Inferno of Choices: Poles and the Holocaust
Edited by Sebastian Rejak and Elżbieta Frister
Oficyna Wydawnicza RYTM
At what point are governments responsible for interpreting history in a free society? Ever since the 1980s, the transition to democracy in countries emerging from the aftermath of a war, revolution, or dictatorship has been accompanied by a publishing boom of instant histories. These have related the horrors inflicted by the preceding governments, their corruption, and their private scandals. Memoirs appeared recounting the blissful existence that was extinguished by the war or dictatorship. There were revelations of the way the beneficiaries of the old order recycled themselves into latter-day democrats and entrepreneurs on a magic carpet of looted state assets.
Over the years, the instant historians became members of the new business, political, and media establishments. Some are successful, some incompetent, and some are as corrupt as their predecessors. Many have difficulties in understanding the nature of a free society. Often, it seems a miracle that the old dictatorships did not return; sometimes, behind a patina of meaningless elections, they have. The general population in the meantime, looks on with suspicion wondering if they have exchanged one set of crooks for another, and what, if any, embarrassing past secrets have been withheld from them by acquaintances, friends, or family. And most of all, they refuse to believe in anything that comes from the mouth of government. When, they ask, are the culprits of the past going to be put behind bars?
The transitional government response to this has been to create either truth commissions or quasi-autonomous agencies with the remit of investigating the past. Superficially, these constructs have two benefits. The population may have more confidence in a body that is at arm’s length from government. From the government’s side, there is the political expediency of being able to kick embarrassing historical issues into the long grass.
Argentina pioneered the truth commission in 1983 when a six-year military dictatorship – known as the proceso - collapsed after its defeat in the Falklands War against Britain. For the first time since the Nuremberg trials, the commission – CONADEP in its Spanish acronym - looked at individual responsibilities for atrocities committed during a dictatorship. Its chairman was Ernesto Sabato, someone who, like many Argentines and foreign observers, quietly welcomed the 1976 coup that brought in Argentina’s dictatorship.
In a famous prologue to CONADEP’s final report, Nunca Más (Never Again), Sabato wrote of the ‘two demons’ that had terrorized Argentina: violence from both the extreme right and extreme left, something experienced by other countries such as Italy, since the Second World War. The commission concentrated its efforts on the extreme right and military, but the mere mention of terror from the left prompted howls of protest from left-wing sympathisers. Over the 1980s, Argentina’s new democratic government removed the military’s judicial immunity and prosecuted five leading members of the dictatorship’s ruling junta. It survived four attempted coups, tried to restore peace by passing two new amnesty laws that protected the military from further prosecution, and collapsed in 1989 amid 4,800 percent inflation. The following government pardoned the jailed junta members. It was only after a decade and a half of attempted and floundering economic reform that another Argentine government returned to the dictatorship’s legacy. The amnesty laws were repealed, the perpetrators of atrocities were indicted, and Nunca Más was re-issued in 2006 with a prologue rewritten to match the incumbent government’s policies. There was no mention of ‘two demons’. But the dictatorship’s henchmen, some well into their 80s, are on trial.
The aim of this introduction about a country half a globe away from Poland is to highlight some common responses of communities to horrors in their midst. Argentina has the largest Jewish population in Latin America, nearly half a million before the coup and about 200,000 today. During the dictatorship years, Jews were targeted by the authorities because they were Jews, not leftists. Just one percent of the population, they numbered about 12 percent of the victims. The dictatorship was armed with a panoply of Nazi slogans and tortures. Jacobo Timerman, a Jewish journalist and father of Argentina’s current foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, and who as a child in the 1920s migrated to Argentina with his family from Bar in today’s Ukraine, wrote in his memoir about three years of imprisonment by the dictatorship:
When confronted by an eruption of anti-Semitic violence, whether avowed or disguised, explicit or implicit, no-one helps the Jews – and generally, not even the Jews themselves help one another. Once more the fact is confirmed, as in other countries, that in the face of irrational violence, anti-Semites find both allies and the indifferent, but seldom any appreciable number of opponents.
