Barbara Engelking

Jest taki piekny słoneczny dzień: Losy Żydów szukających ratunku na wsi polskiej 1942-1945

[It was such a beautiful sunny day: The fate of Jews seeking salvation in the Polish countryside, 1942-1945]

(Warsaw: Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów/ Polish Center for Holocaust Research Association, 2011). pp. 292

ISBN 978-83-932202-1-2


Jan Grabowski

Judenjagd: Polowanie na Żydów 1942-1945. Studium dziejów pewnego powiatu

[The hunt for Jews 1942-1945. A study of one county]

(Warsaw: Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów/ Polish Center for Holocaust Research Association, 2011). pp. 262

ISBN 978-83-932202-0-5; ISBN 978-83-932202-3-6

                    Jan Tomasz Gross, Irena Grudzińska-Gross

Złote żniwa: Rzecz o tym, co się działo na obrzeżach zagłady Żydów

[Golden harvest. Report on events at the periphery of the Holocaust]

(Kraków: Wydawnictwo Znak, 2011). pp. 205

ISBN 978-83-240-1523-8; ISBN 978-83-240-1522-1

Reviewed by Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe


Early 2011 saw the publication in Poland of three noteworthy studies exploring Polish behaviour toward the Jews during World War II and the various forms of Polish participation in the Holocaust. These publications clearly advance the state of research, although they do not completely exhaust the topic, or even come close to that. They interrogate the image of the Holocaust as a largely German undertaking that has had a strong presence both in German and Polish research down to the present. The existence of this image is bound up with the historiographic circumstance that now as before, German Holocaust research is more closely connected with the German regime of occupation or the German Einsatzgruppen and execution units and less with the population under occupation, and in this way concentrates on the perspective of the German perpetrators. There is a concomitant tendency to neglect the perspective of the non-German perpetrators (and in part also that of the victims). By contrast, Polish Holocaust research has until recently viewed the Poles solely as victims of the National Socialist regime of occupation, and seen the murder of the Jews as an exclusively German matter. All three publications are written contra these continuing tendencies in thought and inquiry.[1]

The study by Jan Tomasz Gross and Irena Grudzińska-Gross has the character of an essay, but remains oriented to the facts. The authors discuss the methods Poles used to acquire Jewish property, and explain the impact of this process on the morality of the Polish Aryanizers. The authors begin with the analysis of a photo showing a group of farmers with shovels and other digging tools behind a row of human bones and skulls. According to the authors, these are treasure seekers on the grounds of the former Treblinka extermination camp. Quite apart from whether the description of the photo and what it supposedly shows is correct or not, the snapshot is a good point of departure for an essayistic study on how Poles dealt with the possessions of living and murdered Jews. Searching through former exterminations camps for gold teeth or rings was a phenomenon definitely widespread in the early postwar period, but was later tabooed and generally forgotten. The authors stress that digging for remaining objects of value owned by murdered Jews was not a practice engaged in by ‘demoralized individuals,’ as nationalist-conservative and rightwing historians like to emphasize without providing any empirical evidence. Rather, this was something generally done by quite ordinary persons, often farmers from the immediate vicinity of the camps. In contrast with the assertions of nationalist-conservative and rightwing historians, Gross and Grudzińska-Gross describe the national resistance movement as one of the profiteers from this morally questionable activity (GG: pp.43-52).[2]

A broad spectrum of activities of Aryanization engaged in during the war by Poles was subject to a similar process of being subjected to taboo and repression. The authors note that the extermination camps stimulated the regional economy and improved the quality of life of their neighbors. On the one hand, Ukrainian guards were happy to pay in cash for prostitutes (some of whom journeyed there from Warsaw) and vodka. On the other, water and food were sold to the thirsty and hungry Jews in the freight cars at high to extremely high prices (GG:pp.55-63).

The takeover of property of the Jews imprisoned inside the ghettos or transported to the extermination camps was also seen by the local population as a source of income. The Poles shared this kind of enrichment with the German occupiers, whose political motivation and personal attitudes toward the Jews both before and during the Holocaust were, as is well known, oriented to personal profit. The greed for Aryanization allowed the occupiers and the occupied to share a common goal, though without reducing the  racist-ideological differences between the two groups. The Polish perpetrators, like the German occupiers, often understood the murder of the Jews as a natural component in the process of Aryanization (GG: pp. 73-77). These profit-oriented murders, similar to the practice of hunting and rummaging through the grounds of the former extermination camps, were not carried out by individuals on the social periphery, but rather by normal, respected members of the local population (GG: p. 91). Torture and rape of Jewish women by Polish men were also part of the reality of the Holocaust, and these acts were ignored or even accepted and tolerated by the local population (GG: pp. 99-107). In describing the attitude of the Roman Catholic church to the question of Aryanization, the authors note that many priests had basically no objection to parishioners making use of Aryanized articles of clothing, and similar to a segment of the Polish underground, were grateful to Hitler that the Germans had solved the ‘burning question’ for the ‘soft and  unsystematic Polish people.’(GG:pp.181-189).

