German and Polish police, Poland, 1943. Yulia Krasnodembsky, from 'Hunt for the Jews.'

'Orgy of Murder': The Poles Who 'Hunted' Jews and Turned Them Over to the Nazis

More than 200,000 Jews were killed, directly or indirectly, by Poles in World War II, says historian Jan Grabowski, who studied the brutal persecution of the victims. His conclusion: There were no bystanders in the Holocaust.

Last month, the Polish-born historian Jan Grabowski won a lawsuit he filed against a Polish website. About 18 months earlier, the site had launched a savage attack on him under the headline, Sieg Heil, Mr. Grabowski, accompanied by a photograph of the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.

That followed the publication of a favorable report in a German newspaper about Grabowskis book Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland. The book describes the Polish populations involvement in turning in and murdering Jews who asked for their help during the Holocaust.

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The editors of the right-wing site Fronda.pl criticized Grabowski for washing Polands dirty World War II laundry in full international view. But what upset the editors most was that the book drew praise in, of all places, Germany, which was responsible for the war. So, the argument went, if the Germans praise Grabowski, then Grabowski is a Nazi, Grabowski, 55, explained in an email interview with Haaretz from Ottawa, where he teaches.

Grabowski, whose father was a Holocaust survivor and whose research focuses on the crimes perpetrated by the Poles in the war, decided not to take it lying down. He won a lawsuit against the websites owner, Tadeusz Grzesik, last September. At the end of January, the owner lost the appeal as well; he was sentenced to do community service work, pay a fine of 3,000 zloty ($750) to Children of the Holocaust – an organization of Polish survivors who were children during the war – and to publish an apology.

As you can see, writing history in Poland, about Poland, is not boring at all, Grabowski said.

Courtesy

On a more serious note, he added, As a Polish historian, I think that trying to cover up the less glorious aspects of our own national past – something thats being done today in Poland with a lot of enthusiasm – is a crime against our profession. It is also unethical and, in the long run, counterproductive and silly.  

Grabowskis book was first published in his native land in 2011, and two years later in English, by Indiana University Press. A revised and expanded edition, in Hebrew translation, has now been published by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial authority in Jerusalem.

>> Explained: Were There Actually 'Jewish Perpetrators' of the Holocaust?

The research underlying the book is the fruit of a three-year archival journey embarked upon by Grabowski in pursuit of a phenomenon called hunting for Jews. The term, which originates in the German word Judenjagd, refers to the murderous search for Jews who succeeded in escaping from the ghettos and sought haven from their compatriots in occupied Poland.

Grabowskis book concentrates on a rural region of southeastern Poland called Dabrowa Tarnowska. Of its population of 60,000 on the eve of the war, 5,000 were Jews, almost all of whom were deported to the death camp Belzec. Of 500 who managed to escape and hide among the Poles, only 38 survived the war. All the others, as Grabowski discovered, were betrayed and murdered in direct or indirect ways by their Polish neighbors. The events described in Hunt for the Jews, notes the historian Timothy Snyder (author of Bloodlands), constitute an inquiry into human behavior in dark times from which all can learn.

The Polish national archive, from 'Hunt for the Jews.'

Drawing on Polish, Jewish and German records from the war and postwar periods, Grabowski was able to document the local populations involvement in turning over and murdering the Jews who sought their help – but also the heroism of Poles who tried to rescue their Jewish neighbors and sometimes paid for it with their lives.

Between these two extremes, Grabowski also found more complex cases: of Poles who helped Jews not for altruistic and moral reasons, but out of greed. In this connection, his study challenges the prevailing opinion, according to which most of those who proffered help were righteous. He describes no few instances in which Poles saved Jews and then extorted money from them, and in some cases murdered them if they didnt get what they wanted.

That was the tragic story of Rywka Gluckmann and her two sons, who in 1942 were given shelter by Michal Kozik in Dabrowa Tarnowska county. Until a short time before the Russians entered the area and freed its citizens from the German occupation, he allowed them to remain in his house, as long as they paid him. But when the money ran out, he butchered all three with an ax. Jews who were hiding across the way heard the cries of people being murdered, and the next day they learned that the Gluckmanns were dead, as a local resident, Izaak Stieglitz, testified after the war.

A better fate befell a Jewish dentist, Jakub Glatsztern, who found shelter in the home of a Polish woman. When his money ran out, Grabowski writes, he turned to his last remaining option: He decided to extract one of his teeth, in the crown of which he had hidden a diamond. He asked the womans husband for pliers. He gave me old, rusty pliers. I had to remove the tooth together with the root, otherwise I risked breaking the diamond. So I removed the tooth with the root – without an injection, without a painkiller. I took it and said to her, Mrs. Karolak, here is the diamond. As long as I stay under your roof, you will feed me. For starters, she gave him a pork sandwich and some vodka.

