The August Trials: The Holocaust and Postwar Justice in Poland
Published March, 2021
Harvard University Press
The August Trials: The Holocaust and Postwar Justice in Poland was published in March, 2021 by Harvard University Press. The book addresses post-war trials of World-War-II-era Polish collaborators with the Nazis. Author Andrew Kornbluth focuses on trials of Poles who caught, handed over to German Nazis, or murdered Jews seeking refuge. Kornbluth estimates that Poles killed 'tens of thousands' of Jews. In addition, in the post-war era, Poles killed 'anywhere from 600 to 3,000 Jews.' The August Trials cites previous work by Polish-Canadian scholar Jan Grabowski, author of Hunt for the Jews, Polish scholars Dariusz Libionka, Alina Skibinska, and Barbara Engelking, and Polish-American scholar Jan Tomasz Gross. Kornbluth is a Research Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley's Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. He is a former fellow of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
The August Trials has received laudatory reviews. Mark Glanville, writing in the Jewish Chronicle, reports that 'As a result of actions taken by Germans and Poles … 90 per cent of Poland’s 3.5 million Jewish population was exterminated.' The reader will note 'Germans and Poles.' Glanville and Kornbluth's goal is to locate Poles, Poland, and Polish culture and Catholicism in the same historical dock occupied by German Nazis, Nazi Germany, and Nazism. The crime of which both sets of perpetrators stand accused, and, in the author's belief, convicted, is genocide. Kornbluth refers to Poles killing Jews as 'the conveyer belt of genocide.' Polish blue police and village leaders constituted 'genocidal infrastructure.' Konstanty Gebert, writing in Moment, reports that Kornbluth describes a Soviet-era process that 'strengthened the legend of Polish innocence.' Ronald Grigor writes that 'Polish Communists asserted the wartime innocence of all Poles.' Communists, Kornbluth argues, thereby earned the support of the Polish populace.
'Innocence' is a concept that appears repeatedly. Kornbluth dedicates his book 'To the innocent.' Kornbluth's first chapter title invokes the Biblical Cain. Cain introduced murder into the human experience, and was forever afterward stigmatized. 'Cain' is eponymous with 'guilt.' Poles are Cain; Poles cannot escape stigma for the murder of Jews. The transcendent power of myth, in the authority of Genesis, must be invoked to establish the quality of Polish guilt.
Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west on September 1, 1939. The USSR invaded from the east later that same month. After World War II, The USSR again invaded and took control of Poland. Post-war Poland occupied a different geographic territory than the Poland of 1939. Poland lost eastern territory and moved west, into formerly German territory. Soviet domination ended in 1989. The years 1939-1989 were not Poland's only experience of foreign domination. Poland had been a large and wealthy country in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. Beginning in 1772, Poland was partitioned and colonized by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Poland regained political status as a nation after World War I, in 1918. Kornbluth does not dwell on this history; I mention it that readers might better understand subsequent summaries of Kornbluth's points.
In the immediate post-World-War-II period, a reconstituted, USSR-dominated Poland conducted more than 32,000 'August trials.' The term 'August trials' is a reference to the August 31, 1944 decree that established them. These trials were of Poles who had collaborated with the Nazis. Over the course of twelve years, judges handed down 20,000 guilty verdicts and 1,835 death sentences. Kornbluth's study focuses on 'over 400 trials conducted between 1944 and 1952 for crimes committed against Jews by Poles' in the Generalgouvernement (General Government). The Generalgouvernement was name German Nazis gave to the center and southeast of Poland.
The bulk of Kornbluth's book consists of one-or-two-paragraph summations of crimes, and summaries of how the accused pleaded, and also of how judges and attorneys handled cases. Kornbluth's introduction telegraphs his intention. The introduction's title is 'A Country without a Quisling?' Those outside the fevered realms of Polish-Jewish relations will not recognize the import of that title. Poland was exceptional among European countries occupied by Germany. Occupation was longer and much harsher in Poland. Depending on what calculations are used, Poland is often assessed as having lost a greater percentage of its prewar population than any other country. Poland produced the Home Army, one of the largest resistance forces in occupied Europe. Nazi Generalplan Ost called for the elimination of Poles and Poland. Kornbluth does not mention these facts; I mention them in order that the reader of this review can better understand the meaning of the introduction's title.
In spite of the uniquely horrific conditions of occupation in Poland, Poland, as a state, did not collaborate with the Nazis. In Norway, Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling was the nominal head of state during Nazi occupation. Poland's government was in exile, in London. Poles fought against the Nazis in an organized way from the first day of the war to the final Nazi presence. Polish patriots are proud to say that, under the hell-on-earth that the Nazis instituted in Poland, Poland was a state without a Quisling. With his introduction's title, Kornbluth announces that one of the goals of his book is to disprove that statement, and to remove Poland's source of pride.
