Poland’s forgotten civil strife and the struggle for Jewish statehood

Yad Vashem apologized for showing a video to world leaders at the Fifth World Holocaust Forum that neglected to mention the Soviet Union’s occupation of Polish territory in 1939

Menachem Begin in December 1942 wearing the Polish Army uniform of Gen. Anders’ forces with his wife Aliza and David Yutan; (back row) Moshe Stein and Israel Epstein (photo credit: JABOTINSKY ARCHIVES)
Menachem Begin in December 1942 wearing the Polish Army uniform of Gen. Anders’ forces with his wife Aliza and David Yutan; (back row) Moshe Stein and Israel Epstein
During the inauguration of a memorial to the victims of the Siege of Leningrad in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park on January 24, 2020, before the climax of Holocaust remembrance events at which Russian President Vladimir Putin was given a central platform, we were stunned to hear a rendition of The Blue Kerchief (Siniy Platochek).
True, the song was an unofficial anthem of the Red Army in World War II. But its origin belies the version of history that Putin is promoting in his war of narratives against Poland. It also brought to mind an almost forgotten chapter in which the vagaries of war juxtaposed Israeli and Polish history.
After the event, Yad Vashem apologized for showing a video to world leaders at the Fifth World Holocaust Forum that neglected to mention the Soviet Union’s occupation of Polish territory in 1939, enabled by its non-aggression deal with Nazi Germany – the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – while accusing Poland of responsibility for World War II.
Hostility and mistrust between Russia and Poland go back more than a thousand years, with Jews often caught in the crossfire.
Their fate in the Holocaust has become a focal point for the present clash. Both countries have passed laws criminalizing the “falsification of history” to their own detriment, but both engage in it when it can burnish their image. Israel made a mistake by leading the charge against Poland’s ban on so genuinely distorted a term as “Polish extermination camps” – we can’t recall any serious Israeli ever using it.
Denying that any Poles collaborated with the Nazis in hunting down Jews is patently false and should be called out, but blaming the Polish nation as a whole is as erroneous a generalization. Isabella’s great-aunt and her baby daughter, for instance, were physically pulled out of a Nazi death march, and then were sheltered by a Polish priest.
Putin’s latest assertion that Poland began the war or caused it is an egregious lie as well as a whitewashing of the USSR’s own role, and Israeli politicians have been wrong to embrace it – even if they saw a raison d’état to please him.
The Red Army’s heroic role in defeating Nazism is correctly praised. But after its liberation of Auschwitz, thousands of prisoners were deported to the USSR on the pretext that they had survived by collaboration – but actually as bargaining chips for exchange deals that never materialized. Few survived again; some were discovered and, in a handful of cases, repatriated, by French investigator Denis Sellem 50 years later. No one reminded Putin about this last month.
Interwar Polish governments indeed had no love lost for Jews, of whom they considered that Poland had too many. They were pressed to leave with a range of discriminatory measures, which propelled the Fourth Aliyah to Mandatory Palestine in the mid-1920s. When the Nazis expelled Jews with Polish citizenship from Germany, Poland refused to take them in and they were stranded at the border.
In its prewar effort to get rid of Jews, Poland found common cause with Zionist movements, especially the Revisionist youth movement Betar and paramilitary organization, the Irgun.
Their emissary, Avraham “Yair” Stern, found willing support in Warsaw for a plan to recruit a Jewish army to capture Palestine from the British; the Polish Army provided officer-instructors for training camps and sold an arsenal of weapons, which was stranded in port by the outbreak of war in September 1939.
In August, Joseph Stalin – whom Putin admires and seeks to emulate – had concluded the non-aggression treaty with Adolf Hitler dividing Poland and other eastern European countries between them. Two weeks later, Germany implemented it by invading Poland, which drew the latter’s allies, Britain and France, into the war. Stalin followed suit. A secure eastern front facilitated Hitler’s Blitzkrieg across western Europe. Unlike the other nations he subjugated, in Poland, no pretense was made of installing a puppet regime and it was ruled directly by a German Generalgouvernement.
