S’tut shrecklekh vey!
It hurts terribly!
When not the foreign enemy,
Poland’s sons and daughters
Whose country, one day,
Will be ashamed of them.
Laughing, choking with laughter,
Seeing on the street
How our common enemy
Amuses himself with Jews.
Beating and torturing old people
Plundering without restraints,
Cutting, as one cuts bread,
The beards off Jews,
Who are now, like us,
Left without a homeland,
Who now feel, as do we,
The savage enemy’s hand,
Laugh, are happy and laugh,
At such a moment,
When Poland’s pride and honor
Is being so abased.
When Poland’s white eagle
Wallows on the ground,
– Krakow, 1940
This verse of a haunting poem was not written retrospectively in 2018 by someone intent on harming Polish-Jewish relations. And its words’ validity cannot be challenged on the ground that they do not provide specific names and dates to disprove the present-day mythology that most Poles during the years of the Shoah saved Jews, helped Jews, or at the very least were sympathetic to the plight of their Jewish neighbors.
The poem I just read was written in Kraków in February 1940 by Mordecai Gebirtig, one of the greatest Yiddish poets and songwriters of the first half of the 20th century if not of all times.
We all know his poems and songs—including Kinderyorn (Childhood years), Hulyet, hulyet kinderlekh (play, play little children), and the lullaby, Yankele, among many others. The song most associated with him–S’brent–It is burning – has become a classic song at Holocaust commemorations. However, it is important for us to bear in mind that S’brent was written in 1938, before the outbreak of World War II, not in response to Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany, but as a reaction to a March 1936 pogrom in the Polish town of Przytyk.
I begin this article with Gebirtig’s words as a reminder of the context of the Polish-Jewish – or, if one prefers, Jewish-Polish – relationship as it existed in and before 1939, before Jews were deported to and murdered in death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka.
Yes, there were close ties binding Jews and Poles together. Yes, Jews had lived in Poland for centuries, as one can see in the magnificent Polin Museum in Warsaw. But there was also a long tradition of Polish antisemitism, rooted heavily in the Catholic Church’s negative attitude toward Jews that prevailed prior to the Vatican’s 1965 Nostra Aetate declaration that – in its most basic interpretation – repudiated the charge of deicide against the Jewish people, that it was the Jews who had killed Jesus.
In a 1936 pastoral letter, Cardinal August Hlond, then the Primate of Poland, wrote:
It is an actual fact that the Jews fight against the Catholic Church, they are free thinkers, and constitute the vanguard of atheism, Bolshevism and revolution. The Jewish influence upon morals is fatal, and the publishers spread pornographic literature. It is also true that the Jews are committing frauds, practicing usury, and dealing in white slavery. It is true that in the schools, the Jewish youth is having an evil influence, from an ethical and religious point of view, upon the Catholic youth.
Even though he commented almost parenthetically that “not all the Jews are, however, like that,” and called on his flock to refrain from violence against Jews, Hlond advocate an economic boycott of Jewish businesses. Specifically, he wrote in the same pastoral letter that, “One does well to prefer his own kind in commercial dealings and to avoid Jewish stores and Jewish stalls in the markets,” he wrote, “but it is not permissible to demolish Jewish businesses. One should protect oneself against the evil influence of Jewish morals, and particularly boycott the Jewish press and the Jewish demoralizing publications, but it is inadmissible to assault, hit, or injure the Jews.”
In other words, the pre-Shoah state of Polish-Jewish relations were hardly idyllic. There was a quota–a numerus clausus–for Jews at universities, and Jewish students were forced to sit in segregated sections, called Ghetto benches–geto lawkowe.
In his book, No Way Out: The Politics of Polish Jewry 1935-1939, historian Emanuel Melzer described the heavily antisemitic atmosphere that prevailed in Poland just prior to the outbreak of World War II. While liberal groups such as the newly formed Democratic Party condemned anti-Jewish measures, the nationalist Endek (Narodowa Demokracja) movement made no secret of its antisemitic orientation. “Jews must be warned against the belief that the will to get rid of them in Poland has weakened,” declared the National Party’s newspaper, Warszawski Dziennik Narodowy (Warsaw National Daily), on April 6, 1939.
