The Polish Underground and the Jews: Solidarity, Betrayal and Everything in Between

Joshua D. Zimmerman talks to Filip Mazurczak on historical discourse on Polish-Jewish wartime relations.

Joshua D. Zimmerman
6 August 2015

For a long time, much of historical material about wartime Polish-Jewish relations has been either apologetic or accusatory. However, these relations at the time were too complex to place them in black-and-white categories. Is the research on the topic becoming more nuanced?

For some 60 years after the war, two mutually exclusive camps of historians published works on wartime Polish-Jewish relations. The Polish side argued that Poles acted properly towards the Jews, providing aid when possible under the severe conditions of the occupation. The Holocaust, the Polish side argued, was a German-Jewish problem during which Poles were innocent bystanders. In stark contrast, Jewish historians during this period argued that the scale of destruction could not have been possible without the tacit approval and, in some cases, participation of the Poles.

After 1989, however, some Poles began to acknowledge the role of certain Polish individuals in the annihilation of Jewish population. Some Jewish historians, moreover, began acknowledging aid efforts among Poles. The gap between two sides has significantly narrowed in the 21st century. Part and parcel of this progress has been new directions in Polish scholarship beginning with the appearance in Warsaw of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research and its annual, Zagłada Żydów [Holocaust Studies and Materials], a scholarly journal of Holocaust Studies, in 2005.  The development of new, self-critical scholarship in Poland coincided with growing recognition among scholars in the US, Israel and Western Europe of individuals and subgroups within the Polish Underground that worked tirelessly to save Jews.

Scholars who have contributed to these changes in Poland include, among others, Dariusz Libionka, Alina Skibińska, Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, Jan Grabowski, Jacek Leociak, Paweł Machcewicz, Jerzy Mazurek, Adam Puławski, Marcin Urynowicz and Andrzej Żbikowski. Among Jewish scholars, Antony Polonsky’s 2012 treatment of wartime Polish-Jewish relations in his celebrated Jews in Poland and Russia, reflects a more balanced portrait of Polish behavior towards the Jews during World War II. There is a growing awareness in the West about the stories of Polish Underground members involved in large-scale aid to Jews. Diane Ackerman’s award-winning The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007) tells the story of Jan Żabiński, head of the Warsaw Zoo and a Home Army member, who, along with his wife Antonina, hid hundreds of Jews. The book is now being made into a major motion picture. The celebrated courier of the Home Army, Jan Karski, was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in May 2012, while Irena Sendler was short-listed for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. The image of the Polish Underground is beginning to change as new evidence comes to light showing that ,alongside those who committed crimes against the Jews, the Polish Underground also included heroic individuals who helped Jews.

One aspect of Polish-Jewish relations that has been usually discussed in very simplistic black-and-white terms is the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: some have characterized the Polish Underground as betraying the Jewish insurgents, and others have depicted the Polish resistance as showing great solidarity with the Jews. Was the truth somewhere in the middle?

I cover this question in my new book The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945 in two carefully documented chapters.


The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is in many ways the axis around which the problem of wartime Polish-Jewish relations is discussed. From Reuben Ainsztein’s to Israel Gutman’s works published between the 1950s and 1980s, a consensus emerged that the Polish Underground did pitifully little on behalf of the Jews during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. These historians essentially concluded that the response of the Polish Underground to the ghetto rising was a crowning betrayal.  The theme of betrayal was reinforced in popular culture as reflected in Leon Uris’ novels Exodus (1958) and Mila 18 (1961) or in the American TV miniseries, “The Holocaust,” which aired in 1978 and was viewed by an estimated 100 million people worldwide

But dissenting voices were heard in Poland during this time. The Polish-Jewish historian and former director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Marian Fuks, argued in the late 1980s that the Warsaw ghetto uprising simply could not have taken place without the weapons, ammunition and explosives materials that the Home Army transferred to the Jews.

