No state has yet succeeded in creating a situation in which all its citizens are decent, law-abiding and honest. Nor has any nation that does not have a state of its own, nor any religious community. The question that arises is whether to evaluate a civil, national or religious community according to the norms which it is trying to impart to its citizens, or according to the behavior of those who ignore the norms. The answer to this question is of the essence when we consider Polish-Jewish relations during World War II.
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In the years 1939-1941, the entire territory of the Polish state was under the absolute rule of the German Third Reich. One of the components of the system of German rule in Poland and other occupied countries was the annihilation of the independent elites and the mobilization of the local population for purpose of serving the Reich's political aims, which included the genocide that was devised, planned and organized in Berlin.
In contrast to the situation in a number of other occupied countries, the elites in the Polish state who were in the underground or in exile adopted from the beginning a stance of unequivocal opposition to the Nazi-German policy of oppression of the Jews – their persecution and, ultimately, their total extermination. The elites of the Polish state expressed this position publicly time after time. The Polish government-in-exile warned the country’s citizens that those who collaborated with the Germans would be punished. From 1942, Polish underground circles started to issue calls to assist the Jews who had escaped from the ghettos and the camps.
Despite the determined stance of the Polish government-in-exile and of the Polish state underground, thousands of Polish citizens – Poles, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Germans and others – ignored the call of the official state bodies. Above all, members of auxiliary police units were compelled to execute the Germans’ orders. Their victims were Jews and other groups who were the declared enemies of the Third Reich. In addition to these units, which included the so-called Polish Police, everyone who held an official position was obliged to report and arrest “enemies of the Reich.”
The death penalty awaited not only for those who assisted Jews and the other “enemies of the Reich,” but also those who knew about violations of the occupier’s edicts and did not inform the Germans accordingly. In this situation, every Pole who held a public post, and before whom a detained Jew was brought, faced a choice: to obey the Germans’ order, or to risk punishment for both himself and his family.
One of the first things the Germans did when they caught a Jew who had escaped was attempt to extract from him information about those who had helped him on the “Aryan side.” To that end, the Germans used torture and generally succeeded in getting what they wanted.
The Poles who assisted refugees faced persecution that frequently ended in death. Punishment for assisting Jews was introduced in the Generalgouvernement as early as October 1941. Subsequently, the Germans reiterated these orders time and again. These reminders constitute indirect proof that the Germans were well aware that part of the Aryan population was assisting the Jews despite the punishments, without receiving anything in return, or in return for payment. To terrorize the population, the Germans customarily beat and executed those who were arrested for assisting Jews. The executions were carried out in public, particularly in the villages and towns.
The representatives of the Third Reich imposed punishments for good deeds, integrity and decency – and awarded prizes for offenses and crimes. The prizes were property plundered from the Jewish victims, money and other goods. Theft of the property of almost the entire population, not only the Jews, went on from the start of the German occupation. The only exceptions were ethnic Germans.
Money, personal belongings, houses and workshops were confiscated. Starvation food rations were introduced both in the area of the Generalgouvernement and also in the Generalkommisariat Ostland and in the Generalkommisariat Ukraine. The daily portion of food according to the ration coupons was between 400 and 700 calories per person. To avoid starvation, the populace had to buy food on the black market, where by 1942 the prices of basic commodities had soared to between 70 and 100 times what they were at the outset of the war.
Concurrently, German authorities froze pensions and other social benefits. The regime of total exploitation of the entire Polish population created a situation of dire poverty. Under these circumstances, thousands of people discarded moral constraints and decided to assist the Germans in rounding up Jews for economic reasons.
In his February 10, 2017, interview with Ofer Aderet in Haaretz, Prof. Jan Grabowski described modes of Polish behavior toward Jews that did indeed occur. Every Jew who was rescued on the “Aryan side” in Poland is familiar with them. Everyone who takes an interest in Polish-Jewish relations during the German occupation and looks with open eyes at the facts has long been familiar with them. One can read about this in many entries of the two-volume “Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations: Poland,” published by Yad Vashem in 2004.
Before the German-Soviet invasion of September 1939, Poland had a population of approximately 35 million, of whom about 3.5 million were Jews. The question, then, arises: What percentage of the 31 million non-Jews, among them 24 million ethnic Poles, took an active part in the German-Nazi anti-Jewish policy? How many Polish citizens became criminals under the conditions that were created by the German occupation – in spite of the prohibition on collaboration that the Polish state authorities declared? Taking into account, among others, the members of the various police forces, it can be assumed that there were a few tens of thousands of such people. The crimes of those Poles, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Lithuanians and others weigh on their conscience. Only a few of them were punished during the war itself, thousands of others afterward.
It also needs to be said that until the end of 1942, the Germans were the true rulers of the Polish hinterland. In the absence of Polish partisan units, the German gendarmerie and Germans who held other posts felt safe and immune from punishment. Relentlessly they patrolled the roads and the villages and towns, checking to see whether the orders of the occupation authorities were being obeyed. The police auxiliary forces followed suit. It was precisely in 1942 that the German occupation authorities completed the annihilation of almost 90 percent of Polish Jewry.
It should not be forgotten that thousands of Jews who fled from the ghettos and the camps were arrested and murdered by personnel of the Third Reich. Holocaust researchers know that many Jews who did not manage to find help on the “Aryan side” returned to the ghettos and were murdered in the Aktions that followed, and others implored the Germans directly to put an end their suffering. We do not know what percentage of those who escaped were caught and murdered by the Germans and what percentage by local residents.
In the district of Dabrowa Tarnowska, which Prof. Grabowski studied, about 5,100 Jews were deported by the Germans to death camps or murdered in various Aktions. In addition, at least another 239 Jews who succeeded in escaping were caught and murdered afterward, and at least 193 of them perished because they were informed on, or captured by Poles. Of the 61,000 Aryan residents of this district, 135 peasants were accused after the war of collaborating in the murder of Jews. Certainly this is not the entire number of informers and murderers, but this can be taken as the scale of the direct involvement of local residents in the annihilation of Jews.
As a historian who is familiar with the reality of the Nazi occupation, I cannot agree with the claim that sees a few tens of millions of occupied Poland’s frightened, plundered and starved inhabitants acting as tacit collaborators with the Germans’ policy of exterminating the Jews. In addition to approximately three million Polish Jews, the occupiers killed about 2.5 million Poles during the war years, a number that does not take into account other nationalities.
In the interview, Prof. Grabowski alleges that Poles may have killed more than 200,000 Jews who escaped from the ghettos and camps. He knows full well that this number is “hot air.” The knowledge we possess allows us to estimate that at least 50,000 Jews escaped in the entire territory of occupied Poland. No other number has yet been proved by research. The estimate that 250,000 Jews escaped from the ghettos was cited more than 30 years ago by the historian Szymon Datner in an interview he gave at the end of his life. But Datner did not conduct studies that relate to the whole of Poland or even to one of its districts. Accordingly, it is difficult to accept his claim as scientific truth.
No one disputes that thousands of Polish citizens heightened the Jewish tragedy – impelled by the occupier’s threats, by anti-Semitism or by poverty and greed. Those are facts. In contrast, there is no agreement concerning the extension of responsibility for their crimes to tens of millions of people who committed no crime. In the civilized world the principle of guilt by conjecture is not respected.
Prof. Grzegorz Berendt is a historian at Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance and at Gdansk University.