Timerman described a ‘totalitarian mentality among the majority sectors of the population, with a serious tendency towards messianic beliefs’. Although the government of the day claimed that arrests of Jews were isolated cases, Jewish community leaders believed it was ‘best to work in silence in order to ransom whoever you can, rather than create scandals that might provoke the military’. In the late 1970s, it was common to hear about and meet people who had fled the Holocaust in Europe for refuge in Argentina only to find themselves fleeing again.
Ten years before Timerman’s memoir appeared, Polish émigré writer Barbara Toporska, who was living in Munich at the time, recorded similar observations she made of the population’s behaviour during the Holocaust in occupied Poland. She wrote that the interesting matter was not the demoralization of people – something that happens in every war so there is no reason to believe that Poles were somehow transformed into angels at that time – but that antisemitism among the Polish population increased and spread among those social groups that were not antisemitic before the war. She noted that the bigotry spread to such a degree that it would have shamed even pre-war antisemites. It wasn’t the fear of a death sentence that dissuaded Poles from helping Jews – what could you do in those days that didn’t carry a death sentence, she asks – but neighbourhood disapproval. This had nothing to do with German propaganda as everyone, from a scheming looter to a venerable professor regarded it as their patriotic duty to counter all German propaganda, and in the process found themselves rehabilitating Bolshevism. In fact, antisemitism grew despite German propaganda. Her one explanation for this was that it was linked to the growth of Polish nationalism under German nationalist pressure. Terror breeds terror, Nazism breeds Nazism, and madness breeds madness, Toporska concluded.
Inferno of Choices attempts to describe this phenomenon, together with accounts of instances when Poles helped Jews. It was published online by the Polish Foreign Ministry in June with instructions to its embassies worldwide to post it on their websites. The book is a selection of Polish and German government wartime documents and abridged chapters from previous historical studies, all in English translation. In the introduction Maciej Kozłowski, a historian, former diplomat, and currently the director of the Africa and Near East Department in the Polish Foreign Ministry, said the volume portrays the present state of research and public debate on wartime Polish-Jewish history.
Poland, as other post-communist countries, created a government agency, Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, to investigate the communist past. Over the years, its remit expanded to include the study of the Second World War. But attempts over 2006/7 to grant it lustration (prosecution) powers descended into a constitutional and legalistic wrangle and remain there. Like other government agencies worldwide, such as state energy companies and development banks, the IPN has acquired a life and identity of its own, and relations with its government masters are tense. Some politicians regard it as divisive, harmful to national reconciliation, and that it should be abolished. This is the same argument that was promoted in 1983 by apologists for the military dictatorship at the CONADEP truth commission in Argentina. Nevertheless, it is the IPN, and presumably not the Foreign Ministry, whose job it is to produce history books.
All dictatorships treat their populations like children. They bequeath this legacy to the supposedly democratic successors, who in turn remain intent of regulating every aspect of a person’s life, including national historical narrative. In a country like Poland, which over the last century and a half has exported political dissent along with its poverty and unemployment, there is little room for compromise in any political discourse. The political debate flips between a liberal authoritarianism and a paranoid conservative nationalism. Both historians and media commentators confront each other from behind their respective ideological barricades in a form of toxic trench warfare. Anyone who disagrees with a given opinion is not just an internal enemy, but also not a ‘real Pole’.
On its publication in July 2012, Inferno of Choices sparked a predictable spat among the factions of Poland’s commentariat. Columnists in the centre-right Rzeczpospolita derided the stereotypic image of Poles as antisemites and blackmailers portrayed by the book. Their counterparts in the liberal-left Gazeta Wyborcza answered that these critics ‘in the best tradition of our right (wing)’ hadn’t bothered either to read or to understand the book. The arguments were short-lived however, as the publication coincided with the start of the summer holidays and the European football championships, followed by the Olympics, a financial scandal implicating Prime Minster Tusk’s son, and the visit of Russian Orthodox patriarch to Poland.
Despite the Polish Foreign Ministry’s claims to the contrary, there was little reaction overseas. Roger Pulver, an American academic with Polish Jewish roots resident in Japan wrote a positive review of the book in the Japan Times, and repeated the same sentiments in an interview with Australian radio. Aleksander Maciej Jabloński, a Polish engineer resident in Ottawa Canada, took the opposite view and fulminated about the book’s inaccuracies and over-simplifications in a YouTube post. Given the paucity of reaction, what was the purpose of the Foreign Ministry’s venture into the territory of historians?
