Poland’s contribution to building Israel

We need now to examine our history carefully, because it is not true at all that we are enemies. We can be only made into enemies by falsehoods and manipulations.

Birkenau concentration camp in Poland in the snow (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Birkenau concentration camp in Poland in the snow
On March 1, 2018, The Jerusalem Post published an article titled, “1946 US document reveals Poles treated Jews as badly as Germans did.” The sub-headline was: “The report said many Jews preferred to flee, even to Germany, after the war.” The purpose of this article is to clarify this misunderstanding and other misrepresentations of our common Jewish-Polish history. In support I will use a document from 1942- 1943, the “Chronicle of the 3rd Carpathian Infantry Division” (Kronika 3 Dywizji Strzelców Karpackich).
The Polish Carpathian Infantry Division was a military unit that during WWII operated in the Middle East and later Italy (the famous battle of Monte Casino), and was a part of General Anders’ Army.
Let me start with a little known and perhaps even surprising fact. Poland, which is so sadly and so often accused today of antisemitism, was probably the first country in the world to support the founding of Israel. Its support for the Jews having their own independent state dates to late 1930s, when Great Britain, which administered Palestine at the time, was still largely hostile to the idea.
On September 9, 1936, representatives of the Jewish freedom organizations, led by Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, met in Warsaw with the members of Poland’s government. As the result of this meeting, both the Hagana and Irgun received from Poland weapons and training. Until the German invasion in September 1939 and the outbreak of World War II, as many as 3,000 rifles, 220 machine guns, 10,000 grenades and three million pieces of ammunition were smuggled from Poland through the British-controlled Palestinian border to supply these Jewish paramilitary organizations. In addition, about 10,000 members of Betar received military training. All this was organized by Polish military intelligence.
In September 1939 Poland was attacked from both sides: on September 1 by Nazi Germany and on September 17 by the Soviet Union. However, Poland was never surrounded and a large part of the Polish armed forces and government were evacuated through Romania to France, and then to England, and continued to struggle against the Germans until the end of WWII.
Poland was divided. In the western part, the Nazi machine began implementing its plan to exterminate the Polish population by identifying the members of the Polish middle class: public officials, scholars, actors, Catholic clergy, and murdering them. In the eastern part, the Soviets did basically the same, but usually instead of immediate murder (with the notable exception of Katyn where 15,000 of Poland’s elite army and police officers were killed), they would send those whom they regarded as class enemies – businessmen, landowners, policemen, public officials, and their families, including children – to Siberia, where many would die due to the harsh weather and living conditions. It is estimated that in 1939-1941 at least 320,000 Polish citizens were shipped to Siberia, including 70,000 Jews.
The situation radically changed with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. As the result of the negotiations between the Soviet government and Poland’s government in exile, which at that time did not yet know about the Katyn massacre, Polish citizens were released from gulags and other places of their imprisonment. Further, in August 1941 Poland’s armed forces in the USSR began to be formed.
The first source of disagreement was the definition of citizenship. The Polish side insisted that Polish citizens eligible to join the army were not only ethnic Poles, but also minorities, and particularly Jews. There were in fact thousands of Polish Jews who wanted to join the newly formed Polish Armed Forces, popularly known as Anders’ Army because of its commander Gen. Wladyslaw Anders.
However, the Soviets, who annexed Poland’s eastern territories, insisted that those who were not ethnic Poles were now Soviet citizens. They on the one hand prevented Jews from joining the Polish army, and on the other hand manipulated public opinion, suggesting that the Jews could not join the army because of “Polish antisemitism.”
Here we come to the source of the misrepresentation. It was the Soviets, for whom the independent Poland was still an enemy, who were playing a double game. They wanted to use Polish soldiers and after 1945 the whole country for their purposes, but at the same time to damage Poland’s reputation among its Western allies and thus lessen their support for its independence by accusing the Poles of antisemitism. This double game explains many events in which the Poles were blamed – events that at first sight seem completely unrelated and took place at different times, for example, the desertions of Jewish soldiers from Anders’ Army, as well as Jedwabne and Kielce.
It was due only to the strong determination of Gen. Anders that in spite of the Soviet opposition as many as about 4,000 Polish citizens who were Jews could join Anders’ Army. They constituted about 6% of the total armed forces of 67,700 which, because of the deteriorating relationship between the Soviet government and Poland’s government in exile, left the USSR at the end of 1942. It was accompanied by about 2,000 civilians of Jewish origin, many of them children.
Being with the Polish Army was for them the only chance to leave the Soviet Union and come to Palestine, which in fact happened. The British administration opposed moving Jewish civilians along with the soldiers. The problem was solved by the ingenious Poles, who dressed Jewish children in Catholic school uniforms, and transported the rest of the group by a roundabout sea route, thus avoiding the British. Then the desertions of Jewish soldiers began.
The closer Anders’ Army moved to Palestine, the more desertions would occur. This was immediately noted by Poland’s enemies, having their networks and influential supporters in Washington as well, who interpreted desertions as a sign of antisemitism, which, as is written in the 1946 US report, “reached such dimensions in the Polish Army under General Wladyslaw Anders that many Jewish soldiers felt compelled to desert those forces.”
