Rethinking the Polish Underground

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In Revolutionary New Book, YU Historian Examines Polish-Jewish Relations During World War II

How did members of the Polish resistance movement treat Jewish fugitives during the terrible events of World War II? This question, focusing on one of the darkest and most troubling problems in the history of Polish-Jewish relations, is one many people already believe they have an answer for. But in his new book, The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945 (Cambridge University Press, June 2015), Dr. Joshua D. Zimmerman, Eli and Diana Zborowski Professorial Chair in Holocaust Studies and associate professor of history at Yeshiva University, urges readers to put aside for the moment what they think they know and accompany him on a groundbreaking journey through the surprising and sometimes contradictory evidence.

YU News sat down with Zimmerman to learn how he arrived at conclusions that are often at odds with Jewish collective memory in his book and how those conclusions impact our understanding of Polish-Jewish relations in the context of the Holocaust.

How did you become interested in the Polish Underground and their treatment of Jews?

I was first drawn to the topic many years ago when I took a survey course on the Holocaust as a sophomore in college. I remember as if it was yesterday when a classmate stood up and commented in a very forceful manner that “the Poles” behaved just as badly as the Germans during the war. “When Jews were able to flee ghettos and try to hide in the forest,” he said, “they found that Polish partisans [members of the Polish Underground] were just as dangerous to them as were the Nazis. Many Jews were murdered by these Poles.” This was the first time I had ever heard such an opinion, one that I would subsequently hear repeatedly. During my childhood, I had only heard my grandparents – all of whom were born in the United States – talk about the Germans and the Holocaust. I was vaguely aware that the death camps were in Poland, but the actual Polish people were entirely absent from the few times I can remember any talk about the Holocaust among my family. So when, later in college, the classmate of mine made this statement condemning all Polish resistance fighters as violently anti-Semitic, I remember wondering whether or not there wasn’t more to this story: after all, I thought, Jews and Poles shared the same mortal enemy. Wouldn’t at least some Polish partisans see Jewish escapees from German ghettos and camps as comrades-in-arms?

I didn’t give the issue too much thought until I visited Poland a few years later in the early 1990s. What struck me was that the Polish people I spoke to were entirely unaware of this point of view that was widespread among Jews—that the Underground was anti-Semitic. So when I brought up the issue, I could see that it touched a raw nerve. Poles whom I talked to were deeply offended by the notion that the Polish people were being perceived as anything other than victims of Nazi and Soviet terror. They saw – and continue to see – the Polish Underground as a kind of sacred icon of national memory. To the vast majority of Poles, I came to realize, wartime Polish resistance fighters were considered sons and daughters of liberty, freedom and democracy who bravely fought as allies of the Western democracies for the defeat of Nazi Germany. In the early 1990s, this understanding was universally shared in Poland and among Poles living abroad. Polish pride for this legacy is deep and profound.

polish undergroundI began reading everything I could find on the topic, mostly in English and Polish, and it became painfully clear that it lacked a dispassionate, scholarly treatment that would span the entire period of the war and all areas of prewar Poland. In the course of my research, I found that the attitude of the Polish Underground toward Jews during World War II is still one of the most contentious issues in Jewish-Polish relations. For example, a study from 2008 asked a group of Jewish American and Polish American academics if the Polish Underground favored equal rights for Jews. Eighty-eight percent of Poles replied yes, but only 8 eight percent of Jewish respondents agreed. Such a wide gap is very rare among academics. As historians, we are obligated to examine evidence without prejudice. So how could the same body of evidence possibly lead to such diametrically opposite conclusions?

In Palo Alto, New York, Warsaw, Krakow, Jerusalem and London, I examined official Polish Underground and Polish government-in-exile records, records of the Jewish resistance and partisan movements, testimonies of Holocaust survivors, unpublished diaries and memoirs, and postwar trial records.  My goal in preparing this book was not to make the Poles look good or bad.  My goal was to stay close to the sources and deduce what the preponderance of the evidence suggested.

What surprised you about what you discovered?