Sexual exploitation and rape were also forms of payment that were sometimes included in the transaction between a Pole and a Jewish woman whom he saved. Testimony to that effect was given by Szejna Miriam L., a Jewish woman of 20. In June 1943, she was turned over to the Gestapo by the man who promised to save her. In her interrogation she related that the man, named Grabacz, promised to help and that very night he had intercourse with me. She gave him a diamond ring, a gold watch, a wedding ring and clothing, but the next day she was arrested by the Gestapo. Now I know that I am doomed and that Grabacz betrayed me, she told the Nazi interrogators before being sent to Auschwitz.

As Hunt for the Jews is published in Israel, a debate is raging in Poland about the role of the local population in the Holocaust. At its center is the question of whether the Poles were victims of the Nazis or collaborators with them, and where they are to be placed in terms of rescuers, murderers or bystanders in relation to the fate of their Jewish neighbors.

Dan Balilty, AP

Last month, in a visit to Israel, Polish President Andrzej Duda referred extensively to the dark chapters in the Polish peoples past. A member of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party, he was elected in part on the basis of his promise to introduce a new strategy in history policy – namely, to rebuff those who falsely accuse the Poles of participating in the Holocaust, as he put it.

However, in remarks he made in Israel, Duda took a more moderate stance, admitting that historical truth is not always pleasant, and that is true for the Polish nation as well. He added, As in every nation, we had decent people but there were also mean people, and those who acted despicably and inhumanely should be utterly condemned.

Poles who took part in the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust removed themselves from the Polish people, he asserted. Everyone can judge that statement according to his understanding, but according to data in Grabowskis possession, the attempt to argue that the mean Poles were only a minority and not part of the Polish people is over-simplistic and possibly lets the whole Polish people off too easily.

I raised this sensitive, highly charged and painful issue in my conversation with Grabowski. Today, 70 years after the Holocaust, I asked him, is it possible for historians to know how many Jews were killed directly or indirectly by Poles during World War II?

The reply is disturbing and haunting. Grabowski cites a huge figure: more than 200,000. Precise numbers are very hard to come by, he observes, but immediately goes on to explain his calculations. One can start by saying that about 35,000 Polish Jews survived the war in Poland (excluding those who fled into the Soviet Union and returned after the war). We also know that close to 10 percent of Jews fled the liquidated ghettos in 1942 and 1943 – which would give you a number of about 250,000 Jews who tried to survive in hiding.  Subtract the first number from the second and you will see the scale of the dark territory, in which the Poles, for the most part, decided who lived and who died. 

There is no doubt, he writes in his book, that the great majority of Jews in hiding perished as a consequence of betrayal. They were denounced or simply seized, tied up and delivered by locals to the nearest station of the Polish police, or to the German gendarmerie.

A whole mechanism was set up to hunt Jews, he says. It operated under German supervision but all those on the ground were Poles: villagers who conducted night watches, local informers, policemen, firefighters and others. Together, Grabowski maintains, they created a dense web that made it almost impossible for those hiding to escape discovery.

Grabowski emphasizes that the actual number of Jews murdered by Poles is even higher than his estimate. [My] count is very, very conservative, he notes, because I have not included here the human toll of the Polish Blue police, who were a deadly force not only after the liquidation of the ghettos but during these so-called liquidation actions. To support his argument, he recruits Emmanuel Ringelblum, the historian of the Warsaw Ghetto, who said that the Blue police alone were responsible for hundreds of thousands of Jewish deaths.

Harrowing documents

Grabowski was born in Warsaw into a mixed family. His father was Jewish, from a Krakow family that assimilated well into Polish society, survived the Holocaust by hiding in Warsaw and took part in the 1944 uprising by the Polish underground there, which cost the lives of some 200,000 Poles and resulted in the citys near-total destruction. His mother is Christian from a veteran, noble Polish family. He has relatives in Israel.

In 1988, about a year before the fall of the communist regime that had ruled Poland since the end of World War II, he immigrated to Canada. I was convinced that communism would never fall. I was wrong, says Grabowski. A professor of history at the University of Ottawa, he is specializing in the issues surrounding the extermination of the Polish Jews as well as the history of Jewish-Polish relations during the 1939-1945 period, as his web page says.

Hunt for the Jews joins two other books authored by Poles of Jewish origin that deal with the crimes perpetrated by their countrymen against their Jewish neighbors. The most famous of these is Neighbors, by Jan T. Gross. Published in 2000, that book shocked the whole of Poland and thrust the country into a prolonged bout of soul-searching. It tells the story of the pogrom in Jedwabne, in July 1941, in which the villages Jews were burned alive by their Polish neighbors. In 2004, the Polish journalist Anna Bikont published The Crime and the Silence (English edition, 2015; Hebrew translation published 2016), which contains interviews with eyewitnesses, murderers and survivors connected to the pogrom described by Gross.

