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An archive photograph is seen on July 29, 2021, near the memorial commemorating the pogrom in Jedwabne, Poland. During World War II hundreds of Jews were murdered in this place by their Polish neighbors in German-occupied Poland.Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Image
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Polish Responsibility for the Holocaust Was Not Minor

A new book explores the role of non-Germans in implementing the ‘Final Solution’ in the East

Andrew Apostolou
May 03, 2023
Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Image
An archive photograph is seen on July 29, 2021, near the memorial commemorating the pogrom in Jedwabne, Poland. During World War II hundreds of Jews were murdered in this place by their Polish neighbors in German-occupied Poland.Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Image

There are two central questions of the Holocaust: why it happened and how. A recent book, Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in German-Occupied Poland, edited by the historian Jan Grabowski and by Barbara Engelking, the director of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw, is a significant addition to our understanding about how the Germans pursued the so-called Final Solution in Eastern Europe—namely, with the help of local non-Jewish populations.

The German effort to find and murder every Jew was a vast undertaking encompassing three continents. The Germans and their collaborators persecuted Jews from North Africa to Norway. They deported Jews to their deaths from the Channel Islands in the West and hunted Jews in the Caucasus in the East. The Germans killed Jews throughout the war, shooting Jews and their Christian companions barely 300 yards from the U.S. Army in Pisa in August 1944. Even within a global conflict that mobilized over 100 million men, the so-called Final Solution required considerable manpower and effort. Night Without End, a 546-page edited and abridged English version of a 1,700-page, two-volume Polish study, is part of a wave of recent historiography demonstrating how much of that effort came from the Jews’ neighbors.

Poland was the center of the slaughter. Of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, some 3 million were Polish Jews. There were 108,149 Jews in the eight Polish counties under examination before the mass killings of “Aktion Reinhardt” during 1941-43. Night Without End examines the fate of the 9,543 who survived this mass slaughter. By the end of the war, only 2,387 were still alive. The Germans called this final stage of the Holocaust—the elimination of the survivors of the initial waves of mass killings—the Judenjagd (hunt for Jews). It was a shared enterprise, involving Germans, the Polish authorities, and Poles who lived near the Jews.

The eight essays in the book use a microhistory approach, patiently sifting through inconsistent and difficult sources to describe the fates of individual Jews. One microhistory technique is to note evidentiary gaps, forcing readers to confront the absence of testimony and records resulting from murder and impunity. We learn, for example, that Władysław Węgrzyn, a member of the Home Army (Poland’s main resistance), agreed to hide Sabina Blaufeder and Genia Raber, prewar acquaintances. Węgrzyn later betrayed the women. We do not know why.

The Germans organized a system of control that spread terror throughout the Polish countryside, a system based on what Engelking and Grabowski term “German law and lawlessness.” The village security apparatus also targeted escaped Soviet POWs and peasants, weaving a web of fear and death. German terror unleashed dark forces in Polish and Ukrainian societies. While the Germans destroyed the Polish nation, many Poles exploited the assault on the Jews to settle scores, enrich themselves, promote nationalist and antisemitic politics, or to survive at the expense of Jewish friends and neighbors.

Microhistory, as the name suggests, is particularly effective at reconstructing specific episodes in great detail. For instance, Grabowski details hour by hour the murder of Jews in the Węgrów ghetto on Sept. 21, 1942—Yom Kippur—the same day as the final mass deportation from the Warsaw ghetto. During the killings, the 16-year-old son of Müller, the head of the German Schutzpolizei, donned his Hitlerjugend uniform and participated.

Similarly, Tomasz Frydel analyzes the social dynamic in the Polish countryside set in motion by the German occupation. Germans brutally retaliated against some Poles who helped Jews, thereby exploiting Polish fear. The Germans and Polish police sometimes killed Poles who hid Jews, which in turn led other Poles to preemptively murder Jews they were concealing—either with their own hands or by surrendering them. Dagmara Swałtek-Niewińska provides the example of Wojciech Gicala, who asked his village leader what to do with the 18-month-old Jewish infant from the Pinkes family he was sheltering. A Polish policeman shot Gicala and the child.

The book provides a vital service by dispelling the connected Polish myths of Jews as passive victims and of Poles as rescuers. The tale that the Jews went to slaughter silently absolves Poles morally of their failure to become involved. As elsewhere in Europe, local non-Jews invented tales to remove themselves from history. Many later claimed not to know what the Germans were inflicting upon the Jews. Or they claimed that the Germans always killed those who aided Jews, thereby excusing their lack of assistance.

Similarly, there is a deliberate policy in Poland, as elsewhere in Europe, to play up the role of non-Jews in rescuing Jews. Rescue becomes a morality play: Decent, principled Christians saved weak, confused Jews; sometimes the Germans killed the Christian rescuers. Grabowski calls such discussions of rescue, absent the larger context of wartime Poland, “a fallacy and misrepresentation of history.” Few Poles were willing to help Jews, and those who were endured threats and sometimes retaliation, including murder, from fellow Poles.

The essays describe inventiveness and resolution in the villages, forests, or labor camps where Jews endured unprecedented catastrophe. Amassing food was difficult, non-Jews often hostile. Only one elaborate bunker survived in Złoczów county, built under the foundations of a house, with access to a well. Few possessed such means.

