Małgorzata Melchior, Tożsamość a Zagłada. Polscy Żydzi ocaleni na “aryjskich papierach”: Analiza doświadczenia biograficznego (Identity and the Holocaust. Polish Jews Who Survived on ‘Aryan Papers’: Analyzing Biographic Experience: Warsaw: IFiS PAN Publishers, 2004); pp. 467


Tożsamość a Zagładais the first Polish-language study of the fate of the handful of Polish Jews who managed to survive the Holocaust not in hiding, but living ‘above ground’ on the ‘Aryan side’. It is an outstanding and important book that adds to a growing body of excellent Polish literature (by Alina Cała, Barbara Engelking, Jacek Leociak, Joanna Nalewajko, and Michał Maranda) that has moved beyond the traditional study of history by making use of the precise tools of the social sciences. The researchers whose works are included within this current are members of the second and third post-war generations; they approach the subject with new sensibility, openness, and well-grounded erudition.

The Principle of Self-restraint

Małgorzata Melchior’s study is founded on the ‘non-standardized narrative interview’ format that from the methodological point of view closely resembles the life-story method (p. 30). The interviews, which were conducted in connection with the author’s research project for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, form a free-flowing telling of what life on ‘Aryan papers’ was like for Melchior’s interlocutors. The researcher guides the conversations with great tact, formulating her conclusions with care and self-restraint. Mindful of the tool she is using, she refrains--as far as possible--from adopting detailed hypotheses, and instead allows new issues to come up in the spontaneous flow of conversation. The author demonstrates admirable common sense and tact in choosing not to ‘random-sample’ people who met with such random cruelty of fate.

The social science toolkit discreetly underpins the entire argument of Melchior’s book, which is meticulously and consistently structured. The book is divided into three parts: (1) Pre-war Identifications and Biographies of Individuals Who Survived the Holocaust on ‘Aryan’ Papers; (2) Biographic Experience of Holocaust Survivors under the Occupation; and (3) Immediate Post-war and Subsequent Periods. She provides  extensive commentary, bracketed by observations on the changes wrought to the interviewees’ self-identification under the influence of the traumatic experience of their assumed war-time identity. As a result, we are offered a solid scientific work that is also an excellent read. The book cannot be accused at any point of ignoring the trauma of its subjects by objectifying them, of destroying the chances for our empathic reading about their experience by fragmenting it, or of descending into mawkishness by neglecting cognitive priorities.

The Differences

In her book, Melchior assumes two roles beyond her identity as a sensitive sociologist: she is also a full-blooded psychologist and an anthropologist. The study is full of clearly legible juxtapositions that reveal the roots of differences between Polish and Jewish, and also Polish-Jewish, sensibilities. ‘Fortunately my parents had already been deported to Siberia’ (p. 108)--such a statement about the situation in the eastern borderlands following the German takeover can come only from someone for whom Siberia was an idyll, since he was condemned to Auschwitz. Poles found it difficult to understand the feelings of Polish Jews as they listened to the approaching cannonade of the Eastern front. ‘The most wonderful music’ (p. 298)--one of Melchior’s interviewees calls it. ‘The Russians freed me from the death sentence, gave me back the right to live and to human dignity’ (p. 304), explains someone else.

Another difference. To this day in antisemitic discourse, voices are raised by Poles who are ‘indignant that some Rosenduft or Rozensztajn appropriated the venerable name and identity of one of their countrymen’ (L. Begley in Melchior, p. 160). If rational arguments could be at all of use in this context, it would not be beside the point to recall that in most cases the switch from a Jewish to a Polish surname occurred during a time of terror, under threat of death, and not in circumstances allowing for free choice. If after the war many survivors kept their ‘Aryan papers’, it was because of their desire to avoid further discrimination and/or was related to what in psychology is called ‘trauma script/entry’, a reluctance to deny an identity that, even if assumed and forced, nevertheless effectively saved their lives. ‘This cannot be expelled from memory’, they say (p. 343). The attachment to ‘personal details’ obtained in such circumstances at times manifested itself in the giving to children born after the war names of dead or unknown people whose identity saved someone’s life (p. 205).

