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Polish-Jewish Relations 1939-1945: Beyond the Limits of Solidarity

jan peczkis|Monday, October 15, 2012

To anyone who has carefully examined this work, and heard Ewa Kurek speak (I have), it is obvious that her level of knowledge is far above that of the usual authors on this subject. Neo-Stalinists and Polonophobes can dismiss and name-call all they want, but the facts presented in this work remain facts nonetheless. In addition, Kurek is even-handed, and realizes that she will "get it" from both sides, "Some Jews will accuse me of anti-Semitism, and some Poles will say I slander my own nation. I just can't help it." (p. 2). She accepts the premise that Jewish criticisms of past Polish conduct may be valid (p. 108), definitely embraces unilateral Polish guilt for Jedwabne (p. 302), and elaborates on and strongly condemns Polish blackmailers and denouncers of fugitive Jews. (pp. 362-on).

Any notion that Kurek is "excusing" Endek conduct is patently ridiculous. About the only time she even mentions them is when she quotes Ringelblum praising repentent Endeks for sympathy towards Nazi-persecuted Jews. (pp. 369-371).

Certain governments in pre-Nazi Europe sporadically imposed compulsory ghettoization, which never existed in Poland until enacted by the Nazi German conquerors. However, voluntary Jewish self-segregation had existed much longer. (pp. 43-46). Jews were motivated to self-segregate partly as a defense against anti-Semitism, but primarily out of a strong preference of associating with one's own, and of avoiding Christianity. For instance, Jews stayed indoors during Corpus Christi processions, and devout Jews avoided living in homes whose windows overlooked a church. (p. 45).

Exceptions like Berek Joselewicz notwithstanding, the inescapable fact is that most erstwhile Polish Jews did not support the Polish cause while Poland was under foreign rule. This went far beyond Jews not getting the rights that they felt they were entitled to from Poland. Polish Jews always saw themselves as a displaced Chosen People forced by circumstances to perform duties to foreign causes in a foreign land, and were reluctant to shed blood for foreigners. Long before Zionism had emerged as a political movement, Jews had always given their allegiance to Zion, for whose restoration they prayed at least once a year. (pp. 87-88). Even the term POLIN (a place of rest) implies a transitory situation, not a homeland. (p. 88). Later, for Jews, it did not matter if the rulers of Polish lands were Poles, Germans, Russians, etc.--all were equally legitimate. Prominent Jewish historian Meier Balaban called attention to the fact that Poznan-area Jews openly loved Germany. (p. 83).

Kurek frowns upon the term Zydokomuna (Bolshevized Judaism) owing to its stereotypical connotation, but realizes that this concept goes much deeper--to the divergent conceptions of "freedom" as understood by Poles and Jews (p. 98-on), and the unmistakably Jewish (and largely non-Polish) character of the 1905 Russian Revolution. (p. 105). This was no Endek imagination. In the Polish Socialist Party, the term freedom unambiguously included the resurrection of the Polish State. To Jewish members, this issue, if not objectionable, was of little relevance to their definition of freedom. Onetime Polish Socialist colleagues Jozef Pilsudski and Maksymilian Horowitz exemplified this split, with the latter eventually becoming a full-fledged Communist. (p. 100, 103).

The failure of Socialism to heal the centuries-old Polish-Jewish divide, as especially hoped by Polish leftists, had long-term implications. It eventually led to widespread Polish (not just Endek) beliefs that the Jews were burdensome foreigners whose very presence in Poland was increasingly intolerable. (p. 108).

Although several centuries removed from living in Germany, Poland's Jews not only clung to a modified German (Yiddish), in personal and public life, as their "native" language, but only about 15% of them spoke Polish. (pp. 143-144; p. 321: This later greatly hindered Polish rescue of Jews during the Holocaust). Jews had a sweeping hostility to the Latin alphabet as a GALKHES (Christian clerical) alphabet. (pp. 150-151).

