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Between Life & Death: History of Jewish Life in Wartime Poland 1939-1945

john peczkis|Monday, June 20, 2011

This book is not an easy read, and the person who is unfamiliar with the Holocaust may find difficulty in following some of the discussions in the book. Most of it centers on the experiences of Polish Jews in German-occupied southwest Poland, notably in the Nazi camp at Pustkow.


Soifer, the author, also touches on the pre-WWII experiences of Polish Jews. Consider the infamous no-mans-land accumulation of Jews near Zbaszyn (October 28, 1938). Most of these Jewish expellees from Nazi Germany were only "Polish" in a sense, as pointed out by Soifer: "It seems fairly safe to assume that these Zbaszyn expellees were mostly first-generation German, born from at least a Polish-Jewish father, some from German Christian mothers..." (p. 228).

Now consider Cardinal August Hlond's much-quoted and much-condemned 1936 "Jews are freethinkers" statement. Soifer tacitly acknowledges its validity: "That the Jews of Poland were losing their piety (both real and assumed) at an almost unprecedented pace in this war was undeniable. But this is an old historical process which, at least in Poland, dates from the second half of the nineteenth century...the spread of secular education combined with a pervading spirit of modernism and liberalism, and the rise of Jewish nationalist-political parties...disruption of family life and loosening of morals. In independent Poland...the abandonment of orthodoxy, if not religion, at a then perplexing speed, halving its strength between 1919 and 1939." (p. 233).

Let us now focus on the unfolding Holocaust. Here is a little-known fact: "Perhaps the most whimsical oddity of the GG [General Government] is the case of social care for Jews. During the long years of social dispossession and deprivation, even during the period of mass slaughter and afterwards, the Germans provided, indirectly, funds for the social welfare of Jews..." (p. 242).

The Polish government-in-exile has at times been accused of not appreciating fully the situation facing Polish Jews. Interestingly, one of the discussions in this book makes it clear that part of the blame may rest on the other side. Hugo said: "...to form a sort of underground society--like the one the Poles formed--not for active resistance, but as a parallel society to the one imposed on us by the Germans and the Judenrats they appointed. That's what the Polish government-in-exile did for its countrymen in Poland. Our Jewish leaders abroad failed to do the same. They didn't even ask the Polish government to extend its care to the Jews, to keep us informed as well as the Poles...I have no doubt that the Polish government-in-exile would have responded positively to such a request." (p. 216). Soifer added that negative Jewish sweeping generalizations against Poles also proved to be self-defeating: "On the one hand he [Hugo] accused Jewish leaders in the West of lordliness in relation to Polish leaders, claiming that they believed that they were so superior, and the Poles anti-Semitism so fanatical that it was a waste of time talking to them. But at the same time he said that this was merely an excuse made by the Jewish western leaders for their generally negative attitude towards helping the Jews of Poland, an attitude that went back to the nineteen thirties. Others said that there was no contradiction between the two." (p. 217).

Soifer, unlike Jan T. Gross and his fans, recognizes Polish denouncers for who they were--uncommon and decidedly marginal characters of Polish society despite their disproportionate impact: "While these human-hyenas form a tiny proportion of the Polish population and are condemned by most Poles for their actions, they are sufficiently numerous to be the scourge of, and a serious deterrent to potential Jewish runaways." (p. 255). [A large fraction of Jews who fled the ghettoes ended up surviving the war, contradicting the latter premise.]

The Germans commonly appointed Volksdeutsche as village heads. This made it easy for the Germans to monitor even remote Polish hamlets, and greatly hindered the secrecy of Polish villagers aiding fugitive Jews. (pp. 263-264).

German rewards to Poles for denouncing Jews were often much more substantial than commonly quoted. Sometimes it was only 10 kilos of sugar and 5 litres of vodka. However, near Krakow, it was 100 kilos of grain and half the possessions of the denounced Jew. In Lwow, the denouncer got the entire property of the Jews, along with 8,000 zlote, 10-20 litres of vodka, and 1,000 cigarettes. (p. 256).

Considering all the one-sided attention that has been given to Jan T. Gross on Polish acquisitions of post-Jewish properties, it is interesting to note that uncannily the same considerations applied to Jews acquiring post-Jewish properties during the war: "It is an established social order that the living inherit from the dead. What is wrong, some argued, in taking over the abandoned property of an evacuee? The conscious individual was the one who was first on the scene, acting on the assumption that `someone will do it if I don't'. Of course, there was always the possibility that there remained in the ghetto a close or distant relative, under almost any law the rightful heir of the evacuee. The conscious would meet this objection with the assurance that, should an heir of the former appear, the goods would be returned (something which hardly ever happened), while easing his conscience with the knowledge that he had saved the goods from falling into the hands of the Germans..." (p. 45).
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