My book reconstructs the reaction of the Government Delegate, the Home Army and the government-in-exile. With regard to the commander of the Home Army, Gen. Stefan “Grot” Rowecki, the evidence allows for some conclusions.  First, Gen. Rowecki authorized the transfer of arms, ammunition, and explosives-device materials to the ghetto beginning in late January 1943. The reason for this authorization is a combination of pressure from London and Gen. Rowecki’s new appreciation for the demonstrated ability of Jews to fight effectively. Rowecki thus came to the conclusion that Jewish resistance groups inside ghettos deserved, and as citizens of Poland were entitled to, assistance. He also approved or ordered seven documented solidary actions on behalf of the ghetto fighters. During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Rowecki’s men suffered between 15 to 20 casualties and two dead as a result. My research also uncovered a note of the Home Army commander to the Polish Blue Police at the beginning of the uprising threatening to shoot any Polish policeman who aided the Germans. Prior to that, in February 1943, Rowecki had issued an order to district and sub-district commanders to provide military assistance to Jews inside ghettos wishing to mount self-defense. Almost none, however, obeyed this order and the vast majority of Jews outside Warsaw received no assistance whatsoever.

The top authorities of the underground also issued powerful condemnations of Polish blackmailers. On April 30, 1943, the Government Delegate in Warsaw called on Poles to aid Jews in a statement printed in the underground press. On May 6th, 1943, the Home Army commander and the Government Delegate issued a jointly-signed declaration – printed in the largest circulation underground papers – condemning Polish blackmailers as traitors who would be put to death by the underground authorities.

Were there reasons why some Jewish fighters in the Warsaw ghetto felt abandoned and, to an extent, betrayed, by Poles?

The most important evidence on this issue comes from the testimony of Yitzhak Zuckerman. When the ghetto rising began, Zuckerman was residing on the Aryan side of Warsaw while serving as the Jewish Combat Organization’s liaison to the Home Army. He requested a meeting with the Home Army commander to coordinate joint actions. Five days later, the head of the Warsaw District Home Army informed Zuckerman that no such meeting would take place. The note stated that armed actions by the Home Army had taken place and future ones were being planned. But no direct contact would be possible.

The ambivalent attitude of the Polish Underground to the rising is also evidenced by the important finding of Paweł Szapiro who found that in the extensive coverage of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in the clandestine press of the Home Army and Delegate’s Bureau, not a single mention was ever made of Home Army aid to the ghetto fighters. Szapiro concluded that the underground authorities had to have imposed a ban on this topic probably out of fear of public reaction.

A second large-scale anti-Nazi uprising took part in Warsaw, the citywide Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Discourse on Polish-Jewish relations in this period has also tended to follow one of two lines of thinking. In 1994, Michał Cichy caused a nationwide debate when he wrote in Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza that a renegade Home Army unit killed about 30 Jews during the rising. On the other hand, many writers on the rising, such as Norman Davies and Alexandra Richie, have characterized Polish-Jewish relations at the time as harmonious, noting that a Home Army battalion liberated over 300 Jews from the Gęsiówka (KL Warschau) concentration camp. Could it be said that Polish-Jewish relations during the Warsaw Uprising ranged from two extremes: heroism to treachery?

The last chapter of my book is devoted to the Jewish experience in the Warsaw Uprising and generally concurs with this view. The Home Army is documented to have saved about 400 Jews form German captivity during the Warsaw Uprising – 348 from the Gęsiówka camp by the Zośka Battalion and a 50-person Jewish labor battalion from the Umschlagplatz by the Kedyw Kollegium A unit.  In contrast, as you mention, rogue elements within the Home Army killed up to 30 Jews.

Two memoirs of Jewish fighters – that of Chaim Goldstein and Michel Zylberbreg – put forth the view that the majority of the Polish insurgents were loyal and friendly towards the Jews during the Warsaw Uprising and acknowledge that those who targeted Jews were a small minority. Zylberberg, for example, stressed that Jews who took part in the Warsaw Uprising did so individually as Poles because most kept their Polish pseudonyms. The testimonies of these Jews also reveal a strong ideological affinity with the insurgents.

The subject of Jews in the Warsaw Uprising relates to your first question about changes in Polish and Jewish historiography on wartime Polish-Jewish relations. For the first time, we are seeing Polish and Jewish scholars crossing traditional lines and taking inverse positions.

