Joshua D. Zimmerman The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xiii + 454.


When an author makes an ‘absolute commitment to strive for impartiality’ in order to go beyond ‘monolithic stereotypes,’ as does Joshua Zimmerman in his new book, readers can expect to be served up controversial subject matter.  And, indeed, there is no issue as contested in the debated history of Polish-Jewish relations as the Polish underground Home Army’s ambivalent response to the genocide of the Jews during the Second World War.  Zimmerman’s intention for his detailed ‘monograph’ is to fill a major gap in the historiography of those relations.  To do so, he adopts a strategy of digging up as much evidence as he possibly can through exhaustive research of archival sources, the underground press, memoirs, testimonies, diaries and interviews, and then allowing that evidence to speak for itself with minimal authorial intervention.  This ‘positivist’ approach has been adopted by more than one historian in dealing with wartime relations between Poles and Jews, if not to take the sting out of the controversy, then to shield authors from charges of bias.  After all is said and done, however, will Zimmerman’s conclusion that the Home Army’s institutions, attitudes, and actions ‘were both pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish, friendly and hostile, helpers at best and murderers at worst’ (416) satisfy even those of his readers willing to accept contradiction, contingency and complexity?

Here are the facts in that mixed record as Zimmerman presents them.  The Home Army, far from a unified coherent underground formation, ‘was an umbrella organization of disparate Polish organizations numbering more than 300,000 from all regions ranging from socialists to nationalists [whose] attitude and behaviour toward Jews varied widely’ (9-10). While the ‘democratic opposition’ to the authoritarian Sanacja regime appeared to be gaining ground on the eve of the war, so too did the ‘struggle against Jewry’ of the nationalist right which proposed ‘solutions’ to the ‘Jewish question’ ranging from economic boycotts to mass expulsions.  With military defeat, partition and occupation resulting from the September campaign, this polarized opposition to the discredited government of the late 1930s would form the leadership of the both the government-in-exile and the underground.

The first fissures in regard to Jews, however, appeared between London and the country.  The former, led by General and Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski and with an eye toward public opinion in the western democracies, affirmed its commitment to full civil rights for non-Polish minorities and the rule of law, which represented ‘a significant break’ with the prewar government.  Yet the exiled government, which established itself first in Paris before moving to London, continued to voice support for a much reduced Jewish presence in Poland, albeit through voluntary rather than coerced mass emigration.  General Stefan Rowecki, from 1940 to 1943 the commander of what began as the Union of Armed Struggle before it turned into the Home Army, was a military pragmatist with a general aversion to politics.  Though privately left-leaning, Rowecki was sensitive to ‘opinion’ in the country, particularly as he attempted to build up his forces by uniting the diverse factions that comprised the Polish underground.  That ‘opinion’ perceived Poles rather Jews as victims of Nazi terror in the German zone of occupied Poland, even in the midst of ghettoization, and Jews as favoured clients of communist regimes established in the Soviet zone.  Thus Rowecki, who may have been more personally disposed toward Jews than Sikorski, nevertheless expressed opposition to statements of good will coming from London that guaranteed full equality for Jews in a future Polish state, knowing how poorly such statements were received in Poland.

The eruption of large-scale pogroms in northeastern Poland in the wake of German attack on the Soviet Union, despite warnings to the population from the underground to refrain from anti-Jewish actions incited by the Germans, validated Rowecki’s concerns about Polish opinion.  Barbarossa was also accompanied by the radicalization of Nazi Jewish policy inside and to the east of the territories of comprising the General-Government.  The massacre of Jewish communities inside the former Soviet zone, the introduction of the death penalty for Jewish fugitives and their helpers, and death by starvation and disease inside the major ghettos would lead to ‘real-time’ reports from Polish underground sources that ‘began to urgently warn London of an impending catastrophe’ (117).  As Zimmerman reminds us, as the Final Solution began to be implemented on Polish lands, ‘Poles would become the first witnesses to history’s greatest crime’ (118).  As such, the Polish underground authorities ‘were the first to receive, and to disseminate to the free world reports on the emerging Nazi plan of industrialized mass murder’ and of ‘a crime being committed that had no name’ (129).