Stalin likewise disavowed recognition of a Polish state, including the London-based government-in-exile. He annexed the Soviet-occupied eastern part of Poland and proceeded to deport hundreds of thousands into the Soviet interior, in addition to the Polish soldiers taken as prisoners of war. One of the latter was Gen. Wladyslaw Anders, who has been lionized as a national hero in present-day Poland where his American daughter, an honorary senator, is leading the international promotion of its own war narrative. (How the communists tried to poison Polish-Jewish relations in March 1968)
Anders was incarcerated in the NKVD’s Moscow prison, the Lubianka. A lower-ranking Jewish reservist, Jerzy Petersburski, had been a pop-music composer and performer. He displayed his talent to his Soviet captors by putting a popular Russian poem to a catchy waltz tune. The Blue Kerchief was an instant hit – with no credit given to its Polish creator. Petersburski and Anders were thus spared the fate that befell thousands of Polish officers, intellectuals and others whom the Soviets massacred at Katyn Forest in April and May of 1940.
The Soviets tried, with initial success, to pin this crime on Hitler, who – having completed his conquests in western Europe – tore up the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and launched Operation Barbarossa against the USSR in June 1941. The Nazis’ rapid advance soon forced Stalin to seek aid from Britain and later the United States.
One price he had to pay was to recognize the Polish government in London and the army it had raised from Polish formations who had fled westward, both led by Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski. Further, Stalin was constrained to permit the recruitment of a Polish II Corps from among the Polish POWs in the USSR to join Sikorski’s force under British command. To head it, Anders was released from the Lubianka directly to talks with Stalin, where they found a common dislike for Jews:
Stalin: “The Jews are rotten soldiers.”
Anders: “Many of the Jews who have applied to join are speculators or smugglers; they will never make good soldiers. The Polish Army doesn’t need them.”
Anders’ resentment – shared by many Poles, especially in the east – was intensified by accusations that (as Anders still maintained in his postwar memoirs) “some Polish Jews had enthusiastically welcomed the Soviet troops when they invaded Poland in 1939.”
For some Jews the Soviets did seem preferable to the onerous Polish authorities, and certainly to the Nazis. But Anders admitted that other Polish Jews had been jailed with him in the Lubianka. “Bourgeois” relatives of Isabella’s grandfather, with their infant child, were deported by the Soviets from eastern Poland and were never seen again. However, the blanket accusation that “the Jews” were responsible for the Soviet takeover and its cruel aftermath stuck – to this day! – among Poles, Balts and others. Czarist antisemitic oppression had driven many Russian Jews into revolutionary movements, and despite Stalin’s purges of the 1930s enough remained to lend this charge some credibility.
When compelled by Sikorski and the British to accept all Polish soldiers, Anders issued an apologetic order:
“I understand well the reasons for the antisemitic disturbances in our ranks. They reflect the insincere and frequently hostile behavior of the Jews in our frontier provinces... But our present policy, which is so closely bound up with British policy, is obliged to display a positive attitude toward the Jews, who are very influential in the Anglo-Saxon world. My directive is therefore... that provocations against the Jews are out of the question for now as they are harmful to our cause. When we are again masters in our own house, we will settle the Jewish matter as required by the sovereignty and dignity of our homeland.”
So, thousands of Polish Jews managed to enlist in Anders’ Army. One was the musician, Petersburski. Another was Menachem Begin, the Betar leader in Poland who was arrested in Soviet-occupied Vilna (Vilnius, in interwar Poland and now Lithuania). He was convicted of anti-Soviet activity and sent to a hard-labor camp in the Russian far north on one of the last trains out before the German attack. In Vilna, 1994, we obtained the NKVD file on Begin’s arrest and interrogation. It exemplified one source of Polish resentment: intentionally or otherwise, the Soviets’ visible, hated dirty work was done by Jewish field operatives, though higher-ranking Russians took over behind prison doors.
Hundreds of Polish Communists and other agents were planted in Anders’ Army before it was permitted to exit the Soviet Union via Iran and join British forces in the Middle East. For logistic reasons, the British command directed his army to Palestine for recuperation after the extreme hardship its men had suffered, reorganization and training. With the army came double its number in soldiers’ families, civilian officials and a mélange of camp followers.
Some 150,000 Polish expatriates thus arrived in Palestine – about one-fourth the size of the entire Jewish community, the Yishuv, with which (antisemitic undercurrents notwithstanding) it ostensibly had far more cultural and linguistic affinity than with the Arab majority.
