Both Jewish and Polish sources bear witness to the enormous help that Poles provided to Jews during World War II. I know that the Institute of National Remembrance has these sources. How many are there and what exactly do they contain?
Dr Tomasz Domański: Contrary to appearances, there are many sources regarding the help provided to Jews by Poles during World War II, although this matter is very dispersed in many archives in Poland (e.g. Jewish Historical Institute; Institute of National Remembrance) and abroad (mainly Israel, USA, Germany) and was created in many languages: Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish, English and German. Sources in which messages about Polish aid can be found were created directly during the war and were created by the German occupation administration (e.g. Sondergerichte – special courts). Judgments against rescuers also contain important information about the location of the rescue operation and the people involved. However, due to the conspiratorial nature of aid activities, the most significant and numerous sources for this issue are the sources created after the war. Here I mean various memories, accounts, as well as oral history. This diverse file material includes an equally substantial corpus deposited in the Archives of the Institute of National Remembrance. These are the so-called Bielawski’s investigation, i.e. interrogation protocols and other documents collected by the former District Commissions for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes and other documents, such as correspondence with Survivors, death certificates or official documents compiled in separate folders (signatures) for each story. There are about 2,200 volumes of these materials. Representative fragments of these documents are currently published in a scientific study by dr hab. Sebastian Piątkowski (Reports on the help provided to Jews by Poles in the years 1939–1945). Six volumes have been published so far. This is a great material for learning about the important details of aid actions provided by Poles. We can indicate where the events took place, who rescued whom and under what circumstances.
By helping Jews, Poles risked their lives, their families’ and neighbors’ lives, because the Germans applied collective responsibility, and saving a Jew was punishable by death. Szmalcowniks (blackmailers) were infamous exceptions, but such exceptions of cooperation with the Germans also happened among Jews. There were Jews who helped the Germans in the Holocaust, and yet the Jewish nation is not viewed through their prism. Why, then, the Polish nation, even though it showed heroism, tries to blame itself for co-responsibility for the Holocaust?
Indeed, during World War II, the German occupation authorities introduced the death penalty for any form of aid to Jews. And that these were not just threats is evidenced by the number of about 1,000. Poles murdered by the Germans for this help. On the other hand, there were bad people on both sides of the wall, both in the ghetto and in the so-called the Aryan side. And they ended up in these different places because that’s what the Germans decided based on racial criteria. Germans also predicted an other role for Poles and Jews in the occupation system. The latter, as “the main ideological enemy of the Nazis”, were to disappear, to be murdered. Poles deprived of exterminated elites were turned into cheap labor. Even if only for these fundamental reasons, which significantly determined the realities of functioning of both nationalities during World War II, I would not dare to simply equate these attitudes. Attempts at generalizations can lead us astray, although each such case, if the sources allow us, should be thoroughly examined and discussed.
The Holocaust was a state undertaking of the German Reich, and the Republic of Poland, through its government and its underground, was on the side of the persecuted Jews, which, although the practical possibilities of saving them were limited, was very important – not only from the point of view of words but also deeds.
So I don’t know why some are trying to make Poles co-responsible for the Holocaust and thus dilute the responsibility of the German state, although I observe a few regularities in this regard. People who speak or write in this way certainly do so contrary to the results of currently available research. In the scientific and journalistic discourse, the responsibility for acts committed by individuals or the extended social margin of the war time is shifted onto the majority of society. These simplified opinions are supported by certain research trends that have been very present in recent years, when basically historians and researchers of the Holocaust focused on the so-called the third phase of the Holocaust (1942-1945), which took place after the main wave of extermination of Jews carried out as part of “Aktion Reinhardt” in 1942. At that time, Jews who had escaped from ghettos or other places, few in comparison to the entire population, sought rescue and salvation on the the Aryan side, i.e. among the local population. At the same time, the German authorities took drastic steps to murder every Jewish fugitive as part of Judenjagd (hunting for Jews). This lasted until the last moments of the war. Focusing mainly on the attitudes of the Polish population towards the final phase of the Holocaust distorts the proportions of German agency for the Holocaust.
It can lead to oversimplification and even falsifies the genocide. There is also a lot of ill will in this attitude. It is very easy for some researchers to omit the reality of the occupation (historical context of events) created by the Germans and in which Poles lived during World War II. Let me remind you that the Germans, striving to completely exterminate the Jews, in view of the meagerness of their own forces, also forced Poles to take part in activities organized by them against Jews in hiding, such as raids, and at the same time punished with death for helping them. Actions forced in this way are treated as a voluntary, even spontaneous attitude. At the same time, the everyday life of the occupation, especially in the years 1942-1945, was accompanied by widespread terror, fear for one’s own fate and that of one’s families, leading to gigantic impoverishment, economic exploitation and drainage of food resources. The German authorities transported millions of tons of food from the occupied Polish territories. The phenomenon of widespread malnutrition among Poles meant that the Polish society, when the Germans began mass extermination of Jews, generally did not have the material and food resources to provide unlimited and extensive help. The German occupation policy towards Poland and Poles led to the orientation of the majority of society to survive this period as an individual, a family, and then a nation. Hence, among the many phenomena of the occupation, blackmail and denunciations of Jews were certainly not dominant.
