife from Lask [Łask]; he gave documents and food [to] two escapers: Vovtche Raichbard and Shmuel Friedman. A Christian woman emerged as a saver-angel, when they had to pass the boundary of the German protectorate [i.e., into the Generalgouvernement]. Heinzel, Skibinski [Skibiński]’s son-in-law, guided the two to the Polish secret organization in order to receive German documents, and hid them in his home some days. He gave them the address of Zvi Michalovitz in Grushkovitza [Gorzkowice], and did so that they would be accepted by a priest, who was the chief of the secret organization in this place. This priest, whose name is unknown, accepted them with bright face, and immediately gave them the necessary documents. The young Christian, who knew they were Jews, hid them in her parents’ house, telling them these two are Polish officers from Varsha [Warsaw], who escaped from the Gestapo.

The Polish policeman Krakovski [Krakowski], who saved Zvi Michalovitz from the death-waggon [sic], just in the last minute, and brought him to a refuge place. The family Banashchiek, who hid him in the threshing-floor, and gave him all he needed for lessons he gave their children in the nights. … The villagers who disperse pieces of bread and turnip on the ways, for the caravans of hungry people, who went under the watching of the S.S. The villagers who gave their shoes to barefooted and weak. How can we forget the villagers who refused to give food [to] the watchers of the women-caravans who were transported from work-camp. Shraga Noiman tells about a Polish boy who worked as an electrician in Kolomna. He offered to save the whole group of Jews that worked there, and to transfer them to a secure place near Varsha. This electrician and his fellows, who acted a period of time to save Jews, were caught at last by the Nazis.37

Cantor Matus Radzivilover, formerly of Warsaw, who survived the war in hiding, stated:

I never had the tendency to be a nationalist. I am positively devoted to my Jewish brethren and I am proud of my heritage, but I also loved the country of my birth, Poland. I loved my neighbors, the Poles I grew up with and lived with in love and peace. I never accused them of failing to help us because they were in great danger themselves. Hundreds of thousands of them were killed or deported to concentration camps. They paid their price under Nazism, too. Hitler’s intentions were to exterminate the Poles after he was done with the Jews.38

About the Poles’ reaction to the plight of the Jews, Raul Hilberg, whose knowledge of archival sources is second to none, wrote:

For some right-wing Poles, who had always wanted the Jews to depart, the deportations came virtually as a wish fulfillment. The broader center, however, had more complex thoughts. Poles knew that they were not a favored group in German eyes, and the realization that the end had come for the Jews inevitably raised questions whether the Poles would be next. The reaction was observed in Volhynia, and it surfaced again in the Lublin District, where the Germans followed their roundup of the Jews with a more benign, but forcible resettlement of Poles from one zone to another.39

Overall, the general Polish population is not mentioned in German documents in respect of its participation as harassing Jews and helping the Germans. To the contrary; many German reports indicate that Poles felt anxiety for their own safety after the Jews disappeared. There are some German documents that mention some Poles, notably Polish police, railroad-workers and low-level employees in German offices but there was no Polish central authority collaborating with the Germans, as we find in e.g. Norway and its Quisling government or France and its Vichy regime. This was never the case in Poland.

As was the case in many European countries, there were also Polish individuals that played extortion games with Jews, but then there were also Poles that helped Jews under risk of facing death penalty from the German occupants. Both categories were relatively small in comparison to the general population, albeit one must take into consideration that most survivors made it through the war by Polish help and protection. A friend of mine, Bronia Klebanski, who is Jewish but lived on the “Aryan” side of society and was an active member of the Jewish underground in the Bialystok [Białystok] area, once told me a story of how she at a time took the train during the war, and was suddenly pointed out by a little girl who yelled “Jew!”. All the Polish passengers sat quietly, and nobody said anything to instigate further interest. This account is a small example of the general practice of non-collaboration among the Poles during the war.

… In Ukraine, contrary to Poland, where the Germans built secluded death camps, Jews were often massacred on the spot. The Nazi death camps in occupied Poland such as Treblinka, Belzec [Bełżec], Sobibor [Sobibór] and Chelmno [Chełmno] were all hidden to the public.40

Of all the native police forces in occupied Eastern Europe, those of Poland were least involved in anti-Jewish actions. … The Germans could not view them as collaborators, for in German eyes they were not even worthy of that role. They in turn could not join the Germans in major operations against Jews or Polish resistors, lest they be considered traitors by virtually every Polish onlooker. Their task in the destruction of the Jews was therefore limited.41

Contrary to their portrayal by some historians, Poles did not all rush to take over Jewish property after their deportation by the Germans. In Biała Rawska, abandoned Jewish homes remained empty throughout the war, and it was only with the encouragement of the Communist regime that they were occupied by the local poor.42 A Polish partisan recalled:

Several weeks after the deportation of the Jews of Klimontow [Klimontów], the Nazis held an auction of the property left in the Jewish homes. As an eyewitness of the auction, I know for sure that no one in our village of Jeziory or in the neighboring villages bought anything at that auction. Our good people were saying, “Why should we buy Jewish property from the Nazi criminals? As soon as they liquidate the Jews, they will begin liquidating us.”43

A wartime diary describes the impact of the harsh measures taken by the Germans in Sokoły near Białystok, where Jews had fled from the ghetto by the hundreds but soon returned unable to withstand conditions in the forests.

Notices had been posted in all the villages—warnings to the residents that anyone hiding a Jew would be punished by death. Notices were also sent to each head of a village council (Soltis [sołtys]), stating that every farmer was obligated to inform the Soltis about where Jews could be found and to reveal the places where Jews were hiding. Anyone who handed a Jew over to the regime would be awarded a prize, and anyone hiding information about the location of Jews would be punished severely.

The warnings spread panic and fear among the farmers. Even close friends who had been prepared to help the Jews in their trouble were afraid of endangering their own lives and the lives of their families.44

The Germans conducted countless raids in the countryside, often conscripting the local population for this task, and apprehend most of the Jews who had escaped from the ghettos. The following account, by a Jewish survivor from a village near Zambrów, tells how his Polish rescuer and the largely friendly or passive villagers were transformed into “Jew hunters” by order of the German authorities.

Every evening, under cover of darkness, I made my way alone to Tishke’s house. At a pre-arranged time, I waited for him in a field behind the cowshed and he would bring us food, including bread, milk and other items. We wanted to pay Tishke for all the help he had given us, but he refused to hear of it.

One dark night, Yudke and I decided to leave our families in the forest hideout and visit our friend Biali [Biały].

When we arrived at his house he welcomed us with open arms. … We continued to make occasional nocturnal excursions to visit him, in order to wash and to obtain food. …

On one of our visits Biali said that we should all come over to his house, women and children included, so that we could all wash ourselves, have a proper meal and relax. …

It was getting late, when suddenly there was a knock at the door. Biali did not open it at once, he first rushed us to a hiding place, some room at the back of the house where we sat with bated breath. The unexpected visitor was Biali’s neighbor. He entered the house, complaining that he had been kept waiting, and that he had something urgent to say that could not be delayed. The neighbor informed Biali that a meeting was about to take place in the house of the Commissar and that attendance was compulsory. The meeting was all about the Jews who had managed to escape to the forests and who were receiving aid from the villagers. …

A few hours later he returned. It was clear from his report that the following day the Germans had arranged for a thorough roundup of all Jews hiding in the forests. This time the armed Germans would not rely on the villagers to carry out this deed, they themselves would be in charge and every effort would be made to cover all the ground; the villagers would act as their assistants. At the meeting, the villagers were warned that anyone caught helping the Jews by providing food or shelter would share their fate. We were taken aback by this information. I told Biali that I did not want him to endanger himself for our sakes, but he insisted that we were not to leave until after the roundup. …

The following day the search and the roundup began. Biali, like all the villagers joined in at the command of the Germans, but before he left he made sure to hide the women and children in the potato store pit. Yudke and I hid in the hayloft. From our hiding place we were within earshot of the mayhem: the creams, the gunshots, the sound of weeping and the curses. Much thought and rigorous preparation had gone into the planning of this roundup and it resulted in many victims being killed or wounded. Those who the Germans did not kill were caught and deported.

By evening, everything was completely quiet. The mission was accomplished and the villagers who aided the Germans were released. Biali came to our hiding place quaking with fear …

Biali told us that he was sorry, but he could no longer give us shelter. He would continue to supply us with food as far as he was able, but it was too dangerous for him and his family to continue to let us stay in his home. He mounted his horse and went off to town to find out what had really happened.

On his return, he informed us that those who were caught, and there were many, had been taken to Chervony Bur [Czerwony Bór] and were let loose there for one evening. They were free to walk around the town to make as many purchases as they wished before being deported to the work camp at Zambrov [Zambrów]. The Germans knew that they could not escape; they had nowhere to go.