Pointedly, open antagonism between Jews and Christians went both ways. For instance, the Jews regularly had their PURIMSZPILEN (PURIMSHPIELS), in which the role of the evil Haman was cast as a Catholic priest (pp. 135-140)(and, in later centuries, any Christian Pole). (p. 153). Obviously, this was a chronic situation, and not merely an angry reaction by Jews undergoing active persecution.

Jewish particularism went far beyond Jews being "different", and it became increasingly politicized. With the Polish state resurrected in 1918, Poland's Jews, as exemplified by Parliamentarian Yitzhak Gruenbaum, demanded Jewish autonomy to the point that "Poland" consist of separate, autonomous provinces. (pp. 96-97). Polish Socialists, no less than Endeks, categorically rejected this. (p. 96).

In the first 2.5 years of the Nazi German occupation of Poland (1939-1942), the Germans killed Poles over Jews in a 10:1 ratio. (pp. 300-301). During this time, the Jews realized their age-old wish for autonomous provinces (albeit in the form of Ghettos), as is especially obvious from quotations of the writings of Adam Czerniakow (pp. 200-201) and Emmanuel Ringelblum (pp. 206-208) of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Jewish autonomists actively financed the construction of the ghetto walls (p. 208), and Czerniakow actually believed (the German-propaganda notion) that the ghetto walls served to protect Jews from Poles! (p. 209). Jewish contacts with authoritative Poles, during this time (1939-1942), were almost nonexistent, even spurned (p. 301), and this would later have deadly consequences during the "resettlements" and plans for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The thesis that Jews played a major, even indispensable, role in their own destruction during the later Holocaust, as exposited by Kurek (pp. 260-262) and acknowledged by her, is nothing new. German Jew Hannah Arendt, in her Eichmann in Jerusalem (Penguin Classics) (see the Peczkis review), not only first brought this matter to light, but also suggested that the Germans could not have murdered anywhere near 5-6 million Jews had it not been for the active collaboration of the Judenrats and the Jewish Ghetto Police.

Consistent with "Jewish autonomy", a strong spirit of Jewish cooperation with the German masters had begun almost immediately, and, according to Ringelblum, the Jewish Ghetto Police had a bad reputation among Jews even before the deportations. (p. 245). Clearly, its German-collaborative conduct does not simplistically reduce to the desperation of individuals doing anything to save their own lives, as this threat to life did not come until much later.

Kurek examines the situation when Jewish Ghetto Police did dispatch fellow Jews to their deaths in order to save their own lives. She is neither condemning Jews nor evaluating which religion is "better". She is stating facts. The commandment of Kiddush ha-Shem (sanctifying the name of God), as also recognized by Jewish authors relative to the Holocaust, allows the sacrifice of some Jews in order to save the lives of other Jews. (p. 279). Kiddush ha-Shem, or a derivation thereof, also allows Jews to save their own lives even at the expense of the lives of other Jews. (pp. 283-284).

During the Holocaust, only a tiny fraction of Poland's 3.4 million Jews ever fled the ghettos and thus became accessible to potential Polish help. While Jan T. Gross only cites the highest figures for such escapees (in order to make the fraction of these saved by Poles as small as possible), Kurek cites a range of figures: 5-10%, which amounts to 170-335 thousand Jews fleeing the ghettos. (p. 324; 380-381). The plausible Jew-saving rate by Poles thus widely ranges from 40,000/335,000 (12%) to 120,000/170,000 (71%). (pp. 380-381). Contrasted with the fraction of 1% of German-obeying Jews that survived the Holocaust, even the most unfavorable set of figures soundly debunks the Polonophobic notion that a Jew was in as much danger from a Pole as from a German.

The notion that Poles were slow or reluctant to address the situation facing Jews is false. A translated March 1941 bulletin from the Polish Underground (written well before the Holocaust), among other orders minimizing any possible Polish-German cooperation (let alone collaboration), categorically forbids Poles from even appearing to take part in any German anti-Jewish actions. (p. 326). The notion that Polish Underground authorities equated Polish and Jewish deaths is also false. An Underground bulletin (September 1942) explicitly highlights Jews as vastly murdered special victims of the Nazis for no other reason that they are Jews. (p. 329).
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