This, incidentally, was nothing new. Back in August of 1934, JTA, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, reported that:
The Endek party carries on an intense and widely spread anti-Semitic propaganda campaign which hints of possible pogroms, both in the press and in the open, at secret meetings and at public gatherings. Never do the leaders of the Endeks allow an opportunity to slip by without inciting the public against the Jews. The spreading of this anti-Semitic propaganda is one of the underlying principles of the party. The war on Jews is one of the Endek’s chief commandments.
Melzer noted that in 1939, heightened anti-Semitic propaganda came from certain Polish business and professional associations as well. The meeting of the Association of Polish Merchants in March 1939 approved the sending of a memorandum to the minister of industry and trade demanding that the business permits of a sizable portion of Jewish-owned enterprises not be renewed… Similarly, the Union of Engineers’ Organization had resolved to include an “Aryan paragraph” in its bylaws, meaning that no Jew, spouse of a Jew, or person of Jewish descent could be a member of the association… In conferences held in the spring of 1939, OZON’s Young Poland League spoke of the need to prepare Polish youth to replace Jews in industry and commerce, and the state Foreign Trade Council withheld import licenses not only from certain Jewish importers but even from a number of Jews who had converted to Christianity.
Lest anyone think that the Zaglembie region of Poland was immune from such poisonous atmospherics, I refer us all to Mary Fulbrook’s book, A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust, in which she describes the prevailing anti-Semitic atmosphere of the pre-war years in Będzin, including frequent beatings of Jewish children by their Polish counterparts. One survivor, Leah Melnik, is quoted as recalling about her childhood in Będzin: “The non-Jews were very anti-Semitic . . . They say ‘Jews to Palestine’. ‘It’s your house but our street.’”
It is against this background that we need to examine what truly happened in Poland during the years of the Holocaust.
As we are all too painfully aware, Polish-Jewish relations generally, and relations between Poland and Israel more narrowly, have been in turmoil for the past six months since the Polish Sejm, the Polish parliament, enacted legislation that would have criminalized accusing Poland qua Poland of perpetrating and or helping to perpetrate the Shoah. I discussed this development and its implication in my Tablet Magazine article of February 22, 2018, “Poles and the Holocaust in Historical Perspective.”
As we also know, the Polish Government has since retreated from its hardline position, and the Sejm has amended the legislation to remove the criminal dimension.
I do not propose to comment today on the law or the controversy surrounding it. Rather, I would like to place the role–or, better, roles–of Poles during the Shoah in proper historical perspective.
Indeed, the debate over the new law has gotten out of hand. Earlier this year, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared hyperbolically that “Poland as a nation, Poland as a state” deserves to be recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. This, as we know–or as we should know–is utterly inaccurate, to say the least. And the situation is not helped by others who, adopting the same misguided or deliberately misleading approach, over-emphasize with propagandist zeal the heroic role played by those Poles–a small minority–who rescued or helped Jews. It does not help matter when a highly controversial Polish priest, Tadeusz Rydzyk, whose Catholic radio station Maryja has long been a purveyor of anti-Semitic screeds, has become one of the proponents of a new Polish museum to focus exclusively on Righteous Poles, implying that they were the norm rather than the all too rare exception.
Unfortunately, comments such as the widely-publicized remark by Israeli Member of Knesset and former Finance Minister Yair Lapid that “Poland was complicit in the Holocaust” similarly misses the mark. They are reminiscent of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s reported observation in 1989 that Poles absorb their antisemitism “with their mother’s milk,” and Israeli Minister of Tourism Gideon Patt’s statement at around the same time that Poles “were anti-Semites before the Holocaust and they were anti-Semites after the Holocaust.”
The truth is far more complicated and far more complex than either extreme of the present debate would have it, and it does not lend itself to facile sound bites. While Poland as a national or political entity as such was not–and cannot be held to have been–complicit in the Holocaust, large numbers of Poles physically handed Jews to the Germans and otherwise betrayed them. Princeton historian and sociologist Jan Gross described in his book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabme, Poland, how the inhabitants of a town in the east of Poland rounded up hundreds of Jews in July of 1941, forced them into a barn, and burned them alive.