There was a heavy snowfall that day …45

Jews, and their Polish benefactors, could also be discovered in the many raids Germans conducted to apprehend young Poles for forced labour in the Reich. A Jew who was hidden in a village near Kałuszyn recalled:

The distant roar of motors tell us the village is surrounded. People are fleeing in terror. …

Suddenly huge hounds, followed by German police on bicycles … All helmeted, rifles swung over their shoulders, pistols at their side. …

They went from house to house and ransacked every attic, cellar, and barn. They were looking for young men to send as forced labor to Germany. There was no hiding from them. They smashed walls and found camouflaged bunkers. They searched everywhere …

This wasn’t the first raid on the village. We’ve already lived through several dozen such searches. They always last about a day …46

Although one often reads stories about posses of villagers organizing “spontaneously” to rid the area of Jews hiding in the forests, the reality was quite different. The following account describes conditions in the environs of Chełm, where the Germans pacified the village of Wereszczyn on May 26, 1942. After providing assistance to escaped Soviet prisoners of war, at least one of whom was in the services of the Nazis and denounced them, fourteen villagers were executed and the village was set on fire. The Germans also used this opportunity to strike at the local Jewish population.

After the pacification of Wereszczyn the Germans still did not give us peace. They travelled to villages and caught people to ship to Germany [for forced labour]. … In the following months of 1942, the Germans carried out raids to capture Jews hiding in the forests.

The manhunts for Jews looked like this. There was a German gendarmerie outpost in Cyców, and in Urszulin there was an outpost of the Polish police, the so-called “blue” police. The commander of the “blue” police in Urszulin was a certain G. [Grajek]. The manhunt was organized by the Germans, and those who executed it were the “blue” police and peasants. On instructions from the Germans the local authorities ordered the village administrators [sołtys] to round up peasants from the surrounding villages and have them take part in the manhunt. …

In December 1942 German gendarmes rounded up peasants from several villages for the manhunt. They caught one Jew, and later I saw two or three more who were shot dead. Of our Jews from Wereszczyn poor Alta and his son were hiding in the forest. They sat in a stack of grain at Podstawski’s farm. During this manhunt the peasant Stacho D. ran there with his pitchfork and chased out these two Jews of ours. The commander of the “blue” police in Urszulin, named G., told them to undress, remove their shoes, and then shot both of them. This was strange because that same G. had transported our Maszka [Miriam Zonsztajn, a five-year-old Jewish girl] to a grandmother named [Marianna] Kozłowska in Urszulin. First he procured a certificate for her in the name of Maria Kozłowska. … Later the Germans killed him in the Lublin Castle [which had been turned into a prison—M.P.]. Supposedly this was for his cooperation with the underground. In any event commander G. saved Maszka, but shot Alta and his son. …

The peasant Stacho D., who hunted down Alta and his son, perished during that manhunt in December. Nobody felt sorry for him. He was a bad fellow. Earlier Stacho D. had caught a Polish boy by the name of Lolek Biernacki, who was escaping from Germans who were pursuing him. He caught him and turned him over to the Germans. A German took out his revolver and shot Lolek. He was an innocent boy. Then he hunted down Alta and his son in the stack of grain and sent them to their deaths. Finally, during the December manhunt, someone mentioned the three Soviet prisoners of war hiding in the forest. Stacho D. was so zealous that he perished while hunting them down. The Soviets were soldiers and did not allow themselves to be apprehended so easily. One of them perished, but first he had shot Stacho D., who wanted to block their escape route. Nobody felt sorry for him. And the two Soviet prisoners of war who managed to survive the manhunt escaped to [the nearby village of] Wincencin.47

As this account shows, both the local police and peasants were simply ordered to participate in manhunts organized by the Germans. Few of them displayed ardour in the tasks meted out to them, and those who did often had an equally grim track record when it came to other victims of Nazi repressions, regardless of their nationality, and their actions were generally frowned on by the community. This was true in other places as well where denouncers of Jews became social outcasts.48 In many rural localities, the Jewish police was also employed to round up Jews working in the countryside and bring them to town for deportation to the camps.

At the beginning of November 1942, Jewish militia men went to all the villages near Hrubieszów, and also to the small towns, in which Jews still remained, with an order to the wójt [village mayor] and the mayor, that all Jews must appear … in Hrubieszów. In fact, all of them appeared.49

The manhunts in the countryside pale in comparison with the round-ups of hundreds of thousands of Jews in large the ghettos of Warsaw, Lublin, Sosnowiec, Częstochowa, Kraków, Łódź, and others, which were carried out not by the Polish police, but by the Jewish police, often with the assistance of Ukrainian or Baltic policemen, with little or no direct German participation. Poles were in no way responsible for the ghettoization of the Jews and were every bit as powerless to stop the deportations as the Jews themselves were.50 Efforts to assist Jews were fraught with danger and often unsuccessful. Barbara Szacka, an eminent sociologist, recalls an incident that occurred when she was twelve years of age:

In the summer of 1942 my brother and I went to see a cousin who worked in Biadoliny, a village near the Kraków-Tarnów railway line. Trains carrying Jews and Soviet prisoners of war used to pass by. The trains stopped at the signal. People riding in the trains extended their hands through the small grilled windows of the freight wagons begging for food and water. …

We wanted to help those in the train. There was one obstacle – a German. Dressed in a uniform and armed, he stood between the wagons, but was not visible to the passengers. We tried to explain with grimaces that we wanted to hand a cup of water to the thirsty. We took a step in the direction of the train. Then aother step, while staring at the guard. What will he do? Will he nod his head with approval? Will he go for his rifle? He often went for his rifle, so we backed away.