Kornbluth is a skilled writer. The book is well organized and never succumbs to academic jargon. Throughout, Kornbluth's writing is economical. He never uses more words than necessary; thus, accounts are clipped in style. For the most part, his writing is dry. Anger does seep through, especially in the book's conclusion and in a couple of spots where trial proceedings are assessed as 'galling.' Kornbluth uses anachronistic phrases like 'outsourcing genocide' and 'it takes a village.' Kornbluth also protests against resistance in today's Poland to gay rights. Contemporary phrases applied to past events reflect Kornbluth's intention to use past events to reinforce his position in contemporary debates, for example, the debate over Jewish claims for financial restitution from Poland.
Though Kornbluth's accounts of Poles' crimes against Jews are skeletally brief, Kornbluth manages to include repugnant details. Assailants are spectacularly stupid, crude, and sadistic. If they revealed any decent human characteristics at all, none of those characteristics are included in Kornbluth's summaries. One criminal takes pleasure in shooting Jews in their genitals. Another leads a captured teenage Jew by a rope around his neck. Others murder Jews that they had previously agreed to rescue. Nazis most notoriously murdered their victims with modern machinery and chemicals. With Jewish Sonderkommandos handling the dirty work, Nazis could keep their Hugo Boss uniforms clean. Polish peasant villagers killed their victims with fists, axes, and shovels. More than one victim was buried while still breathing. Parents had to watch their children being killed. Poles picked over the possessions of dead Jews, laying claim, inter alia, to blood-spattered linens. This is a grand guignol inhabited by ghouls.
In spite of the brevity of these accounts, the sensitive reader will live these atrocities through the eyes, hearts, and final breaths of the victimized Jews. One can imagine being Jewish during Poland's interwar period, 1918-1939. Poland was reborn, a cause for celebration and hope, but in that reborn Poland, in a reflection of wider world trends, anti-Semitism was rising. Thugs beat Jews in the streets, university seats were limited, and anti-Semites called for Jews' expulsion. Polish Jews watched Hitler's rise in Germany, and, finally, Nazi Germany's invasion. They watched Einsatzgruppen massacre Jews and Catholic Poles and ghetto walls arise. Finally, in desperation, they begged Polish neighbors for help. These neighbors toyed with them, promising help, but responded with the back of a shovel against a head. Former neighbors rifled through the pockets of the dead for 'Jewish gold.' The reader wishes that her hands could reach through time itself and pull victims back from shallow graves, wishes that her fingers could rewrite history. The reader has no such power, and must soldier on, and read the next account.
What propels this reading of account after account, of multiple sets of foreign names that she will soon forget and struggles to pronounce, even when reading silently, is the conviction that at least to read is to witness, is to relieve, retroactively, the victim's anonymity and isolation at that intimate, sacred moment of confused, horrifying, and unjust death. May the pain of these deaths, may the outrage the reader feels, inform future action with compassion, understanding, and an unbending commitment to justice and against hate.
Poland's thousands of rescuers appear in The August Trials only to reinforce the author's point. The rarely mentioned rescuers here are too afraid to let others know that they have rescued Jews, because they will be punished by their fellow Poles for that rescue. Readers familiar with World War II in Poland will have read, or have heard from survivor friends, of entire villages that conspired to keep one Jew safe in a hayloft or behind a false wall. Kornbluth never attempts to reconcile the disconnect between accounts of villages that sheltered Jews and other villages where many united to persecute Jews and profit from their elimination. Roman Solecki, a Jewish Pole who served in the Home Army, was my friend. I don't know how to reconcile his accounts with this book's accounts of Home Army units killing Jews. Perhaps a future volume will systemize what differentiates not just individuals who rescue from individuals that persecute, but the village collectives that made the same choices.
Those interested in Polish-Jewish relations should and will read The August Trials. We want to know about these victims. We want their pain to inform our involvement in Polish-Jewish dialogue. I want to say that Hersz Flechtman, who was bashed in the head by the nephew of the Polish man who was hiding him, that three-year-old Mojzesz Kwint, drowned by a Polish woman who didn't receive enough money to keep him, the unnamed Jewish woman who was repeatedly raped by a szmalcownik, or blackmailer, were seen, known, heard and mourned by me.
Kornbluth reports on the various rationalizations for their crimes offered by Polish perpetrators, their defense attorneys, or judges. Poles killed Jews or handed them over to Nazis because the Nazis threatened to kill any Poles who didn't do so. Poles wanted Nazi rewards, for example food. Poles wanted Jewish people's possessions. Poles were overwhelmed by the brutality of the occupation and had sunk into lawlessness. Poles suspected Jews of 'banditry,' that is theft of limited food and other resources. Poles suspected Jews of collaboration with Soviet communists. Inevitably, blame-the-victim excuses are offered. A given Jew didn't do enough to save himself, so his killers had no choice.