Even larger numbers of Poles simply watched in silence while Jews were being taken away under their eyes, and then proceeded to take over their Jewish neighbors’ homes and belongings. And after the war, when the few Jewish survivors returned to what had been their homes, they were far too often greeted with hostility and worse. On July 4, 1946, a mob in the Polish city of Kielce killed 42 Jews in a pogrom that Polish Foreign Minister Dariusz Rosati would recognize fifty years later in a letter to the World Jewish Congress as an “act of Polish anti-Semitism.”
There is no question that the Poles who risked their lives to help and/or rescue Jews during the Holocaust deserve to be recognized and honored. They are heroes in the truest sense of the term. The reality, however, is that their actions were in stark contrast with the behavior and attitudes of most of their compatriots. We must never lose sight of the tragic reality that the Poles who came to the aid of Jews were the exception – a small minority – and certainly not the rule.
It is a fact that as of December 2017, 6,706 Poles–more than from any other Nazi-occupied country–have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. In addition, there were certainly many other Poles who hid or otherwise helped Jews in the years of the Holocaust. But then again, according to Polish-American historian Anna M. Cienciala writing in The Polish Review in 2001, “In 1939, Poland had an estimated population of almost 35,000,000, of which about 70% or 24,500,000 were ethnic Poles, and about 3,300,000 were Jews. There were also about 4,500,000 Ukrainians, some 1,500,000 Belorussians, about 1,000,000 Germans and a few other ethnic groups.” Other demographic estimates are along the same lines.
The above-mentioned 6,706 Poles constituted about .0021 percent of Poland’s overall population (not including Polish Jewry), and about .0027 percent of the country’s ethnic Polish population.
It is also a fact that many Poles who helped Jews have not been recognized by Yad Vashem because they were never nominated to be listed among the Righteous. Others remain unknown because they were ultimately unsuccessful in their altruistic and humanitarian endeavors. But this does not alter the fundamental reality that the Poles who rescued or otherwise helped Jews made up a tiny proportion of the population as a whole.
As historian Yehuda Bauer pointed out in a recent interview on Israeli radio, “Even if we assume that the real figure is 200,000, out of 21 million Poles, that’s only one percent. What about the other 99 percent?”
I will briefly comment about the bulk of the other 99 percent a little later.
The Poles are on safe historical ground when they view themselves as victims of Nazism. The German occupation of Poland during World War II was particularly savage, with thousands of Poles shot in the aftermath of Poland’s military defeat, and thousands of Polish intellectuals, teachers and priests killed in 1940 as part of a campaign to eradicate the Polish intelligentsia. The Germans also sent hundreds of thousands of Poles to Auschwitz and other concentration and labor camps, and deported at least 1.5 million Poles to Germany as forced laborers. Indeed, non-Jewish Poles constituted the second largest group of victims murdered at Auschwitz – according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 960,000 Jews, 74,000 Poles, and 21,000 Roma perished in that death camp.
It is also a fact that the London-based Government of the Republic of Poland in exile (Rząd Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej na uchodźstwie) provided some of the earliest detailed accounts of the German mass killings of Jews. Based on information received from the Polish government-in-exile, the World Jewish Congress in London reported on June 29, 1942, that more than one million Jews had been massacred since the beginning of World War II, that Jews deported to Poland from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands were being shot at the rate of 1,000 daily, that close to another million were imprisoned in ghettos, and that 10,232 Jews had died in the Warsaw Ghetto from hunger and disease.
In the Swiss capital, Bern, a group of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists known as the Bernese Group produced illegal Latin American passports that were sent to Jews in Poland – including in Zaglembie – in the hope that they might provide them with the opportunity to escape. This initiative involved bribing Latin American diplomats and honorary consuls to obtain blank passports, which were then manually forged; working with other Jews in Switzerland with contacts within different ghettos, including a Jew from Będzin, Alfred Schwartzbaum, to compile lists of Jews for whom these passports could be created; and then smuggling the fake passports to the Warsaw Ghetto, to Będzin, and to ghettos in other parts of Poland. Even though many of these documents never reached their intended recipients, some did result in their holders being placed in internment camps, rather than sent to extermination camps. In all, the Bernese Group issued more than a thousand such passports, and succeeded in saving hundreds of Jews from certain death.
