Recent scholarship on the Holocaust in Poland and Lithuania

Theodore Weeks


Adam Puławski. W obliczu zagłady: Rząd RP na Uchodźstwie, Delegatura Rządu RP na Kraj, ZWZ-AK wobec deportacji Żydów do obozów zagłady (1941-1942).  Lublin: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, 2009.  583 pp.  ISBN 978-83-7629-088-1.  40 zł.

Robert van Voren.  Undigested Past: the Holocaust in Lithuania.  Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi, 2011.  195 pp.  ISBN: 978-90-420-3371-9.


In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the Shoah and in particular the part local people played in carrying it out remain topics of great public concern in Poland and in Lithuania. The differences between the two countries is large, both in the degree of collaboration in those murderous events and in the public discussion of this ‘shared guilt’ in more recent years.  Still, large segments of both societies continue to be annoyed and even outraged at suggestions (quite well documented by historians) that certain Poles and Lithuanians were directly involved in attacks on their Jewish neighbours and that many more knew that Jews were being murdered but received this news with indifference or even Schadenfreude.  The two books under review here both deal, in quite different ways, with the issues of antisemitism, collaboration, and remembering.  Each in its own way contributes to our understanding of past and present relations between Jews and Poles or Lithuanians.

Adam Puławski’s W obliczu zagłady (In the face of annihilation) in many ways exemplifies the best aspects of recent Polish history-writing.  He has set himself the task of documenting how much was known in the Polish underground and London government about the murder of Jews and what the reactions to this information were.  Puławski has assembled an enormous amount of information from a number of archives to present a comprehensive picture of references made by the Polish underground, the London government, and the Armia Krajowa (‘Home Army’) in secret correspondence and open publications about the mistreatment of Polish Jews.  The author is particularly interested in pinpointing the moment at which it became clear that repression and mistreatment of Jews was shifting over to mass murder.  He chose the relatively short period of just over one year from June 1941 to September 1942 to focus his research, starting with the Nazi attack on the USSR and the immediate wide-spread murder of Jews, both by Nazi soldiers and by local inhabitants.  His narrative closes in autumn 1942 with the end of the great deportation Aktion from the Warsaw ghetto that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.  By that point the Polish government, both underground and in exile, had overwhelming evidence that Nazi policies toward Polish Jews amounted to genocide.

If Puławski’s primary scholarly goal is to establish ‘what was known and when’, he is no less interested in documenting Polish reactions to this knowledge.  He objectively and fairly documents the often negative antisemitic stereotypes that crop up even at this time of crisis.  It is clear throughout that while at times expressions of sympathy and outrage concerning the Jews’ plight are expressed, the primary concern for the Polish authorities was the welfare of ethnic Poles and safeguarding the prerogatives of the Polish state.  This is stating matters very crassly in such a delicate matter; some of the length of Puławski’s book may be explained by his desire to quote at length, in effect ‘letting the documents speak for themselves’.

Puławski bases his study primarily on very careful study of a number of Polish archives.  He has in particular used much material from several institutions of the underground Polish state, including the Department of Information (Wydział Informacji) of the Home Army, the periodic ‘Jewish reports’ (referaty żydowskie) that it issued, the W1 reports on Nazi occupation policies, the Department of Current Propaganda (Wydział Propagandy Bieżącej) and its underground press organs, and ‘Jewish reports’ issued by the Internal Affairs Department of the underground government in Poland.  He also looks at correspondence between these organs and the London government as well as the latter’s internal discussions and public statements.  This book contains a wealth of information which is presented, so to speak, ‘raw,’ with a minimum of analysis.  In short, this work represents an excellent and very useful example of historical positivism: attempting to establishing the factual record on a particular subject.

The book is divided into six sections.  The first explains the administrative divisions within the underground state that Puławski will examine; the rest are organized chronologically, focusing first on sources coming out of Poland, then on ‘Polish London.’  These chapters deserve more detailed description.