In the brutal realities of the occupation reality, the scale of help provided by Poles, i.e. people ready to sacrifice their lives and their families to save the lives of Jews, although common in the area of occupied Poland, could not reach a mass character, but it was still extremely large. Let me remind you that the most reliable estimates range from 30 to 300 thousand. The title of Righteous Among the Nations was awarded to 7,000 Poles for about 28 thousand all decorated. In turn, thanks to Polish aid, tens of thousands of Jews were saved. Extremely dangerous for understanding the phenomenon of helping Jews, provided in specific conditions and times, is also found in the statements of some authors data juggling. An attempt is made to compare, without taking into account the realities I have described, the number of the Righteous and those helping with the total number of ethnic Poles, thus proving the weakness of aid.
Would the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising have broken out had it not been for Polish aid? How significant was it?
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out when the Germans proceeded with the final extermination of the Warsaw Ghetto. After the Great Action and the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the extermination camps in Treblinka and other centers, it became clear to those who survived that the Germans were aiming at the complete destruction of the entire nation. Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto wanted to resist, fight the Germans, avenge the murdered, albeit symbolically. Therefore, contacts between the representatives of the Jewish Fighting Organization (ŻOB) operating in the Warsaw Ghetto and the Home Army and the structures of the Polish Underground State had already been established. The Jewish Military Union (Zionist revisionists) was also active in the ghetto. On the initiative of the Jewish side, the Home Army offered assistance to the ŻOB in military training and armament. It was, however, a modest amount of help. The concepts of struggle, time and historical circumstances that were not conducive to the outbreak of a general uprising based on the uprising in the ghetto were also decisive factors. It was believed that forces and resources should be gathered for the time of the subsequent general uprising, which, as it was said at the time, “must not fail”. Certainly, the insurgents counted on more help, although without the Home Army and other underground organizations, this would not have been possible. Another aspect of the help provided by the Polish Underground State to the fighting Jews is the so-called solidarity actions at the ghetto wall. In the first days of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, there were attempts to blow up the walls of the ghetto to allow Jews to escape. Let me just remind you of the most famous action taken by Capt. Joseph Pszenny ps. “Chwacki”, paid for by the loss of two soldiers. There were also attempts to attack German posts around the ghetto. However, the occupant’s advantage was too great for these actions to change the course of events.
According to the latest research, the number of Jews saved in Warsaw by Poles was at least 11,500. people. Despite this, Prof. Barbara Engelking stated that “Poles failed” and spoke of Poles’ dislike of Jews. How would you, as a specialist in history, respond to these allegations?
It’s impossible to agree with Prof. Engelking that “Poles have failed”. The above opinion contradicts the results of research conducted on the phenomenon of aid. The Poles did as much as they could. Unlike the inhabitants of Western Europe, they risked their lives to help. There was a will in Polish society to help Jews, which is easily demonstrated by the gradual tightening of German criminal legislation against people helping Jews. On October 15, 1941, the death penalty was introduced for sheltering Jews illegally leaving “closed districts”. The above regulation was considered ineffective in the fight against Polish aid, especially at the crucial moment for the Germans, i.e. the implementation of “Aktion Reinhardt”. Therefore, in 1942, the German authorities introduced the death penalty for any form of help and severe penalties for not denouncing Jews in the event of knowledge of their hiding (November 1942). There are many examples from rural areas of cooperation (coexistence; provision of craft services in exchange for food) between fugitives from the ghettos and the Polish population. Only the brutal intervention of the German authorities, and physically the police, and repressions against the local population interrupted the aid, regardless of whether it was of an exclusively humanitarian nature or also humanitarian but paid or co-paid (sharing the costs of aid between Poles and Jews). It should also be added that during the insurgent fights in Warsaw, on April 26, 1943, an announcement was published by the head of the Warsaw District Police, reminding not only of the order imposing the death penalty for helping Jews, but also threatening to send to a concentration camp those who knew about stay of Jews outside the ghetto and they would not inform the police.