Within Poland itself, meanwhile, some members of the underground formed a Council for Aid to Jews, known as Żegota, which provided physical and monetary assistance to Jews living clandestinely among the Polish population. One of the most heroic Żegota activists was a nurse, Irena Sendler, who is credited with helping to smuggle some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and providing them with forged identity papers and shelter. These Poles risked their and their families’ lives to help Jews since the punishment for doing so was death.
This is the side of the equation that portrays wartime Poles as today’s Polish authorities want them to be portrayed: victims of the Nazis, and friends and rescuers of Polish Jewry. It is an important aspect of Polish history that must not be ignored or downplayed.
However, there is also a darker, more sinister dimension to Polish history during World War II that many Poles do not want to talk about, but with which Polish Jews who lived through the Holocaust in Poland were all too familiar. The fact is that Jews were regularly betrayed by Poles who demanded to be paid for providing what proved to be precarious shelter. To be sure, many Poles hid Jews for altruistic reasons, but others did so exclusively out of greed and without any moral or humane considerations.
In his book, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski relates (at p. 61) the tragic story of Rywka Glückmann and her two sons who were given shelter in Dabrowa Tarnowska, not far from Tarnów, by Michał Kozik from 1942 until 1944 “as long as they paid him. Once the money was gone, Kozik murdered the three of them with an axe.” Jews “hiding across the street . . . heard the howls of the murdered and the next day learned that theGlückmanns were dead.” Grabowski estimates (at p. 172) that as many as 200,000 Jews were killed by Poles.
In April of this year, the Warsaw-based Polish Center for Holocaust Research published a two-volume study edited by Barabara Engelking and Jan Grabowski entitled Night Continues: The Fate of the Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland. The unsettling conclusion of this monumental work is that two-thirds of the Jews who hid in the nine regions in Poland covered by the study did not survive World War II, either because they were killed by Poles, or because Poles handed them over to the Germans who proceeded to kill them
For anyone who wants to know the gruesome details inherent in being a Jew in Poland during World War II, I highly recommend Polish historian Barbara Engelking’s outstanding book, Such a Beautiful Sunny Day: Jews Seeking Refuge in the Polish Countryside, 1942-1945, first published in Polish in 2011, and in English translation by Yad Vashem in 2016.
Engelking describes how “Uszer Szajnberg was captured and betrayed by an acquaintance and a classmate, Bonifacy Gluchowski. Szajnberg was hiding with a group of Jews in the forest and fields near Skarżyny (Płońsk County), their native village. His sister, Chaja Comber, and his cousin Chana Zelizer testified during the investigation about what took place on June 11, 1944:
We were hidden in the Skarżyński fields, in Gajki, in barley, which had grown pretty high by then. […] Uszer Szajnberg came out of the hideout for a moment. He wanted to get some information about what was going on in the world. He came across Szczurowski, who told him that the Red Army would liberate us before long. […] Then Bolesław Zalewski and Julian [Bonifacy] Gluchowski, who were busy hunting down the hiding Jews … noticed my brother, and started hitting him, saying, “You’ve lived long enough; come to the Germans,” [and then] brought him to the sołtys [the village elder]. […] Gluchowski was Uszer’s schoolmate. Uszer begged Gluchowski not to turn him in. […] The sołtys didn’t want to detain my brother and told them, “If you detained him, keep him.” Then my brother tore himself out of their hands and started running away. Zalewski threw his jacket at him, which made him stumble and in this fashion he and Gluchowski managed to capture him, and, holding him by the arm,took him to some German field gendarmes that happened to pass by and handed him over as a Jew. The gendarmes took my brother to the forest in Kałuszyn, where they shot him. […] We watched the whole incident, from our hiding place in the barley.
