A highly controversial new Polish law of several months ago, which Princeton professor and historian, Jan T. Gross, denounced as an attempt to “falsify the history of the Holocaust,” makes it illegal to accuse Poland of complicity with Nazi crimes. It punishes violators with prison terms of up to three years. Poles, the majority of whom support the legislation, claim that they were merely victims of the occupying Germans, not collaborators. An interesting insight into the modern day zeitgeist regarding the Holocaust comes from historian Jan Grabowski’s study of recent polls, from which he concludes, “The majority of the Polish society believes today that Polish suffering at the time of war was equal or greater than the suffering of the Jews.”
Although Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum honored Poland as Righteous Among Nations for saving Jewish lives, increasing evidence uncovered recently suggests a high degree of Polish complicity in the extermination of the Jews. According to Yad Vashem scholars, Poles guarded ghettos, deported and murdered Jews and plundered Jewish property. Even after Poland’s liberation, Polish peasants slaughtered Holocaust survivors, as in the infamous 1946 Kielce pogrom, while police and soldiers looked on.
Yad Vashem attributes Polish cooperation with the Nazis to Poland’s centuries’ long history of anti-Semitism, fueled and inculcated by the Church. It made possible the annihilation of 90% of Poland’s Jews during and after World War II. The Nazis were well aware of Polish sentiments towards the Jews and correctly reasoned that they would meet little resistance to death camps placed on Polish soil, where nearly all of them in Europe were built.
Judenjagd, or, the hunt for the Jews, was the German term for organized searches for Jews who had sought shelter in the Polish countryside amongst “Aryan” Poles after surviving ghetto liquidations and death camp deportations in 1942 to Poland. In his book, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland (Indiana University Press, 2013), Grabowski, a Polish-Canadian professor of history at the University of Ottawa, tells the story of the Judenjagd in Dabrowa Tarnowska County and the adjacent Dulcza forest.
This region in southeastern Poland was where most of the Jews in hiding perished after their Polish neighbors betrayed them. Grabowski chose it for its rich collection of archival evidence and uniquely rural setting. He examined previously unexplored materials from Polish, Jewish, and German sources created during and after the war to document the local Polish population’s involvement in the annihilation and plundering of Jews who sought refuge in their communities. He meticulously reconstructs the events in the county that led to the survival by 1945 of only 51 Jews out of 331.
Jewish lives were so devalued that rural Poles could renounce, murder, rape and rob Jews with impunity.
In Dabrowa Tarnowska County, Jews represented 8% of the pre-war population. Grabowski explores Jewish-Polish relations and exposes the uncomfortable reality that Jewish survival was intrinsically dependent on the sentiments and actions of local Poles. His research indicates that Poles determined which Jews would live or die by either helping Jews in their struggle to stay alive or betraying them by actively hunting them to steal their property or earn rewards offered by the Germans.
Jewish lives were so devalued that rural Poles could renounce, murder, rape and rob Jews with impunity. Rural settings lacked the anonymity of urban environments making it more difficult to hide but provided opportunities for community cohesiveness and cooperation. The former proved to be the more common factor in the fate that befell local Jewry.
In his groundbreaking research, Professor Grabowski documented the murders and betrayals of Jews in Dabrowa Tarnowska by their neighbors using three types of sources: 1) Jewish testimonies filed shortly after the war (1945-1948) of those who had survived by hiding; 2) survivors’ testimonies collected 20 years later in Israel; and 3) more than 50,000 filmed interviews with survivors registered by the Visual History Foundation, an organization that documents and archives first-person histories of Shoah survivors.
The author painstakingly compared the Jewish testimonies to Polish court records from the Krakow Appellate Court “August trials” that took place immediately following the war. These trials included testimony of 200 accused and over 1,000 witnesses, most gathered after the Kielce pogrom and at a time when most survivors had already left Poland. The author also made use of information from investigations undertaken in the 1960s by the West German justice system investigations, local press accounts and archival documentation from the prewar period.
Grabowski paints a picture of ubiquitous anti-Jewish sentiments fomented before the war by mainstream political parties and the Catholic Church. He points to preserved documentation that indicated that anti-Jewish violence was widespread, including beatings, assaults, threats and vandalizing of Jewish businesses, synagogues and homes.
The pre-war Catholic press called for the “de-Judification” of the Polish economy and culture. This led to economic boycotts against Jewish merchants. Anti-Jewish propaganda from the Church and the Nazis led to the prevalent belief that the Jews had hidden gold or other riches. The locals often gang-raped Jewish women and tortured the men to find out where these valuables were stashed. After the executions, bodies were stripped, searched and buried. Polish townspeople carried out the execution of Jews in a routine fashion, sometimes raising a glass of vodka before the murders and the subsequent search for riches.
German occupation of Dabrowa Tarnowska County began in late 1939. Initially administered by the Germans, it was quickly taken over by the local administration. Polish police worked with German gendarmes and Gestapo agents to raid Jewish homes and load Jews on trains to be gassed at the nearby Belzec extermination camp.