It amazes me that Prof. Engelking chose Warsaw as an exemplification of her conclusions. On the map of Polish aid, it was an exceptional city for several reasons. First of all, about 11.5 thousand Jews were saved here, and 70-90 thousand residents of Warsaw were involved in helping Jews. Secondly, in Warsaw, the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota” was established and very active – the only conspiratorial Polish-Jewish humanitarian organization of this type, which is part of the underground state structures. And thirdly, taking into account the above-mentioned arguments in conjunction with the results of the scientific investigations of Gunnar S. Paulsson, the author of work, among others, about helping the Jews in Warsaw, it is difficult to talk about the widespread participation of Varsovians in blackmailing and anti-Jewish attitudes. The researcher established that in Warsaw, with a population of about 600,000 non-Jewish residents, blackmailers could be about 3-4 thousand. Also, the number of Poles accused of crimes against Jews after the war in relation to the total adult population was negligible, as detailed research by Dr. Roman Gieroń for the province Krakow indicate. This does not mean, of course, that those who dealt with this practice did not cause much damage and evil to the Jews. At the same time, let us emphasize that even before the outbreak of the ghetto uprising, the Polish Underground State combated szmalcowniks and punished such persons with death.
You take part in various scientific conferences and research projects. Based on your experience, are you able to explain where the scientific and intellectual dishonesty of such people as Prof. Barbara Engelking come from?
A few years ago (2018-2019) a broad debate on Polish-Jewish relations took place in Poland, triggered by a publication co-edited by prof. Engelking “Next is night. The fate of Jews in selected counties of occupied Poland”. Researchers from the Institute of National Remembrance also took part in the discussion. I also referred to this famous book by publishing an extensive review entitled “Image Correction” (https://ipn.gov.pl/en/news/7057,Correcting-the-Picture-Some-Reflections-on-the-Use -of-Sources-in-quotNight-witho.html), pointing to multiple workshop errors, manipulations and various types of misconduct committed by the editors and co-authors of the above book. This situation forces us to be very careful in accepting the statements made by prof. Engelking. It is difficult to accept, for example, theses and statements by the above-mentioned researcher as the result of reliable studies. They contain not only exaggerations, but also, as I indicated above, simply untruths, shaping a false image of Polish-Jewish relations in the face of the Holocaust. At the same time, it is difficult for me to comment on the reasons for the existing state of affairs. Perhaps we should ask Prof. Engelking.
How difficult is it for you, as historians, to fight against false assessments of Poland and Poles appearing in the public space? In particular, if lies about Poland come from people with academic degrees and willingly invited to the media.
I think multi-pronged action is needed here. From the perspective of science, the answer to unauthorized and groundless theses is always reliable works, supported by many years of queries. And we, as scientists of the Institute of National Remembrance, conduct and publish such research, although we are attacked by some people for, for example, including Poles saving Jews in the agenda of research priorities. For several years, on the basis of previous achievements, we have been conducting the Central Research Project at the Institute of National Remembrance entitled “History of Jews in Poland and Polish-Jewish relations in the years 1917-1990”, of which I have the honor to be the coordinator. From 2020, the Institute of National Remembrance publishes the scientific journal “Polish Jewish Studies” in Polish and English (https://ipn.gov.pl/pl/publikacje/periodyki-ipn/polish-jewish-studies). Through “PJS” we want to join the debate on Polish-Jewish relations in the 20th century. To show that different research perspectives and interpretations are possible, in other words, polyphony is possible in this discussion, that it is possible to reliably and in accordance with the historian’s workshop, drawing from the broad plane of mutual Polish-Jewish relations, examine both positive and negative aspects: the coexistence of both nations, in conditions of peace, as well as in situations of war, in extraordinary conditions. In our magazine there will be a place for aid issues as well as for controversies and negatives. For example, in No. 1 we discussed the issues of pre-war anti-Semitism. Last year, an extensive study “The State of Research on Helping Jews” was published, edited by me and Dr. Alicja Gontarek. This is basically the first study collecting and commenting on the existing aid literature for the entire occupied Polish territories. Regional studies are also published (the works of Dr. Aleksandra Namysło and Dr. Elżbieta Rączy, and further studies are seriously advanced) and minor works. About the work of Prof. Sebastian Piątkowski I mentioned at the beginning. Intensive research work, as part of the above-mentioned project, is also undertaken in order to determine the number of Poles repressed for helping Jews. The first part of the findings was published in a joint study by Dr. Martyna Grądzka-Rejak and Dr. Aleksandra Namysło (Persecution for providing help to Jews in occupied Polish territories during World War II, vol. 1). A detailed list of publications devoted to the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations from the last two years only can be found on the IPN website (https://ipn.gov.pl/en/digital-resources/publications/9223,Terror-Holocaust-Persecution-A-new -publications-catalogue-available-for-download.html).
But apart from reliable, painstaking research, there is a need to constantly inform the public about the results of our findings, and more broadly about this topic. Unfortunately, the truth will not defend itself.
Interview by Anna Wiejak