Kornbluth argues convincingly that there were important differences between crimes Poles committed against other Poles and crimes Poles committed against Jews. Crimes committed against Jews were more public, communal, deadly, and sadistic than crimes committed against Poles. Poles who otherwise served honorably in anti-Nazi resistance also committed crimes against Jews; thus, one cannot write off anti-Semitic violence as the signature of social deviance. To be a Polish hero in the war against Nazism was not mutually exclusive with being a sadistic anti-Semitic killer.
As mentioned, the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939 and then again, during and after the war. The USSR dominated Poland until the fall of communism in 1989. Post-war Soviet crimes against Poles interfered with Poland's ability to address Polish criminals who collaborated with the Nazis. In the post-World-War-II era, heroic Poles who had fought honorably against Nazism were variously defamed, arrested, tortured, paraded in show trials, killed, buried in unmarked graves, and all but erased from history. Their persecutors were Soviet-allied communists. Most of these communists were Poles. A disproportionate number of communists were Jews, including Maria Gurowska, the judge who sentenced anti-Nazi hero August Emil Fieldorf to death, and Helena Wolinska-Brus, who prosecuted Fieldorf. Under Jakub Berman, at least 200,000 Poles were arrested for alleged political crimes and at least 6,000 were executed. Kornbluth writes, 'Of roughly 400 "leading" positions in the Ministry of Public Security between 1944 and 1954, it has been calculated that 37 percent were occupied by ethnic Jews.' Note the word 'ethnic.' Kornbluth differentiates between those descending from Jewish ancestry and those who actually practice the religion. Space is created between Jewishness and crimes committed by Jews. Equity would require the same treatment accorded to Catholics.
Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to be smuggled into Auschwitz in order to help the resistance against Nazism, was also killed. Other notable victims include those persecuted in the Trial of the Sixteen, that is, Home Army leaders who were tortured in Moscow and falsely accused of fascism and Nazi collaboration. The last of these 'cursed soldiers,' Jozef Franczak, was not killed until 1963. Post-war communist propaganda denigrated heroic Home Army, anti-Nazi soldiers as 'spittle-flecked dwarves of reaction.' Further, many Poles believe that the post-war Soviet occupier exploited the Kielce pogrom to discredit Poles as hopelessly primitive and violent anti-Semites incapable of self-government, and to boost Western acceptance of Soviet hegemony. In other words, Poles know that enemies of Poland weaponized the criminal behavior of anti-Semitic Poles to defame and disempower all Poles. In any case, the West had aligned itself with the Soviet Union in order to defeat Nazi Germany, and any Soviet propaganda against Poland may have been merely gratuitous. Roosevelt and Churchill both knew about the Soviet massacre of Polish officers at Katyn, for example, and Roosevelt and Churchill both lied about the event, attributing it, falsely, to German Nazis. The West never protested the Trial of the Sixteen.
For the above-mentioned reasons, many Poles reflexively dismiss post-war trials in Soviet-dominated Poland as illegitimate. Kornbluth argues that the August Trials, though, were carried out by dedicated, respectable judges and attorneys and that they cannot be dismissed as Soviet-influenced propaganda. At the same time that he asks for respect for the trials, however, Kornbluth argues that the trials were not really legitimate, because the communist state and Polish society came to a cozy agreement to erase Polish crimes against Jews from memory, and rewrite World War II history in Poland as one of complete Polish innocence and heroism. This reader accepts Kornbluth's argument that the trials record real crimes that deserve attention. This reader was not convinced of Kornbluth's latter point.
Andrew Kornbluth deserves recognition for his research into material that would cause many to shrink back in horror, and for his presentation of that material to the public. Readers should be aware of the brute Polak stereotype and its uses when reading Kornbluth.
Normal people do not drown defenseless children. What makes it possible for a human being to defy normal behavior? Kornbluth attributes these crimes to 'racial hatred and greed,' plus Polish Catholicism and nationalism.
Kornbluth describes Roman Dmowski, an interwar politician, diplomat, and author, as the 'father of modern Polish nationalism' and leader of interwar Poland's 'single strongest political grouping.' Polish nationalism existed long before Dmowski, and its various incarnations include an expansive understanding of Polishness that includes Jews.
Dmowski was a Social Darwinist. Social Darwinism was a significantly anti-Christian innovation from Western Europe and the United States. Social Darwinist ideas were very popular on American campuses and in American culture in the early twentieth century. A co-founder of the Bronx Zoo; the president of the Museum of Natural History, whose tenure lasted twenty-five years; the inventor of what became the SAT; and the founder of Planned Parenthood were all invested in Social Darwinism. American Social Darwinists declared Poles, Italians, and other Eastern and Southern Europeans to be a lesser subspecies of humanity, and impeded their entry to the US as immigrants on those grounds in 1924. The Catholic Church actively opposed Social Darwinism. Kornbluth does not so much as allude to these facts.
