A tangled web

Polish-Jewish Relations
in Wartime Northeastern Poland

and the Aftermath

Mark Paul


Toronto 2010

© Mark Paul and Polish Educational Foundation in North America (Toronto), 2010

A Tangled Web is a revised and expanded version of an article that appeared in

The Story of Two Shtetls, Brańsk and Ejszyszki, Part Two

published by The Polish Educational Foundation in North America, 1998

Table of Contents

Part Three: Conquest and Revenge

German Measures to Curtail Contacts and Poison Relations

Between Poles and Jews …3

Lawlessness and Banditry …27

The Polish Underground Takes Measures Against Banditry ..109

The War Against “Collaborators” ..116

Civilian Massacres—The Case of Koniuchy ..138

The Soviets Lay the Groundwork for Poland’s Subjugation ..186

Jews in Communist Uniforms Settle Scores ..200

On a Collision Course with Poles ..249

Part Four: Some Closing Observations

Conclusion ..320

Afterword ..332

Select Bibliography ..362

Part Three: Conquest and Revenge

The Brigade Headquarters decided to raze Koniuchy

to the ground to set an example to others. One evening

a hundred and twenty of the best partisans … set out in

the direction of the village. There were about 50 Jews

among them … The order was not to leave any one alive.

With torches prepared in advance, the partisans burned

down the houses, stables, and granaries, while opening

heavy fire on the houses. … The mission was completed

within a short while. Sixty households, numbering about

300 people, were destroyed, with no survivors.

Chaim Lazar

German Measures to Curtail Contacts and Poison Relations Between Poles and Jews

The notion that Poles were endemically hostile towards Jews and simply attacked Jews because of racial or religious motives has little basis in fact. By and large, relations between Jews and Poles in the countryside had traditionally been peaceful and were not marred by the type of incidents that occurred from time to time in cities and towns. This situation prevailed in the Generalgouvernement during the first years of the occupation, as numerous German reports and Jewish testimonies confirm.

A Jewish witness who frequently traversed the Polish countryside recalled the conditions he had observed in Lublin province in the early years of the German occupation:

Traveling through the Polish countryside in the summer of 1940, the uninformed observer could get the impression that life continued relatively peacefully in those small communities. Most men still wore their Eastern Jewish attire; old Jews, looking like patriarchs out of the Bible were standing dignified in front of their houses, the Star of David on their arms. This picture already belonged to the past in the big cities. It was also pleasing to notice that most Polish peasants treated the Jews in a rather friendly way. They seemed more tolerant than gentiles in the larger centers. Denunciations were exceptional.1

According to a diary entry from July 1942, by Jewish chronicler Avraham Lewin,

As for the Poles in the small towns [near Warsaw] that I have listed … Their relationship to the Jews has recently—according to my informant (and the voice of the people is as the voice of God)—become better, friendly. She sensed sympathy, and a sharing of the Jews’ suffering, on the part of the Polish population.2

Even in areas incorporated into the Reich, Jews in small towns (though not in Łódź) were not cut off entirely from the outlying Polish population. In Bełchatów, a town near Łódź,

Until the German-Russian war began in 1941, the Jewish population of Belchatow was integrated into the everyday life of the town. Craftsmen and weavers continued their work illegally, and when someone was caught, he bought himself free after paying a bribe. At night smugglers transported textiles to the Gouvernement and brought back shoemakers accessories such as leather, nails, pegs, and other things, tailors accessories, cigarettes, candles, in other words everything that was not available in our town. Jews displaced from surrounding villages snuck back to their former houses and smuggled butter, eggs, meat, as well as other agricultural products for us.

Thanks to the group of Jews mentioned above, the rest of us were able to survive, some by trading, some acting as middlemen. In other words, nobody was starving. The people sold everything that they possessed, willing to survive at any price. They knew that the future would be better, without fears or war, and they expected this new life and the end of the war very soon.3

Outside of Warsaw, where Jews brought in from outlying towns became the vulnerable underclass, prone to hunger and disease,4 ghettos—especially the smaller ones—did not experience starvation, thanks to their continuing contacts with Poles, with whom Jews continued to do business. An account from Mława states:

Yet despite what we considered to be oppressive conditions, during the first fifteen months of Nazi occupation, the Jews of Mlawa [Mława] were more fortunate than Jews in other cities … The city remained open, and no ghetto was established … For the most part, we were permitted to continue living in our homes. Although Jews were not permitted to own businesses, those who owned merchandise were able to do business secretly. Farms surrounding our city continued to produce plentiful supplies of food, which the farmers frequently brought to the city and made available to us. Secretly, my father would personally make contact with the visiting farmers and let them know that he had merchandise for sale. He would invite those who showed interest to come to our house to complete a sale. … There was enough food available in Mlawa during that period.5