Maciej Kozlowski writes that in Poland the official World War II historiography targeted at a mass audience was ‘falsified’. Reliable studies on the Holocaust began after 1989 in a free Poland with ‘defalsification’ of all areas of history underway. The strangely Orwellian terms ‘falsify’ and ‘defalsify’ are political buzzwords in today’s Europe. Politicians and bureaucrats use them to describe anything that is inconvenient, rather than untrue, be it in economics, social policy or foreign affairs. The real Holocaust history was silenced in Poland by post-1945 governments and replaced by a founding axiom of equal Polish-Jewish victimhood, and the denigration, persecution, and murder of those who fought against both invasions. The non-Jewish Polish diaspora did not silence the Holocaust, but it didn’t refer much to it either. Émigré writers for the most part concentrated on providing accounts of how Poles combated two occupying forces only to end up victims of the Yalta Agreement.
The Foreign Ministry claims that Inferno is addressed to the informed or academic readership rather than a general public but makes too many assumptions about geographic knowledge. There is no map of the Second Republic, of the German and Soviet occupation zones and their sub-divisions, and no indication of where cities referred to in the following text may be. There is no account of the diverse population of pre-1939 Poland and how different national and social groups lived, or didn’t live, together beforehand. They all seemed to have a common reaction to the German and Soviet invasions and the disintegration of the Second Republic according to my reading and questioning. It was shock at the strength of the invaders, anger at the Polish army’s defeat and the fleeing of top politicians and commanders, and an immediate search for scapegoats. The country seemed suddenly packed with (choose your national, religious, political, or social group) informers.
The attached documentation provides a progressing picture of the creation of ghettos, the ban on Jews leaving their homes, the plights of starving Jews in ghettos, and the German plans for their extermination. It shows how the German occupying authorities had long assessed Polish popular attitudes towards Jews. It highlights the deportation of Poles and Jews from Warthegau into the Gerneralgouvernement, and how German occupiers intended to capitalise on antisemitism in the former Soviet occupied zone where Jews were perceived as Soviet agents and collaborators.
It’s interesting to see that the first document indicating the Polish underground’s call on Poles not to collaborate with the German authorities in betraying Jews was dated 1941. The Polish government in exile’s 1942 account of the extermination of Jews is published in its entirety. The first execution of a Pole by the underground for betraying a Jew was in September 1943.
The documents do not include anything directly about the former Soviet occupied regions. For a couple of months in late 1939, when Vilnius was transferred to Lithuanian administration but still under Soviet tutelage, Kurier Wileński published the names of deportees to Siberia. There appear to have been comparable numbers of Polish, Jewish, and Russian surnames. The Jewish deportees included small time hairdressers and the odd farmer as well as local notables such as Elektrit radio factory part owner Nachman Lewin. This didn’t change popular attitudes that Jews were Soviet collaborators. Związek Walkej Zbrojnej (later the Armia Krajowa) commander Stefan Rowecki sent a dispatch to London stating that antisemitic sentiments prevail among an overwhelming majority in the country with the Socialists no exception. The Foreign Affairs section of the Polish government-in-exile displayed some prescience when it wrote in 1943 that after the war, the return of Jews to their property should be ruled out. ‘A massive return of Jews would be perceived by the population more in the light of an invasion to be thwarted – even physically – than of restitution.’
The writings of pre-1939 historical novelist and one of the founders of Żegota, Zofia Kossak Szczucka, make stomach-churning reading for a variety of reasons. This ultra Catholic and ultra nationalist daughter of privilege was the personification of a certain type of Second Republic woman who appropriated for herself the heart and soul of the Polish nation. She was appalled by the slaughter in her midst and called on people to protest about it. ‘The perishing Jews are surrounded only by Pilates who wash their hands of them’. But the war didn’t change her antisemitism. ‘Our feelings towards the Jews have not changed. We still consider them to be the political, economic, and ideological enemies of Poland. What’s more, we are aware that they hate us more than they do the Germans, that they hold us responsible for their tragedy…’ Was this really a call for people to help? She remains a controversial figure.
