For neither the first nor the last time, a storm has broken out in Polish media about the response of non-Jewish Poles to the Holocaust. Two days ago, on the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Prof. Barbara Engelking of the Center for Holocaust Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences gave a controversial interview on the topic on the TVN24 television program. As I am now writing a doctoral dissertation in history at the Jagiellonian University on how the clandestine press of the Home Army, the main branch of the Polish underground, responded to the Holocaust and have written one sub-chapter about its response to the Jewish uprising, I thought I'd respond to Prof. Engelking.
During her interview for TVN24, Engelking said that the blackmailing of Jews in occupied Poland was "widespread," while Poles who sheltered Jews were "true heroes and they were really small in number." When discussing the response of non-Jewish Varsovians to the ghetto rising, she said that "some simply came to stare. They made different comments, but the most common was: the 'Żydki' (a pejorative term for a Jew in Polish, although one not as offensive as the English "kike" or the Polish "parch") are burning."
Monika Olejnik, the journalist conducting the interview, responded to Engelking: "But there were also those for whom this was an inconceivable tragedy. We can't forget that."
Engelking responded: "But they were few in number, and the atmosphere of the street was different."
Before I respond to Engelking, I wanted to emphasize that I never have denied that there was widespread antisemitism in twentieth century Poland, before, during, and after WWII. There are many examples, but to me the most tragic is the Kielce pogrom of 1946. The expulsion of the Jews in 1968 was the work of a communist regime that lacked the legitimacy of most Poles, while the pogroms in the Łomża region in the summer of 1941 (the most notorious of which took place in the village of Jedwabne), while carried out by Poles, were probably inspired by the Germans. That doesn't excuse such immoral behavior, but it does have a certain situational context.
Yet in 1946, more than a year after the Germans had left Poland, a mob believed an antisemitic canard that Jews had kidnapped a Christian boy. Rather than being met with compassion and gentleness, more than forty Holocaust survivors were murdered by their countrymen in broad daylight. If I remember correctly, about 200 more were wounded in the pogrom.
But back to Engelking. In my research, I stumbled across a couple dozen articles from the Home Army press in Krakow on the ghetto rising. All of them are written using sympathetic language, condemn the Germans, and praise the bravery of the fighters. Some emphasize the patriotic nature of the uprising, noting that the Jewish fighters had planted both red-and-white Polish and white-and-blue Zionist flags on a building they captured and sang patriotic Polish songs.
During my research, I have found some antisemitic publications by the Home Army in Krakow, but with regards to those related to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the closest anything came to antisemitism was an article in "Watra," affiliated with the Grey Ranks (boy scouts who fought in the ranks of the Home Army) that contrasted the bravery of the Jews in April 1943 to their previous response to the Germans, which is described as "lambs going to the slaughter."
I should note that this perception (which was naturally unfair; there were quite a few examples of armed Jewish resistance in occupied Poland, from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to the Treblinka revolt in 1943) was not limited to Polish society: according to Israeli political scientist Tom Segev's book "The Seventh Million," until the Eichmann trial, for the first decade and a half after the war many Sabras looked down on Holocaust survivors, condescendingly referring to them as "soap" and accusing them of passivity.
The results of my research are not an outlier. In her chapter in the book Żegota. Ukryta pomoc ("Żegota: Hidden Aid"), Katarzyna Kocik also studied the response of the press of the Polish Socialist Party, Polish Democratic Party, and National Democrats in Krakow to the rising. Only the last of these groupings published hostile articles. Similarly, in his article "The Attitude of the Polish Home Army (AK) to the Jewish Question During the Holocaust: The Case of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising" in the book Varieties of Antisemitism: History, Ideology, Discourse, Yeshiva University's Joshua Zimmerman notes that with some exceptions, the Home Army publications he studied were supportive of the Jewish fighters.