After leaving the Warsaw ghetto, where conditions were described as abysmal for the poorer Jews, Jerry Koeing moved to the small town of Kosów Lacki where he found conditions entirely bearable: “When we arrived, we found that … things were absolutely normal there.”6

In Grajewo, in the Białystok district, up until November 1942,

Economically, life was not of the worst in the Ghetto. It can be said that during its existence, there was no starvation there. …

The Nazi authorities permitted the peasants of the surrounding villages to bring food, peat, and wood into the ghetto. The peasants who had come to market on the specified days, would drive straight to the ghetto, without even stopping at the general market place. On these days, the streets of the ghetto would be choked with wagons as at a fair in the old days, and the Jews would buy out all the produce. This created the following paradox: The Jews who were walled-in the ghetto, completely isolated, had more essential commodities than the Polish population outside. The latter were forced to buy these essentials [at marked-up prices] from the Jews in the Ghetto.7

The situation was much the same in the nearby town of Goniądz:

The Jewish population of Goniondz [Goniądz] consisted of three classes. The first were the rich who were merchants before the War and also manufacturers of such items as leather goods and shoes. They didn’t have to work for a living. Most of them had hidden their goods in bunkers or among peasants they knew in the villages. From time-to-time, they would sell off a bit of goods, which were high-priced then, and buy food and other necessities. They could have existed like this for years.

The second class, consisting of craftsmen, didn’t have things so bad either. Their ten fingers were enough to earn a living. The peasants paid well for their work because the supply of craftsmen was limited. … Because they paid a fixed sum to the Judenrat, the craftsmen did not have to do forced labor. …

The third class consisted of poor people, who had even been poor pre-war. They had it much worse than anyone else. They were the small merchants who had run the grocery stores. At one time they had had a small amount of goods, but now it was eaten up or sold during the first few months of the War. They were, therefore, part of the squeezed Jews. They did business with the peasants and bartered their Sabbath clothes, furniture which they had received as wedding gifts, tools … Since a money economy didn’t exist for the peasants, a barter system was instituted. All transactions were underground, because there were huge penalties if one was caught.8

Despite repeated German warnings, trade with the local population assumed massive proportions:

In Turobin [south of Lublin], one of the hundreds of Jewish towns scattered around Poland, where I had fled from the Warsaw ghetto, the strong arm of the Germans was not felt. … At the same time that so many people were dying daily in the [Warsaw] ghetto, life went on as usual in Turobin—shoemakers made boots for farmers, tailors made them coats; my Uncle Michael traveled around the village … selling notions. The Jews of the town continued to pray each morning, in their synagogue. There was poverty, but no one was starving. The Germans forced the villagers to supply them with a quantity of gold or merchandise such as leather or pelts, and threatened them if they refused—and the rich complained, but they paid. From time to time, the Germans imposed compulsory work details and later, the SS passed through the village and killed dozens of Jews for no reason, but life had somehow returned to normal. No one in Turobin, or in the many similar villages, could imagine that their days were numbered, that the Germans were going to kill all of the Jews without exception—could a normal human being imagine such a thing?9

Suzin, the work manager, had been a functionary in the Magistrate’s Court before World War II … Now, he had become a beggar for contributions from the workers in his group. For example, the workers supplied Suzin with bread and butter, honey, cheese, and eggs. In exchange, he did not hurry them at their work, and even allowed them to leave work when they wanted. There were workers who came in the morning to register with him and afterwards they would leave for the entire day, to trade with workers from Bialystok [Białystok]. The men from Sokoly [Sokoły] traded with the men from Bialystok for food, clothing, shoes, fabrics, and leather smuggled from the Bialystok Ghetto. The smugglers would earn tens and hundreds of marks in a day from their trading.

