The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945

Book Review

Filip Mazurczak
2 December 2015

According to Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski’s “Law of the Infinite Cornucopia,” one can always use an arsenal of one-sided arguments to support any position. Many histories of Polish-Jewish relations during the 1939-1945 occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany have selectively used evidence to paint the Poles as either heroic saviors of Jews or brutal anti-Semites. A refreshing antidote is The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945 by Yeshiva University’s Prof. Joshua Zimmerman. This excellent, painstakingly documented work is an effective weapon against biased accounts of this episode in history.

Poland on the eve of World War II counted 35 million people (two-thirds of whom were Roman Catholic ethnic Poles) and occupied an area greater than Britain or Italy. Thus there inevitably was a plurality of opinions on the “Jewish question.” Zimmerman understands this well. He begins his book by noting that although anti-Semitism grew in 1930s Poland, society was nonetheless divided. Zimmerman shows that the attitudes of the five largest political parties in 1939 Poland towards the Jews varied, from outspoken opposition to anti-Semitism and a desire for their full emancipation (the Polish Socialist Party and Democratic Party) to hostility and support for boycotts of Jewish businesses (the Labor Party and especially the National Democrats). The Peasant Party occupied a middle position.

Zimmerman also notes significant regional variations: in northeastern Poland (the site of the infamous 1941 Jedwabne pogrom of hundreds of Jews, inspired by Germans but carried out by Poles), anti-Semitism reached a zenith. There, anti-Jewish sentiments were already strong before the war, and they compounded when the region was invaded by the Soviet Union and many Jews greeted the Russians as liberators. It was there that the Polish underground often hunted down “Jewish bandits” hiding in forests. By contrast, in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia Poles and Jews faced two common enemies – German Nazis and Ukrainian nationalists – so there were many examples of Polish aid to Jews.

Thus Zimmerman has ample evidence to conclude, at one point, that the attitude of Polish society towards the Jews under German occupation was one of “ambivalence.” He argues that the Home Army – the largest anti-Nazi resistance group in occupied Europe, whose members included socialists, nationalists and everyone in between – was a reflection of this divided society. Its behavior towards the Jews could be either treacherous or heroic, depending on the region and the stage of the war (for example, sympathy for Jews decreased after Operation Barbarossa when many Jews hoped for a Soviet war victory, but increased after the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising).

After reading Zimmerman’s book, it is impossible to argue that the Poles and the Home Army were overall saviors of Jews or their persecutors. There was extreme variation. Zimmerman spent a decade discovering neglected archives in the United States, England, Israel and Poland (unlike most non-Polish Holocaust scholars, he mastered Polish). Thanks to this, Anglophone readers will now have access to many materials for the first time.

Most prominently, Zimmerman’s book includes lengthy quotations from the Polish underground press. Readers who stereotype Poles as anti-Semites may be surprised to see that the largest underground publication, the Biuletyn Informacyjny (Information Bulletin) affiliated with the Polish government-in-exile and the Home Army featured frequent criticisms of not only Nazis but also of Polish anti-Semites and blackmailers, and it often appealed to the Polish population to aid Jews in spite of the death penalty the Nazis applied for such help. By contrast, some local Home Army publications were marked by hostility towards the Jews. Many of these excerpts from the underground press were previously lost or forgotten, and were dug up only thanks to Zimmerman’s persistence.

Another important source of material for Zimmerman’s book is survivor testimonies (a resource historians in just a few years will not be privileged to have). While much ink has been spilt over the Jedwabne pogrom, Zimmerman’s book brings to light a virtually unheard-of episode that reads like the opposite of Jedwabne. In 1944, the local Home Army unit in Hanaczów evacuated that village’s 250 Jews, who were about to be killed by Nazis and Ukrainian nationalists, to safety and organized a Jewish platoon to fight both oppressors. Zimmerman discovered this unsung example of Polish-Jewish solidarity by interviewing Jewish survivors of the Hanaczów rescue operation (including the famous Krakow-based composer Leopold Kozłowski).

The sole shortcoming of The Polish Underground and the Jews is its exclusive focus on the Home Army. Given the title, one might expect a more encompassing study. While Zimmerman notes that three-fourths of the Polish military resistance to Nazi Germany was tied to the Home Army, he makes little mention of the attitudes of other underground organizations to the Jews, such as the leftist People’s Army (which was unanimously pro-Jewish; the veterans of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising fought in its ranks in the 1944 citywide Warsaw Uprising) or the far-right National Armed Forces (experiences like that of Samuel Willenberg, a Jew fighting in the Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising who was shot at by the National Armed Forces because of his ethnicity, were not atypical).

Still, Zimmerman’s book is a masterpiece. Zimmerman joins the ranks of other great Jewish historians who have published outstanding works on Polish-Jewish wartime relations free of prejudice, such as Gunnar S. Paulsson, Walter Laqueur, and Antony Polonsky. Undoubtedly, reading it will bring Poles and Jews closer together, a desirable aim because – apart from tensions in recent history – the Poles and Jews, “the two saddest nations on earth” to quote the half-Jewish Polish poet Antoni Słonimski, share a beautiful legacy.