My research did not surprise me. Many eyewitness accounts have noted that while some Poles did make antisemitic statements with regards to the burning ghetto, contrary to what Engelking said the dominant feeling on the street was that of being impressed with the bravery of the Jews taking on the hated Germans.
In his memoir "A Surplus of Memory," Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of the leaders of the ghetto rising, writes: "You could say that the Polish street then sympathized with the ghetto. I'm not talking about the dregs of society, who were very happy that the Jews were being burned alive in the ghetto. One had to be a vile person to rejoice at the fate of the Jews in those terrible days. Such people exist, but in general the atmosphere on the Polish street was favorable to us, and we received some help from it." (Zuckerman's memoir was originally published in Hebrew; it's been translated into both Polish and English, but I'm translating into English the Polish translation of this excerpt, because I have it at hand).
Vladka Meed, a liaison of the Jewish Fighting Organization, writes in her memoir "On Both Sides of the Wall": "'Aryan' Warsaw observed the Jewish struggle with admiration, accepting the uphill struggle of the hated Germans with grim satisfaction, but this did not mean that it meant to do anything about it" (same thing as with the Zuckerman translation, except that Meed's memoir was originally written in Yiddish).
At multiple points in her memoir, Meed expresses disappointment that the citizens of Warsaw did not join the Jewish revolt (she does, however, call the aid in arms that the Home Army gave the Jewish Fighting Organization "sizeable;" the scale of the Home Army's aid is also a matter of controversy – there are conflicting opinions as to whether it wasn't greater because of fears that a large-scale uprising would spill over into a premature national revolt before Operation Tempest or if it resulted from anti-Jewish prejudice; the aim of this post is not to resolve this dispute), but always emphasizes how impressed non-Jewish Poles were with the ghetto fighters' bravery.
Another Warsaw Jew, Ruth Altbeker Cyprys, offers a more nuanced view in her memoir, "A Jump for Life." She writes that as the Germans were burning down the ghetto, Poles gathered there to hurl insults at the Jews and denounce them. However, she calls such people "the scum of society" and notes that "other Poles" gathered by the ghetto wall to provide the Jews with arms and ammunition.
Władysław Bartoszewski, a member of the Żegota Council to Aid Jews, writes in his last book "Polacy, Żydzi, okupacja. Fakty, postawy, refleksje" ("Poles, Jews, the Occupation: Facts, Attitudes, Reflections") that "the Polish nation, saturated with the Christian spirit and not recognizing inconsistent morality, was disgusted at the anti-Jewish cruelty of the Germans, and when an unequal battle raged in the Warsaw Ghetto after April 19th it treated the Jews who bravely defended themselves and their German murderers with disdain."
We could say that Bartoszewski, a non-Jewish Pole, was viewing this situation with rose-colored glasses. But Vladka Meed, Yitzhak Zuckerman, and Ruth Altbeker Cyprys were all Jews who left Poland after the war and had no interest to defend their behavior. While noting deplorable Polish behaviors, all three emphasize that the dominant Polish feeling was supportive. Furthermore, the activity of Żegota, of which Bartoszewski was a member, included not only financial assistance to fugitive Jews but also the struggle against blackmail and other forms of collaboration.
With regards to Engelking's comment that blackmail was more common than assistance to Jews, we will never know this for a fact. However, in his study "Secret City," based on the study of hundreds of Jewish testimonies, Gunnar S. Paulsson estimated the number of blackmailers in Warsaw at 3,000 to 4,000 while the number of non-Jewish Poles who aided Jews (regardless of motive; some were solely concerned about financial profit) at 70,000 to 90,000.
Paulsson came up with an elaborate methodology that one can question. However, Emanuel Ringelblum, the famous chronicler of the Warsaw Ghetto, estimated in his famous wartime essay on Polish-Jewish relations the number of Varsovians engaged in blackmailing Jews as "hundreds, possibly thousands" and the number of rescuers at between 40,000 and 60,000, so numbers fairly similar to Paulsson's. Ringelblum had many informers both outside and inside the ghetto from which he probably extrapolated these figures.