The Judenjagd was carried on in two phases, Grabowski writes. Phase 1 was performed by German “evacuation commanders” and Polish “blue” police, so named by the color of their uniforms. The Germans encouraged the Polish population, who willingly joined citizen militias, to actively hunt the Jews. Local Poles entered Jewish homes and pulled Jews out from hidden bunkers and attics and even chased small children. They sought Jews who escaped to the “Aryan” areas and also captured them in nearby forests.
Polish volunteers executed their captives on the spot, took them to nearby execution sites or forced them to board a transport to Belzec. They delighted at the sight of Jewish property that would be theirs, even stripping personal items from their dead victims. Denouncing and murdering Jews did not carry the stigma associated with the murder or denunciation of fellow Poles. Among some Poles, aiding Jews was considered against the vital interests of Poland.
A paramilitary organization of Polish youth, the Baudienst, took part in the Judenjagd as well. They assisted the “blue” police in the local ghettos by guarding Jewish houses and securing Jewish property. They also worked enthusiastically with the Polish police to liquidate the Jews. They went above and beyond the call of duty in their plunder and used axes and other blunt instruments to attack their victims, some even chopping off the heads of Jews, according to Grabowski’s research.
Phase 2 of the Judenjagd involved distribution of Jewish spoils. For this phase, the Germans developed a system of prizes and penalties to entice Poles to continue the hunt and assist with the goals of the “Final Solution.”
The great majority of Jews in hiding perished as a result of betrayal. They were pursued, captured and delivered by the locals to nearby Polish police stations or German gendarmes. The “blue” police relied extensively on local informers and perfected their methods of robbing the Jews. The Polish government played a significant role in coordinating these activities.
Grabowski reports that when Jews were transferred to the ghetto or to Belzec for extermination, Polish officials arranged the transportation and organized the necessary guards. They also disposed of Jewish property and possessions.
Other segments of Polish society played an active role in the Judenjagd. Polish firefighters supported the “blue” police efforts. In some cases, they replaced them in the hunt and delivery of Jews for slaughter. Polish peasants took part in the manhunts, some even organizing them independently for the promise of spoils taken from the victims. The manhunts were unusually efficient due to the zeal of Polish participants, who didn’t experience moral dilemmas or reprobation for their involvement. It was quite profitable and safe to hunt Jews and Jew hunters came for all walks of Polish life.
Grabowski relates that most Poles who offered to help Jews escape did so for money or other forms of recompense. Payments were made in cash, promissory notes, valuables, food, clothing and even services. Rapes and sexual servitude were not uncommon. When their resources ran out, Jewish charges were typically turned over to the Polish police or the Germans and murdered. Exterminated Jews were stripped of their clothing with fights ensuing among Polish townspeople over who would lay claim to the spoils. Shockingly, the author reports that even “extorting rescuers” have been awarded Righteous Among the Nations recognition.
By 1942, as the pace of liquidations intensified in Dabrowa Tarnowaska, local Jews fled to the Dulcza Forest. Of course, they were dependent on the assistance of Polish neighbors, who commonly alerted the Germans who initiated manhunts.
Actions against the Jewish population took place after the liberation of Poland. In January of 1945, to remove potential Jewish witnesses and maintain a hold on stolen Jewish property, the barbarity continued. Following the war, surviving Jews were clearly not welcome in the community.
Grabowski reports that many of the “blue” policemen continued their careers with local support after the war. During the post-war investigation of the Jewish murders, they received massive support from the peasants who petitioned for their freedom or leniency.
In his critically important book, the author notes that Poles excused their limited assistance to their Jewish neighbors by citing the danger inherent in helping Jews. He reports that Poles were so worried about repercussions from their neighbors that they kept secret from friends and relatives the sheltering and saving of Jews. The author rhetorically poses the question as to why this was considered so dangerous when Poles routinely risked their lives breaking other German regulations such as keeping unlicensed livestock, reading the underground press, being involved in the resistance and owning a radio receiver.
Tragically, after the war, when the Polish Main Commission for the Prosecution of Nazi Crimes queried people in the area, they asked only questions about the role of the Germans, not about the participation of Polish peasants. Additionally, these testimonies failed to mention the names of the Jews, who were local people well known to the Polish community. Thus, the record of Poles taking part in the Judenjagd were left out of the historical record until the publication of books like Grabowski’s.
In concluding his exposé, Grabowski poignantly asks, “Would the Germans have succeeded as completely as they did in exterminating the European Jews without the often unforced, and sometimes enthusiastic, support of non-German volunteers and helpers?” The Nazi death machine required the complicity of local populations to succeed which, in Poland, was nurtured by well-established bigotry against Jews and the lack of value placed on Jewish lives.
In light of Grabowski’s research and that of other historians, the recent Polish Holocaust bill is unwise, at best. Ample evidence of anti-Semitism in pre-World War II Poland and the well-documented wartime and post-war organized efforts against Jews prove that it is clearly impossible to deny Polish involvement in the Holocaust.
Making it a crime to speak the truth cannot change the reality of what historically occurred, but it can limit the dissemination of truth, which ultimately can only bring more harm.