I discovered that the response of the Polish Underground toward Jews varied greatly from region to region and sometimes even within regions.

For example, the northeast provinces of Białystok and Nowogródek had traditionally been quite hostile to Jews. They were poor, mostly underdeveloped rural regions, where Jews formed between a third and a half (and sometimes more) of the urban population. They were disproportionately represented in the professions, sometimes making up to 80 percent or higher of doctors, lawyers, and those involved in trade and commerce. The poverty of the local population and low levels of literacy combined with Jewish domination of these economic sectors contributed to a high level of anti-Jewish sentiment before the war. It is thus not surprising that the most anti-Semitic elements within the Polish Underground were found in these provinces. In fact, these were the only two provinces in which I could trace orders to attack Jews back to the provincial Polish Underground commanders. No evidence was found tracing such actions back to provincial commanders in the 15 other Polish provinces.

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A Jewish platoon of the Polish Underground in Hanaczow, Lwow district. (Courtesy of Leopold Kozlowski)

In the southeastern province of Lwów, however, just the opposite occurred. Here, the provincial commander of the Polish Underground was directly involved in efforts to aid the Jews. It was also here that a local Polish Underground unit protected 250 Jews in one village – Hanaczów – where local Poles built special bunkers for Jewish women and children. When, in April 1944, the Germans along with their Ukrainian helpers, tried to capture these Jews, the Polish Underground commander ordered his fighters to evacuate the entire Jewish community. He had also trained and armed a separate Jewish platoon. One of the Jews whom the Polish Underground saved – Selma Horowitz – today lives in Great Neck, and I interviewed her for my book. Another Jew, Leopold Kozłowski, fought in the Jewish Platoon and today lives in Kraków. He agreed to have a rare wartime photo of his Jewish Platoon reproduced for the book (above).  Yad Vashem awarded the commander of the Polish Underground in Hanaczów and his two deputies the title “Righteous Among Nations” and Jewish testimonies given in their support are available for all to see at the Department of the Righteous of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Help to Jews within the Polish Underground was not confined to the Lwów province. In 1942, the Underground established The Council to Aid Jews. It was funded by the Polish government in exile and provided false identity papers, fake baptismal certificates, money, jobs and shelter. It is estimated to have issued as many as 50,000 sets of false papers for Jews during the war. The council’s most outstanding member was Irena Sendler who is believed to have organized the rescue of saved 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. Besides the outstanding cases of the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux and the Japanese consul in Vilna, Sendler saved more Jews than any other individual in during the Holocaust. And yet few have ever heard her name.

Where does the topic of Polish-Jewish relations during the War fit into how we think about the Holocaust and World War II?

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Jadwiga Deneko, a courier for the Children’s Section of Zegota, the Polish Underground’s Council for Aid to the Jews. Deneko was arrested in November 1943 at a safe house in Warsaw in which she was caring for 13 Jewish children smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto. She was executed by firing squad on January 8, 1944. (Courtesy of 2B Productions.)

Today, the Holocaust is increasingly situated in the larger context of German persecution and subjugation of non-Jews all over Europe.  The importance of this approach is that the Holocaust is no longer being seen in a vacuum.  This growing awareness of the brutal treatment of non-Jews under German Nazi rule also includes the tragic fate of the Polish population. An increased attention to the German treatment of Poles among scholars of the Holocaust in the US, Great Britain and Israel has coincided with a huge shift of public opinion in post-communist Poland where the government and universities are embarking on long-term Holocaust education and “combating anti-Semitism” projects.  These trends are slowly but surely making an impact.

It is only in the 21st century, for example, that textbooks on the Holocaust in the Polish language have appeared that are geared for the high school classroom. These are not translations from English or Hebrew but written by Polish academics newly trained in Jewish studies in Poland at Polish universities.  The trends in Holocaust studies in the West combined with changes in Polish public opinion are the outcome of other developments such as the growth of Jewish communal life in Poland today, a huge rise in Jewish tourism to Poland in the last 15 years and close ties between the Polish and Israeli governments, including joint Polish-Israeli military exercise and cooperation.

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