While the study by Gross and Grudzińska-Gross is written more in an essayistic than an empirical-scientific format, the studies by Jan Grabowski and Barabara Engelking are largely based on archival source materials. Their monographs have principally utilized documentation in the Jewish Historical Institute (Żydowski Instytut Historyczny, ŻIH) in Warsaw, Yad Vashem and the Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, IPN).The first two have a large collection of survivors’ reports. At the IPN, on the other hand, it is also possible to access the files of criminal cases against Holocaust perpetrators from the postwar period. By combining these source materials, the authors were able to examine the problems investigated both from the perspective of the survivors and also of the perpetrators, or through the prism of the often poor conducted court trials. Evaluation of the documentation in this combination proved very fruitful. It shows that the belief strongly anchored especially in German Holocaust research, namely that the documents of German perpetrators are the most important and ‘trustworthy’ documentation for the study of the Holocaust, is in many respects not only hostile and detrimental to research, but can also lead to falsification of the history of the Holocaust.

Jan Grabowski concentrates on the county of Dąbrowa Tarnowska in the Generalgouvernement, a relatively small administrative area that is quite easy to keep a clear overview of, thus rendering Grabowski’s monograph almost a micro-historical study. He included the German expression ‘hunt for Jews’ (‘Judenjagd’) in his title; this word was also used by the Poles who aided the Germans in their ‘hunts for Jews,’ or who organized such ‘Jew hunts’ themselves. Especially those Jews who had escaped from the ghettos and were hiding in the forest were hunted down. To motivate the local population for the ‘Judenjagd’, the German occupiers made use of two methods. On the one hand, they imposed and carried out draconic punishments, including the death penalty, against individuals and families who had assisted the Jews or were hiding them. On the other, they often rewarded persons who caught Jews and handed them over to the police or murdered them themselves, giving them sugar or other products. On the basis of these ‘hunts for Jews’ or other forms of Jewish persecution by the local population, many Jews decided against flight from the ghetto or decided to return after their escape, preferring instead to accept the risk of transport to the extermination camps. (G: p. 50).

Grabowski’s study shows that a broad spectrum of the Polish population participated in the ‘hunts for Jews’ and other forms of the annihilation of the Jews. This spectrum included both the ‘blue police’ (Polish police officers) and the Polish construction service and security service, as well as ordinary Poles, often farmers and respected citizens (G: pp.57-58,70,105-119,121-127).

A further important question in Grabowski’s study is the fate of the Jews who fled from the ghettos and their attempts to survive in the countryside. The author makes it clear that there were but very few Poles who did not ask for payment when they provided Jews with a hiding place and food, and that a large number of those who helped to hide Jews and provide them with essentials only did so if they could profit from this. In many cases, the hiding place and provisions were terminated if the Jews involved could not continue to make payment. A number of Jews in hiding, albeit impossible to establish precisely how many, were apparently also murdered by their Polish ‘helpers’, often motivated by the desire to acquire the possessions of these Jews. (G: pp. 70, 136, E: p. 98). Grabowski also proves that members of the Polish blue uniformed police, like personnel of the German Einsatzkommando killing units, regularly indulged in alcohol before the executions so as to lower their moral threshold of conscience. (G: p. 116).

In her study, Barbara Engelking takes an approach differing from Jan Grabowski, with different thematic focal points. She did not limit her area of research to a single administrative county, but rather extended it to include all Polish villages in the Generalgouvernement. She investigated a larger number of individuals and their fates in order to establish typical patterns of behaviour of the Poles toward the Jews as well as strategies of survival among the Jews in hiding (E: pp. 25-27). Engelking collected data on many fates and cases, which sketch a broad spectrum of possibilities for behaviour and survival. Her findings concur with those in Grabowski’s micro-historically oriented study and the essayistic investigation by the Gross's. Engelking concludes that greed was the most frequent reason for the murder of Jews or handing them over to the police. (E: pp. 184, 219). But she also notes that farmers regarded the ‘hunts for Jews’ as a kind of pleasurable activity or form of recreation. (E: p. 146). In contrast with the two other studies reviewed here, Engelking employs psychological approaches which in part shed a different analytical light on the behaviour of the Poles and the Jews (E: for example, pp. 95-96,101-109).