However, there was little or no antisemitism in Anders’ Army. These desertions, completely misunderstood or rather purposely misinterpreted by the authors of this report, were in fact another of Poland’s great contributions to the building of the State of Israel.
THE COUNTER evidence to the US report is the “Chronicle of the 3rd Carpathian Infantry Division” which can be easily found in PDF format (document C.292) on the website of the Sikorski Institute (Instytut im. Gen. Sikorskiego) in London.
The infantry division, having 14,056 soldiers and officers, was a part of Anders’ Army. On page 44 of its chronicle, we can read (in Polish) that many Jewish soldiers of the division deserted when it reached Palestine. The number of deserters from November 15, 1943, to December 10, 1943, is given as 601. Although the total number of desertions is not offered, on the page 45 it is described as “very significant.” On the same page is written: “There was no antisemitism among soldiers of the division. No one would differentiate between the Jews and the Poles. The Jews felt well in the division... and one could even hear opinions that it is better that they desert now.”
The chronicle is a historical document, which was not written for propaganda reasons but is rather a faithful description of events, as they happened day by day. The author, who was probably a lower rank officer, could not know all details concerning desertions. In fact, the total number of Jewish desertions from Anders’ Army was 80% (over 3,000 soldiers and officers) – but they were all with Gen. Anders’ permission.
Normally, desertion from an army in a time of war merits the death penalty. However, not a single Jewish soldier was ever punished or arrested for desertion, even those who were actually captured and brought before Gen. Anders. They were immediately released by him. His view and the view of his officers was that if soldiers of Jewish origin left the army because they were loyal to Israel, and did not seek to escape the fight but rather to fight bravely for their homeland, then they should be supported.
And in fact, the deserting soldiers of Anders’ Army would mostly join the Hagana and other paramilitary organizations. The most famous of these deserters was the future president of Israel, Menachem Begin, known among his fellow Polish soldiers as Mieczyslaw Biegun.
However, there were also Jews, about 800, who remained in Anders’ Army. The 3rd Carpathian Infantry Division was transported to Italy where in May 1944, it took part in the famous battle of Monte Casino, which cost in total over 70,000 British, American, Hindu, French, New Zealand, Polish, Jewish and German lives, and ended with hanging the Polish white-red flag at the top of the hill on the destroyed medieval monastery. Having lost about 10% of its soldiers, the division continued its fight against Nazi German forces and freed in heavy fighting the Italian cities of Ancona and then Bologna.
And then the war ended, and in 1946 the division was transported to Great Britain and there demobilized. And yet, most of the division’s soldiers did not return home to Poland. The 1946 US document says that the Jews preferred to flee, even to Germany, rather than return to Poland after the war, and this is perfectly true. But the fact that the remaining Jews in Anders’ Army preferred to stay out of Poland in 1946 is not related to their bad treatment or any anti-Jewish feelings. It is because Poland became then a country dominated by the Soviets, and these and their puppet administration were basically treating anyone serving in Anders’ Army or associated with Poland’s underground resistance as enemies.
Afraid of political trials and prosecutions, most of the Polish soldiers serving in Anders’ Army did not return to Poland when the war ended.
THE JEWS are the nation that was subjected to the greatest extermination during WWII. On the other hand, Poland is the country which the greatest WWII victim. The Nazi German occupation, which cost so many Polish lives and which was so destructive, was followed by the Soviet occupation. The Soviet Communists played their double game. They wanted to keep Poland within the sphere of their influence, and at the same time to change its image from the heroic country which never surrendered to one which was shamefully antisemitic, a nation that treated Jews as badly as Germans did.
In this way they sought to undermine Poland’s patriotic resistance movement, particularly the Home Army, and Poland’s government in exile, and diminish its potential support from the Allies.
Unfortunately, many historians, as well as politicians, have not yet understood this game. They have not recognized provocations and falsifications. The Jedwabne case was built on the testimonies of people who were in fact forced by the Communist police to confess something that did not really happen. Those were not Polish neighbors who murdered the local Jewish population on June 10, 1941, but special units of German Gestapo. What happened on July 5, 1946, in Kielce was also orchestrated by the Communist security forces. The goal was to ruin Poland’s reputation and make us, Jews and Poles, into enemies.
We need now to examine our history carefully, because it is not true at all that we are enemies. We can be only made into enemies by falsehoods and manipulations.
In fact, in spite of the differences between the Jews and the Poles which are so obvious, and are related to our religions and different value systems, there is also a lot that we have in common. We can both raise ourselves form ashes, stand boldly for our nations, and defend our traditions and independence.
The author is a philosopher and political thinker, a professor at Lazarski University in Warsaw and Zayed University in Dubai. He received his doctorate from the University of Oxford. In the early 1980s, he was a student leader in Poland’s Solidarity movement, and in 1991 was elected deputy mayor of Gdansk.
He was also a diplomat and an ethics expert of the European Commission. He has taught at many universities. He is the author of several books, including Tractatus Politico-Philosophicus: New Directions for the Future Development of Humankind.