In a separate article, Kossak Szczucka describes the poverty and brutalisation in rural areas as the war progresses. The main obstacle in this piece is the translation where some 1940s Ealing comedy Cockney slang replaces the Polish rural patois. A peasant who refuses to send his child to school is quotes as, ‘I ain’t sending them to no school to be walloped by a bloody schoolmaster.’ It gets worse. Whitsun is translated as ‘Green Holiday’, while towards the end of the piece, Southern United States slang joins in, ‘Sweet Lord Jesus! Them’s God’s creatures too.’ This level of translation is insufferably patronising to the reader. The documentation ends with a timeline of events in occupied Warsaw adapted from a book by Władysław Bartoszewski.
The second part of the book consists of interpretations of the wartime situation by seven historians; Grzegorz Berendt, Barbara Engelking, Andrzej Żbikowski, Elżbieta Rączy, Marcin Urynowicz, Jan Grabowski, and Marcin Zaręmba. These are edited extracts of previously published work, the translation quality is variable and the whole comes across in a very clumsy manner. There is no narrative to tie everything together. Pages consisting of lists of events or quotes, albeit backed up by archival references, make for tedious reading. The editors, Sebastian Rejak and Elżbieta Frister, give no indication of the criteria used to abridge the historians’ work.
Some information on economic matters looks fascinating from a modern perspective. Grzegorz Berendt writes that of $1.3 million in funds sent from abroad to Żegota, only about $600,000 reached the final recipients. My reaction was that is was a miracle that so much money managed to get through. Today, when governments or multilateral organizations send aid to stricken regions, the recipients are lucky if 10 percent of the original sum gets through. The rest disappears in a form of legalised corruption.
Berendt and Jan Grabowski describe how Jews paid eye-watering sums for help. Henryk Starosolec, a secondary school teacher, paid 60,000 złoty to escape to Hungary while his wife paid 120,000 złoty for the same escape route. In 1939 a secondary school teacher would have been earning between 250 and 400 złoty a month, the higher level paid at prestigious private schools. So on an average of 325 złoty per month, the Starosoleces paid 46 years of salary for their lives. Grabowski quotes figure of 100,000 zloty that an individual Jew needed to have in reserve in order to survive in hiding: 30 years of a teacher’s salary! From where I am writing this in the leafy southwest borderlands of London, that is the equivalent of between £750,000 to £1 million today, the price of a five-bedroom, detached house in the overinflated local property market, and in a country where the average house price is one third to one quarter of that sum. The Germans paid Poles to hand over Jews in hiding; a bag of sugar was a common payment per person. The price for this ranged between 64.08 złoty in 1942 and 95.8 złoty in 1944. So a Jewish life to a collaborator was worth between 20 and 30 percent of provincial teacher’s monthly salary.
All the accounts in this book illustrate how personal survival becomes a business during war, and how a mutually convenient economic arrangement degenerates into treachery and murder when the money runs out. Any opportunity for real or imaginary personal gain is seized, even if is just an anonymous letter to ‘Mr Gestapo’ as Barbara Engelking outlines. She discusses the concept of envy as a motivation for such behaviour, as does Jan Grabowski in a later chapter when describing citizen groups searching houses of people suspected of sheltering Jews. Andrzej Żbikowski describes how Jews lost all traces of humanity in the eyes of Poles who pursued and killed them, or handed them over to the Germans. He also describes the 1940 anti-Jewish riots in Warsaw and the evolving role of the Polish navy blue police as the war progressed. But he does acknowledge that reliable sources on this subject, and the role of the Judenrats and Jewish police, are sparse.
The authors occasionally draw a comparison between the wartime situation in Poland with that in the Netherlands, to demonstrate the severity of the terror in Poland and the punishments for assisting Jews. But no-one explains why this was so. Wouldn’t this be a place to address northwest European concepts of race?
It’s worth noting at this point that a major problem with this book is the muddled thinking on the subject of clandestine armed groups. Neither the authors nor the translators can make their minds up what to call them. Let me help. The correct English term for wartime clandestine armed groups in Eastern Europe is partisan. This remains so notwithstanding its adulteration in the 1960s during Mieczysław Moczar’s anti-Semitic campaign. The word guerrilla belongs to the Spanish speaking world, punto. It is a non-ideological term and does not signify anything benign. The only reason that it has some left-wing connotations in many peoples’ minds is because of the specific political nature of Latin American dictatorships between the 1940s and 1980s.