Kornbluth quotes Dmowski praising Germans. In fact Dmowski, wrote, 'Every Pole will be an enemy of every German he meets.' Thirty-three percent of Germans were Catholic; their Catholicism earned these Germans no acceptance from Dmowski. Dmowski's anti-Semitism was not informed by his devout Catholicism – he wasn't a devout Catholic.
Kornbluth describes Dmowski as the leader of interwar Poland's 'single strongest political grouping.' Interwar leader Jozef Pilsudski supported a traditional concept of Polish nationalism that included Jews. Pilsudski is revered by Poles, both in Poland and abroad, in a way that Dmowski has never been. In fact Pilsudski's nickname is 'dziadek,' grandfather.
Kornbluth makes brief references to Cardinal August Hlond and Archbishop Adam Sapieha. For example, of Sapieha, Kornbluth says, 'Sapieha declined to protest the Holocaust.' Kornbluth cites Dariusz Libionka. Indeed, as of this writing (6/1/21) Wikipedia includes Kornbluth and Libionka's accusation against Sapieha in its page dedicated to Sapieha. Sapieha criticized Jews; Sapieha did not inform the Nazis that genocide was a bad idea; Catholicism is responsible for the Holocaust.
This review cannot fully address this charge or this logic, but this reader was not convinced by Kornbluth's reasoning. One cannot help but mention, though, that Sapieha was responsible for the priestly formation and ordination of Karol Wojtyla. Indeed, Sapieha saved Wojtyla from a Nazi roundup of 8,000 Polish men and boys. Wojtyla, as John Paul II, would later be praised as the most pro-Jewish pope in history.
Hlond and Sapieha both did make critical comments about Jews, comments that should never have been made. Neither made genocidal comments. Both were persecuted by Nazis and participated in anti-Nazi resistance, including resistance against Nazi persecution of Jews. Both condemned violence against Jews.
Regarding the practice of selecting unattractive quotes and using those quotes to prove a religion's complicity in genocide. Perform an internet search of the word 'Talmud' and immediately encounter pages that select unattractive passages from the Talmud and go on to argue that these passages prove that Jews are complicit in communist genocides and world domination. This is not an intellectually respectable exercise.
To return to the question of how a Polish woman could drown a Jewish child she volunteered to safeguard. There is scholarship that addresses such atrocities, scholarship Kornbluth does not cite. Reading The August Trials reminded this reader of other works, including accounts of Ukrainian genocidal activity against Poles that also took place under Nazi occupation. Death toll estimates of Poles killed by Ukrainians range between fifty and one hundred thousand. These killings were public, communal, and sadistic. Ukrainians sawed Poles in half, including Father Karol Baran, crucified Poles, gang-raped Polish women, and cut off their breasts. I would not see the logic of conflating these crimes with Nazism and identifying Ukrainians as German Nazis' co-equals. Nazism, not Ukrainian nationalism, was the author of Poland's devastation. Saying that does not exculpate Ukrainian killers of Poles. It merely acknowledges what Nazism was and what its intent was in relation to Poland, and Nazi Germany's horrifically awesome ability to realize those intentions, no matter what Ukrainians decided to do. I have read accounts of Ukrainians' crimes against Poles, and not felt animus against Ukrainians per se, or come to understand these crimes as expressions of any Ukrainian essence. Historians like Timothy Snyder have worked to explain the tensions between Ukrainians and Poles, and the pressures of occupation, that contributed to anti-Polonism among Ukrainians.
Reading The August Trials reminded me also of first-person accounts of the Rwandan genocide. Neighbor turned on neighbor, not just to kill, but to torture. One method was to rape Tutsi women with spiked plants. One thinks, too, of the 1846 Szela jacquerie. Polish peasants killed and in many cases decapitated an estimated 1,000 nobles and destroyed 500 homes. Again, in reading these accounts, authors worked to make me, the reader, understand why a human like myself would commit hideous crimes against a neighbor.
While reading The August Trials I also confronted vexing events in my own country, and on the streets of my own city. A Jewish family, mother, father, and infant, were all stabbed in broad daylight in Manhattan on March 31. An 84-year-old Thai grandfather was murdered on the street in San Francisco on January 28, 2021. In May, 2021, a 67 year old Asian woman was raped in an otherwise quiet and safe neighborhood. Her assailant broke her bones. On March 23, 2021, Mohammad Anwar, an Uber Eats driver and recent immigrant from Pakistan, was killed by a thirteen-year-old girl and a fifteen-year-old girl, just three miles from the White House. All of these attacks took place in broad daylight. Video of these attacks are visible on the internet. On December 10, 2019, five people were killed in an attack on a kosher grocer in Jersey City. The attackers had bombs and planned much greater carnage. On December 28, 2019, five Jews were stabbed inside a private home by an intruder. One died. Hate crimes against Asians have increased in the US by 164%. Hate crimes against Jews have increased by 63%.