Yet these witnesses were not necessarily compassionate.  The association of Jews with communism in the infamous stereotype of the Żydokomuna, part of the antisemitic package of Polish nationalism before the war, was exacerbated during the war years by the Soviet occupation of 1939-1941, the rise of the Polish Workers Party (PPR), the first successes of the Red Army and the prospect of Poland’s liberation from the east.  Reports of Jewish ‘treason’ increased as the war turned slowly in the Soviet favor, compelling Sikorski to issue an order in January 1942 to exclude national minorities, including Jews, from the ranks of the Polish army; so much for the promise of equal rights.  ‘Antyk,’ a new anti-communist division of the Home Army’s Office of Information and Propaganda was established, one that openly admitted that antisemitism was ‘an extremely useful weapon in the struggle against communism’ (140). Yet at approximately the same time, the same Office of Information and Propaganda established the Jewish Affairs Bureau under Henryk Woliński.  Its main task initially was information-gathering and thanks to its efforts Polish readers of the underground press, if they turned to its back pages, were well informed about the unfolding genocide.  So too was the British media, courtesy of addresses by Sikorski and Deputy Prime Minister Stanisław Mikołajczyk in the summer of 1942.

The great deportations from the Warsaw ghetto to the gas chambers of Treblinka during the second half of 1942 had a number of important consequences for Polish-Jewish relations:  the formation of an armed Jewish resistance movement inside the ghetto, the establishment of ties between it and the Home Army, the formation of the Committee to Aid the Jews under the codename Żegota.  The latter emerged as a joint Polish-Jewish organization under the Home Army to assist in the flight and hiding of increasing numbers on the Aryan side.  As these numbers increased, however, so did those of Poles prepared to blackmail and betray them.  Woliński played a fundamental role in the organization, and also helped to conduct communications between the Jewish leadership in occupied Poland and international Jewish figures abroad.  News of the deportations and their brutality as well as the Treblinka extermination camp now made it to the front pages of the underground press, but according to the Home Army intelligence reports cited by Zimmerman, it distressingly failed to arouse the sympathy of Polish public opinion as expected.  Meanwhile, the emergence of a Jewish resistance movement within the ghetto and its request for weapons failed to impress Rowecki, who failed to see the ‘military sense’ of arming Jews in the ghetto.

Rowecki would eventually reverse himself, having reassessed the Jewish capacity for resistance following the Jewish Fighting Organization’s display of armed opposition to the deportations from Warsaw in January 1943, the most symbolic of several acts of Jewish revolt at this time. The issue of the Home Army’s support, or lack thereof, to what would become known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is perhaps the most heatedly contested among those affecting Polish-Jewish relations during the war and Zimmerman treats it with a great deal of nuance.  He recognizes that the transport of pistols, grenades, ammunition and explosives into the ghetto entailed considerable risks, yet the Home Army managed to transfer 8 percent of its handguns and 5 percent of its grenades to the ghetto by the time of the outbreak of the uprising in April.  Zimmerman also reminds us that the uprising occurred in the midst of the grave diplomatic crisis resulting from the German announcement of the Katyn Forest Massacre, the subsequent anti-Soviet propaganda campaign in the Nazi-controlled ‘reptile press’ with its pronounced and incendiary anti-Jewish motif, and the subsequent break in official Polish-Soviet relations.  In this context the Home Army planned to blow up part of the ghetto wall to facilitate mass escapes on the second day of the uprising, but its efforts were foiled by the Polish Blue Police and the SS.  Attacks by the Home Army on German and auxiliary forces guarding the wall may have resulted in thirty additional casualties but likewise had no impact on the fighting in the ghetto.  The Home Army’s role in the ghetto uprising has been evaluated negatively and its support decried as token, particularly by Jewish historians of the revolt.  Zimmerman reveals, however, that it was the Polish government-in-exile which clearly set policy for the Home Army ‘to provide only limited aid’ in order to avoid ‘a premature start of a general uprising. . . .’ (221).

Generally speaking, Polish-Jewish relations deteriorated in the aftermath of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  Growing evidence that Soviet war aims in Poland envisioned both border revision and the imposition of communist rule coincided with understandable Jewish support for Soviet liberation from Nazi German terror, providing considerable fuel for the fires of the Żydokomuna stereotype.  At the same time, the change in leadership at the top in the summer of 1943 resulting from the arrest of General Rowecki by the Gestapo and the death of General Sikorski in a plane crash following take off from Gibraltar would lend itself to a political shift in the underground to the right.  Zimmerman focuses primarily on the significance of Rowecki’s replacement as Home Army commander, Tadeusz Komorowski, who even more than his predecessor was ‘an embodiment of the tension within the Polish underground on Jewish matters’ (417).  In contrast the apolitical Rowecki, Komorowski was strongly influenced by the prewar antisemitic thrust of Polish nationalist ideology, was distinctly hostile toward Jews and opposed continuation of assistance to their on-going resistance, despite orders to the contrary coming from London to provide arms to Jews in the remaining ghettos.  Komorowski’s focus on the struggle against ‘banditry,’ which conflated communist partisans, ordinary robbers and Jews, would eventually sanction Home Army assaults on Jewish partisans.  At the same time, a policy emerged to exclude Jews from the ranks of the Home Army, which effectively validated the standing practice of many local field commanders.

