Why Would Poland Criminalize Revelations of Its Own Wartime Heroism?

Poland needs to allow historians free access to and interpretation of its past. Only then can unfair and negative stereotypes, such as those used by Shlomo Avineri regarding the Polish underground Home Army, be refuted.

Man stands in front of bus stop waving Polish flag as commemoration for 72nd anniversary of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising in Warsaw, Poland. Behind him a poster of smiling Polish soldiers. Aug. 1, 2016.
AP/ Czarek Sokolowski

Shlomo Avineri’s recent Haaretz article about the Polish government’s recent attempt to criminalize references to Polish involvement in the Holocaust rightly maintains that “no thread of Polish authority remained” in German-occupied Poland, that the conceptualization and implementation of the Final Solution was purely a German Nazi project and therefore Polish sensitivity to the misleading and historically inaccurate phrase, “Polish concentration camp,” is understandable. 

While Avineri rightly demonstrates that there are parts of Poland’s wartime record, such as the Jedwabne massacres or the decision to call the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944, that should be subjected to open inquiry and debate in Poland without government hindrances, several of his claims need to be corrected or qualified.

Among them is the assertion that the Armia Krajowa, or Polish underground Home Army, remained entirely inactive during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. While he acknowledges that the Home Army smuggled weapons into the ghetto prior to the revolt, he wonders why the Polish underground “didn’t strike against the Germans” when the remnants of the 300,000 Jewish residents of Warsaw rose in armed revolt. But his supposition no longer accords with recent findings. 

After over a half decade of archival research in five countries examining the question of the Polish underground’s attitude and behavior towards the Jews, the evidence I and other scholars have uncovered – Polish underground records, the underground press, testimonies, memoirs and postwar trial records – demonstrates that the dark image of the Polish underground still prevalent in scholarly circles in the West can no longer be sustained.

In my book, "The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945" (2015), I showcase seven documented cases of Home Army actions against the Germans in support of the Jews during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. On April 19th, 1943, the first day of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, a Home Army unit under the command of Capt. Józef Pszenny, deputy commander of the Warsaw District Home Army, tried to blow up a section of the ghetto wall to allow for mass escape with a 63 kilo explosive device.  But the unit was spotted and a heavy exchange of gunfire ensued. Two Home Army soldiers were killed and four wounded.

Gen. Antoni Chruciel, commander of the Warsaw District Home Army, planned a second attempt to free Jews, ordering a unit to blow up a sealed gate on Okopowa Street.  This operation also was foiled as SS guards detected the unit approaching the ghetto wall and fired away. Although the mission failed, four SS officers, two German soldiers, and one Polish Blue Policeman were killed in the battle while the Home Army sustained no casualties. The Home Army actions in support of the Jews reached The New York Times which reported on April 23rd, 1943, that “the Polish underground movement has supplied arms and sent trained commanders for a last stand, which is said to be costing the Germans many lives.”

The Home Army’s record with regard to the Jews is, without doubt, a mixed one. There were many documented cases of Home Army crimes against the Jews. Some prominent leaders, such as the Biaystok District Home Army commander, Col. Wadysaw Liniarski, or the Nowogródek District Home Army commander, Col. Janusz Szlaski, ordered their units to attack Jewish partisans.  Some very influential Home Army partisan leaders, such as Adolf Pilch in Nowogródek, or Marian Sotysiak in Radom-Kielce, killed Jewish partisans or even civilians in hiding.  But the historical records also include individuals and groups within the Home Army that acted to save Jews during the Holocaust.  

An astonishing case is the Home Army in Hanaczów in the Lwów district, which hid and protected an estimated 250 Jews while arming and training a Home Army Jewish Platoon.  When, in March 1944, the German SS and their Ukrainian helpers entered Hanaczów to ferret out Jews, the Home Army kept the German forces at bay long enough to carry out an evacuation of the Jewish population to safety.  Or take the figure of Henryk Woliski, head of the Home Army’s Jewish Affairs Bureau, who helped found egota, the Polish underground’s Committee to Aid the Jews, in December 1942.  By 1944, Woliski headed a egota cell that cared for 280 hidden Jews, providing false papers and money.

Without Poland’s freedom of information act, I would not have gained access to records that allowed me to present these nuanced findings and challenge long-held notions, such as Avineri’s. If Poland truly wants to rid itself of unfair stereotypes and protect the memory of its wartime heroes, criminalizing those who seek to uncover a more accurate picture of the past – through an assessment of all extant records - is the very opposite way to accomplish that goal.