Jewish business was boosted by generous British spending for the Polish force, as well as for the autonomous network of schools, hospitals and other institutions that were set up for its civilian dependents.
On furlough, Anders’ soldiers were delighted with the Polish cuisine of restaurants established by Fourth Aliyah immigrants. These in turn provided an eager audience for Polish entertainment troupes, such as Petersburski’s, as well as a plethora of newspapers and books published by Anders’ public relations outfit, with an emphasis on the common anti-Nazi cause. The poet Avraham Shlonsky wrote Hebrew lyrics for The Blue Kerchief, which became as popular with the newly established Palmah (the elite strike force of the Yishuv’s mainstream paramilitary organization, the Hagana) as it was with the Palmahniks’ admired role model, the Red Army.
But trouble lay ahead – first from a wave of desertions by Jewish soldiers. The high-minded Begin was loath to violate his oath of allegiance by desertion, and his discharge was arranged. Others simply absconded. Anders’ memoir claims that he made no attempt to recapture some 3,000 Jewish deserters but warned the British against them, and considered himself vindicated when Begin took command of the Irgun’s “terrorist activity.”
Actually, Anders’ Army did send search parties into kibbutzim that were suspected of harboring deserters. As the Poles were followed by British raids to seize illegal arms caches, this aroused vehement Jewish protests, and the practice had to be abandoned – after catching no deserters anyway. Many even managed, by means of changed names and forged documents provided by the Hagana, to reenlist in Jewish formations of the British forces.
Some kibbutzim soon had other applicants for shelter. Once in Palestine, the redoubtable Polish intelligence arm, the Dwójka, turned on the Soviet agents who had been infiltrated into Anders’ ranks. Most were incarcerated in separate Polish sections of British military prisons. Those who evaded arrest reported this to Moscow – and also appealed for help to local sympathizers. Thus, a group led by a hard-line Polish Stalinist, Romuald Gadomski, came to Kibbutz Negba.
Throughout the Yishuv, support for the USSR had surged when it became the only European front against the Nazis. A Communist-initiated “V [for victory] league to support Soviet Russia in its struggle against fascism” aroused such widespread response that the mainstream labor movement (led by Gideon’s grandfather, Histadrut labor federation Secretary David Remez) moved to take it over and impose a Zionist charter. Its volunteers drove ambulances loaded with medical equipment for delivery to the Soviets in Tehran along the same route that Anders’ men had traversed in the opposite direction.
Negba’s parent movement, the Socialist-Zionist Hashomer Hatza’ir, was in competition with the anti-Zionist Communist Party for the USSR’s direct patronage in what was already shaping up as the postwar global realignment. In Negba, Gadomski and his colleagues were referred to an upcoming, Polish-born activist, “Julek” Eisenberg. He not only arranged shelter but helped them print a newsletter to discredit Anders’ publications. Before long, such “red” propaganda could be disseminated as openly as that of the “whites.”
This was due to the turn in the tide of the war. In April 1943, the Germans discovered the mass graves at Katyn and accused the Soviets of the crime. The “London” Polish government demanded an investigation, to which Stalin responded by creating a Soviet-controlled competitor and a Polish People’s Army under the Red Army. In still Nazi-occupied Poland, the underground Armia Krajowa (home army), loyal to London, was now opposed by the Communist Armia Ludowa (people’s army). On Sikorski’s return trip to Britain from a tour of the Middle East – including a festive visit to the troops in Palestine – he died in a highly suspect plane crash. The battle for postwar control of Poland had begun even before its liberation, and this preliminary arena of the Cold War soon extended to Palestine too.
The “white” presence here was depleted as Anders achieved his main purpose: shipping his Polish II Corps out to the front. In May 1944, it earned a heroic niche in history for the capture of Monte Cassino in Italy, at horrific cost. A small reserve and rear echelon remained in Palestine, including the Dwójka headquarters, as well as the mass of civilians. But their position steadily weakened as the Soviets and their Polish army pushed the Germans out of eastern Poland and installed a provisional government, which also put out feelers to the Yishuv.
Conflict between Jews and “London” Poles had already begun to turn violent. Initially, Jews were the main victims, and several cases roiled both communities. A Polish “dagger artist” became the first foreign soldier to be hanged for murder in Palestine, after stabbing a Jewish counterpart to death while vowing to “kill all the Jews.” A Jewish taxi driver was shot dead in a Polish camp, where (as it transpired only years later) he drove an Irgun activist who had been lured to buy weapons. The Hebrew press reflected Jewish outrage by referring to both victims, “Hashem yikom dammo” (may God avenge his blood), a title reserved for martyrs of antisemitic violence.