Engelking then quotes Jankiel Kopiec’s account of how in June, 1943, his classmates attacked eight members of his family, who had found refuge with a peasant, Wincenty Malecki, in the settlement of Piaseczno (Sandomierz County):
They robbed them of everything, even took off the little child’s shoes, and led them out into the forest. […] In the forest they cast lots among themselves as to who would carry out the sentence. Aware that my brother, my cousin and I were alive, no one wanted to commit the murder, fearing revenge. At long last they decided that they would take all the victims to the gendarmerie. Because it was late, they brought them to the nearest police station, so that they might be delivered to the gendarmerie the next day. The village council designated one man as an escort. It was… Józef Osomlak from Łoniewo. En route my brother tried to get away, but Osomlak caught up with him, tore a railing out of the fence and beat him until he lost consciousness. When my brother fainted, Osomlak summoned several peasants, who loaded him onto a cart, tied him up, and in this condition turned him over to the gendarmerie. Later I received news that all of them had been shot to death in the Jewish cemetery.
Engelking goes on to write that “To encourage Poles to denounce Jews, the Germans established a system of rewards. Ignacy Goldstein, who was hiding in a forest near Opatów, noted the following in his testimony:
Almost everyday peasants caught Jews in hiding. The Germans rewarded these ‘services’ in various ways. At first, for each captured Jew, they offered a sack of sugar and a liter of spirits. Later, trackers only got the clothing of the captured victim.
Engelking quotes Abraham Śniadowicz who recalled that peasants from the Ostrołęka area formed “gangs that searched for Jews and betrayed them to the Germans. For each captured Jew a peasant received 3 kg of sugar from the gendarmerie. This new way of ‘earning’ was very popular in the surrounding villages. Peasants ran around like scalded cats, looking for Jews in hiding.”
Other Holocaust survivors similarly recalled that there were Poles who literally hunted Jews for the remuneration they were promised by the Germans. Samuel Pivnick, a survivor from Będzin, recalled in an oral history maintained at the United States Holocaust Museum how Poles would betray and denounce Jews to the Germans in return for half a kilo of sugar or a kilo of marmalade.
To be sure, Engelking also acknowledges those Poles who showed compassion and helped Jews. She describes Wanda Kinrus’ “great surprise” when the sołtys to whom she and her sister were taken by a Polish boy after escaping from the ghetto in Szczebrzeszyn not only did not betray them to the Germans, but fed them and helped then get to Warsaw by train. “Similar behavior,” Engelking continued, “was exhibited by the sołtys of the village of Chotcza Górna (Lipsko County), who knew Brandla Fajn from childhood and rescued her when she was betrayed by children in the village:
“In November,” Brandla Fajn subsequently recalled, “when we were hiding in bulrushes by the river, we were noticed by boys hunting wild ducks; they recognized us and let the village know that Jews were hiding. They came to us. First they wanted to turn us over to the Germans, but later they changed their minds and decide d to kill us themselves. They bludgeoned us with sticks, and when they thought we were dead, they left. […] Later, peasant children once again betrayed us to the patrols in the neighboring village, but the local sołtys rescued us there too. In this fashion, hiding, and incited against all the time, we survived until the liberation.”
And then there were the szmalcowniks, the extortionists and blackmailers who preyed on Jews hiding outside ghetto walls. They added considerably to the terror confronted daily by those Polish Jews who had managed to avoid deportation to the death camps.
It has been suggested that while Jews may have been persecuted and even killed by Poles elsewhere in Poland, things were different in Zaglembie. “Give us names of Poles who betrayed Jews,” I am often told by one particular individual who wants to portray the local residents of my parents’ region as having behaved more decently, more honorably, toward their Jewish neighbors than Poles in other parts of the country. I wish this were the case. Unfortunately, it is not – and the individual who disingenuously asks for the information know it.
To begin with, while survivors knew the names of the identities of the Poles who helped or even saved them, they are unlikely to have known who had betrayed them or their families, or other Jews for that matter. Even if they came face to face with Poles who had denounced them, they may well not have known their names. And many, probably most, of the Jews who were betrayed or blackmailed by Poles were soon murdered.
Also, I am advised by Barbara Engelking that the Polish Center of Holocaust Research has not yet focused on Zaglembie–it is not one of the regions discussed in the Center’s study published earlier this year.
My father was once asked whether he still believed in God after Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. His response was that while he did not hold God responsible for the Shoah, he also would not award Him any medals.
It is true, of course, that there were courageous Poles in Zaglembie who risked their and their families lives to help Jews. These admirable individuals include:
—Mother Teresa Kierocińska whose convent of Carmelite nuns in Sosnowiec gave shelter to Jewish children and provided food to Jews in hiding.