In the attacks mentioned above, the attackers are African Americans. African Americans are disproportionately represented among the committers of hate crimes. Influential African American leaders have made anti-Semitic statements, including Patrisse Cullors, the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and James Baldwin. My state's poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, accused Jews of complicity in the 9/11 terror attacks. His son is the mayor of New Jersey's largest city. After the Jersey City terror attack against Jews, a black school board member, Joan Terrel-Paige, accused 'Jewish brutes' of 'threatening, intimidating, and harassing' black people by 'waving bags of money.' Terrell-Paige is still a Jersey City school board member.
Open discussion of black anti-Semitism and anti-Asian racism are all but taboo in America. Ross Douthat, a columnist at the New York Times, states that media is afraid fully to cover these attacks because of the demographics. For thorny reasons too complicated to plumb here, it would be far easier to cover attacks by white supremacists against Jews and Asians. Covering African American attacks on Jews and Asians violates too many taboos, so the attacks are under-covered, little understood, and ongoing. On May 21, 2021, Aaron Keyak, who led Jewish engagement for the Biden-Harris campaign, advised American Jews to remove kippah and stars of David for their own safety.
There is an unstated premise in The August Trials. Poles got it wrong, and they got it wrong because of flaws in Polish character, flaws rooted in nationalism and Catholicism. We, the readers and authors of books like The August Trials, are not Polish, not Catholic, and not nationalist. We do not share Polish flaws, and, therefore, we are in a position to correct Poles. We have figured out and transcended ethnic strife. We have mastered free speech. The contrast between our superiority and Poles' inferiority emphasizes how badly Poles are handling things, and how flawed is their nature.
These premises are wrong. America has never known, perhaps no other country has ever known, the extreme conditions Poles suffered during World War II. And yet America faces the same problems Poland faces in addressing ethnic strife. 'Polish Catholicism' or 'Polish nationalism' are inadequate tools to understand anti-Semitic crimes or any suppression of discussion of anti-Semitic crimes. America is rapidly secularizing, and yet, America is playing, in a more subdued way, the same games that Poles who would cover-up Polish crimes play. Secular Americans do not hold the same things sacred as Polish Catholic nationalists, but secular Americans also have taboos and sacred cows that Americans protect against the harsh glare of truth. A jacket blurb calls The August Trials courageous. It doesn't take courage to condemn anti-Semitism in Poland. It would take great courage to speak plainly about the American hate crimes mentioned above.
No one would argue that the current epidemic of black attacks on Jews and Asians renders black pride invalid. No one would argue that black attacks on Jews and Asians means that blacks have never been victimized by white supremacy. No one would argue that, because some blacks were free and did own slaves, that black slaves were not 'innocent' and did not deserve to be enslaved. And yet the hideous crimes of a minority of Poles during World War II invalidate Polish celebration of Polish heroes, and erase Nazi and Soviet aggression. Particularly disturbing is the use of the word 'innocent.' Poles are not innocent, these commenters insist, including in quotes above. If Poles are not 'innocent,' the implication is that Poles deserved what they suffered under the Nazis.
One reads account after account of Polish peasant villagers behaving like monsters. One watches video after video of blacks violently assaulting innocents in broad daylight. The easiest thing to do, the conclusion our Darwinian lizard brain, hardwired to us-and-them dichotomies wants us to reach, is to write the behavior off as the sole possession of the hated ethnic other. Ron Slate, writing in On the Seawall, illustrates his review of The August Trials with a photo of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who sheltered 2,000 Jews in his monastery, and gave his life for another in Auschwitz. Even the good Poles are bad, this juxtaposition informs the viewer. Slate begins his review of The August Trials with an anecdote about 'rabidly anti-Semitic' illiterate Polish janitors. For Slate, even the heroic Poles are stupid, have low-class jobs, and are infested with a disease associated with dogs: rabies. The August Trials, he appears to believe, licenses him to perpetuate ethnic stereotyping and hate.
Anyone arguing that Poles committed atrocities against Jews because they are Catholic and nationalist rewrites important Holocaust history and human psychology. In the same way that we ask how Poles could commit the atrocities Kornbluth records, we ask how rescuers could save Jews. Rescuing a Jew in Poland was a life-threatening, all but impossible task, and yet Yad Vashem tallies 7,112 Polish rescuers, an incomplete number. To make that impossible task possible required a mythology more powerful than just being a nice person. Many rescuers cited their Catholicism and their Polish nationalism as their very reasons for rescuing Jews. Myths of Polish heroes and Polish saints were powerful enough to inspire humans to transcend a manmade hell. The entire Ulma family was murdered by Nazis for helping Jews. Their devout Catholicism inspired their sacrifice. Just like the monsters in The August Trials, the Ulmas were Polish, Catholic, peasant villagers. Liron Rubin, an Israeli and my friend, is married to a man whose mother was rescued by Sister Teresa Janina Kierocinska, a Polish nun and daughter of a nationalist Polish family. As Yad Vashem puts it, 'The survivors of the Sosnowiec convent later remembered Mother Teresa-Janina as someone of exceptional humanity whose love of mankind was rooted in her deep religious faith.' Liron's mother-in-law remained a Jew, but in honor of the nun who saved her life, she took the name Teresa.