He himself was hidden in a bunker, along with more than twenty other Jews, built by the socialist Polish gardener Mieczysław Wolski. Wolski was eventually denounced by a former lover; consequently, he, Ringelblum, Ringelblum's family, and all the Jews in the bunker were killed by the Germans. This shows how difficult it was to hide Jews and how easy it was to betray them.
Interestingly, Engelking, Grabowski, et consortes frequently cite Ringelblum's bitter comments on Poles and especially the Polish "Blue" Police from the same essay. You can't have the cake and eat it too, Barbara; either you trust Ringelblum as a credible witness or you don't.
I would like to conclude by emphasizing that the favorable, from the Polish perspective, proportion of rescuers of Jews to blackmailers cannot be extrapolated to all of Poland. Poland was a big country. In Warsaw, there were the most assimilated Jews (along with Krakow and Lwów), which naturally facilitated rescue – people were more likely to be hidden by friends and acquaintances.
Meanwhile, a big city offers anonymity, which facilitates any illegal activity (and hiding Jews in the General Government was definitely illegal). In rural areas, where Jews lived in much more separate worlds than Christians and where everyone knew everyone, which made hiding Jews more difficult. Also, there were plenty of regions, such as around Łomża or Kielce, where popular antisemitism was much stronger than in Warsaw.
My comment: I was lucky enough to know Roman Solecki, a Polish secular Jew who fought with the Home Army. He graciously allowed me to add his comments to my dissertation. I include a couple, below.
Roman Solecki, when asked about his experience of interwar anti-Semitism, reported that one day his father was attacked on the street by ONR fascists who punched his father in the nose. Otherwise, though, he reported positive interactions:
Teachers were nice and I don't recall any discrimination against Jews. In 1937 I passed the entrance exam and was admitted to Polish State High school. Again the students were about 50-50 Catholics and Jews. Among the teachers there were two Jews ... In my class there were several Catholics I liked: Borsuk, Dunin-Soligostowski, brothers Olchowy, Brzezinski, Rzeszowski, Panas, Zdanowicz, Rzeszotarski, Strachocki, Sroka, Wrona. The names are real; the reason I'm giving them is to convince you of the truthfulness of my statements.
From [Rachel Patron's] essay, one draws the conclusion that Poland was a country of murderers. As a U.S. citizen and a Polish Jew, I couldn't disagree more with such a bigoted view. Poland, like any other country, is home to all kinds of people. Let me briefly acquaint you with others' experiences. One close friend was saved by a Polish Catholic priest, who placed him in a convent. Another was saved by a Polish peasant. A close friend was deported with his family to the Soviet Union. He joined the Polish army and took part in the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy. My second cousin, who lives in Poland, was saved by a Polish peasant whose son she later married ... No personal suffering entitles someone to make generalizations and false accusations (Solecki).
From a letter to the Simon Wiesenthal Center
I looked on your entry about Poland and was upset by: 1. a standing out note that 'anti-Semitism still exists in Poland.' It's true but it's also true regarding other countries including the USA. Why on a page which should show gratitude to those who risked their lives make such a negative comment? 2. On another page you write: 'The Righteous Among the Nations in Poland make up the largest number of such persons recognized by Yad Vashem per country of origin. However, while their absolute numbers might be the largest, by percentage the amount of rescuers from Poland is small indeed.' Why don't you give this number, like you do when referring to other countries? Why don't you explain that Poland was the only country where there was death penalty for helping Jews? ... You possibly compare the fate of Jews in Denmark and Norway (they were helped to escape to neutral Sweden) without realizing that a. the number of Jews in those countries was about 0.1% of total population; b. the distance from Denmark to neutral Sweden at Helsingor (Elsinore) is about 3 miles and that Norway shares with Sweden an over 1000 mile border so that the escape was relatively easy. Poland did not have neighbors willing to accept 3.5 million Jews. The only country that comes to mind, Sweden, was separated from Poland by about 120 miles of Baltic Sea. Even if such a transportation would be logistically possible, and it would be absurd to think so (Poland had a very short sea shore, small number of boats, and a developing economy where majority of people, including Jews were poor or very poor [Dr. Solecki later wrote: "I made a mistake saying: 'Poland had a very short sea shore.' That's true but the access to this seashore was eliminated at the first days of war so every sea transportation from Poland was impossible."], you can't seriously think that Sweden would be willing to increase its population by 50% of poor foreigners ... I urge you to make corrections in your site" (Solecki "Wisenthal").