Melchior’s work highlights how much the realities of cultural and ethnic difference have changed in post-war Polish society. The insurmountable distance between the Polish and Jewish worlds during the war showed up even in such trivial matters as culinary recipes. ‘Once I made sweet carrots, the way Jews eat them’, relates one of Melchior’s interlocutors (the dish provoked a strong reaction from the interviewee’s landlady). ‘Astonished, I asked how the mistress of the house would like me to prepare it, and then came the reply: salty, with pork fat. They won’t denounce me, of course, but I must leave’ (p. 179). As in a classic monograph on tribal societies, food proves to be a marker of identity and a symbol of separation.

A function similar to that played by the sweet carrots was performed also by other ‘Jewish’, according to the popular opinion, traits such as frequent washing (‘Ms.Felcia, these daily baths, only prostitutes and Jewesses bathe so often’ [p. 178]), wearing glasses, not being vodka drinkers, and not using foul language. ‘I had been wearing glasses since I was 15, but in that period, when I had already switched to Aryan papers, I took off my glasses in order not to look too much like an intelligentsia type, for my appearance was not so much Semitic, as resemblant of a member of the intelligentsia, and that was not good, either’ (p. 179, twice). As usual in such cases, the stereotype tells more about its holder than its object. That what the former says about himself--that he was rather slow, spoke no German, washed rarely, cursed, and abused alcohol--might have seemed simply funny in other circumstances. Thirty years on, Gomułka’s government would embrace the same anti-intelligentsia phobia, always alive in Poland, and once again Polish Jews would suffer as a result.


The Quotation Marks

At this point I would like to challenge several of the solutions adopted by Melchior. My criticism will focus on issues peripheral to the work itself, but which do carry a broader significance. In some measure, these are matters of principle, always worthy of contention lest they become stale.

The first issue concerns the use of quotation marks. In the introduction, the author writes that, following the practice of Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak, she deliberately omits these marks in the expression ‘Aryan side’, because ‘as these authors note, “this is how--directly, and not within quotation marks--this term was used in the ghetto’” (B. Engelking, J. Leociak, Getto warszawskie. Przewodnik po nieistniejącym mieście [The Warsaw Ghetto: Guide to a Non-existent Town],Warsaw, 2000, p. 19]’ (p. 10, note 1). My own rejoinder: to leave out quotation marks around ‘Aryan side’ in a historical narrative is a mistake, which overlooks the distance that stands between the researcher and the reality he or she is relating, implying absence of such distance and/or the transparency of the researcher. The history of scholarship records ill results of similar practices; suffice it to mention the consequences of omitting the little word ‘alleged’, equivalent to quotation marks, in describing so-called ritual murder (blood libel) or the blithe use of the term ‘witches’ to describe women accused of witchery.

Secondly, the history of ‘Aryanness’ and ‘non-Aryanness’ did not in fact begin with the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 (see note 2 on p. 56). It relates to the issue of the shameful ‘poisoned origins of anthropology’ that in its formative stage of development was driven as often by Rousseau’s idealism as by classical racism.[i] Since limited space precludes even the most cursory outline of this issue, I shall mention only that whilst the myth of ‘Aryan superiority’ was a creation of nineteenth-century linguistics and archaeology, to a large extent German, up to the 1890s it failed to conquer Germany, which retained a critical stance toward it, as opposed to France (Gobineau), for example. Also later on, after it succumbed to the Aryan myth, German anthropology was never alone in its eugenic efforts. As E. A. Carlson argues in his recently published book The Unfit,[ii] virulent American eugenicists emulated their German colleagues until the start of World War II, only to hastily sink in their own oblivion subsequently. As regards Poland, it is sufficient to pick up any pre-war handbook of physical anthropology to realize how durable such ideas were. The best evidence of a lengthy, and with respect to Nazism entirely autonomous, history of the concepts of ‘Aryanness’ and ‘non-Aryanness’ is its persistence in the language of the Polish press of the 1920s and 1930s.

