There is both light and darkness in Poland’s WWII history

The Poles, indeed, suffered heavily under German occupation, but that does not excuse them for their excessive anti-Jewish behavior during the occupation.

Holocaust survivors enter Auschwitz 73 years after its liberation on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 2018 (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL / REUTERS)
Holocaust survivors enter Auschwitz 73 years after its liberation on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 2018
(photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL / REUTERS)
During the 24 years that I headed the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem, I was privileged to have been instrumental in adding thousands of Polish names to the list of the Righteous. Of men and women, from all walks of life who, at the risk of their own lives, saved Jews from certain death.
It is well to remember that in Poland the German occupiers made public by posters on bulletin boards in the major cities that the death penalty would be imposed on non-Jewish persons caught sheltering Jews or aiding them in whatever other way. In other words, helping them to survive.
Such as the following public warning, one of many, posted in Przemysl, on November 19, 1942, which stated in no unclear terms that: “1) Every Pole who admits a Jew in his home, or affords him hospitality, provisions and refuge, will be shot. 2) Every Pole who assists in whatever way a Jew who is found outside the Jewish quarter, will be shot. 3) Every Pole who even attempts to carry out items 1 and 2 will be shot.”
Or the following warning, made public in Tarnow, in September 9, 1942: “Every Pole who, during the deportations, admits a Jew or hides him, will be shot.”
No exact figure exists, but many Poles paid with their lives, as did the Jews that they sheltered, when apprehended in the act of aiding one or more Jews. These thousands of Poles are indeed a mark of honor on the record of Polish history, and all Poles can take pride in them.
But there is also a darker side to the story – the intense antisemitism prevalent among large sections of Polish society before, during and after the war, that made it doubly difficult for the kind and goodhearted Poles to extend a helping hand to Jews. They had to be wary not only of the Germans who would punish them with death, or at best with incarceration in concentration camps, but of fellow Poles who could betray them to the authorities so as to benefit from some paltry reward.
Some of these Poles were placed on trial after the war, and given light sentences; most were never brought to justice. In addition, as documented in the recent fully-researched study by historian Joshua Zimmerman, the major Polish underground, known as the Home Army, also stayed aloof from the Jews.
In fact, many factions in the underground washed their hands of the Jews, with some, such as the NSZ, committed themselves to hunting down Jews on the run, while at the same time resisting the Nazi occupiers.
Those few Jews who were admitted into the Home Army were able to do this mostly by successfully hiding their Jewish identity.
There were also thousands of plain Poles roaming the streets of Warsaw and other cities, known as Szmalcowniks (so called “fat fleecers”), trying to detect Jews on the run, with the aim of denuding them of whatever valuables they possessed and then turning them over to the Gestapo for an additional reward.
The accounts of Jewish underground operatives, such as Vladka Meed, Basia Berman and Miriam Peleg (known as Maria Marianska) are full with such life-threatening incidents.
I remember dealing with two such cases. In the matter of Stefan Sawa, residing in a village not far from Kielce, he was warned by a Polish underground unit to expel the Jews hiding with him or face punishment.
They returned after two weeks, in February 1944, and learning that the Jews were still there, set the house on fire, killing all the Jewish inhabitants and their non-Jewish Polish rescuer, Stefan Sawa.
In another story, a Polish underground unit raided the home of Jan and Stefania Sosnowy, in their village home near Frampol, in March 1943, after they had been informed that the Sosnowys were hiding a Jew. They failed to locate Eli Ashenberg, who was hiding in an underground hole, and he overheard the marauders threaten Jan Sosnowy with death unless he disclosed the hiding place.
When he stood his ground and denied there were any Jews in his home, they told him to bid goodbye to his wife and step outside to be shot.
He followed them out, and his courage convinced them he was speaking the truth and they set him free.
Stefan Sawa and Jan and Stefania Sosnowy were awarded the Righteous Among the Nations title by Yad Vashem.
And then there also stories on record of others who acted above and beyond to save as many Jews as possible. Such as the heroic Irena Sendlerowa, who smuggled children out of the Warsaw ghetto, and then took charge of the children’s department in Zegota – the Polish underground unit that was created to help Jews on the run. To Sendlerowa’s credit, hundreds of Jewish children were placed in various children institutions and private homes, under assumed names.
She, too, was betrayed to the Germans and imprisoned, and was about to be shot when fellow underground operatives and Jewish associates in Zegota, were able to bribe the Gestapo for her release.
Years later, I corresponded with the elderly Sendlerowa, and together with the Jewish Shoshana Raczynski, who was saved by a non-Jewish Pole whom she later married and moved with to Israel, we submitted the name of Sendlerowa to the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee for nomination to the Peace Prize, but the request was declined.
Also worth mentioning is the story of the prison warden Waclaw Nowinski, in Warsaw. When the Gestapo placed Aleksander Bronowski, a Jew passing as a Catholic seminarian and caught on the streets, in his jail, with instructions to hold him until the following morning, when the Gestapo would return to take him to their own prison for a torturous interrogation – Nowinski decided he must save Bronowski’s life. In the still of night, he contacted fellow confederates in the underground, and he too came up with money with which to bribe the Gestapo agents, and Bronowski was released. Nowinski, a member of the Polish underground, initiated the rescue of this Jew, and was awarded the Righteous title. Had there been more like him in the underground, many more Jews could have been rescued.
After the war, Bronowski moved to Israel and became a leading figure in the Yad Vashem-created Commission for the Righteous that dealt with honoring non-Jewish rescuers of Jews, while at the same time looking after the Nowinski family and supporting them with whatever they needed.
SO THE story for Poland is mixed. In my estimation, the thousands of Poles, those known and those not accounted for, who risked their lives to save Jews are on the top of the list of the Righteous from all other European countries – for they faced greater risks, both from the brutal German occupiers and from fellow Poles who were only too happy to see the Jews disappear from the Polish landscape, with some, especially among elements in the underground, and in many villages, lending a hand in that sordid undertaking.
On the other hand, the Poles are right in demanding that the death camps on Polish soil not be termed Polish camps, as they were constructed by the Germans without consulting the conquered Poles.
Several explanations have been advanced for why the Germans decided that the major extermination camps would be located in occupied Poland, possibly for example because most of the intended Jewish victims were there, within reach.
But whatever the reason, the Poles did not ask that these killing centers be on their soil, so this cannot be imputed to them.
In closing, all Poles may justifiably take pride in the thousands of Righteous Among the Nations honored by the Jewish people through the State of Israel, and via Yad Vashem. For these knights of the spirit represent human conduct in its most elevated form. At the same time, Poles from all political adherences must also face up to the fact that too many Poles participated in either betraying Jews to the Germans, or actively killing them (such as in the Jedwabne story), or refusing to admit them, as Jews, in the Polish underground.
The Poles, indeed, suffered heavily under German occupation, but that does not excuse them for their excessive anti-Jewish behavior during the occupation. The same, of course, must equally be said with regard to the behavior of many in Vichy France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and other countries. While we salute and bless those who stood up and saved the image of man as a morally upright being by rescuing Jews, we also take note of the many others who either stood aside or lent a hand to the Nazi genocide.
The author, formerly of Yad Vashem, currently teaches about the Holocaust at Yeshiva University-Stern College and Touro College, New York, and is a consultant of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.