Bitter Herbs: Of Poles, Jews & Holocausts

June 1987By Raymond T. Gawronski

The Rev. Raymond T. Gawronski, S.J. is Associate Pastor of St. Aloysius Church in Washington, D.C.

Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation 1939-1944.  By Anne Roche Muggeridge. University Press of Kentucky. 300 pages. $24.

When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland.  By Nechama Tec. Oxford University Press. 262 pages. $19.95.



The image of Poles held by Americans, already distorted through Stanley Kowalski, wounding "Polish" jokes, and decades of slurs in the media, received another blow from the Holocaust literature which conveyed the impression that the Poles were at best passive collaborators with the Nazis in the extermination of the Jews. Lately, however, one sees rays of hope. One strong beam is Richard Lukas's Forgotten Holocaust. Lukas begins by noting: "The Poles experienced an enormous tragedy during the German occupation of their country. The genocidal policies of the Nazis resulted in the deaths of about as many Polish Gentiles as Polish Jews, thus making them co-victims in a ‘Forgotten Holocaust.' This holocaust has been largely ignored because historians who have written on the subject of the Holocaust have chosen to interpret the tragedy in exclusivistic terms - namely as the most tragic period in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. To them, the Holocaust was unique to the Jews, and they therefore have had little or nothing to say about the nine million Gentiles, including three million Poles, who also perished in the greatest tragedy the world has ever known."

Three million Polish gentiles. Such numbers are horrible: few discussions could be more distasteful. It is as bizarre for us, whose relatives are numbered among that three million, to hear nothing of our own dead, as it is for the survivors of the Ghetto to endure reports that the Jewish Holocaust is a fabrication.

Hitler had a racial plan for Europe, and as Lukas remarks: "The Nazi theory of colonial empire in Poland was based on the denial of humanity to the Poles whom, next to the Jews, Hitler hated the most." Volumes could be written as to why the Germans hated the Poles. Hitler himself authorized killing "without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need." And kill they did.

Poland suffered a three-way division after her defeat in 1939. Much of western Poland was annexed to the Reich. A core of the country - the "General Government" - existed under German Gauleiter Hans Frank, who declared: "There is not a shadow of doubt that the territory of the General Government must be and will be colonized by Germans." Poles, as subhumans, were to be slaves for one generation, and then replaced by German colonists. Polish children of desirable racial traits were shipped off to Germany for Germanization. The third part of Poland, the east, was annexed by the Soviet Union.

The Germans attempted to destroy the Polish nation at every level. The first attack was against the Polish intelligentsia, who were the first non-German prisoners at Auschwitz, where Poles formed the largest group until 1942. Although many Poles died in concentration camps, they primarily "perished in mass or individual executions and were starved or worked to death." When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Nazi attention turned from the Poles to the Jews, and the Final Solution ground into action.

Having described the situation of the Poles after the German conquest, Lukas discusses the establishment of a government-in-exile in London, and its relationship to the underground in Poland. He examines the operation of the underground, and unflinchingly looks at both civilian resistance and collaboration.

But the main thrust of this work is to fill a void of knowledge concerning the situation of the Poles, and how this influenced their relations with Jews. The book refutes many familiar charges that have been leveled against the Poles, charges that range from active collaboration with the Germans to plain indifference to the Jewish plight. Many of these arguments are part of an ongoing historical hand-to-hand combat which may never end.

Lukas explicitly dedicates his seven chapters to Polish relations. He seeks to avoid two extremes: "Jewish historians tend to make sweeping claims that label most Poles anti-Semites who did little to help the Jews against the Nazis; Polish writers tend to minimize Polish anti-Semitism and sometimes exaggerate the amount of assistance Poles gave the Jews. Anti-Semitism was less a factor in Polish-Jewish wartime relations than the reality of the Nazi terror, which was so overwhelming that the opportunities to assist the Jews were more limited in Poland than anywhere else in occupied Europe."

He points out that Poland was the only occupied country in which giving any aid to a Jew carried the death penalty. He tries to understand the thick web of Polish-Jewish relations in light of many factors, especially Jewish collaboration with the Soviets in Poland's eastern region.

Throughout the work Lukas seeks balance by considering both sides of the issues, although he clearly takes issue with that variety of Holocaust writing which is so tendentious "that [it] is often more reminiscent of propaganda than of history."

Nechama Tec, herself a Jewish survivor of war, attempts to understand the behavior of gentiles who rescued or hid Jews. She concludes that those who did so were loners, independent-minded individuals who were given to helping people at any time. Some of the rescuers were even anti-Semites, but ones who found themselves moved by a deeper compassion.

Her sociological method is perhaps necessary, yet it is the stories that truly fascinate. Recounting stories of courage and cruelty, she is a good narrator with a fine heart for people. This shines through the sociological artifice.

At the same time, the book is, in its ways, rather unexamined and even callous. The very first story in Chapter I, for example, tells of a Jewish doctor who sneaks out of the Ghetto to perform an abortion on a Polish woman "eager to terminate an unwanted pregnancy." The resulting friendship can only seem curious at best in its origins.

To maintain, as Tec repeatedly does, that the Catholic Church in Poland has always been anti-Semitic is only to echo a time-worn polemic. To make no mention of the fact that Poles themselves were treated as racial inferiors in German Catholic churches, that half the clergy of some dioceses perished in camps, or that Poland was the only country in which prelates were arrested creates an impression that all Christians (as she calls all gentiles) were religiously more monolithic than was the case.

The relations between Polish Jews and Christians is a subject fraught with complexity. Both books amply show that there were competing points of view and exceptions to expected rules. Polish disunity is so legendary than any blanket generalizations must be suspect. The history of Polish-Jewish relations would no doubt make a lifetime's study. It lasts a thousand years, and, as Rabbi Earl Vinecour notes in his Polish Jews: The Final Chapter: "In no other country than ancient Israel have Jews lived continuously for as many centuries, in as large numbers, and with as much autonomy as in Poland." The study of the horrifying end of that community must take into account questions of competing nationalisms, economic factors, even modernity's hatred of all tradition. Most especially it must be seen in the light of the total Nazi terror.

The war ended tragically for the Poles as well. The Uprising in Warsaw was smashed by the Germans, while the Russians waited across the river. Poles have never since regained control in the western two-thirds of their country which is called Poland; the eastern third has become Soviet.

With the war, a way of life ended for both Jews and Poles. In the West, bitter acrimony would often characterize competing accounts of what happened in Poland during the German occupation. As someone has remarked: "It shows the difficulty of two chosen peoples walking through the same desert at the same time."



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