Opinion |

No, Poland's Elites Didn't Try to Save the Jews During the Holocaust

A Holocaust scholar responds to a Polish historian's critique of his claims, in a recent Haaretz interview, about the extent of Polish collaboration in the persecution of Jews during World War II.

Jan Grabowski
Jan Grabowski
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A Polish police officer checks a Jewish man's documents at the Kraków Ghetto, 1941.
A Polish police officer checks a Jewish man's documents at the Kraków Ghetto, 1941.Credit: The Polish national archive, from 'Hunt for the Jews.'
Jan Grabowski
Jan Grabowski

In a piece published in Haaretz on February 27, Dr. Grzegorz Berendt, a historian and an employee of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance – a state-appointed “custodian” of historical memory – expressed his reservations regarding Ofer Aderet’s February 10 article discussing the role of certain segments of Polish society in the extermination of Polish Jewry during the Holocaust. Since the article in question dealt for the most part with my book “Hunt for the Jews,” which was recently published in Hebrew by Yad Vashem, and since the article drew extensively on an interview with me – I feel obligated to respond to Berendt’s allegations and misrepresentations.

Dr. Berendt’s rather emotional polemic is divided into three parts. In the first, he deals with the suffering of the Polish nation under Nazi occupation. The oft-repeated and well-known historical facts he cites are undisputed and obvious: The level of terror directed at the Poles by the Germans was much higher than that directed at the people of other nations in occupied Western Europe. Granted. The relevance of Berendt’s assertion to the topic at hand, however, remains unclear. Ofer Aderet’s article (and my own work) do not focus on the suffering of the Poles (something that has been well documented), but on the much-less-studied crimes perpetrated by the Poles upon their helpless Jewish fellow citizens. Berendt seems to suggest that the existence of German genocidal policies directed at the Poles somehow deflect and defuse “inconvenient” findings about the Polish involvement in the destruction of the country’s Jews. This, of course, makes little sense, and comes off as disingenuous.

The second part of Berendt’s polemic suggests the existence of a large-scale effort undertaken in Poland to save the Jews. This, unfortunately, flies in the face of painstaking historical research conducted both in Poland and abroad over at least the past decade. Berendt argues that both Polish elites and the leadership of the Polish state (in exile, in London) were sympathetic to the Jews’ plight. What he fails to mention, however, is that the rare public declarations of support from the Polish government-in-exile were met by the Polish resistance, and by the population in Poland, with outright hostility. Gen. Stefan Rowecki, commander-in-chief of the Polish resistance, went so far as to warn the authorities in London to remain silent about the Jews, lest they alienate the Polish masses. Jan Karski – the oft-quoted underground courier – went even further and alerted authorities that “the solution of the Jewish question” was perhaps “the only bridge on which the German occupier could meet the majority of Polish society.”

Claiming – as Berendt does – that the few known declarations from members of the Polish “elites” had an impact on the ground is, to put it simply, a historical fallacy. The attitude of the decision-makers toward the Jews in occupied Poland can be described as indifferent at best, and openly hostile at worst. To wit: Roman Knoll, one of the highest members of the underground civil authorities, stated, as late as the summer of 1943, that there would be no room for the Jews in an independent Poland – even for the few who managed to survive the Holocaust, writing, “The mass murder of Jews in Poland carried out by the Germans will diminish the Jewish problem but it will not remove it altogether.” Knoll's declaration was echoed in the Polish underground press from left to right – examples are far too numerous to cite. From the point of view of the dying Jews, the rare expressions of support emanating from London carried no weight; what counted was the attitude of the leaders of the local resistance, as well as that of high officials of the Polish Catholic church. On both counts, the Jews were severely disappointed. The silence of the Catholic Church was overwhelming.