The majority of the workers in Suzin’s group did not work ver much. Every one of them held a spade or a hoe in his hand on the pretext that he was working. When a “Krok” (German gendarme) was relieved from guard duty, they began to work energetically. Suzin himself took care not to be tripped up by the German supervisors. When he saw at a distance a German or the Grandfather, who came from time to time to supervise the work, Suzin would immediately shout, in Polish, “Kalopczi, wada!” [“Chłopcy, woda!”] (“Boys, water!”). Everyone understood that now they must work intensively for a few minutes.10

In many areas, daily life continued much in the usual way until the deportations began in 1942. Relations with the local population were generally favourable, much to the dissatisfaction of the Germans. Poles continued to trade with Jews as they did before the war. Jews frequently stole out of the ghettos to sell goods and brought back food and other items, or they established contacts with Poles who smuggled farmers’ produce into the ghettos, which were resold for a handsome profit.11 The Germans decided to take action to put a stop to this. On July 3, 1941, Gazeta Częstochowska, an official German newspaper published in Polish, complained: “The cases multiply, when Polish peasants, impelled by dangerous sympathy for the Jewish rabble, smuggle products into the ghetto and sell them at even cheaper prices than to their own Polish brethren. Such persons are warned of severe measures against them.”12 The county supervisor (starosta) of Puławy, Lublin province, reported that “a significant portion” of the Polish population demonstrated compassion toward Jews.”13 In October 1941, the German county supervisor in Kraśnik, in that same province, remarked with incensed incredulity: “according to my observations, the enforcement of this decree [i.e., forbidding the Jews to leave the Jewish quarter] is absolutely necessary because in my entire two years of duty in the East I have never experienced a situation where the Jews wander in such a [free] manner from one locality to another as I have observed here.” In January 1942, the Nazis again voiced their anger about the fact that there was no negative reaction on the part of Poles toward Jewish beggars.14 In their view, the “problem” of the local population coming to the aid of Jews was widespread and persistent, and for that reason stricter measures had to be implemented to eradicate it. Gazeta Lwowska, an official German daily published in the Polish language, stated on April 11, 1942:

It is unfortunate that the rural population continue—nowadays furtively—to assist Jews, thus doing harm to the community, and hence to themselves, by this disloyal attitude. Villagers take advantage of all illegal ways, applying all their cunning and circumventing regulations in order to supply the local Jewry with all kinds of foodstuffs in every amount. …

The rural population must be cut off and separated from the Jews, once and for all, must be weaned from the extremely anti-social habit of assisting the Jews.15

As we shall see, the Germans soon imposed the death penalty in occupied Poland for all such transgressions—something unheard of in Western Europe and rarely used in Eastern Europe.

The Germans played a large part in encouraging and exploiting friction between the conquered peoples and in pitting them against each other. Historians Tatiana Berenstein and Adam Rutkowski write:

The Nazis contrived in every way possible to provoke resentment and animosity between the national groups. For example, in February 1941 the warders for a Jewish labour camp were recruited from among Poles and Ukrainians, while early the same year the occupation authorities in Będzin employed Jews in compiling the registers of Poles liable to deportation from the town. Again, in the spring of 1942, five Jews were assigned for wholly clerical duties to the Treblinka I labour camp for Poles. Expedients like these all made for a continuous embitterment and vitiation of relations between Poles and Jews.16

These examples could be multiplied. For instance, in the hard-labour camp for Poles in Płaszów, many functions—including hanging Polish inmates—were assigned to Jewish prisoners from the adjoining concentration camp.17 In Auschwitz, Polish inmates were processed by Jews and vice versa.18

The Germans also unleashed a barrage of anti-Semitic propaganda that played into the prejudices of some Poles and fostered anti-Polish feelings among Jews. Berenstein and Rutkowski comment on the scope of this divisive tactic:

In support of their policy of persecution of the Jews in Poland the Nazi authorities mounted a vast propaganda campaign of ferocious virulence which preyed on the lowest instincts of the unenlightened sections of the population. The Nazi Polish-language gutter press … strove unremittingly to whip up the Poles against the Jews. New posters continually appeared on the walls, in trams, in railway stations and other public places vilifying the Jews.19

According to one Jewish survivor, “We also did not think about why they [the Germans] wanted to kill us. We knew that we were like rats. Their propaganda not only influenced the Gentiles, it also influenced us Jews. It took away from us our human dignity.”20 Jews played into this strategy by spreading anti-Polish propaganda in the ghettos, going so far as to claim that the Poles were inciting the Germans. A wartime report from the Warsaw ghetto spoke of the author’s efforts to convince Jews “about the feelings in Polish society towards the Jews. They are inciting the occupier against the Jews, in order to save themselves by this stratagem.” He also questioned the sincerity of the Polish democratic opposition and preached about the “abject baseness of behavior among the Poles.”21 Not surprisingly, Emanuel Ringelblum notes, in his wartime journal, that hatred towards Polish Christians grew in the Warsaw ghetto because it was widely believed that they were responsible for the economic restrictions that befell the Jews.22 Many Jews could not comprehend why it was they, rather than the Poles, who were suffering the brunt of the German brutality.