I'm a Polish Jew raised and educated in Poland. I survived the Nazi occupation using "Aryan" documents. I was a member of the underground PPS/WRN, a part of, so maligned by some, the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) where some of my co-conspirators knew that I was Jewish. I met anti-Semites, and I met people who risked their lives to save Jews. I'm very disturbed by the generalizations: when someone makes the whole nation responsible for the crimes of a group. I don't believe that anti-Polonism is any better, or more justified, than anti-Semitism. (Solecki, Letter to the New York Times).
As a young man, Solecki and his mother left Lwow in 1941 and traveled to Warsaw. They hoped to live out the war under a false "Aryan" identity.
When in Warsaw we went to a Christian lady who lived in Zoliborz district of Warsaw and whose name somebody gave to us. She knew that we are Jewish and let us stay in one of the rooms in her apartment. Next day she came to my mother and said that she is very sorry but we cannot stay longer there because her brother, a pre-war member of the fascist ONR (Organizacja Narodowo-Radykalna) who lived with her, said that he doesn't want Jews in his house.
Luckily, in this case, Solecki and his mother, through several contacts, including a Christian woman who had five Jews in her house already and could place no more, found other quarters among Poles who were not fascists. His story dramatizes that it took only one fascist, fearful, anti-Semitic or greedy Pole to endanger a Jew in hiding, but it took several cooperative Poles to keep a Jew hidden.
One informant for this paper, Roman Solecki, who himself had been in the AK, when asked specifically about anti-Semitism in the AK, replied:
Once we ... went on a longer exercise to Bielany Woods. There were about 10 of us. At a certain moment one of the fighters named "Kedzior" told a rather offensive Jewish joke. Then he looked at me and said: "Are you Jewish by any chance?" I said, "Yes!" He apologized profusely ...
I never thought that either the AK leadership or the members were anti-Semitic as a rule. I'm sure there were some anti-Semites in AK and maybe even some AK detachments were anti-Semitic but I don't believe that this was AK policy. Yes, I believe that AK was helpful to the Jews to the extent it was possible (but I know that really only second-hand). I think that AK did whatever possible to fight the Germans. This was the main objective. The only way AK could try helping Jews on a big scale is to attack the ghettos killing the German guards and then what? The Germans would mercilessly crush such an attempt, AK would be hurt and Jews not helped.
I asked Roman Solecki his impressions of the public reaction to the burning of the Warsaw Ghetto. This is a transcript of our exchange. His comments are offered as the comments of one Jew living in Warsaw at that time. They are not meant to be representational.
DVG: "You say people were watching. Can you guess what the mood of the crowd was? You probably know there is a lot of talk about this. Czeslaw Milosz's famous poem, 'Campo di Fiori,' and Andrzejewski's story, 'Wielki Tydzien.'"
RS: "I haven't the slightest idea, but I think that the mood was rather somber."
DVG: "Were the non-Jews happy to see Jews burning? or horrified? Or mixed reactions? I know it must be awful to think or talk about this. Please forgive me if you don't want to talk about it."
RS: "No, I have nothing against talking about the past. I'm sure only few people were happy."
A very different story can be found in Fundacja, 110. A Jewish woman in hiding heard very anti-Semitic comments during the burning of the ghetto. This paper does not argue that either account is representational of the reaction of the population as a whole. Such data simply doesn't exist.