I learned painfully of the importance of quotation marks in describing these issues when I heard a German historian, and a peer of mine, criticize the use of the war-time term ‘Aryan side’ on the grounds that . . . in the light of the Nuremberg Laws Poles were not ‘Aryan’ after all. I pass over the fact that the term arisch was treated in this case with entire seriousness, without differentiating its Nazi and popular usage à la Gobineau.[iii] I also pass over the fact that such criticism was based on the recognition of Nazi categories as a significant point of reference. The use of quotation marks when referring to this historical expression commonly used inside and outside the ghetto is the best way to avoid similar discussions.


Antisemitism as Cultural Code

In Melchior’s book, particularly poignant are those statements of her interlocutors that relate to war-time antisemitism among the Poles, as observed by their Jewish countrymen living on ‘Aryan papers’. To mention only three examples: ‘They’re burning Yids’ (pp. 167, 248) as a comment about the burning ghetto; a young boy’s cry: ‘A Yid woman! Look, there’s a Yid woman standing there’ (p. 194); or the famous claim about ‘Hitler, who solved that problem for us’ (p. 24). The survivor’s conclusion: ‘That’s why I do not feel myself a Pole’ (p. 247). As we know, similar reactions are not limited to people who survived on ‘Aryan papers’. Many of us, Jewish or Polish, still react in this way whenever our sense of national identity is profaned, whenever, to borrow the expression coined by Teresa Bogucka, the notion of ‘Polishness’ is appropriated by the primitive polactwo (Polakdom). That was also the reaction of Germans who left their country after Hitler’s victory in 1933.

The balance of their war-time experience induced numerous patriotically oriented Polish Jews to leave the country. The period of post-war dangers, which they confronted constantly, remains insufficiently elucidated by local historians. ‘Train travel--after I was discovered to be Jewish--could end with a beating, or even a murder’--says one of them in referring to attitudes in December 1945 (p. 338). Gratitude and admiration are the only response to heroism of those survivors who did not leave Poland then, and who say today, as some of Melchior’s interlocutors do, ‘I am from here’, ‘I am a Pole and nobody can take this away from me’ (p. 377), ‘my family are Poles whose love for their country is unrequited’ (p. 80).

While departure was the way to distance oneself from post-war antisemitism, there was no escape from antisemitism during the war. Melchior’s book provides dozens of testimonials about the fear it inspired, dozens of accounts of unmasking. I read them with a lump in my throat. These experiences are not typical, for they had a happy ending (‘The landlady said that if I had been a Jew, she would have me killed on the spot’ [p. 234]), as opposed to the vast number of those that have never been recounted because they ended tragically. If anyone wishes to form an opinion about the extent of blackmailer activity (szmalcownictwo) in Warsaw, he or she should reach for the memoirs of Barbara Temkin-Bermanowa[iv] and read her account of leaving the ghetto for the ‘Aryan side’, which consists of several successive episodes of blackmail.

The war-time antisemitism of the Poles was seen by their Jewish countrymen up close, from a distance painfully shortened, minimized by their denied Jewish identity. Melchior’s interviewees describe it as a type of cultural code (to bring up Shulamit Volkov’s category),[v] a code by which we recognize our own. Just as the joking bonds in a tribal society indicated to the anthropologist the real structure of kinship (in A. Radcliff-Brown’s conception, those in the presence of whom we are not allowed to make indecent jokes are pillars of the kinship system in our group), in the same way the prevalence of the Polish antisemitic discourse determined the limits and revealed the true social distances in the society under German occupation. Undoubtedly, for people with ‘Aryan papers’, as human beings with the status of hunted animals, it took on a different character than for us who learn about it today. It carried the brand of betrayal, challenging and destroying common moral ideals, revealing their weakness, underside, and hypocrisy. 


One of such ideals was the category of ‘decency’, the notion of being a ‘decent person’. The author devotes a lot of space to this category, both in her interviews and in her analysis. In conditions of the calamity of war, the category of decency underwent significant transformation. It could still be encountered in the old contexts (‘Very decent, nice people, very noble Poles’ [p. 123]), but new contexts also appeared, such as when it was used to characterise a ‘Kripo official in Lwów’ (p. 236), in which cracks began to appear on this ideal. Says one of the survivors: ‘At first the local community of a town must have felt compassion for the Jews when there were these roundups, Aktions. When they learned that their acquaintances had been shot in the street, since such things happened. But at the same time, Nazi propaganda and the demeaning of those people--that was affecting their attitude toward those people. They did not even realize when they began to think of them as something worse. I could hear it: in shopping queues, in conversations. For example, these exact words: “she is a decent girl, although a little Yid.” . . . That was the order of the day among so-called decent people’ (p. 165).