—Andrzej and Marta Skop and Antoni and Józefa Błoński of Będzin who saved the life of a Jewish boy, Tzvi Norich.
—Wanda Hornik, also of Będzin, who hid Emma Grunpeter and her daughter Gerda.
—Waleria and Jan Jurkiewicz, and their daughter, Olga Kozłowska-Jurkiewicz, of Czeladź, who hid Janina Imerglik and her two-year-old son.
—Władysława Pałka of Będzin, who saved the life of eight-year-old Łazarz Krakowski.
—Stanisław and Stanisława Grzybowski of Będzin, and his daughter Wanda Grzybowska-Kafarska and her husband Kazimierz Kafarski of the village of Przeciszów, who protected and cared for ten-year-old Itzhak Kleinman.
These individuals, and others like them from Zagliembie, were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, and they deserve every possible measure of gratitude. But–and I cannot emphasize this fundamental fact strongly enough–they constituted a small, very small minority of Zaglembie’s overall population.
At the same time, there exists ample evidence that most Poles in Zaglembie did not have any different attitudes about, and did not behave differently towards, Jews than Poles in other parts of German-occupied Poland.
Historian Alina Skibinska of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, who is the representative of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Warsaw, has provided me with the following examples taken from the files of the courts in Katowice and Sosnowiec, and the files of the Prosecutor’s Office of the Regional Court in Sosnowiec:
–Anna Lewińska of Dąbrowa Górnicza was accused, among other things, of informing the German authorities that another resident of the town, Marcjanna Gałecka, had been hiding a Jew. She was condemned to death, but her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and she was released in 1954.
–Noculak Franciszek from Będzin was accused of handing over a Jewish woman to the German police in 1943.
–Bajor Wacław was charged with denouncing Jews to the German police during the German occupation, and of taking part in the murder of Poles and Jews in the town of Brzezina.
–Eugeniusz Pompa and Henryk Mucha were charged with beating a Jew who had been in hiding, and delivering him the gendarmerie station in Żarki.
–Anna Kędra was accused of denouncing two Jews she had hidden in Zawiercie in October 1943, and of showing the German police the hiding place of the 6-year old daughter of one of these two Jews.
–Józef Porst was accused of being a member in the SA in 1940-43 in Olkusz, and taking part in the deportations of Jews, extorting furniture and other valuables from members of the Jewish community, kicking Jews and forcing them to pay him money. He was entenced to 6 months in prison, forfeiture of property, and loss of public rights for belonging to SA. Among the witnesses against him were Tobiasz Zylberszac, Josek, and Chaim Rotner.
–Klara Kowalska and Jan Sapinski were sentenced to death for denouncing Chaja Strauch, Felicja Strauch, Maria Warman, Pola Warman, Janina Birman and Helena Chmielnicki Lejbowiczowa to the German police in Sosnowiec in 1944.
–Antonina Pala was suspected of either handing over to the German authorities or drowning in the river two Jewish children. Antonina Pala testified that she had hidden two children, Renia and Josek Ainfeld, in Sosnowiec since 1943, and that one day, a Jew named Bruno came and took the two children to hide them elsewhere. Witness Eugeniusz Paszkowski testified that the father of the two children sent a letter from Sweden to the witness’ wife after the war, asking if she knew what happened to his children. Antonina Pala said when told about the letter: “Let him kiss my ass.”
–Marcin Jaźwierski was accused by Irena Rejcher of Sosnowiec for denouncing her husband Otto Michał Andrzej Rejcher, a baptized Jew, to the German authorities. According to the report, Jaźwierski supposedly informed the police that Rejchera owned a radio, as a result of which Rejcher was arrested, deported to Auschwitz where he was executed on August 17, 1941. The case was discontinued for lack of suffidient evidence.
–Edward Wroniecki and Stefania Wroniecka were accused of denouncing a Jewish family consisting of a woman and two children who were hiding in Józefów in the home of Siedlecka Natalia in September or October of 1944. Wroniecki, in the presence of Mieczysław Lipka, informed the German police about the Jews’ whereabouts by phone, and they were arrested and sent to Auschwitz. In 1947 Wroniecki was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Wroniecka was acquitted.
