Adam Puławski (2018) Wobec “niespotykanego w dziejach mordu”: Rząd RP na uchodźstwie, Delegatura Rządu RP na Kraj, AK a eksterminacja ludności żydowskiej od ‘wielkiej akcji’ do powstania w getcie warszawskim, Chełm: Biblioteka Rocznika Chełmskiego, pp. 872 ISBN 978-83-922-585-06


Over the last fifteen years, scholarship on the flow of information about German actions against Jews in German-occupied Poland during the Second World War has advanced understanding of the structure and networks of the Polish Underground State and the significance of Polish intelligence material in informing the West of the Holocaust. This body of scholarship, in dialogue with earlier studies, has reassessed how news of German atrocities against Jews was handled by the Polish Underground State, the Polish Government in Exile, Allied governments, as well as the press and various social actors in Britain and the United States. Despite the scale and scope of this scholarship, there remain some surprising lacunae as well as a growing recognition of the limitations of aspects of available studies.

Adam Puławski, best known hitherto for his pioneering and rigorously researched book W obliczu Zagłady. Rząd RP na uchodźstwie, Delegatura Rządu RP na Kraj, ZWZ-AK wobec deportacji Żydów do obozów zagłady (1941–1942) has followed up with a similarly detailed study that covers the period from the Great Deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto in July 1942 to the Warsaw Ghetto rising in April 1943. Wobec “niespotykanego w dziejach mordu” forensically maps the flow of information through the Polish Underground to the Polish Government in Exile, and provides new documentary evidence that enhances our understanding of what information was sent west, when it was sent, and of the processes that underpinned information transfer. Most notably, Puławski has clearly distinguished material sent west in the summer and autumn of 1942, identified Napoleon Segieda as the courier who delivered critical information on the Warsaw Ghetto to Polish intelligence in Berne in August 1942 (which was immediately passed on to Jewish representatives – and which reached Washington D.C. at the end of the month), clarified the route that Jan Karski took to reach Gibraltar in November 1942 and the likely material carried west by Karski.

In expertly navigating his way through multiple civilian and military messages and reports sent from Warsaw to the Government in Exile, and demonstrating what was sent, when, by whom, via which route, and who received it and what was done with the information, Puławski has provided a great service to Holocaust scholars. The book draws on multiple archival collections in Poland, Britain and Israel, and provides further documentary evidence of the systematic, organised and structural nature of the Polish Underground’s effort to inform London of the ongoing Holocaust. In documenting the flow of particular reports across occupied Europe, PuÅ‚awski has drawn attention to a range of individuals little known to historians who played important roles in the transfer of intelligence.

Although Puławski rightly highlights the limited number of radio messages sent to London about the deportation from Warsaw during the period from late July to early September 1942 (p. 824) and a missed opportunity to send information via the regular courier route, he also makes clear that informing London was not the result of the good intentions of selected ‘heroes’, but a regular activity of the Underground State. Indeed, couriers tended not know the contents of the reports that they carried. This is a timely reminder, given the tendency of contemporary public history to focus on ‘exceptional’ individuals and the limited awareness in the West of the operations and intelligence activities of the Polish Underground State. Indicatively, attempts to celebrate Jan Karski as ‘humanity’s hero’ and to suggest that the objective of his 1942 mission was to inform the world about the Holocaust is not supported by the documentary record (or Karski’s own post-war testimony). Puławski, with great tenacity, demonstrates that much of the material that many scholars and others have argued were delivered by Karski in November 1942 had little to do with him. Puławski highlights that multiple reports from different couriers reached London in November 1942. Puławski’s argument is with the myths of public history, the contemporary use and abuse of history, scholarly errors and hagiography rather than with Karski per se. Despite this, it is moot whether Puławski’s detailed account will be appreciated by those who view Polish conduct during the Holocaust through the state-sponsored lens of Polish heroism.

The book poses a challenge to both uncritical apologist and condemnatory accounts of Polish (the Underground State and the Polish Government in Exile) responses to the Holocaust. Puławski demonstrates that responding to German atrocities against Jews, including the Great Deportation of the summer of 1942, was not a priority, but information was dispatched west.  Attitudes both in Warsaw and London underwent modification. The Great Deportation from Warsaw forced a transformation in how the Polish Underground State (both civilian and military) understood German actions against Jews. The news from Warsaw reached London and was disseminated in the official Polish press (Dziennik Polski), broadcast (CBS) and also promulgated by Jewish representatives on the Polish National Council in a variety of fora.

The arrival of multiple reports on 13 November 1942 engendered a step-change in the response of the Polish Government in Exile. This shocking material arrived as the prospects of a central European federation (Poland-Czechoslovakia) receded, Prime Minister Sikorski prepared to leave for a visit to the United States, and after the British had clarified their position on German atrocities (7 October 1942). Puławski is right to draw attention to the efforts to distribute this material. At the end of December, the news of the deportation of Poles from the Zamość region constituted a further turning point for the Polish Government in Exile. The sentiment that non-Jewish Poles were marked for a similar fate as Jews was increasingly expressed and demands for retaliation were made by senior Polish politicians to British officials. This, arguably, represented a return to earlier practice in which the news of German atrocities against Jews was subsumed within that of titular nationals. There is plenty of evidence that such narration was aligned with that of the British Foreign Office policy. This periodisation has much to recommend it and is largely in congruence with earlier studies. The significance of Puławski’s account is his emphasis on the willingness and capacity of the Polish Government to act in November and December 1942.

