The article originally appeared at
Jewish Ideas Daily and is re-printed with their permission.
The adage “history is written by the winners” is no more than a half-truth.
Losers, too, have always written history and, more important, enshrined their
losses in memory. A new history of Poland in World War II thus has particular
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gradually vanished from
the map of Europe at the end of the 18th century, when Russia, Prussia and
Austria divided it up among themselves; the Poles regained their independence
only in 1918. In their new republic, ethnic Poles were a majority, but
Ukrainians, Belorussians, Germans and, of course, Jews constituted a large
minority. The Jews alone made up more than 10 percent of the country’s
Mustn’t any history of Poland in the Second World War
therefore put the Jews and the Holocaust at the center? If it does not, is that
originality or revisionism? Halik Kochanski’s The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the
Poles in the Second World War offers important insights into the Polish
experience of the war, but her treatment of the Jewish Question is less
Kochanski’s story of Poland in WWII blends betrayal,
incompetence, uncommon bravery and colossal failure against a backdrop of
pervasive brutality. Poland’s location between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union
spelled disaster; its choice of allies in Britain and France was both
unavoidable and fated to fail. Lacking money, arms and military doctrine, Poland
stood little chance of defending its long borders, and fell quickly between
September and October of 1939. Over the next two years, Poland was reduced to a
German slave province in the west and a Soviet rump, drained of people and
goods, in the east.
From the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941
until the end of the war, it became a vast killing ground.
It was hard
for the Poles to build a resistance movement in the face of both the Gestapo and
the NKVD, which initially worked together. Creating a Polish underground
government, and a separate government-in-exile, was exceedingly difficult in a
partitioned country. Some Polish soldiers joined the French and British armed
Hundreds of thousands more became Soviet prisoners, but many of
them were released in 1941 and allowed to join forces with the British under the
leadership of Wladyslaw Anders. Far from their own country, they fought bravely
on many fronts. The Polish contribution to deciphering Germany’s Enigma codes
was so vital and so secret that it was not revealed until the 1970s.
there is the Holocaust. Kochanski describes ghettos, mass killings and death
camps, but her account is kaleidoscopic rather than linear and analytical,
emphasizing suffering rather than the system of extermination. At the same time,
she takes pains both to note Polish suffering and to address the most sensitive
question of Polish- Jewish relations: What did Poles do to help or injure Jews?
Books on these questions fill libraries, and her brief treatment of them is
inevitably inadequate. Jewish suffering accounts for perhaps two-thirds of the
book’s one short chapter on the Holocaust and is complemented by an assortment
of other data on the Poles that tread in an uncomfortable no man’s land.
Kochanski cites a postwar Polish list of German atrocities indicating that
inhabitants of the town of Kolo had been expelled; as a consequence, few knew of
the nearby Chelmno death camp.
She speculates that Polish aid to Jews
must have been at a level that would warrant the Nazi order punishing assistance
with death. The 5,000 Poles honored as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem cannot
have been the only ones who helped Jews. The Polish Foreign Ministry issued an
important statement on the extermination of the Jews in December, 1942. All
true, but uneasiness remains.
Kochanski is more charitable to the Poles
than she is to the Jews. She discusses the disproportionate representation of
Polish Jews in communist armies, refers to the “Jewish lobby at Versailles,” and
takes pains to recount how Jewish refugees in eastern Poland in 1939 welcomed
the Red Army, much to the anger of other Poles. It was British rather than
Polish anti-Semitism, she notes, that limited the number of Jews who could join
the new Polish Army in the Soviet Union; and she says that many – such as, she
alleges, Menachem Begin – understandably deserted upon reaching Palestine. She
is unsparing in her accounts of Jewish collaborators, the cruelty of Jewish
policemen, and the ugly choices faced by Jewish political authorities.
the Jewish Question nags, the Communist problem looms. That the Soviets were to
be Poland’s liberators from the Nazis was evident to both Stalin and the
Kochanski concentrates on the government-in-exile under Sikorski
and then Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, their gradual betrayal by Roosevelt and
Churchill, and the bewildering assortment of underground groups and armies,
notably the loyalist Armia Krajowa. But the sad reality is that it was to be the
Soviets, and then Communist and Soviet-backed groups, that would triumph over
patriotic Poles. Kochanski’s treatment of this downfall, and the horrendous
treatment of all ethnic groups after the war, not least of all Jews, seems
The book also suffers from the lack of a narrative
Is it political or social history? And what is its overall theory
of Polish-Jewish relations? Kochanski does not display the incisiveness or
concision of a great historian like Walter Laqueur, who stated: “If the Poles
showed less sympathy and solidarity with Jews than many Danes and Dutch, they
behaved far more humanely than Lithuanians and Latvians. A comparison with
France would be by no means unfavorable for Poland. In view of Polish pre-war
attitudes towards Jews, it is not surprising that there was so little help, but
that there was so much.”
One may agree or disagree, but his position is
Instead, Kochanski emphasizes individuals and their stories,
complementing reports of the numbers of those killed, jailed or deported. This
thread of testimony personalizes the ceaseless and numbing cruelty that would
otherwise be merely statistical, and those accustomed to reading similar
accounts of the Holocaust will find a certain familiarity in this technique. But
her reliance on anecdotal evidence detracts from the grand narrative that she is
attempting to present.
Kochanski’s book invites comparison with the work
of Oxford historian Norman Davies, especially his two-volume history of Poland,
God’s Playground, criticized for seeing too much Polish-Jewish comity in the
pre-war era and too little Polish anti-Semitism during the war. By contrast,
Princeton historian Jan Gross, himself a Pole, has relentlessly documented
Polish anti-Semitism, the role of Poles during the Holocaust, and their
continued persecution of Jews after the war, only to be accused by Poles of
obsession and exaggeration.
All history writing is a process of
successive approximation and all history reading a process of tacking between
versions. Seeking the authoritative version is a conceit created of the
understandable desire to find a single truth, one explanation – in this case, an
explanation of why the impossible occurred. No such truth exists, and The Eagle
Unbowed reminds us that the past is always viewed through a glass darkly; what
it reflects most clearly is ourselves.