The Red Army halted east of the Vistula to let the Germans put down the Armia Krajowa uprising in Warsaw. In January, as they liberated Auschwitz, the Soviets and their Polish army took the ruins of the city and moved their client government in. At Yalta in February, in the “great betrayal” that the “London” Poles would never forgive, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the Warsaw government, in exchange for Stalin’s empty promise to expand it with other Polish elements – which created justification for repatriating all Polish exiles. Both in Poland itself and in Palestine, the “white” Poles’ struggle became a desperate, doomed and increasingly bloody rear-guard action.
Payback for Gadomski’s Palestinian patrons came in the spring of 1945, when Eisenberg (under his Hebraized name Yisrael Barzilai) became the first Yishuv emissary to his former protegés now in power in Poland, who “knew how to express their gratitude for the help they had received” and leaned in favor of a Jewish state. They would precede the USSR in supporting the UN Partition Resolution for Palestine. Conversely, the “London” Poles gravitated increasingly toward the Arab cause as its opposition to Jewish statehood intensified.
On V-E Day, Anders’ Jerusalem press agency protested forlornly to The Palestine Post that though previously “Mr Churchill quite often mentioned the part played by Poland and her Army” in defeating Nazism, it was ignored in the victory celebrations. Conversely, Gadomski’s bulletin warned that Poland “must purge the ulcers of fascism and antisemitism [in] a surgical operation.” He soon would be able to make good on this barely veiled warning of violent reprisal.
At Potsdam in June and July of 1945, Clement Attlee and Harry Truman finalized British and US recognition of the Warsaw government. Though Stalin never kept his part of the bargain – to hold free elections – the British reluctantly carried out theirs. Gadomski was formally recognized by the Mandate authorities and they began turning over to him the consulates and community institutions that had been vital for the Polish civilians. In October 1945, a Jewish Agency official told Gadomski that there was “verified evidence whereby Polish reactionary circles were taking part in the organization, training and political incitement” of Arabs, and “they would become targets for physical elimination by the Jewish organizations.”
What followed is exemplified by events in Rehovot, July 7-8, 1946 (more are detailed in ). The fatal shooting of a local woman – never solved, but widely attributed to Poles – had already inflamed sentiments when Moshe-Meir Manobla, a 22-year-old demobilized private who had fought with the British Army’s Jewish Brigade in Italy, was shot dead by Andrzej Piaskowski, a pilot who had also fought in Italy, with the RAF’s Polish Gdansk Squadron.
An outcry in the Yishuv press asked “Is Rehovot another Kielce?” The infamous post-Holocaust pogrom in that Polish town on July 4 had been (dubiously) blamed by the pro-Soviet authorities in Warsaw on “reactionary” holdouts acting on orders from Anders.
There was prima facie basis for this connection: the British operated a radio station in Jerusalem that beamed programs and messages to anti-Nazi, and then anti-Soviet, resistance forces in Europe; the Polish service was staffed by Anders’ HQ. At any rate, in Rehovot there was already enough resentment against the Poles to ignite an unprecedented outbreak. According to the Polish version this came close to a pogrom, in which Polish families were assaulted with seven injured and their homes trashed. The alarmed British evacuated Rehovot’s entire Polish population, some 200 families, “under heavy armed protection.”
Piaskowski pleaded self-defense and was acquitted, evoking renewed Jewish indignation. But now, Manobla’s page on the memorial website of Israel’s Defense Ministry corroborates the Poles’ version: Manobla was an Irgun member, and had been tasked to “eliminate” Piaskowski as part of an operation against hostile Poles who had “caused disturbances.”
By this time, the competition for Soviet patronage had been joined by a new force: Lehi (Freedom Fighters for Israel), which was also known as the Stern Gang after its aforementioned founder – who broke with the Irgun (and was killed by the British). Lehi was strongly anti-colonialist, though not Communist, but according to a former NKVD general it was penetrated by his agents. Stern’s successors in its leadership saw a natural ally in the USSR; British intelligence identified their liaison with Moscow through the Polish consulates. Stalin was beginning his brief but crucial swing in favor of partition and a Jewish state. Its prospective leadership looked promising for a pro-Soviet regime that would oust the British, prevent the Americans from replacing them, and realize the long-frustrated Russian aspiration to a warm-water base in the Mediterranean. Together with the campaign against the “London” loyalists in Poland itself, they had to be suppressed in Palestine too. The two arenas intersected.