A remarkable episode of resistance came from Yochanan and Abraham Amsterdam in the Dulecki forest in southeast Poland. The Amsterdam family, of Sephardic origin, possessed land near the forest, owned a tavern, and gave money to the local Catholic church. Yochanan Amsterdam wrote “Ten commandments of the forest” about how to avoid danger. At the height of their activities, the Amsterdams sheltered 60 Jews. Eventually the German-Soviet front reached the edge of their hiding place. On Nov. 27, 1944, the last 48 members of the Amsterdam group ran for the Soviet positions. After crossing a minefield and braving shooting from the Germans and the Soviets, 36 were alive.

The essays dissolve the myth that the Germans always killed those who helped Jews. While the Germans always murdered the Jews, their actions against those who helped Jews varied. For example, after Poles betrayed Janina Rogińska in Węgrów for hiding 10 Jews in June 1943, the Germans shot her and the Jews. Yet in August 1943, in the same county, the Germans merely fined Witold Ratyński for sheltering nine Jews (all of whom they shot).

Similarly, it was impossible for Poles to remain ignorant about Jewish suffering. Jewish pain was public, and it was sometimes a catalyst for Polish participation in antisemitic violence. Szraga Fajwel Bielawski heard Maniek Karbowski, his “friend” and neighbor, offer to bring an axe to break down the door of the house in which he was hiding. Bielawski heard Poles laugh as Jews were rounded up. According to Alina Skibińska: “The German perpetrators did not try to hide what they were doing from the locals; everything happened openly and publicly. Whoever wanted to know, knew; whoever wanted to hear, heard.”

Night Without End demonstrates how the Germans’ genocidal goals were impossible without the collaboration of Poles. Polish neighbors could identify Jews in a way Germans could not. Village Jews were integrated into the surrounding population. Shtetl Jews, by contrast, were middle men relying on weaker social ties such as former employees and business contacts.

Poles chose to kill Jews. In Nowy Targ county, Polish village guards, not the Germans, scoured the woods for Jews. Polish volunteer firefighters hunted Jews. In Łuków county, Poles betrayed Jews for a bag of sugar. The essays mention Poles raping Jewish women. Some resisters became oppressors. The Home Army liberated 120 prisoners from the Germans in Nowy Wiśnicz in June 1944. In autumn 1944 some of these released prisoners attacked a Jewish bunker, killing seven of the eight Jews inside. According to Engelking and Grabowski: “Sizable parts of Polish populations participated in liquidation actions and later, during the period between 1942 and 1945, contributed directly or indirectly to the death of thousands of Jews who were seeking refuge among them.”

For Jews, flight was torment. Escapees from the Siemiatycze ghetto returned, unable to find anywhere to hide. The few that reached the forest lasted two weeks. Some surrendered to the police, who executed them in the Jewish cemetery.

Some Jewish women lived as forced laborers in Germany by pretending to be Christians. Contrary to the notion that labor camps always meant death, some Jews survived them, especially the poorly controlled ones in Dębica county in Poland. Within the camps, Jewish farmers had a better chance of living because of their agricultural experience. The Germans encouraged the belief that Jews would live by working, but neither work nor collaboration spared Jews.

Getting through the occupation, however, did not mean survival. The postwar period was often lethal, too. Lonek Lindenberger and Ludwik Herz from Nowy Targ were saved by Oskar Schindler. Poles murdered them in 1946.

Regional differences mattered. In eastern Poland, where the German occupation was relatively short, Soviet partisans helped Jews. Poles who felt threatened by Ukrainians were more likely to aid Jews. In Bielsk Podlaski, the descendants of the petty nobility were more sympathetic to Jews. These former noble families also lived in self-sufficient hamlets that were distant from villages filled with hostile peasants. As Engelking and Grabowski rightly argue, “the oft-mentioned, alleged ‘inevitability of the Holocaust’ consisted of many elements that were by no means inevitable.”

Night Without End represents an ongoing revolution in Holocaust historiography. The most interesting studies no longer focus on German policy toward the Jews nor Nazi mechanisms of murder. Instead, historians are researching local non-Jewish populations and their complicity in German crimes. This scholarship often encounters opposition, at times suffused with antisemitism. A 2018 Polish law imposed up to three years imprisonment for Poles and foreigners who claim that “the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.” The law initially exempted artistic and academic activity. Following criticism, Poland dropped the criminal penalties, allowing instead for civil suits. In a sleight of hand, it removed the artistic and academic exemption, placing historians at the mercy of vexatious litigation and intimidation.

Most importantly, Night Without End offers a defense against attempts to dismiss the significance of the Holocaust and its memory. In politics, left- and right-wing extremists protect Holocaust deniers and complain falsely that Holocaust remembrance suppresses the commemoration of other crimes. In academia there are claims that Germany engages in excessive Holocaust memorialization. Night Without End, however, demonstrates that the Holocaust still has much to teach. Contrary to the myths, the responsibility for industrial-scale murder was wider, the reality of the Holocaust harsher, and Europe’s moral abyss deeper.

Andrew Apostolou is a historian of the Holocaust. Most recently he spoke on “Collaboration as a strategy in Greece” at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris.