In Poland, they were known as the ungrateful Jews. These were Jews who survived the Holocaust because of the selfless acts of thousands of Polish rescuers who put their lives on the line for them but were never properly thanked. As soon as the war was over, these Jews headed out to greener pastures overseas, never again to establish contact with those who served as their guardian angels.
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It’s one of the popular narratives that emerged in post-war Communist Poland, but according to Holocaust scholar Joanna Michlic, it’s a big myth.
“Yes, it’s true that many Jews broke off contact with their rescuers,” she says, “but that was done deliberately to protect them because anti-Semitism was so rampant at the time that had suspicions been raised that they had saved Jews, they would have been punished by their neighbors for being traitors. So while many Jews would have like to stay in contact with their rescuers after the war, they decided it was best to stay away.”
Michlic, a visiting Fulbright scholar this semester at the University of Haifa Strochlitz Institute for Holocaust Research, is currently working on a book about relations between Polish rescuers and the Jews they saved in the post-war period. Her findings are based on a large cache of letters she discovered at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. It includes more than 500 letters written by Jewish survivors to Jewish organizations on behalf of their rescuers, and by Jewish survivors to their rescuers in the first several years after the war.
“We have letters from survivors who were already in Displaced Persons camps in Germany, survivors in kibbutzim in Italy who wanted to make sure that their rescuers would receive parcels of food for Christmas, clothes for the winter and basic necessities,” recounts Michlic, who is both founder and director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Project on Families, Children and the Holocaust and a history professor at the University of Bristol in England. “We know of many rescued who wrote to the Jewish aid committees at the time to ask for loans to repay their rescuers. These letters are absolutely essential for shattering the myth of the ungrateful Jew.”
The letters also reveal, she notes, that contrary to popular belief, many Jews continued to live with their rescuers after the war and did not immediately take off. “In some cases, especially when the survivors were small children, they could be found with their rescuers even in 1947,” she reports.
Michlic’s preliminary findings on post-war relations between Polish rescuers and the Jews they saved were presented Wednesday at a talk she delivered at the Levinsky College of Education, co-sponsored by The Polish Institute and Next Generations to Holocaust and Heroism, an organization of second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors in Israel.
Michlic also discovered through the letters some rescuers had other motivations besides resisting Nazi tyranny. “What I learned, for example, is that sometimes it was love, sexual desire, and romance that explained the act of rescue. There are even cases of rescuers and survivors who married one another other.”
In other cases, she notes, it was the desire to nurture a child that provided the incentive. “We see this particularly with childless couples and with single women,” says Michlic. “In some of these cases, the rescuers didn’t even know they were saving a Jewish child because they received the child from an orphanage and only discovered that the child was Jewish later.”