On the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising in 2004, the late Jewish-Polish writer, Edward Kossoy (1913-2012), concluded in the pages of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry and Yad Vashem Studies that Jewish insurgents who fought in the Warsaw Uprising represented a continuation of the tradition of Jewish participation in the armed struggle for Polish independence from the 1794 Kościuszko Uprising to Piłsudski’s Legions in World War I. But in their 2009 book on Jews in the Warsaw Uprising, Barbara Engelking and Dariusz Libionka essentially maintained that Kossoy’s account was too pro-Polish: they criticized the Home Army for failing to incorporate the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB) into its ranks (it fought alongside the forces of the leftist People’s Army). In their view, this represented a decisive break in the Polish insurrectionary tradition. In his celebrated third volume of Jews in Poland and Russia published in 2012, Antony Polonsky portrayed the Warsaw Uprising in more positive light than did Engelking and Libionka.

Biuletyn Informacyjny (“The Information Bulletin”), the weekly newspaper published by the Home Army and the Polish government-in-exile in London, which was edited by scoutmaster Aleksander Kamiński, recognized by Israel as a Righteous Gentile, never published an anti-Semitic article and appealed to its readers to help fugitive Jews. What were other Polish underground publications’ stances towards the Jews? Writing in a condemnatory tone, some Polish scholars have called this pro-Jewish stance “unique” compared to other Polish underground publications. Was this the case?

I have given this question considerable thought. In fact, my 30-page essay on coverage of the Jews in the pages of Biuletyn Informacyjny appeared in the new volume, Warsaw: the Jewish Metropolis, edited by Glenn Dynner and Francois Guisnet. Part of the research for my book was to examine the clandestine press put out by the bodies of the Polish Underground swearing allegiance to, and recognized by, the Polish government-in-exile.

After some years of reading these press titles found in various archives, I went through about a hundred clandestine newspapers of the Home Army. What surprised me was that the vast majority of these papers were silent about the Jews even at the height of the mass deportations to death camps in 1942-1944.  But in the larger-circulation papers in Warsaw, Krakow, Vilna, and Lvov, the Jews appeared frequently and almost always with a sympathetic orientation.  As others have brought to light, including Antony Polonsky, the clandestine press of the Home Army and Delegate’s Bureau was mostly favorable towards the Jews, reporting accurately on crimes committed not only by Germans but also by szmalcownicy, Polish blackmailers.

Publications of a distinctly anti-Semitic character nonetheless appeared under the official imprint of the Delegate’s Bureau. In 1943, for example, the Department of Information and the Press of the Delegate’s Bureau put out a 154-page booklet titled Honor i Ojczyzna (“Honor and Fatherland”). A chapter on the Jews was openly hostile, claiming that Jews had been disloyal to Poland under both German and Soviet occupations. Jews, the book stated, had never shown any interest in joining the armed struggle against the occupier but instead worked for the enemy. In the same year, the chief of the agricultural section of the Delegate’s Bureau published a 100-page booklet under official imprint that shockingly argued that the only positive outcome of the German occupation would be the disappearance of “foreign elements” (that is, Jews) from Polish lands. To be sure, some members within the Polish Underground bitterly complained in a letter to the Government Delegate demanding the dismissal of the author from his post as chief of the agricultural section. No such action was ever taken, nor is there any record of any reply.

One of the most difficult topics in wartime Polish-Jewish relations is that of the szmalcownicy, or Polish blackmailers of Jews. Many Polish historians are quick to point out that Polish underground courts sentenced these blackmailers to death, but others are unsatisfied with the underground’s reaction nonetheless. Who is right?

Here we touch upon perhaps the most delicate topic within the cluster of issues that are still being worked on. In my book, I saw my task as presenting research findings to the reader. I don’t render a decisive verdict but rather address nuances in the evidence. I demonstrate what the Polish Underground is documented to have done in reaction to blackmailers.