AP

But whereas Gross and Bikont produced micro-histories of one pogrom, Grabowski set out to address a comprehensive phenomenon. By doing so, he broadened the scope of current knowledge of the part played by Poles in persecuting Jews in the Holocaust.

The background to his research consisted of the numerous and well-known stories of many Poles about the war period, which often included statements like, The Germans arrived and took the Jews away. One of the goals of his book, he writes, is to answer the question about how exactly the Germans knew where to look for the Jews, and to uncover the circumstances surrounding the detection and death of unfortunate refugees hidden in the villages and forests of the Polish countryside.

He found the answer in archives, where he came across harrowing documents, such as the diary left behind by Stanislaw Zeminski, a teacher from the town of Lukow in eastern Poland. He documented the wars atrocities until he himself died in the Majdanek death camp, probably in 1943.

Zeminskis diary, which was found after his death in a garbage heap in the camp, eventually reached the archive of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

For me, the situation was even more tragic, Zeminski wrote, because the orgy of murders was not only the deed of the Germans, and their Ukrainian and Latvian helpers. It was clear that our [i.e., Polish] policemen would take part in the slaughter (one knows that they are like animals), but it turned out that normal Poles, accidental volunteers, took part as well.

What he wrote next makes for difficult reading. He provides testimony by Polish peasants who surrounded a nearby village and launched a hunt for Jews, as Zeminski puts it. They did it, he writes, to obtain prizes offered by the German occupiers: vodka, sugar, potatoes, oil – along with personal items taken from the victims.

Local inhabitants were actively involved in pulling out Jews from the bunkers in the ghetto, Zeminski wrote in his diary, which Grabowski quotes in his book. They pulled out the Jews from the houses; they caught them in the fields, in the meadows. The shots are still ringing, but our hyenas already set their sights on the Jewish riches. The [Jewish] bodies are still warm, but people already start to write letters, asking for Jewish houses, Jewish stores, workshops or parcels of land. People, he noted. volunteered for this hunt willingly, without any coercion.

The heroes of Grabowskis book, those who took part in the hunt for the Jews and turned it into a national sport, were people like Jozef Kozaczka, from Dabrowa, who established a large hiding place for 18 of the citys Jews – and then, at his own initiative, turned them all over to the Germans.

Another hero, Michal Witkowski, from Luszowice, caught a Jewish girl who was hiding in his barn and delivered her to the nearest police station, where she was executed. On the way he took from her a small package she was holding that contained two sweaters and a small box with a needle and thread. He was sentenced to six years in prison after the war.

Thanks to trials that were held of people like him by the postwar communist regime in Poland, Grabowski was able to uncover many details about the part played by the Poles in persecuting Jews in the war. The books more than 300 pages are filled with jolting testimonies that portray the Polish villagers as heartless monsters who were ready to kill their neighbors for a bottle of vodka without batting an eyelash. Grabowski describes an incredible level of violence, which evolved into an orgy of murder. He backs up his conclusions with testimonies from contemporaries, both Jews and Poles.

In those tragic days we could once again see the animal-like instinct of the Polish peasant, a young Jewish woman, Chaja Rosenblatt-Lewi, testified shortly after the war. It was not enough [for them] to kick the Jews out; they even went after those who hid in the woods, and in the fields, taking away their last possessions. Even if they did not kill them themselves, they denounced them to the police, and the police finished them off, she said. She noted that the hunting of Jews by Poles in the areas adjacent to the ghettos became such a commonplace spectacle that even dogs got used to the sound of gunfire, and stopped yapping.

Explaining the background to the phenomenon, Grabowski told me that at the height of the war, Jewish life was perceived as worthless by many Poles. So much so that many ceased to view the murder of Jews as a crime.

How did that happen? Many Polish peasants saw the Jews through the prism of a centuries-old mixture of various anti-Semitic cliches and prejudice fostered by the teachings of the Catholic Church, he says. In this connection, he notes that the archives of the Catholic Church in Poland remain closed and sealed, so that the full and precise picture of the institutions contribution to the persecution of the Jews is not known.

To this he adds the appearance of a virulent strand of 19th-20th century nationalism, combined with a fairly substantial Jewish presence in Poland – in some of the areas that he researched in the country, Jews constituted 50 percent of the population. Another factor in the list of reasons for the Jew-persecution by the Poles was the horrors of everyday life under occupation.

The combination of these three factors, I argue, created an ugly climate in which hate could grow, Grabowski says. Nevertheless, he emphasizes, he is not submitting an indictment of the whole Polish people: There is nothing national, or Polish, to the story – you can find very similar situations in Lithuania and Ukraine.