Scholars have struggled to understand what, other than psychosis, would predispose an otherwise normal person to commit heinous crimes. Edna Bonacich, Amy Chua, and Thomas Sowell have worked on what they variously call middleman minorities and market dominant minorities. Polish anti-Semitism reached its peak in the interwar period. Why? The middleman minority theory helps to explain why. How to understand atrocities? Thomas Sowell describes Sinhalese in Sri Lanka clapping and dancing as they burned a random Tamil woman alive. Sinhalese are largely Buddhist. No serious scholar would attempt to write off Sinhalese violence against Hindu Tamils, against mosques, and against Christians as prompted by Buddhism.
Kornbluth tells his reader that Poles killed Jews because Poles saw Jews as implicated in 'Christ-killing.' But Kornbluth quotes Polish anti-Semites mouthing typical grievances voiced in middleman minority economies. Kornbluth quotes one such Pole saying that Poles interpret Nazi removal of Jews as liberating them from 'their former state of slavery to the Jews' 'a nightmare never to be repeated.' Without an understanding of Poland's caste-like socioeconomic structure, readers could never understand such a comment. Early in the twentieth century, Booker T. Washington, a former slave, traveled to Poland in search of 'the man farthest down' and found that man in Polish peasants, whom he felt to be comparable to the descendants of former slaves in the US. Numbers support Washington's assessment. In 1913, the Negro Almanac published a comparison between freed slaves and their descendants and descendants of Russian serfs, a population that included Poles. Hard numbers showed that African Americans had made greater economic progress than former serfs. 'Wherever in Poland money changes hands, a Jew is always there to take charge of it,' Washington wrote. This is the middleman minority pattern, and it has been applied in analyses of atrocity not just in Poland, but in Southeast Asia, regarding vicious Indonesian pogroms against Chinese, and in reference to African American conflict with Korean shopkeepers in Los Angeles.
Any attempt to understand Polish peasants' sadistic and criminal behavior towards Jews during World War II is not complete unless it addresses middleman minority theory, and how populations around the world have behaved in these economies. Scholars James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, in their 2020 bestseller Cynical Theories, describe how modern leftwing scholarship often rejects class-based analyses in favor of identity-based analyses. Polish Catholicism and nationalism make for convenient and currently trendy targets, but their use as explanatory tools is limited.
When discussing the support that some Jews offered the Soviet invasion of Poland in September, 1939, and later Soviet hegemony over Poland, it is customary for responsible authors to argue against any association of support for communism with Jewish identity. Poles collaborated with Nazis, we are too often told, because Poles are Catholic and nationalist. No responsible historian would argue that Jews collaborated with communists because of Jewish theology or pride in Jewish identity.
In The August Trials, Poles collaborated with Nazis because they were Poles, but Jews collaborated with communists because they faced temporary, changing, and unique historical circumstances that militated for their collaboration. Given anti-Semitic hostility, Kornbluth writes, 'it was unsurprising' that some Jews 'embraced a utopian ideology … that espoused colorblindness.'
That 'utopian ideology,' Soviet communism, was genocidal in its persecution of Poles. As early as 1921, in its anti-religion campaign, communists in Russia began killing tens of thousands of priests, monks, and nuns. The Holodomor, the wartime ethnic cleansing of Poles from eastern Poland, and the Katyn Massacre announced in neon that the communist road to a 'colorblind' 'utopia' was paved with the bodies of Slavic Christians. Anyone, of any ethnicity, who supported communists in 1945 had every reason to know that. Communists should not be robbed of their agency retroactively, any more than Nazi collaborators should.
It is logical and ethically necessary to point out that those Jews who did support or collaborate with invading Soviets did not do so out of any treacherous or power-hungry Jewish essence, biological or theological, but, rather, because of changing and changeable historical circumstances peculiar to a given time and place. Any person, no matter his ethnicity, might make the same decisions under the same circumstances. It is important to point out the universality of human decision-making because Jews are subject to stereotyping and ethical people do not want to fuel that stereotyping.
No scholar unfamiliar with stereotyping of Jews could be relied on to produce scholarship about crimes committed by Jews under the aegis of communism. We must apply the same approach to Polish Catholics. Any scholar writing about crimes committed by Poles should be familiar with, and should resist, stereotyping.
Besides contemplating what causes ugly ethnic violence, readers of The August Trials will wonder how justice could have been achieved in Poland's post-war circumstances. Warsaw, the capital, was flattened. The population was decimated, and in flux, as borders changed. Poles were returning from battlefields, concentration camps, and guerilla warfare with Soviets. Given these conditions, it is remarkable that any attempt at justice took place at all.