Puławski begins his narrative in June 1941 with reports from Poland to London on the murder of Jews in the wake of the Nazi attack on the USSR.  By the fall months at latest the Polish underground had much information about atrocities and mass murder committed against Jews, by the Germans but even more by Lithuanians and Ukrainians (though of course encouraged by the Nazis).  Puławski shows that while not all details of these murders were known, the general outline of mass violence against Jews was fairly clear to the Polish underground which attempted both to communicate these facts to London and to publicize these atrocities in their underground press.  Reports from November 1941 emphasized that ‘exceedingly unfriendly’ attitude of Jews toward Poles (p. 89) and, on the other hand, the great anger felt against Jews ‘for their communist activities in Poland’ and collaboration with the Soviet authorities in the previous year (pp. 89-90).  A bulletin of February 1942 spoke of tens of thousands of Jews having been killed by Lithuanians and the general outrage felt by Poles in Wilno (Vilnius) toward a (Lithuanian) bishop Reynis who allegedly celebrated mass for policemen involved in the massacres (p. 119).

One main question that the author investigates is just when the underground knew about the operations of the first death camp, Chełmno, which began its murderous operations in early December 1941.  In reports from that month Chełmno appears but is not yet called a ‘camp’ but a ‘ghetto’ (p. 96).   By late January 1942 there were fairly detailed reports about mass murders taking place but at the same time some reports insisted that, at least in formerly Polish territories incorporated into the Reich Jews had it better than Poles (p. 70).  German attempts to ‘normalize’ relations with Poles in these months were, however, roundly denounced by the Polish underground as a transparent and dishonest trick (they were proven right when the Germans shifted course back to mass repressions after a short period).  A number of reports detailed violence, arrests, and murders of Poles, sometimes not mentioning Jews at all (pp. 87-88) but many references to the murder of Jews did appear both in reports and in the Polish underground press.  In early March 1942 Informacja bieżąca reported on mass murders by gas of Jews and Gypsies at Chełmno (p. 118-9).  This information was supplemented by a report from ‘Oneg Szabat’ to the Armia Krajowa on the operations of the death camp at Chełmno later in March 1942.  Thus Puławski shows convincingly that by Spring 1942, the fact of mass and purposeful murder of tens of thousands of Jews was known at the very least to the central institutions of information and propaganda of the Polish underground.

The next chapter looks into how much of this information made it to Polish London and what the Polish government in exile did with this knowledge.  Puławski details the difficulties the London Poles faced in getting reliable information from Poland and the methods they employed to improve the stream of reports out of Nazi-occupied territory.  It is clear, however, that by early 1942 the mass murder of Jews on Polish territory was known to the London Poles.  At this point, however, Polish officials were far more concerned with highlighting the role of Poland as the leader of the ‘lesser alies’ and in emphasizing the sufferings of ethnic Poles.  Some internal reports did express concern at the level of antisemitism perceived within Poland, as a moral, political, and public relations’ problem.  The Polish authorities were embarrassed by the existence of the antisemitic underground newspaper, Szaniec, and declared that the Jews had been the only national minority that had remained loyal to the Polish Republic (p. 261).  In the end, however, the London government tended to avoid the issue of anti-Jewish massacres or, when mentioning them, emphasized the participation of Lithuanians or Ukrainians.  The suffering of Poles (left ambiguous for western audiences, as this could include Polish citizens who were Jews) was emphasized, without going into specifics of the great differences between Nazi policies toward ethnic Poles and Jews.

The months of March to May 1942 witnessed a major escalation in the scale of mass murder of Jews.   At this point the systematic murder of Jews in ghettos began.  Puławski’s fourth chapter looks into this crucial period in Poland, once again quoting extensively from AK and Polish underground correspondence and reports regarding these events.  The underground was collecting a great deal of information about the mass killing of Jews, even at this early stage, but found it difficult to communicate these facts to London due to delayed, intercepted, and simply lost mail.  In some cases, reports were compiled but for unknown reasons simply not dispatched to London.  Again and again Puławski details that specifics of the killing operations in Chełmno, Bełżec, and elsewhere were mentioned repeatedly, sometimes stressing the violence inflicted on Poles, sometimes the mass murders of Jews.  Even at this point underground publications continued to discuss Polish-Jewish relations, generally condemning Nazi actions but sometimes nonetheless arguing that Jews should be consider a ‘foreign nation’ within Poland and that after the war, Jews should be encouraged to leave the country.  At the same time, growing fears that Poles could also be exterminated ‘like Jews’ caused a general shift in attitudes toward a more active call to help Jews against the Nazi occupier.