A group portrait of members of the Polish II Corps (Anders’ Army) band while they were stationed in PalestineA group portrait of members of the Polish II Corps (Anders’ Army) band while they were stationed in Palestine
The now “red” Polish consulates declared compulsory registration of all remaining Poles in Palestine with a view to repatriation. Most of the “London” loyalists rightly feared retribution if they complied, and went underground instead – this time sheltering with Arabs. As Jewish-Arab strife escalated, there were increasing reports of orders being shouted in Polish during Arab attacks on Jewish outposts and of Polish corpses among Arab dead. Polish experts were accused of training Arab saboteurs – one of whose targets was the “Warsaw” consulate in Jerusalem – and were suspected of involvement in the major bombings of Jewish institutions.
All three Zionist undergrounds in effect declared open season on Poles suspected of training Arab gangs or spying for them. As the British Mandate wound down and fighting escalated, such Poles were found dead frequently but merited scant mention in the press. Collating these reports with archive documents, we estimate at least several dozen were killed.
An exception that made headlines even overseas occurred at the end of February 1948, when the Stern Group abducted and executed two prominent Polish expatriates in Jerusalem, accusing them of espionage for the British and Arabs – a charge that, years later, the organization’s ex-leaders retracted.
One of the victims, Witold Hulanicki, had been the Polish consul-general from 1936 to 1939. As we showed in , Hulanicki was not only pro-Zionist but a friend and admirer of Stern who had granted him access to the prewar Polish government. After the war, as custodian of Axis property for the mandatory government, he had negotiated its transfer to Jewish hands.
The Sternists actually targeted him – either on orders from Moscow or to curry its favor – because of his anti-Soviet activity and cooperation with US intelligence, which was then making its first steps in Palestine.
This incident accelerated the flight of “London” Poles to the Arab side. Some turned up in Arab states’ armies, which were preparing to invade after Israel declared independence on May 14; the pilot Piaskowsky was spotted training Syrian airmen. During the battle for Haifa in April, a Life magazine photographer snapped “Jewish troops” detaining “two Polish adventurers suspected of doing sabotage for the Arabs.”
Haifa appears to have been the scene of a hitherto unknown instance of direct military aid for the Yishuv from the pro-Soviet Polish government, which had by then effectively stamped out “white” resistance. A recently declassified CIA document reported Polish ships transporting concealed cargoes of weapons “during the fighting in Palestine,” and noted that several of the ships were “damaged by Arab fire.”
Poland, then, may have been another channel for the vital supply of Soviet-approved weapons that famously arrived through Czechoslovakia.
Our institute at the Hebrew University is named after Truman for his instant recognition of Israel, but the US administration also clamped an arms embargo on the region that hobbled mainly the Jewish side. Stalin – for his own motives – thus deserves as much credit for Israel’s survival. But that does not justify his unqualified rehabilitation in the present Russian version of World War II history – vis-à-vis Poland or otherwise.
Israel’s victory in its War of Independence effectively ended the Polish civil war here too, in favor of the “reds.” But the Soviet bloc’s honeymoon with Israel was short-lived. Founding father David Ben-Gurion, in a meeting with Gadomski in 1946, had “arrived at common conclusions on several problems of mutual interest.”
But while maximizing Soviet support when it was indispensable, he steered Israel away from the dependence that Stalin had anticipated. We believe this was a main reason for keeping Mapam – the party that Hashomer Hatza’ir merged into – out of the first cabinet and for disbanding the Palmah, in which it had strong influence. By 1954, Moscow (and Warsaw) had attached their Middle Eastern strategy to the “progressive” Arab states, and took an active part in their subsequent wars against Israel. Who could have predicted that 70 years later, the Russian-Polish war of narratives would recall the intersection of these two early Cold War battlegrounds?
Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez are associate fellows of the Truman Institute, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Their latest book is The Soviet-Israeli War, 1967-1973 (Hurst/Oxford, 2017)