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Christians in the Warsaw Ghetto: An Epitaph for the Unremembered
By Peter F. Dembowski
University of Notre Dame Press
My life-long study of the Warsaw ghetto tragedy would not have been complete without this honest and well researched work, strengthened by the author's personal reminiscences. Author Peter Dembowski and I were both born and raised in Warsaw, and despite the fact that we lived in different worlds, we both share a similar interest in the lesser known features of the ghetto's history.
The saga of the tiny minority of Christians of Jewish descent sealed within the ghetto walls from November 1940 until July 22, 1942 should be of considerable interest to all students of human nature, religion and culture. The converts were divided into those who embraced Christianity in hopes of escaping persecution and those who converted to Christianity long ago. To the Nazis, they were all Jews sentenced to annihilation.
Converts are frequently mentioned in Holocaust literature, but there is no single, exhaustive text dedicated specifically to their fate.
Dembowski, born and raised in Warsaw, is today a professor (Emeritus) at the University of Chicago. He recounts being imprisoned by the Gestapo at the notorious Pawiak prison, and witnessing eight Jews being taken out and shot. His "automatic" reaction - "Thank God that I am not a Jew"- has prevented him from ever forgetting this absolute distinction. His personal debt to one family of converts, who were connected by marriage with his father, compelled him to write this study. He draws on personal recollections, archival material and the vast archive of Holocaust literature to shape the book.
ACCORDING TO the Gazeta Zydowska (Jewish Gazette), a German-controlled Polish language newspaper for Jews, by January 1, 1941 there were 378,979 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and only 1,718 Catholic, Protestant and Greek Orthodox believers. But many Christians who were brought to the ghetto after this date, including those who came from the German-occupied Europe, increased this number to about 5,000. They were served by three fully functioning churches and later two Roman Catholic parishes.
Many converts came from the thin crust of the heavily assimilated Jewish families and were highly educated. Nazis successfully trapped some of them by issuing the so-called "Roniker" certificates, which allowed some top converts, scholars, lawyers, physicians and former high-ranking government officials to register and remain outside the ghetto for a while, until they were finally rounded up and sent there.
Their high academic or professional standing and their knowledge of German contributed to the fact that they held some of the most important posts in the Judenrat. This, in turn, intensified general animosity and resentment. One of the converts was Szerynski, the commander of the hated ghetto police. Another was Prof. Ludwik Hirschfeld, a world-renowned medical scientist, who dedicated himself to fighting typhus and other ghetto diseases. The appointment of the convert Mieczyslaw Ettinger, the former professor of criminology at Warsaw University, as the ghetto's disciplinary magistrate caused a riot.
At least on one occasion the Jewish police defended converts leaving the church after mass from being assaulted by an angry crowd. They did seem to be faring better than the public, who were suffering from hunger, diseases and terrible overcrowding.
The churches and the Christian organization Caritas took care of their communities, but they also frequently served as a clandestine window to the outside world. The clergy lived outside the ghetto, but entered on special passes. They frequently helped save Jewish children, issuing false birth certificates and often feeding the hungry without asking any questions. They attempted to carry out their Christian mission, frequently endangering themselves in the process. The study offers us an almost complete identification, name after name, of those clergymen who did their utmost to alleviate the suffering of numerous Jews and converts alike. There was even a plan for a mass evacuation of Jewish children to various Catholic schools and monasteries, and an assurance that they will not be converted, but would have to behave as other Catholic children do. The plan was only partly implemented, as anyone caught assisting Jews faced certain death, often with his entire family.
The tragedy of converts, many of whom were hardly aware of their Jewish ties, was compounded by those of their children, some of whom were brought up as anti-Semites. The ghetto was hardly a place to strengthen their identity. A number of them, in a vast difference to the Jewish children, committed suicide.
The Nazi action of July 22, 1942, divided the converts into two main groups: those who succeeded to escape to the Gentile side, and those who shared the Jewish fate in extermination camps. The author presents us with an honest image of the ghetto during the 1939-1942 turbulent years.