The archival material referred to in Wobec “niespotykanego w dziejach mordu” adds to the evidential basis on which scholars and others may argue about Polish responses to the Holocaust. Puławski’s interpretations are judicious and coherent, but there is scope for further debate. For example, establishing the reason(s) for Minister of Interior Stanisław Mikołaczyk’s decision to use data from June 1942 on the scale of Germany’s mass-murder of Polish Jews in a letter to Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski in mid-October 1942 is problematic (p. 627), especially since in September 1942 Mikołaczyk himself broadcast news of 7,000 Jews daily being deported from Warsaw (p. 290).

Puławski questions the rationale of internal deception – (i.e. why would Mikołajczyk mislead Sikorski?), and this is the crux. One can lean towards the notion of under-developed perceptual acuity: information was not transformed into knowledge (p. 627). Although such psychological arguments have guided much thinking on responses to the Holocaust, they are less convincing than formerly. For Mikołajczyk, political reasons to use obsolete data in communication with Sikorski could include pandering to the Polish Right, a desire to enhance his control over the flow of information (inhibit the freedom of Jewish representatives on the Polish National Council), a wish to influence Sikorski’s handling of news about Polish Jews and a desire to adhere to the British Foreign Office’s general position to marginalise news of German atrocities against Jews. Given that Mikołajczyk is likely to have officially informed Frank Savery of the British Embassy to Poland (in London) of the deportations in October – the information appeared in the authoritative Weekly Political Intelligence Summary (circulated to around 500 members of the British governing class) the same day Mikołajczyk wrote to Sikorski – political explanations of Mikołajczyk’s conduct offer a productive way out of the information–knowledge cul-de-sac.

There is no doubt that the information about German actions against Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and elsewhere which arrived in London on 13 November 1942 had a significant impact on Polish officials and politicians in London. The Polish response to this information has been subject to a range of interpretations. Puławski rejects a recent contention that the arrival of information in November saw the end of a period of ‘honest ignorance’ (p. 673), noting that if there was any ignorance it was about the ending of the deportation from the ghetto, rather than the deportations themselves. The author qualifies David Engel’s observation that Ignacy Schwarzbart learned of the arrival of the terrible news by accident, maintaining that the Polish Government would have probably released it anyway given that an eyewitness to the atrocities (Jan Karski) was expected to arrive in London (p. 674). This view can be defended as the Polish government generally released information, but did not always disseminate it with particular vigour. Puławski also argues that the Polish handling of the information, following Wojciech Rappak, was not connected with two other pieces of information that appeared in The New York Times on 25 November – news publicised by Stephen Wise relating to the Riegner Telegram and information from returnees to Palestine. Given that information from the Riegner Telegram had been circulating in London since September, this is an issue which will continue to provoke discussion. The key issues regarding the information that arrived in London on 13 November 1942, therefore, include how the data was released and how it gained traction in the British context. Szmul Zygielbojm, Ignacy Schwarzbart, various British Jewish representatives and others sustained pressure on both the Polish and British governments to ensure that an appropriate response was forthcoming. The Polish Government made a significant contribution to bringing news of the Holocaust to public attention in November and December 1942, and was one of the key forces in ensuring that the UN Declaration of 17 December 1942, which condemned the German’s bestial policy of extermination, came about.

Wobec “niespotykanego w dziejach mordu” shows that much information on German actions against Jews derived from Polish sources was published in official publications and was broadcast. Notably, Puławski makes good use of material collected by the Underground’s radio agencies – summaries of broadcasts heard in Poland. Unfortunately, material from the period of the Great Deportation is missing (p. 33). In the discussion of the responses of the Polish Government in Exile to news received from Poland, more weight could be given to the limits placed on the Polish Government in the British context and the manner in which news about Jews was featured in various media. The Polish Government was not free to publish or broadcast all material that it may have wished to disseminate. For this reason, appraisal of the Polish Government’s response to news of the Holocaust also needs to take account of the work of independent and semi-independent outlets subsidised to a greater or lesser extent by the Polish Government. This would include The Polish Jewish Observer edited by Joel Cang and the Polish Social Information Bureau headed by Jerzy Szapiro, among others. In addition, further insight into how and to whom Polish Government communicated the news from Poland can be gained from a close reading of the (British) Weekly Political Intelligence Summaries (in conjunction with the reports received from Warsaw by the Polish Government in Exile).

Wobec “niespotykanego w dziejach mordu” also raises questions about how history is researched and written. Puławski privileges contemporary documents and contrasts the archival record with derivative accounts of particular events and oral testimony. The emblematic case is his closely argued account of Karski’s 1942 mission. Given the status now accorded to oral history and a trend within Holocaust scholarship and beyond to focus on the resources of various oral history collections that have been developed over the last three decades, PuÅ‚awski offers a timely and instructive demonstration of the continued importance of immersion in the archival sources.

Wobec “niespotykanego w dziejach mordu” is extremely detailed. This is one of the book’s main strengths. It provides scholars with a comprehensive account of the flow of particular information to the extent that even typographic errors in the original documents (for example, in relation to dating) are identified and explained. While this is a gift to scholars working on the Holocaust and on Polish intelligence during the Second World War more generally, it is also likely to restrict the wider appeal of the book. The detail, in places, obscures the broader narrative. Despite this, Adam Puławski has written a landmark book that will be a key text for scholars interested in Polish responses to the Holocaust, the flow of information about German atrocities to the West and Polish intelligence activities during the Second World War.

                                                                                    Michael Fleming

                                                                                    The Polish University Abroad, London