The Polish Underground leadership and press publicly condemned Polish blackmailers first in October 1942. As the problem increased, the Polish Underground took more action. In internal communications, the Home Army’s Jewish Affairs Bureau chief, Henryk Woliński, complained to his superiors in February 1943 that not enough was being done to protect Jews form blackmailers. In addition, the Polish government-in-exile began to pressure the underground authorities to issue declarations, carry out sentences and publicize these sentences. My evidence for this assertion is Jan Karski who transmitted a message from the Jewish leadership in Warsaw to Prime Minister Sikorski in fall 1942. They asked the prime minister to order the underground authorities to announce the death penalty for Polish blackmailing Jews, to carry out these sentences, and then post the names of the criminals in the press. In March 1943, a joint declaration signed by the Government Delegate and Home Army commander announced that the death penalty would be carried out for szmalcownicy. In September 1943, the largest circulation underground paper, Biuletyn Informacyjny, printed on its front page an announcement that on July 25, 1943, the underground court had carried out the death sentence on Bogusław Pilnik for the crime of blackmailing Jews. Three other such announcements were subsequently printed. What scholars such as Jan Grabowski and Dariusz Libionk have pointed out, however, is that the death sentence was much less likely to be pronounced or carried out on szmalcownicy than on other types of Polish collaboration.

By contrast, one of the brighter episodes in Polish-Jewish wartime relations is the Polish government-in-exile’s attempt to compel the West to stop the genocide of European Jewry. Why did the Polish government not succeed in getting the Allies to act?

The topic of the Polish government-in-exile runs throughout my study on the Polish Underground and the Jews. I benefitted greatly from the works by David Engel and Dariusz Stola.  My interest was in examining the government-in-exile’s policies towards the Jews and, in particular, in what manner it instructed its representatives in the occupied homeland with regard to the Jews. The plethora of studies on the reactions of Britain and the United States to the Holocaust suggests that the Polish government-in-exile had no ability to shape Allied policy.  But its attempts are well documented. These include an address by the Polish foreign minister to the United Nations in December 1942 calling on the Allies to intervene militarily to halt the slaughter of Polish Jews and an English-language publication documenting German crimes against the Jews prepared for the occasion. The government also sent Jan Karski to Washington in 1943, where he spoke to FDR to inform him about the Holocaust. That Karski had a hard time convincing the Jewish American cabinet member, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., of the truth of these intelligence reports revealed what the Polish government was up against. The Allies could have ordered their generals to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz but they chose not to and the Polish government-in-exile was not in a position to compel them to do anything.

As you have said, Polish scholars are becoming increasingly aware of troubling dark spots in wartime Polish-Jewish relations, while at the same time Jewish ones are writing more and more about Polish aid to persecuted Jews. Your latest book itself is remarkably balanced, showing heroism, treachery and everything in between. Do you think that thanks to this Polish-Jewish relations are improving and that scholars are talking about this chapter of history basing their writing on facts rather than emotions?

Yes. Part of the new tendency of historiography is a conscious attempt to stay clear of the old school of condemnation and apologetics. Instead, the new scholarship is committed to dispassionate, scholarly inquiry that stays close to the sources. Scholars connected to the Polish Center for Holocaust Research of the Polish Academic of Sciences in Warsaw reflect this new trend.  Note, for example, that the subtitle of their journal, Zagłada Żydów, is “Studies and Materials.” The editors thus emphasize that the journal is based on documents and evidence.  Indeed, many of the principle articles in this journal include an appendix in which original archival documents are reprinted in full. The same trend can be observed in the works of Antony Polonsky whose studies are thoroughly documented in publications that rise above polemics and address evidence rather than polemics.

Joshua D. Zimmermanis is a Professor of East European Jewish History at Yeshiva University, where he holds a Professorial Chair in Interdisciplinary Holocaust Studies. He is the author of Contested Memories. Poles and Jews during the Holocaust and Its Aftermath, “Poles, Jews and the Politics of Nationality: The Jewish Labor Bund” and “Polish Socialist Party in Late Czarist Russia, 1892–1914.”

Filip Mazurczak studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.


Photo: Wikipedia

Polen, Ghetto Warschau, Ghettomauer