How did ‘decent people’ cope with antisemitism, their own and that of others? Probably they tried not to notice it. As in this quotation in Hanna Krall’s latest book: ‘that kind of thing was not discussed in our home.’[vi] Natan Gross’s claim, cited by Melchior, that under the assumed ‘Aryan’ identity it was also possible to credibly voice disapproval of antisemitism, is very suggestive. The fact that such disapproval was tolerated, that it even helped to corroborate the assumed ‘Aryan’ identity, means that it fitted the wartime image of the Polish patriot equally well as the figure of an antisemite. The ‘antisemite’ and the ‘noble Pole’, friend of the Jews, would thus provide the local equivalent of the German pair of Cain and Abel, believers, respectively, in the ‘sacrament of the bull’ and the ‘sacrament of the lamb’, depicted by Heinrich Böll in his Billiards at Half-Past Nine.

Whimsical is the reader’s memory. More than the narratives, quite numerous, about decent people thanks to whom Jewish stories ended in survival, the following account captured my attention: ‘The ghetto was already ablaze [April 1943], I was going by tram from Praga to [left-bank] Warsaw. My eyes were fixed on the burning ghetto. And I remember--an older, grey-haired gentleman, a Pole, bent over me. And he whispered softly to me: “Don’t look that way, you mustn’t look that way”’ (p. 157).

The Lie

A separate and fascinating issue, of crucial importance to Melchior’s book, is the problem of the lie in the world of the Holocaust. At a certain point in her analysis, the author writes: ‘The above statements may indicate that at least some of the individuals who used the lie to survive, would share the conviction expressed by Leszek Kołakowski that “the lie is not morally acceptable also when it is permissible or even advisable for the sake of a more important good”’ (p. 291). Even though I believe that I understand Melchior’s intention, I consider this remark to be an unhappy one. However, since the deed is done, it deserves a comment with a double address.

Let us begin with some examples. The first comes from the original context of the book: ‘I was assigned to a convent. . . .  Nobody suspected that I was a Jewess. I had to attend religious services, had to go to confession. But because of this I cried at night, not tears, but blood, as I did not forget for a second that I am a Jewess’ (p. 291). Another example: ‘If I had to go to church, then I did and it didn’t mean a thing to me’ (p. 276). And a third one: ‘S-ka [an associate of  Żegota] was capable of going to a priest and telling him that baptism certificates were needed for AK fighters. If the priest asked whether they were not intended for Jews, she would say, “No, they are for AK people”. He made her swear it. And even though she was a believer, she swore it’ (p. 152; similar examples on p. 197; see also the test on religion after a Jewish child was admitted to a convent orphanage, p. 236).

What is the status of the above cited lies? Survivors call them ‘defensive lies’ (Natan Gross, p. 288), ‘forms of resistance’ (p. 318), the resistance that Nechama Tec (a survivor, and later an American sociologist) defines as follows: ‘acts of resistance are motivated by the intent to prevent, limit or end the tormentor’s power over the victim. . . . The aim of resistance is to lessen the total amount of oppression’ (p. 23).



Can the opinion of Leszek Kołakowski, which judges a lie told for the sake of higher purposes to be ‘morally unacceptable’, be at all applicable to the times of the Holocaust and the adduced examples? Let us consider its inverse: would telling the truth in the above mentioned three situations be in fact ‘morally acceptable’? Isn’t actually the case that in circumstances that turn the value tables upside down, a negative moral assessment of similar acts can only obscure the true picture of the situation as just that: inverted, occurring in a moral ‘topsy-turvy’ world?