In London spring 1942 was marked by increasing frictions in Polish-Soviet relations and unease on the part of Polish leaders who worried (correctly) that the western allies would probably not support Poland if push came to shove in relations with the USSR.  Puławski’s coverage of this period draws a great deal from the two main periodical publications of Polish London, Dziennik Polski and Polish Fortnightly Review.  As one might expect, these publications stressed the sufferings of ethnic Poles or of ‘Poland’ as a whole, but a number of articles also mentioned the terrible violence inflicted on the Jews.  In late May reports from the head of the AK (komendant główny AK) about mass murders of Jews reached London in which the murder of 80,000 Jews in Bełżec were mentioned.   Puławski notes that on the copy of the radiogram containing this information the number 80,000 was underlined and a question mark was added next to it (p. 431).  In other words, the high number seemed incredible.  Thus while Polish London did know about mass murders, the extent of the massacres remained (to their mind) in doubt.  In any case, both the Polish underground and the London government were primarily concerned with the welfare of ethnic Poles and even when faced with indisputable evidence of anti-Jewish atrocities, often regarded these action in the context of ‘Nazi crimes against Poland’ or against ‘the population of Poland.’

By late spring 1942 it was clear to the Polish underground that a new phase in the persecution of Jews by the Nazis had begun.  Tens of thousands of Jews, especially in the parts of Poland occupied by the USSR, had been killed by early 1942, and reports of death factories like Chełmno and Bełżec had been confirmed.  Still, the Polish government continued to stress the sufferings of ethnic Poles and expressed (internally) annoyance at individuals like Szmul Zygielbojm and Ignacy Schwarzbart who publicly called for greater action to help the Jews.  While mass violence and murders of Jews were not denied, the London Poles continued to give the impression (and possibly even to believe) that in July 1942 (ethnic) Poles were nonetheless suffering more (p. 510).  Only the mass deportation of some 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto from July to September 1942 convinced the Polish underground that the Nazis did not ‘merely’ plan to exterminate ‘non-productive elements,’ but indeed every single Jew (p. 535).  Only after this point—here Puławski agrees with the conclusions of Israel Gutman and Shmuel Krakowski in Unequal Victims: Poles and Jews during World War II (New York: Holocaust Library, 1986)—did the Polish underground recognize that the Nazis planned for total elimination of the Jewish population and, at least in part, began to encourage efforts to help Jews escape this fate.

Puławski’s book, as mentioned above, aims to present a complete (as much as possible) picture of what and when the Polish underground knew about mass murders of Jews, how they interpreted the information they received, and how they communicating this knowledge to the London government.  The second most important aspect of this book is how the London government in exile used the information on anti-Jewish atrocities in private and public discussions and statements.  The activities of the Jewish underground, for example Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes, are incorporated into the story inasmuch as this organization shared information with the Polish underground (Samuel D. Kassow’s excellent book is also cited).  The Karski mission is also, of course,   Puławski’s book is extremely thorough in its citation of recent scholarship both in Polish (e.g., D. Libionka, D. Stola, B. Engelking and many others) and in English (e.g., R. Breitman, D. Engel and others), however, on the whole these works are simply cited without further discussion or commentary.  Clearly Puławski saw as his task to provide the facts – he refrains from engaging in historiographical discussions and indeed limits his analysis of the actual documents and facts he brings forth to the bare minimum.

Puławski’s W obliczu zagłady is a difficult book to sum up because its narrative is not driven by a central thesis but by the documents themselves.  The author is addressing primarily a Polish audience and a rather specialized one at that; he takes for granted that readers can orient themselves in the chronology, institutions, and main personalities of the Polish underground and the Polish government in exile in London.  At times the author’s desire to include every piece of evidence (or so it seems) can obscure the larger points he is trying to make.  Still, this is an important book that will be of considerable use for specialists of the Shoah and of Polish-Jewish relations.  On the whole Puławski confirms, in great detail, the general contours we already knew from David Engel and others: the London Poles were interested in the ‘Jewish issue’ mainly as one part of larger Polish sufferings and both they and the underground was not free of unsavory antisemitic overtones.  Puławski’s main contribution is to add a great deal of nuance to this rather crass statement and to provide a mass of documentary evidence that shows, almost day by day, what the Polish underground knew about the ongoing persecution and mass murder of Jews in Poland, as well as what the London Poles knew and how they chose to react to and publicize (or not)  this information.  As for further interpretation of these facts and a deeper integration of this knowledge into the fabric of ongoing historiography, Puławski leaves this task to other historians.