Zimmerman then provides many examples of when the Home Army turned its guns on Jews as district and sub-district commanders ordered attacks on Jewish partisans, lumped together in ‘Jewish communist bands.’  He argues that the majority of Jewish testimonies from the second half of 1943 record fear, threats and physical assault rather than assistance and support from the Home Army.  These Jewish testimonies have been corroborated by the sworn statements of the perpetrators themselves, who speak of murders ordered by local commanders.  In the Nowogródek region of northeastern Poland, long a Polish-Jewish trouble spot, individual Home Army units even received German assistance to fight Soviet and Jewish partisans.

Zimmerman makes much of the significance of geographical differences in assessing Home Army behavior.  In contrast to the ‘liquidation’ of Jewish partisans ordered by district commanders in the rural and forested Nowogródek and Białystok regions, Polish underground authorities began to authorize and carry out the execution of Poles for blackmailing Jews in the major cities of Warsaw, Kraków and Lwów.  Komorowski sanctioned this practice as well, as an underground special civil court was established to mete out sentences for collaborators.  Żegota also stepped up its activities and by mid-1944 was supporting three to four thousand Jews in hiding, while its Children’s Section under the leadership of Irena Sendler took 2,500 Jews under its care.  Zimmerman actually devotes two chapters to discuss both institutional and individual aid to Jews, the latter to present seven ‘profiles in courage.’ He even cites testimonies of Jewish members of the Home Army who characterized its role as that of a ‘protector.’ At the same time, Zimmerman shows that ‘concealing one’s Jewish origins as a soldier in the Home Army could be just as much for protection against Poles as it was for protection against the Germans’ (349).

As Poland’s diplomatic position deteriorated, the Red Army advanced into Polish territory and the activity of the PPR increased, the anticommunist propaganda of ‘Antyk’ took on a strident antisemitic tone.  More alarming to both Jews as well as the moderate and leftist factions of the Polish underground was the incorporation of the National Armed Forces (NSZ) into the Home Army.  The latter’s long-standing goal of bringing all resistance formations, except for the communist, under its command was now formally realized but the inclusion of right-wing paramilitary units of doubtful loyalty and open hostility toward Jews could only tarnish the Home Army’s reputation.  Thus at the outbreak of the Warsaw general uprising in August 1944, the Home Army’s relations with Jews remained deeply troubled.  Nonetheless, during the first days of the uprising some 15,000 to 17,000 Jews emerged from hiding to share in the general euphoria while hundreds participated directly in the fighting, even if they continued to pose as Poles.  Some 20-30 may have died at the hands of Polish insurgents but, according to Zimmerman, ‘the preponderance of evidence nonetheless suggests that the Home Army saved many more Jews than it harmed’ during the uprising (413).

After reading Zimmerman’s account, the reader is left with a laboriously researched and carefully compiled balance sheet of the Home Army’s virtues and transgressions.  He concludes that the Polish underground’s reaction to the persecution and annihilation of Jews during the war was ‘extraordinarily varied,’ reflecting that of ‘Polish society as a whole.’  While some right-wing units collaborated with the Germans in the hunt for Jews, 30 percent of the death sentences pronounced by the underground court were for blackmailers of Jews.  While the Polish underground established one the largest Jewish aid organizations in Nazi-occupied Europe and played a key role in getting the news of the Holocaust out to the West, it tolerated the expression of sharp anti-Jewish views in its propaganda. While the Home Army battled armed Jewish partisans, it also protected unarmed Jews in hiding.  The list of seeming contradictions and clash of opposites could and does go on.  What’s missing from Zimmerman’s painstaking account is a larger interpretive framework.  He is obviously reluctant to go out on a limb as others have done to their peril, but his chapter conclusions are basically summaries of presented evidence and his concluding chapter a summary as well.  It is not enough to argue that interpreting the Polish underground’s wartime record is a ‘vexing dilemma,’ a point with which it is easy to agree.  Some attempt should be made to actually resolve it.  However much new information Zimmerman has added to the balance sheet, one ultimately has to ask and answer the question:  Do the Home Army’s accounts really balance or do they contain a substantial moral deficit?  And, more significantly, where does the wartime record fit into the larger downward spiral of Polish-Jewish relations in the first half of the twentieth century? 

For these reasons, Zimmerman’s book will not be the last word on this controversial subject.  Nonetheless, he has provided considerable grist for the mill of future researchers who will be able to use his work as a new and dispassionate starting point for exploring any number of different themes in Polish-Jewish wartime relations.

Robert Blobaum
University of West Virginia