Of great interest is what all four authors have found about the latitude and scope of the possibilities for hiding and rescue. The German occupiers imposed the death sentence for the crime of hiding Jews, which as a deterrent was often carried out by executing the entire family in a form of ‘family liability’. However, since the number of German occupiers, particularly in rural regions, was small, they had to depend on the assistance of the local Polish population in the persecution of the Jews. Consequently, the greatest immediate danger for Poles who sought to rescue Jews was generally not the German occupiers but rather their Polish neighbors. Precisely because they feared being informed on and denounced to the authorities, many Poles refused to aid Jews who had fled into the countryside.

All three studies agree in their findings that the Polish underground, especially the Home Army or Armja Krajowa (AK) and the paramilitary National Armed Forces (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne, NSZ) were extensively involved in the murder of the Jews (G: pp. 118, E: pp. 238-242). How this empirically established finding can be reconciled with the practice of the post-communist Polish history of transfiguration of the past, which is unreserved in celebrating the Polish underground as a great moral entity, deserves exploration in other publications. Grabowski alludes to a further interesting tendency in dealing with the Holocaust, which is also typical for other countries in East-Central Europe: it is based on the strategy of celebrating the small number who helped the Jews by constructing a collective image, and viewing them as representative of the nation as a whole, while at the same time remaining silent about the murderers of the Jews, or viewing these killers as an immoral minority not representative of the nation. Coupled with this tendency is the practice of not investigating why rescue of the Jews was so difficult in areas where there was a minimal German presence, and why many Poles preferred to take the risk of aiding the Polish underground rather than the Jews, and over and beyond this, in numerous cases chose to inform on the helpers of the Jews (G: pp. 153-156).

In summary, it is clear that despite their different approaches, all three studies arrive at similar findings, and interrogate a large number of previously assumed self-evident ‘truths’. They most probably will not trigger a second debate on the Holocaust like Jan Tomasz Gross's book Sąsiedzi(in EnglishNeighbors), did a decade ago.[3] However, the fact that historians arguing along more nationalist-conservative lines, such as Piotr Gontarczyk or Bogdan Musiał, have reacted to the studies reviewed here with a pronounced phobia for the facts of the Holocaust, is an indication that these volumes have advanced the state of research and successfully interrogated further political myths.[4]


Translated from the German by Bill Templer

This review first appeared in German in H-Soz-u-Kult. URL:

This English version and publication are by authorization of the author and H-Soz-u-Kult, which has kindly supplied the following copyright notice: Copyright © 2012 by H-Net, Clio-online, and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact H-SOZ-U-KULT@H-NET.MSU.EDU.

[1]Within Germany, one important exception to the Germany-centered tendency in thought and research, for example, is Bruder’s dissertation on the organization of the Ukrainian nationalists and the Holocaust in the Ukraine, see Franziska Bruder, ‘Den ukrainischen Staat erkämpfen oder sterben!’ Die Organisation Ukrainischer Nationalisten (OUN) 1929-1948’ [‘Fight to win the Ukrainian state or die!’ The Organization Ukrainian Nationalists, 1929-1948’]  (Berlin: Metropol, 2006).

[2]The book has appeared in an English version, Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012).

[3]Tomasz Gross, Sąsiedzi: Historia zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka  (Sejny: Fundacja Pogranicze,2000), in English as Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland  (Princeton Univ. Press, 2001).

[4]For Piotr Gontarczyk’s reaction, see ‘Jak złapią za rękę…’ [‘How to catch a hand…’], Rzeczpospolita (19-20 February 2011) <>. For Bogdan Musiał’s reaction, see Bogdan Musiał,  ‘,Judenjagd’ czyli naukowy regres’ [‘‘Judenjagd’ or scientific regress’], Rzeczpospolita (5-6 March 2011) <>. On Bogdan Musiał’s perception of the Holocaust, see Per Anders Rudling, ‘Bogdan Musial and the Question of Jewish Responsibility for the Pogroms in Lviv in the Summer of 1941,’ East European Jewish Affairs, 35/1 (June 2005), 69-89