Criminal Poles were accused by other Poles who witnessed their crimes. The accusers express outrage, horror, and pity, and they repeatedly cry, just as we, the readers, do. Apparently not all Polish peasants were monsters. But village life is inescapably communal. How do you continue to exist in a tiny village after accusing your neighbor of hideous murder? A comparison of how post-war Poland handled this question with how it was handled in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa might offer insights.
Kornbluth and others, as mentioned in the reviews quoted above, insist that Poland crafted a self-image as a blameless nation of heroic victims. 'Unflattering stories' of collaboration 'disappeared from view' until white knight Jan Tomasz Gross rode to the rescue in 2000. In this Promethean scenario, Gross must be depicted as outside Polish identity. Poles are too intellectually stunted and morally venal to confront their own flaws. Thus, Kornbluth, Gross, Grabowski, et al, provide the conscience that Poles, given their debased nature, lack.
I do not recognize my own admittedly limited experience of Poles or Poland in this assessment. During my first visit to Eastern Europe, that is to Slovakia in 1974, my relatives told me stories about a local man who had done labor for the Nazis. One of my aunts, I was told, physically assaulted him. He protested that he was doing it only for food. He was hungry. People volunteered such stories of Nazi collaborators. I first visited Poland in 1978. In a university classroom, I was introduced to Tadeusz Rozewicz's poem 'Saved' ('Ocalony'). 'I saw,' Rozewicz writes, 'A human that was at once / Vicious and virtuous.' Subsequent discussions touched on the ambiguities of the war. Poles taught me the word 'szmalcownik' – 'blackmailer.' A Polish woman volunteered to me that she suspected that her brother-in-law had collaborated, and that was why her family kept their distance from his family. Conversations like this were every bit as troubling as reading The August Trials.
Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Pozegnanie z Maria), published in 1946, hardly reflects the charge that Poles saw themselves as uncomplicated heroes. Borowski clearly presents the difference between the fate of most Jews sent to Auschwitz and most Poles, and he acknowledges that the despoiling of murdered Jews is what feeds him during his imprisonment there. In films like Ashes and Diamonds I encountered a far more ambiguous treatment of the cinematic World War II hero than I ever saw in any American movie. Though made in 1958, the film still spurs discussion. Czechoslovakia produced The Shop on Main Street in 1965 and Agnieszka Holland directed Angry Harvest in 1985; both films treat material goods stolen from murdered Jews.
Many Poles, for the past eight decades, have struggled to come to terms with every aspect of World War II in Poland, including Polish anti-Semitism and Nazi collaboration. One need only mention Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, Czeslaw Milosz, Jan Blonski, Alina Cala, and Father John T. Pawlikowski. Marcel Lozinski, a child of Jewish parents, made a devastating documentary about the Kielce pogrom in 1987, the same year that the Kosciuszko Foundation ran a summer session at the Jagiellonian University in Polish-Jewish relations. I participated and I can report that no one shrank from the topic's darkest aspects. From the early days of the internet, Polish and Jewish participants have been having frank conversations in online groups. In 1946, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Auschwitz survivor and cofounder of Zegota, cofounded the All-Polish Anti-Racist League in response to the anti-Jewish violence in post-war Poland. Bartoszewski would later write,
'Both in the Polish press and on the radio at that time there was no lack of voices to oppose these tragic incidents, and the recent suffering and extermination of Jewish society in Poland were also mentioned. Articles, memoirs, and references to the subject can be found … [Former members of Zygota] were unanimous in recognizing the importance of using their own authority and enlisting the public support of others of importance in the struggle against the degrading chauvinism in Poland, against manifestations of national, religious, and racial hatred, and, above all, against all unsympathetic or hostile attitudes towards Jews who had survived … An initiative was taken during the first weeks of 1946 by former members of the Council for Aid to the Jews. This was to establish a loosely structured, all-Polish society to discuss the problem for the moral and political danger for Poland and the Poles of actions dictated by anti-Semitic views and anti-Jewish prejudices, whatever their causes.'
More recently, Polish diplomat Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska said, 'If I want to have a moral right to justified pride in [Polish] rescuers, then I must admit to a sense of shame over [Polish] killers.' She speaks for me and millions of others.
Nor have I ever encountered a culture that has done a better job of assessing its past than Poland. I don't say that as a compliment to Poland. I remember the look on the faces of Chinese-born students when a Japanese-born student gave a speech in my English language class about how peace-loving Japanese people are. Turks still refuse to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. An sui generis giant of American culture, Gone with the Wind – both as a novel and as a film – distorts slavery, the Civil War, and the KKK.
