New Case Study Explores Role of Polish Peasants in Holocaust Atrocities

Jan Grabowski's new book paints a damning portrait of Polish citizens who betrayed and murdered their Jewish neighbors without German orders.

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Polish peasants and villagers played an instrumental role in rounding up and denouncing Jews during the Holocaust, often taking initiative without any encouragement from the Germans, according to a soon-to-be-published study by Holocaust historian Jan Grabowski.

In “Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland,” Grabowski argues that Poles living in the countryside served as enthusiastic accomplices to the Nazis and that many Jews who had managed to survive the ghettos and escape transports to the death camps eventually lost their lives only because they were turned in by their Polish neighbors. The book is scheduled for publication in October by the Indiana University Press.

Grabowski, a professor in the department of history at the University of Ottawa, is also on staff at the Polish Center for Holocaust research. He presented his findings at a special symposium held this week at Yad Vashem on new research pertaining to Polish Jewry during the Holocaust.

In his latest study, Grabowski delved into the history of one particular rural county in southeastern Poland, where many Jews were betrayed or murdered by local residents, after they had escaped mass deportations and killings and were desperately seeking hideouts in the countryside.

The county, Dabrowa Tarnowska, which is about 50 miles northeast of Krakow, had a Jewish population of 5,000 before the war. Roughly 350 of the county’s Jews survived by 1942, by which time the Germans had completed most of the round-ups and deportations in the area, but only about 60 of them were alive by the end of the war, the majority having been killed or betrayed to the Germans by local Poles, according to Grabowski’s findings, based on court records and personal testimonies

Speaking at a session during the symposium, the Polish-born scholar said that this particular case study represented a widespread pattern evident in other areas of rural Poland as well.

“I have become more and more convinced that the bleak picture we are seeing in this one area is the picture,” he said.

Grabowski’s findings would seem to corroborate those of the renowned historian Jan Gross, whose controversial bestsellers “Neighbors” and “Golden Harvest” paint a damning picture of Polish complicity in Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews. Excerpts of Grabowski’s upcoming book have already been published in Poland, where, like Gross, he has come under widespread attack.

Grabowski described his latest research as quite “surprising” and “dramatic.”

“For one, I had always thought to myself that the main instigators, actors and perpetrators were the Germans,” he explained.  “Second, I knew there were horrific things going on, but I thought it was all part of a popular, disorganized activity – killing people who no longer enjoyed protection of the state and were in a free-for-all situation.  What I did not know -- and there was not even one single article in the entire published historiography about this – was the extent to which these efforts were organized. And this was all going on practically without any German involvement – in most cases, the Germans were sitting in cities 15-20 miles away.”

Polish collaboration with the Nazis was less common, he said, in areas of the country where ethnic Poles were a minority, such as Galicia, and outnumbered by ethnic Ukrainians.

“If you look at Galicia, you’ll see that the Poles there were on the hit list of the Ukrainians, and this made them more likely to be sympathetic to the Jews who were also being persecuted by the Ukrainians,” he said. “But there still needs to be more research done on this subject.”

In this 1943 file photo, a group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after the uprising.Credit: AP
Hunt for the Jews, by Jan Grabowski.Credit: Jan Grabowski

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