Prizes and punishment

The Ulma Family Museum

For the Germans, Jew-hunting depended on large-scale involvement by the local Polish population. Testimonies to this effect are found in German documents as well. One of them was a working memorandum issued by the Warsaw-area SS and police commandant in March 1943, titled Concerns: Arrest and liquidation of Jews who remain in hiding. The document, which is reproduced in Grabowskis book, states, In order to succeed, one has to involve the Sonderdienst [Special Services], the Polish Police and the informers. It is also necessary to involve the broad masses of Polish society. The document added, Persons who have helped to apprehend the Jews can receive up to one-third of the seized property.

To achieve their goal, Grabowski explains, the Germans developed a system of prizes and punishments, which they intertwined in their propaganda against the Jewish threat. Punishment for hiding Jews, for example, could be death, arrest or fines. Peasants, firefighters, elders, and Polish rural youth were forcibly made parts of the German system and were subject to brutal German reprisals and equally brutal German discipline, Grabowski writes. At the same time, he observes that the "deadly efficiency" of this system depended on the zeal and willingness of its participants.

According to a study conducted by Polands Institute of National Remembrance, an organization that operates under the auspices of the government and with its funding, about 700 Poles were executed by the Nazis for helping Jews hide. One of the best-known cases was that of the Ulma family, peasants from the village of Markowa, who hid a few Jews. The entire family – parents (the mother was pregnant at the time) and their six children – were murdered by the Germans together with the Jews in hiding.

Last year, a museum commemorating the Ulmas heroism was established in their village, as well as a memorial site for other Poles who helped Jews during the Holocaust. Grabowski acknowledges the heroism of the Ulma family, but points out that the impact of their deed is heightened precisely because it was so exceptional in the local milieu.

The Polish authorities are using the Ulma family cynically, Grabowski says, in an attempt to present a false picture to the effect that the rescue of Jews was widespread in occupied Poland – a narrative, he adds, that has the support of a large majority of the Polish population. Against this background, The fact that the Poles who saved Jews were very few, and that they were a tiny, terrorized group who feared, most of all, their own neighbors, seems lost on the advocates of innocent Poland, he asserts.

What about the rewards? Testimonies collected by Grabowski show that in some cases the Polish peasants negotiated directly with the Germans in this regard. His book relates the case of Bronislaw Przedzial, from the small village of Bagienica, who demanded two kilograms of sugar from the Germans for the Jews he found while scouring nearby forests.

Ofer Aderet

In another place, the Germans offered 500 zloty for every Jew, according to the testimony of a Jewish survivor. One peasant, Grabowski writes, who was sentenced to prison after the war for complicity in the murder of two Jews, said that the notorious Gestapo commandant in the city of Nowy Sacz, Heinrich Hamann, asked us what it is we wanted for having killed these Jews. To which one of the Poles replied, Whatever you see fit, although I, personally, would be happy with some clothes.

The Poles sometimes complained about the quality of the prizes they received. Grabowski tells about a peasant who buried the bodies of Jews who had been shot and afterward took away a dress, shoes and a kerchief. But only afterward did I found out [sic] that there was a bullet hole in the back of the dress, he complained.

But it wasnt only simple and ignorant peasants who took part in hunting down Jews. According to the postwar testimony of a firefighter named Franciszek Glab, from the town of Lipnica, his superior ordered him and his fellow firefighters to search for Jews in hiding.

Although we had information that they were hiding in Lipcina, we found no one, he related. Later on, [someone] told us that there were some Jews in [the village of] Falkowa. We went to Falkowa and there we found one Jewess in the house of Kurzawa and another Jew at Frydas place. We roughed up the Jews real good and the same day we brought them to the Polish police. A few days later, he added, all of us were called in to report to the Gestapo in Nowy Sacz, where we received two ex-Jewish coats each, as a reward for our diligent work.

Locating the Jews who were in hiding in Polish homes was not an easy task. The wife of Jan Kurzawa, in whose barn the firefighters found a Jewish woman, related that at first he refused to inform on her, and that it took a tap of an axe on his head to make him talk.

Grabowski also emerged with a more general insight from his comprehensive research, which included a lengthy stay as a research fellow at Yad Vashems International School for Holocaust Studies. He is now convinced that the commonly used term bystanders – to describe the indifferent response of the majority of the local population, in Poland and elsewhere in Europe – should be removed from historical lexicon. His conclusion from the many testimonies he read is that it was impossible to remain neutral and indifferent, particularly in occupied Poland, where the Holocaust reached the very doorstep of so many homes.

The general lesson, he says, is that no one who went through World War II in Eastern Europe emerged without wounds and scars of one kind or another. There were no bystanders to the Holocaust – everybody acted, one way or another, became involved.

Some took an active part in the hunt of their own free will. Others did so under coercion. And there were those who watched, from behind the curtain, as Jews were led by Polish peasants to the police station or were murdered by them.

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