Equally false is Berendt’s assertion regarding the alleged universality of the “helping-hand” phenomenon. Helping the Jews, argues Berendt, was a particularly risky pursuit, and the death penalty introduced by the Germans had a powerful dissuasive force. Once again, the IPN historian obfuscates the historical realities: The death penalty was a particularly potent deterrent because there was no social permission for harboring the Jews. The death penalty had been introduced, to far lesser effect, for a variety of crimes and breaches of the German order. Why were so many people willing to risk their lives breaking various other German regulations, but for a Jew it was so difficult to find shelter? After all, there was no shortage of those who kept unlicensed livestock, owned a radio receiver, told “political” jokes, or read the underground press – not to mention being involved in resistance. And all of these pursuits carried with them a very real threat of a death sentence.

The fact that until very recently, many Poles – recipients of the prestigious Righteous Among the Nations honor – pleaded with Yad Vashem to remain anonymous, fearing their neighbors, is telling. (Consequently, some of the decorated received their medals during quiet ceremonies held at the Israeli embassy in Warsaw or in other, equally “secure” ways.)

Dr. Berendt admits that certain rogue elements of Polish society assisted the Germans in their genocidal designs, but he states at the same time that the deadly actions of the Polish police were undertaken only at German behest. That’s wrong: One of the significant findings of my research was the surprising degree of own agency among Polish policemen, who killed Jews on their own, without any direct German involvement – and often without the knowledge of the Germans. Another, even more significant finding (absent, not surprisingly, from Berendt’s rebuttal), was the degree of involvement of other Polish actors – thousands of volunteer firefighters, youth from the “Construction Service” (Baudienst) or countless “bystanders” who took part in the brutal liquidations of the local ghettos and in the hunts for the Jewish survivors that followed.

Finally, Berendt takes issue with the historical data presented in my research and with the level of complicity of Poles in the German plan of extermination. He is dismissive of my quoting of Szymon Datner in order to prove that about 10 percent of Jews were successful in their attempts to flee the liquidated ghettos, but that, once outside, the vast majority of them were been either hunted down and killed by Poles or delivered by them to the Germans. Berendt writes that Datner’s numbers are not reliable and that this Polish-Jewish historian did not conduct any concrete research into this question.

That claim, coming from a historian who has yet to author his first book about the Holocaust, is simply galling. Berendt should know that Szymon Datner acquired his statistics firsthand – first as a Jew under occupation, later as a fighter in the 1943 uprising in the Bialystok Ghetto and, finally, after the war, during more than 40 years of work as a historian. But Datner was not alone in demonstrating the scale of complicity of certain segments of Polish society in the extermination of the country’s Jews. Emanuel Ringelblum, the founder of the Oneg Shabbat, the underground archive of the Warsaw Ghetto – estimated the number of Jewish victims of Polish policemen alone in the “hundreds of thousands.” Sadly, Ringelblum did not conduct as thorough a study as Berendt would have liked – he was caught by the Polish Criminal Police hiding in his bunker, in Warsaw, on March 7, 1944, 73 years ago, and was subsequently shot to death by the Nazis. Furthermore, were Berendt up to date with the current scholarship, he would know that Datner’s numbers have been corroborated by recent research, which takes account of studies and documents produced by the Polish resistance during the war.

In the end, Dr. Berendt states forcefully that, “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.” Indeed, there is no such agreement, because such numbers have been cited neither by me nor by Ofer Aderet in his article. Unfortunately, indignation fueled by ignorance is a recipe for very poor history.

Should Berendt decide to turn his indignation to a good use, if he is truly concerned about the state of research in the field of Polish-Jewish history, he might want to enlighten his superior, Dr. Jaroslaw Szarek, director of the IPN, regarding the true identity of those who carried about the mass murder of Jews in Jedwabne. Dr. Szarek, as we learned from his declaration last year, believes that it was the Germans who were responsible for that crime. Berendt could also look into the disgraceful exhibition of the recently opened Museum of Poles Saving Jews in Markowa, which is a product of his institution, and which shamelessly distorts the history of the Shoah. Finally, he could enlighten the Polish education minister, who to date has been unable to acknowledge that Poles were responsible for murdering Jews in the notorious 1946 Kielce pogrom. Or a number of other outrageous allegations, misrepresentations and outright lies that litter the media in Poland today. Such an attempt, however – given the present political climate in Poland – would require a certain degree of courage.



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