* * *

Robert van Voren’s Undigested Past: the Holocaust in Lithuania is a very different sort of book.  Van Voren is neither a historian nor (as his name indicates) Lithuanian, but he has close ties to that country and has written on nationalities in the USSR and, most recently, about the dissident movement and psychiatry.  His book is valuable as an overview both of Lithuanian-Jewish relations before 1939, the events of the Shoah in Lithuania, the question of collaboration, and the difficult (and often suppressed) memory of these tragic events in the present day.  While this is a useful and sincere book, it needs to be borne in mind that it is not the work of a professional historian.  Van Voren’s bibliography contains no works in Polish or Russian (which we would expect for a serious scholarly treatment of this subject) and only a couple in Lithuanian.  Often Van Voren’s historical background, in particular on the Russian Empire, is stereotyped and outdated, as when he writes of the ‘government-inspired’ pogroms of 1881 (p. 10), a view that has not been accepted by scholars for decades now.  Van Voren also does not always appreciate the Polish context that surrounds these events, in particular in the case of Vilnius which until after the war was a mainly Polish city.  Having said all that, one should not dismiss this book.  It is a serious effort to synthesize the findings of historians and to explain why the level of collaboration and anti-Jewish violence on the part of Lithuanians was so high in the years 1941-43.

Van Voren begins his story with the background of Jews in the present-day territory of Lithuania within the Russian Empire.  He correctly points out the increasingly harsh anti-Jewish measures of the Russian administrators and also the development of ‘Jewish socialism,’ particularly in the form of the Bund.  At the same time, as he notes, the Lithuanian nation in its modern form was beginning to take shape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The crucial year 1939 (recently examined in ŠarÅ«nas Liekis, 1939: The Year that Changed Everything in Lithuania’s History [Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010]) brought the occupation of Polish Wilno (Vilnius) by the Red Army, then its handing over to the Lithuanians in late October.  Certainly the city’s Jews felt relief at the end of Soviet occupation (which had only lasted a few weeks), but it is strange to say—with no evidence— ‘Lithuanian rule was actually a relief after twenty years of Polish dominance.’ (p. 23)

The main bulk of this book concerns the growth of Lithuanian antisemitism, both before and during the war, and the actual events of the Shoah.  Unfortunately, Van Voren’s analysis of Lithuanian antisemitism as stemming mainly from the Catholic church (p. 36) is unsatisfying.  Indeed, before Vatican II the Catholic church was seldom friendly toward Jews but an enormous gap exists between Catholic judeophobia, which urged villagers to avoid Jews, and Nazi race ideology or the vicious attacks of Lithuanians on their Jewish neighbours in the second half of 1941.  It is also bizarre to consider YIVO and Wilno in chapters on ‘Jewish Life in Lithuania between the Two Wars’ when the city and the institution were not even located in that country.  Van Voren has unconsciously, it would seem, absorbed a good bit of Lithuanian mytho-history which wants to see Vilnius as eternally a Lithuanian city, a view quite distinct from any statistical or historical realities in the modern era before the late 1940s.  More to the point is his description of an increasingly anti-Jewish atmosphere within the Lithuanian republic in the 1930s, partly held in check by the non-democratic but resolutely anti-antisemitic authoritarian leader Antanas Smetona.

The crucial period for understanding the terrible events of 1941 are from the outbreak of the war (September 1939) to the Nazi invasion (late June 1941), with particularly emphasis on developments from summer 1940 when Lithuania was ‘accepted’ into the USSR (along with Latvia and Estonia) and Barbarossa.  As Van Voren notes, this first year of Soviet rule is inevitably mentioned as an ‘explanation’ of the sharp increase in antisemitism among Lithuanians that manifested itself in widespread violence in the months after 21 June 1941.  To his credit, Van Voren criticizes the rather shaky evidence and unconvincing arguments of the Klaipeda historian Vygantas Vareikis on reasons behind the outbreak of anti-Jewish violence (pp. 162-5) and notes the rather more satisfying historical work of Vilnius historian Liudas Truska (unfortunately little of his work is available in English, but Van Voren cites some translations).  The fact of the matter is that we still know extremely little about the extent of antisemitic feeling in Lithuania in the 1930s and the causes of its increase in the period 1939-41 (there seems little reason to doubt that antisemitism did increase).  It is to be hoped that young Lithuanian historians will undertake more specialized, local studies that could help us better understand these processes.