The girl who was forced by circumstances to pretend she was a Christian did not cry in fact because of her lie, but because of the violence that forced her to lie. The fact that she feels guilty (the first example) is a typical reaction of a victim who, instead of accusing her tormentor, feels tainted, for, unlike the person from the second example, she cannot help but persuade herself of her guilt. Wanda T., the author of the never-to-be-sent letters to Helena, is in a similar position; she too blames herself for the lie, for concealing her identity, even though the guilt belongs to her antisemite friend (see p. 287).

The anti-relativist efforts undertaken by Leszek Kołakowski in his Mini-Lectures on Maxi-Issues were expounded in an otherwise worthy cause.[vii] Nevertheless, his qualification of the Jewish lie in the world of the Holocaust as ‘morally unacceptable’ makes no sense, and moreover turns our attention away from what the true evil in this situation is--morally, metaphysically, and in any other sense. In only one situation could I agree with the philosopher: if after labelling such a lie ‘morally unacceptable’, he were immediately to define ‘truth’ in this situation in the same way. Only then would we be calling the world in which such ‘immoral’ choices take place by its true name, instead of (unintentionally) placing the blame on the victims. As we recall from Dante, the absence of exits is one of the attributes of hell, a place where even music is not innocent (Ida Fink).

Let us follow now the suggestion implied in the third example about the false swearing of a Catholic who approaches a priest to obtain papers for Jews. Is this or any other use of the Sacrament--either the collecting of a certificate of baptism for someone who has not been baptized or the taking of Communion by a Jew hiding under ‘Aryan papers’--a profanation of the Sacrament or not? I am curious about the contemporary and the present-day response of the Church to this question. We know the historical answers, for instance from the case of the medieval ban on the reconversion of Jews baptized under duress, a prohibition designed to preclude the profanation of the Sacrament once given.

Let us remain in the realm of religion, since against its backdrop the problem of inverse situations stands out particularly clearly. One of Melchior’s interlocutors says: ‘They quizzed me on religion at the Gestapo. I knew the prayers from school. The things they were asking me I knew about; why--because I attended school [before the war]’ (p. 236, twice). If the word religion can appear in such a context, it is hardly astonishing that the word God is given a moment later an even more shocking meaning: ‘I thought that God was a German, and even that he was from the SS’ (p. 334).

There is a picture by Artur Nacht-Samborski titled Rozstrzelanie (Execution by Firing Squad), in which every other human figure is shown in reverse. I think about that picture when reading the words of its painter quoted by the Żegota associate: ‘“Wanda, Poland will win without you, don’t go distributing underground papers, help save the Jews--a single saved Jew means more than everything else”’ (p. 152).


Joanna Tokarska-Bakir

University of Warsaw

[i]. On this subject, see works by Benoit Massina, among them ‘From Virchow to Fischer, Physical Anthropology and Modern Race Theory in Wilhelmine Germany’, in G. W. Stocking, Jr., ed., “Volkgeist” as Method and Ethic: Essays on Boasian Ethnography and the German Anthropological Tradition (Madison WI, 1996), pp. 79–154.

[ii]. E.A. Carlson, The Unfit. A History of a Bad Idea (Cold Spring Harbor and New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2001).

[iii]. Not to mention the need to take into consideration a clear entanglement of the language of victims with the language of criminals. This has been discussed by, for example, Paweł Szapiro in the introduction to Anka Grupińska, Ciągle po kole (Warsaw, 2000). In Melchior’s book, this entanglement appears on several occasions, for example when the verb to liquidate is repeatedly used in survivors’ stories to describe someone’s death.

[iv]. B.Temkin-Bermanowa, Dziennik z podziemia [Diary from the Underground], introduced, edited, and annotated by A.Grupińska i P.Szapiro (Warsaw 2000).

[v]. S. Volkov, ‘Antisemitismus as a cultural code’, Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 23 (1978): pp. 25–46.

[vi]. Contemporary comment on the killing of Leon Felhendler, escapee from Sobibor; on 3 April 1945, shots were fired through the door of his apartment in a Lublin tenement house. See H. Krall, Wyjątkowo długa linia [A Particularly Long Line] (Kraków, 2004), p. 117.

[vii]. See L.Kołakowski, Mini wykłady o maxi sprawach. Trzy serie (Kraków, 2004), pp. 34–35 and other examples.