Processing the Holocaust, crafting the narrative, revising it and telling it again, has taken decades in the United States at large, among American Jews, and among Israelis. See the 2001 This American Life broadcast "Before It Had a Name," Peter Novick's book The Holocaust in American Life, the documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, Lucy Dawidowicz's articles "Indicting American Jews" and "American Jews and the Holocaust," and Tom Segev's The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust. Americans, never-occupied, enjoying free speech, a stable government and domestic peace and security still stumbled for decades, struggling to tell the story of the Holocaust accurately. American anti-Semitism, American Jews' survival guilt, and a fear of offending Germany, and cutting off important markets, impeded that struggle over narrative. To attribute Poland's missteps to rotten Polish nationalism and Catholicism is to fall into stereotyping and to create a chimeric ethnic other scapegoat we sacrifice for our own sins.
Indeed, the scholars that Kornbluth relies on, like Grabowski, Gross, Libionka, Engelking, and Skibinska are themselves products of Poland, Polish educations, Polish ethics, and Polish conversations.
Years ago in Poland, at dinner one night, a friend took a call from her grandfather. Afterward, I absentmindedly asked, 'Did you talk to your grandmother, too?' My friend, whom I had known for months and who had never mentioned this previously, replied coolly, 'No, she died in Auschwitz.' She never mentioned this death again. I knew people who never disclosed their wartime heroism, or their wartime suffering. Later I learned from others what they had done, or what they had gone through. In contrast, in my own country, America, it is normal to believe that Americans single-handedly defeated the Axis powers. In America people are encouraged to dwell on their suffering and to use that suffering to obtain scholarships, jobs, or government apologies. The concept of 'microaggression' is taught to students and employees to encourage sensitivity to every imaginable slight. No American, or indeed anyone in the Woke West, is in any position to tell Poles that they think or talk too much about their suffering.
The very first sentence of Kornbluth's book establishes Poland as economically well off and militarily secure, 'prosperous and stable.' Kornbluth is discussing 2018 Poland, but this sentence's initial position is powerful, and Kornbluth does little to revise the impression it creates. No extreme circumstances help to render comprehensible the depths to which Polish society sank. No invitation is extended to Kornbluth's reader to ask, 'If overwhelming forces took over your country, and put a price on the head of a subset of your fellow citizens, what would happen?'
In The August Trials, German Nazis and Soviet Russians are remote presences who don't do much to interfere with Polish life. Occupying German Nazis, rather, were fearful of Poles. Germans 'lived under the threat of partisan attack.' No one reading this book, without previous knowledge, would have any idea of the realities of Nazi or Soviet occupation, or the predecessors, the Russian, Austrian, and Prussian culturally genocidal, colonial presence. This depiction of Polish villages as peaceful places during World War II is contradicted by Norman Davies, who writes, 'The well-known fate of the one Bohemian hamlet of Lidice, whose 143 men were killed in retaliation for the assassination of SS General Reinhard Heydrich, was repeated in hundreds of Polish villages. An incomplete post-war count put their number at 299.' Kornbluth refers to a Polish 'SS volunteer.' I contacted Herbert F. Ziegler, an historian of the SS. He confirmed that the SS would not accept Polish volunteers because of their racial inferiority. As for the Soviet occupation, as Jan Tomasz Gross has written, 'Very conservative estimates show that [between 1939 and 1941] the Soviets killed or drove to their deaths three or four times as many people as the Nazis from a population half the size of that under German jurisdiction.'
In the West, acknowledged victims gain platforms, respect, and remuneration for having suffered. Poles cannot be allowed these commodities. That Poles were themselves victims, and that, even in the midst of their victimization, they victimized others, is an uncomfortable reality with equally uncomfortable repercussions for those Jews who, under the worst imaginable coercion, worked for Nazis. No, there is no moral equivalence between a Polish woman who drowns a defenseless Jewish child she had agreed to shelter and the Sonderkommandos. But crafters of master narratives resist ambiguity. They have to – large audiences respond poorly to ambiguity. Jews must be victims and victims must be pure. Poles must not be victims and must not be innocent. Innocence itself, as Shelby Steele has pointed out in the American context, is a coveted commodity.
Reading about atrocity isn't easy. When reading such material, one can sense that one is in the hands of an author who is not much different from a computer search engine. That is, the author is cold, has no agenda, and is merely coughing up facts in response to the reader's query. One can sense that the author is a mensch, that is, someone who is as tormented by the material as the reader is. This author has reached some higher state, and is writing about this material as part of an effort, however quixotic, to make the world a better place, to expand understanding of what humans are capable of, and to commission the reader to take part in an effort of tikkun olam, or the repairing of the world. One can sense that the author has an agenda, one of score-settling, enemy-creating, othering, or one-ups-man-ship. This kind of writing, rather than trying to untie the knot of human hate, pulls the ends tighter and makes the knot more intractable to unraveling. While reading this book, I had the uncomfortable feeling that I might be in the hands of the final kind of author.
Danusha V. Goska
I thank Karen A. Wyle for reading this review and offering very helpful comments.