Historian Aleksandra Namysło noted the following other examples in a 2006 article:
–Sara Silfen of Sosnowiec recalled that “when the Jews were forced to leave their homes, the Poles began to visit them. They often came with bags to the richer homes, casually opened the doors of the flats, reached the cupboards themselves and took the most expensive porcelain, crystals or bed linen. They left some food for it. They said with cynicism: you do not need it any more. A Polish woman came to our former neighbor, she opened the wardrobe and began to take a new bed linen, hand-embroidered tablecloths. In their place, she put down two sausages for payment. And when the neighbor mentioned that it was a dowry for her daughter, which she had been collecting for years, she replied: “Your daughter does not need it anymore.”
–During the deportations, Majer Taitelbaum of Sosnowiec took refuge with Jozef Doroz, the superintendent of the house in which he had lived before the war. Taitelbaum paid Doroz cash and valuables to hide him. In early 1944, when Taitelbaum was no longer able to pay for his upkeep, Doroz turned him over to the Gestapo. Doroz also went into Taitelbaum’s apartment, and appropriated all the furnishings and Taitelbaum’s entire wardrobe
–Luba Prawer of Sosnowiec recalled the reluctance of her Aryan sister-in-law and the sister-in-law’s sister when she turned to them for help after escaping from the ghetto. Wandering around Sosnowiec and Będzin, unsuccessfully looking for a place to hide, she observed: “The Gestapo had many helpers among the population. Especially juveniles had a fairly developed exploratory instinct and a certain routine in this episode. Catching Jews was a kind of attraction and emotion for them.”
Bella Jakubowicz Tovey recalled in an interview maintained at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum how the Jews of Sosnowiec were ordered to go to a sports stadium on the outskirts of the city. “We were walking,” she said, “they were walking us, not on the sidewalks but in the middle of the street, and the Poles … Polish people, non-Jews were standing on both sides of the street… There were some decent Poles, but there were many who were not. And many were standing on those sidewalks and jeering and … emjoying the spectacle. And… calling us ‘dirty Jews’ and… some were standing and crying. Not everybody was that nasty, but there were many who were very ….”
In her memoirs, Yesterday: My Story, my mother, Dr. Hadassah Rosensaft, recalled Poles and ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) who behaved altruistically and decently. “Many poles, however,” she added pointedly, “were very happy about what was happening to the Jews.”
In addition, one cannot ignore all those Poles who not only seized the opportunity to take over the homes and property of Jews taken to ghettos or sent to camps, but who refused, often violently, to return such homes and property to the few rightful owners who returned to their former homes at the end or after the war.
I want to be very clear on this point. Every Pole–every non-Jewish inhabitant of any German-occupied country for that matter–who seized Jewish homes or Jewish property for themselves became an accomplice, and accessory, to the persecution, deportation, and in most cases annihilation of their Jewish neighbors by callously profiteering from their plight.
Finally, let’s briefly focus on all those Poles, in Zaglembie and elsewhere, who did not betray or denounce Jews, but who did nothing to help them either. They were the overwhelming majority. I do not believe that we have any right to judge them – we have no way of knowing what we would have done in their place, but that does not make them heroes.
My father was once asked whether he still believed in God after Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. His response was that while he did not hold God responsible for the Shoah, he also would not award Him any medals. I suppose my attitude toward Poles – and members of other nationalities for that matter – who watched in silence and did nothing while their Jewish neighbors were being deported is pretty much the same. They should not be blamed for the despicable behaviors of those Poles who voluntarily and willingly helped the Germans perpetrate the Final Solution, but they also do not deserve any credit for the altruism and heroism of those few Poles who were truly righteous.
I have tried to present what must perforce be only a cursory overview of a tragic past that unites Jews and Poles for better and, equally as much, for worse. There are Holocaust survivors who are deeply grateful to the Poles who saved them. Others loathe the Poles who betrayed them. Many espouse both sentiments simultaneously. And they have passed on their feelings and beliefs to their children and grandchildren. This is the reality. What is most important going forward is that the tragic history of Poland and Polish Jewry during the years of the Holocaust be conveyed without distortions, without political overtones, and with absolute accuracy.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Associate Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen” (Kelsay Books, April 2021).