The stock-in-trade of all clandestine armed groups is banditry, usually directed against the weakest targets. That’s why such groups contain a high proportion of thieves and psychopaths. The group needs food for its operatives and money for weapons. Sabotage has minimal military value, usually invites a massive retaliation against civilian populations, but is a demonstration of a group’s potential power. That power remains potential. Armed groups are usually only an effective military force when they fight alongside a conventional army. They can, however, capitalise on an occupying army’s disintegration. All of this applies to the Armia Krajowa, under the command of the Polish government-in-exile in London, the Armia Ludowa that was effectively a part of the Soviet armed forces, and the Narodowe Siły Zbrojne that was affiliated to no-one and fought both the Germans and Soviets. Recent histories of these groups have highlighted their heroism and military successes rather than their thuggery, especially as the AK and NSZ were demonised over the communist years. The extent to which the AL helped Jews during the war and the AK and NSZ murdered them, and vice versa, is still an evolving story. (Wasn’t Moczar a former AL member?) However, Jan Grabowski quotes an NSZ edict calling Poles who helped Jews ‘traitors’.
Ewa Rączy and Marcin Urynowicz redress the balance of the book with accounts of Poles helping Jews. They describe the terror under which the Polish population lived during the German occupation, its moral degradation, the super-human bravery of people that helped Jews in hiding, and the psychological as well as the economic cost of this to them. Urynowicz speculates that the 6,000 ‘Righteous’ Poles recognised by Vad Yashem is but a fraction of the real total. The number most certainly is an underestimate. After all, if someone secretly hid Jews during the war, whether for money or out of compassion or a combination of the two, why brag about it afterwards, especially in the political situation of post-war Poland? Or for that matter, even now. Once a conspirator, always a conspirator.
The final chapter by Marcin Zaremba, Szaber, about the looting frenzy at the end of the war was, in my view, the weakest. It should have contained more comparisons with situations in neighbouring countries as well as the role of the Soviet army in looting, rape and killing. Allied forces in Western Europe did not always cover themselves in glory either at this time.
There is lots of interesting information in this book. My main objection to it is the imprimatur of the Foreign Ministry. When a government department produces a book that is government policy. The fact that historians work in such a department is irrelevant. They implement government policy. So, unsurprisingly, there is nothing in this book to embarrass the Catholic Church. Indeed, there is nothing about the Catholic Church at all. Not even a mention of the truly antisemitic Archbishop August Hłond. There is nothing about the co-operation between the German and Soviet occupying forces, even though documentation about this has been around since the 1980s, and is referred to in many memoirs of camp prisoners. Both the Abwehr and the NKVD penetrated the Polish conspiratorial groups pretty efficiently. How did this affect any of the groups’ reactions to the Holocaust in their midst? Someone somewhere must have an opinion about this.
What was the purpose of this book? Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung speculated that the Polish Foreign Ministry wanted to use it to improve the country’s stereotypical antisemitic image, and to address complaints in the United States and from the World Jewish Congress about the lack of progress in Poland to restore pre-1939 Jewish property. Progress on this issue will also affect German property claims in Poland, FAZ noted. The last European foreign ministry to publish a book on the Second World War was Germany’s. But it was investigating itself and hired an international committee of renowned historians for the purpose. This committee continued its work unmolested through a change of government until the very impressive and excellently written Das Amt und die Vergangenheit (The (Foreign) Ministry and the Past) was first published in 2010 and became a best seller. Apart from the obvious difference between the invader and the invaded, could politicians in Poland or any other post-communist country be capable of standing aside from the investigation of sensitive historical issues and allow the experts to do their job in peace?
Books by Jan Tomasz Gross and Anna Bikont have changed ingrained, bigoted attitudes about Jews in Poland, and are well known abroad. This continues with the crime fiction of Zygmunt Miłoszewski and the recent film Pokłosie, a fiction based on the Jedwabne killings. But there is still a long way to go and a government-sponsored book is no way to address the problem. This is particularly so in a Europe whose populations universally despise their political classes. One day, a future government will just rewrite this book and employ the Foreign Ministry as its own version of the Ministry of Truth. And I’m not sure that the historians whose work in presented in it have been well served by the exercise. I wish Polish historians would have the chutzpah to tell the government, and the Foreign Ministry in particular, to stick to their knitting. History is too important to be left within a country mile of politicians.