Those pantomimes with the guard, who was not visible to the people in the wagon, were probably seen by them as mocking them.

My cousin went to the station with a pail of water and backed away when threatened with a rifle. An old Jew in the train, who did not see the entire situation, then started to curse him terribly. “And you know,” said my cousin, “though I am ashamed to say it, I returned his abuse.”51

Faced with these obstacles, and unable to find hiding places or to cope with severe conditions in the forests, many Jews decided to return to the ghettos on their own. However, their enemies were not the Poles. The vast majority of Poles never harmed a Jew during the war, nor did they harbour any such intention. During one of the last Aktions in Łuków, when the Germans came to round up Jews working outside the ghetto, their Polish co-workers did not cooperate with the Germans.

A few days later, one of the women who sometimes let me stay at her house brought me a birth certificate froma Polish girl who had died. She asked me to leave and live with her as a Christian, and that her priest would help me. Again, I had to say no—I didn’t want to leave my Tateh [i.e., dad] and brothers. …

In all of Lukow [Łuków] there were only four Poles who openly worked with the Germans, including one man whose wife flicked chickens at the factory. When they came to take us out, a little Jewish boy came running in and she grabbed him to cover him with her skirt. When the Germans came in and asked, “Are there any Jews hiding here?” the Poles all said no.

Tateh was still hidden behind the crates, in an area where about eight Poles were working. Again the Germans asked if Jews were present, and the Poles said no. They never found Tateh and I managed to get him out later, with help from the workers.

After that, the Germans closed the factory and told everyone to go to the ghetto, where, with no access to water, people were starving and suffering from infectious diseases. Many died.52

Conditions in the countryside continued to worsen. As the Germans became more demanding and strict in enforcing contributions of foodstuff from the peasants, there was less and less to go around. The Germans seized more grain and sugar in the Generalgouvernement than in occupied France, Holland, Serbia, and the Czech Protectorate and Moravia combined, and three times as many potatoes as in those countries.53 Much of the Polish population was on the verge of starvation and was in no position to offer extended assistance to strangers. The goodwill of the peasants was also squandered by various partisan and forest groups who treated them as no more than a source of provisions.

Lawlessness and Banditry

Holocaust historians have traditionally laid the blame on the Poles for confrontations between Poles and Jews during the German occupation. A careful analysis of the documentary evidence, however, lends itself to a different conclusion. After analyzing scores of accounts of Jews who escaped from the death camps of Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełżec, historian Teresa Prekerowa, who was active in Żegota, the wartime Council for Aid to Jews, dismissed the notion that anti-Semitism was the driving force behind the reaction of the local population to the plight of Jewish fugitives hiding in the countryside. While denunciations and even altercations did occur, these were not the norm, but rather the activities of a relatively small number of people who were motivated by greed or involved in criminal activity. Prekerowa also notes that Jewish groups often took food and other belongings from farmers by force, something that no farmer appreciated.54

Notwithstanding such research, many Holocaust historians are unable to shed their ethno-nationalist biases or simply haven’t done their homework. Despite adamant denials by historians such as Shmuel Krakowski,55 Jewish partisans and Jews hiding in the forests did engage in banditry and other misdeeds which, from the perspective of the peasants, were indistinguishable from other forms of violent crime that plagued the countryside. Such activity was not, of course, the exclusive or even main domain of the Jews. Common banditry by individuals and various groups of diverse nationalities, sometimes partisans but often just masquerading as partisans (usually as Home Army or National Armed Forces members), abounded and constituted a serious problem for the impoverished civilian population.56 The Communist underground—both Soviet and native—frequently staged robberies and the association of Jews with these formations, who were generally not welcomed by the population, only complicated matters for Jewish refugees hiding in the forests.

Over time Jewish relations with the peasants turned sour largely because of increasingly frequent and violent confrontations over food and other supplies. However, one cannot generalize and accuse all or even most Jews of behaving like common robbers; nor should one accuse all or even most Poles of innate hostility toward Jews. Indeed, there are many recorded cases of entire villages sympathizing with Jewish fugitives and participating in their rescue.57

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