Of course, the Germans played it both ways. While disseminating anti-Polish propaganda among the Jews, they also claimed to be their protectors. One Jew recalls:

I remembered the order to assemble on the lawn in front of the Judenrat headquarters in Grabowiec, the announcement that all the Jews of Grabowiec would be ‘resettled’ in Hrubieszow [Hrubieszów], where the SS officer had told us, the Jews would live and work together in a miniature ‘Jewish state,’ protected by the kindly German authorities from the wrath of the local Gentile populace.23

In Słonim,

As soon as the Jews were enclosed in the ghetto, the head of the German gendarmerie … and his deputy … called all the Jews to a meeting, where they were assured there would be no more Aktions. They said the previous Aktion had been a Polish provocation, and that as long as Jews worked hard, they would survive the war.24

In view of this constant bombardment of propaganda it is not surprising that some Poles repeated such diatribes, just as some Jews resorted to anti-Polish barbs.25

Because warnings, anti-Semitic propaganda, and sanctions such as fines and imprisonment failed to curb Polish behaviour and isolate the Jews, which was a precondition for their annihilation, the Germans felt compelled to introduce Draconian measures to curtail contacts between Poles and Jews, to the fullest extent possible. A circular issued on September 21, 1942, by the SS and Police Chief in Radom District, outlined and justified those measures in the following terms:

The experience of the last few weeks has shown that Jews, in order to evade evacuation, tend to flee from the small Jewish residential districts [i.e., ghettos] in the communities above all.

These Jews must have been taken in by Poles. I am requesting you to order all mayors and village heads as soon as possible that every Pole who takes in a Jew makes himself guilty under the Third Ordinance on restrictions on residence in the Government General of October 15, 1941 (GG Official Gazette, p. 595).

As accomplices are also considered those Poles who feed run-away Jews or sell them foodstuffs, even if they do not offer them shelter. Whatever the case, these Poles are liable to the death penalty.26

These warnings were not hollow. Adolf Folkmann recalled the scenes he had witnessed in June 1943 during the final liquidation of the ghetto in Lwów:

After a day or so the action extended beyond the Ghetto confines into the town. S.S. and Ukrainian Militia looked everywhere for escaped Jews. The corpses of Poles who had been discovered giving shelter to Jews and the corpses of the Jews themselves could be seen all over the town, in the streets, in the squares and in all residential quarters. The extent of the terror increased. Hundreds of non-Jewish Poles who had made themselves suspect were murdered. The S.S. indulged in an orgy of blood-lust, and for three weeks no law existed in Lwow [Lwów] but their arbitrary will.27

Several thousand Christian Poles—men, women and children, entire families and even whole communities—were tortured to death, summarily executed, or burned alive by the Germans for rendering assistance to Jews.28 Such harsh punitive measures, coupled with their own mistreatment at the hands of the German occupiers, naturally had an impact on the attitude of the local population. According to historian Arno Mayer, they “became indifferent to the torments of the Jews less because of any residual Judeophobia than because they, too, were being terrorized and brutalized, even if to a lesser extent.”29

The ability of the average Pole to extend assistance to anyone, for any significant period of time, was also severely circumscribed by the poverty that afflicted most of the population. Even before the war Poland was one of the poorest countries in Europe and its workers were among the lowest paid. The average working family occupied a one-room dwelling, usually without a toilet and running water, often without electricity, and almost never with gas. These tiny dwellings were generally occupied by five or more people. The Great Depression hit Poland hard and the country struggled to try to attain pre-World War I economic levels. In the countryside, millions of impoverished families lived on small farms.30 After the German invasion, conditions deteriorated considerably. It was practically impossible for the vast majority of town dwellers to accommodate and care for a Jew. Any assistance provided was therefore generally short term. The advantage that farmers had over town dwellers was space, in the form of a barn and a small plot of land, and privacy, provided their farm was at the edge of or outside the village, but rarely did they have enough food to share to provide for others for an extended period. Thus Jewish charges often had to rely on a number of Poles to survive.

The notion that Poles were eager to see the Jews being deported and relished in their misfortune is discredited by observers and historians, as well as by many Jewish memoirs.31 General Johannes Blaskowitz, commander of the Eighth German Army during the September 1939 campaign and subsequently Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Territories, wrote to Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch, the Commander-in-Chief of the German Army, in his report of February 6, 1940: “The acts of violence carried out in public against Jews are arousing in religious Poles [literally, “in the Polish population, which is fundamentally pious (or God-fearing)”] not only the deepest disgust but also a great sense of pity for the Jewish population.”32 Most Poles were appalled at the treatment the Germans meted out to Jews. A survivor from Radom recalled:

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