The actual events of the Shoah are probably best known, though not always accepted in Lithuania.  Thanks to the work of Yitshak Arad, Christoph Dieckmann, Dov Levin, Wolfgang Benz, Jürgen Matthäus, Michael MacQueen, and others (most but not all of whom are cited by Van Voren), we know a great deal about the actual events of 1941-42 all the way to the ultimate liquidation of Lithuanian ghettos.  There is also a great deal of primary source documentation, some of it cited here, that is also available in English translation.  There can be no doubt that, unlike in Poland, a very high percentage of Lithuanian Jews perished at the hands of Lithuanians.  Unfortunately this fact is all too often stubbornly denied or ignored in present-day Lithuanian, a fact amply illustrated by the widespread belief in a ‘double genocide’—as if Jews and Lithuanians were similarly targeted and suffered in identical ways in the period of Nazi and Soviet occupations.

Van Voren’s book is probably best on the issue of collaboration.  He makes a novel and extremely interesting comparison with his native Netherlands, where collaboration was also widespread (and subsequently denied or ignored).  Perhaps this comparison with a western nation widely respected for its tolerance and respect for human rights will help patriotic Lithuanians consider more openly and honestly these painful pages of their own history.

One may ask why this book, neither very scholarly nor presenting particularly new evidence or arguments, deserves to be reviewed at all.  The answer is simple: the dearth of reasoned public discussion on the Holocaust and ethnic Lithuanians’ participation in it makes this book an important contribution to a public dialogue.  To be sure, historians like Liudas Truska of Vilnius Pedagogical University have published valuable contributions (in Lithuanian) on Jews, Lithuanians, antisemitism, and the Shoah.  Similarly, Alfonsas Eidintas has published respectable and informative works on this topic, some of which have been translated into English.  The Jewish Museum and the State Gaon Museum in Vilnius both provide valuable information, seminars, and outreach on Jewish history in Lithuania and on the events of the Holocaust.  Nonetheless, and in stark contrast to Poland, public knowledge and open discussion of Lithuanian collaboration in the mass murder of their Jewish neighbours, in particular in the second half of 1941, remains minimal.  The low level of public discussion and appreciation of this troublesome historical past is reflected in the popularity of the absurd ‘double genocide’ thesis – as if ethnic Lithuanians under Soviet rule suffered in a similar way to Jews during the Nazi occupation.  It is indicative of the difference between Polish and Lithuanian public discussions of this topic that Jan Tomas Gross’s Neighbours and the village of Jedwabne are very well known whereas the ugly story of Lithuanian collaboration – far more extensive than in Poland – hardly receives any public attention at all.  For this reason, Robert van Voren’s book – aimed at a popular audience – deserves to be broadly known and indeed should be translated into Lithuanian.


In both Poland and Lithuania, the Shoah remains a topic of intense interest and controversy.  Poland had rather a head start on this public conversation with the famous article by Jan Błoński, ‘A Poor Pole Looks at the Ghetto,’ published in 1987 and immediately causing a huge open discussion.  In Lithuania, where collaboration was considerably greater than in Poland (in large part because the Nazis wanted Lithuanian cooperation but were more averse to any concessions to Poles), this conversation has barely started.  The painful decades of Soviet rule left a mark that in certain ways has developed into a psychosis of victimhood that cannot abide the idea of a greater victim (to be sure, one can observe this phenomenon in Ukraine and Poland as well).  At the same time, several Lithuanian historians have made considerable contributions to our understanding of Jewish history here.  Still, one hopes for more public dialogue and a more frank discussion of the various roles, both victim and perpetrator, that Lithuanians carried out under Nazi and Soviet occupations.  These books, in their own way, are a contribution to this dialogue and for that reason deserve attention.


Theodore R. Weeks
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

First published in Yad Vashem Studies, 40, no. 1, Jerusalem 2012.