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Against the tide: The story of an unknown partisanBielski Unit Responsible for the Massacre of the Poles of the

jan peczkis|Friday, December 5, 2014

4.0 out of 5 stars  The author describes her prewar life in Nowogrodek, Poland, and includes both sociological and biographical information. As with my other reviews, I emphasize matters of persistent relevance in the understanding of Polish-Jewish relations.


Rubin touches on the reciprocity of prejudices between Jews and Christians, as she comments, (quote) I wasn't lazy, but my religion was quite a burden and, under those circumstances, it wasn't easy to keep one's pride. I used to look at Jesus in church during the compulsory morning prayers and hated him for his betrayal of his fellow Jews. He started the whole trouble--a Jew himself; and we were still paying, I didn't know for what sins. (unquote). (p. 37). She also quoted her father, "Germany will always be Germany and even if there will be only one Jew left he'll be hated. It started with our giving the Christian world Jesus." (p. 134).

The author was also hesitant about accepting a Pole as her boyfriend because of the following assumption, (quote) He was soft and tender and begged me to be his steady. I refused, and we both went home with sadness in our hearts. I felt that, since he was a Pole, he must be anti-Semitic deep down and I should not get involved. (unquote). (p. 47).

A substantial number of Poland's Jews wanted nothing to do with Polish ways. Rubin comments, (quote) Like all old-fashioned Jews, Solomon Rubizhewski wanted some of his sons to become rabbis and didn't want them to attend Polish schools. (unquote). (p. 122).


Sulia Wolozhinski Rubin repeats the hoary myth of Polish cavalry, during the 1939 war, attacking German tanks with sabers. (p. 48). She glosses over the subsequent Jewish-Soviet collaboration in Russian-occupied eastern Poland (the Kresy), although she does mention a captured stash of documents including many specific NKVD-serving Jewish informers. (p. 69).

Rubin implicitly refutes the Jewish-fear-of-Nazis exculpation for this collaboration. In common with many other Jewish eyewitnesses, she points to the lack of notable Jewish fear of the Nazis at the time, (quote) We didn't believe many of the stories told. Nobody thought or perceived we would be annihilated. At worse, if the Nazis would come, we would be confined to a ghetto. Mama remembered the Germans from the First World War and told us how cultured the people were. She could not believe any harm would come to us because the Germans were not barbarians but the most advanced people in every field in Europe. How naïve we were! (unquote). (pp. 55-56).


After Nazi Germany invaded its erstwhile Soviet ally in 1941, the Germans began the Holocaust. Rubin managed to flee to the forests and join a guerilla outfit.

The author is candid about the difficulties of women serving in the military in general and guerrilla units in particular. (p. 109). Women often faced unwanted sexual advances from men. Rubin needed to have one of them accept her as his TAVO, for the sake of protection, even if she did not love him. Pregnancy caused difficulties. The cry of a baby would carry far, jeopardizing the entire unit. Pregnant women often had primitive abortions, or else were sent away to a family camp. This entire process hampered the entire guerilla unit, and made it more vulnerable to destruction.


To begin with, Rubin admits that the Jewish partisans engaged in banditry against the local villages. She writes (quote) They had to supply us with everything. Some did it willingly because they hated the Nazis, but most helped out of fear of a partisan gun or partisan revenge. (unquote). (p. 108).

The author then performs a 180-degree gymnastic of the facts, creatively transforming the Polish defenders against banditry into aggressors against Jews. She thus relates the systematic murder of the Poles of Naliboki as follows (quote) He later told me about one particular experience which sticks vividly in my mind. There was a village not far from the ghetto which escaping Jews would have to pass on the way to the forest, or partisans would pass on the way from the woods. These villagers would signal with bells and bear copper pots to alert other villages around. Peasants would run out with axes, sickles--anything that could kill--and would slaughter everybody and then divide among themselves whatever the unfortunate had had. Boris' group decided to stop this once and for all. They sent a few people into the village and lay in ambush on all the roads. Soon enough signaling began and the peasants ran out with their weapon to kill the "lousy Jews". Well, the barrage started and they were mown down on all sides. Caskets were made for three days and more than 130 bodies buried. Never again were Jews or partisans killed on these roads. From then one that was the safest section. (unquote). (p. 127).

Rubin's exculpation for this mass murder is, on its face, laughable. Are we seriously supposed to believe that axe- and sickle-wielding villagers would launch unprovoked attacks against fully-armed partisans? In addition, what exactly was this onerous geographic barrier in the area--not mentioned in other accounts--that supposedly forced Jewish ghetto escapees and partisans to venture near Naliboki in the first place? Finally, even if some dwellers of Naliboki were guilty of wrongs against Jews, why was the punishment collective? Why was it necessary to slaughter everyone--including the children? [The informed reader may recall that Jewish commentators ironically complain that the Jews slain by Poles at Jedwabne, collectively in retaliation against the earlier Jewish-Soviet collaboration, included innocent Jews.]

To her credit, Rubin mentions the signaling with bells--a standard and obvious village warning against impending banditry. She also does not repeat the exculpatory myth, found in many Jewish memoirs, of a German garrison being stationed at Naliboki.


The war was over. The Teheran-Yalta betrayal of Poland included the giveaway of Poland's eastern half (the Kresy) to the USSR. This process included the confiscation of Poles' centuries-old domiciles and the expulsion of the native Poles under conditions no better than that of the simultaneously-expelled Germans (vertriebene) further west. Rubin experienced this firsthand, and also came to appreciate the earlier wartime sufferings of the Poles. She remarked, (quote) Rumors reported that former Polish citizens could repatriate to Poland. In the beginning people were afraid to register thinking it a trick for shipping them to Siberia...Again, I wrote myself a "pass" and travelled in the most horrible cattle trains. What I saw on the roads was enough to raise one's hair. There were hardly any men around; only women and children with suffering and hunger written all over their faces, living in mud huts. What the Nazis had done to the people no words in any book could describe. No wonder they fought so hard against the enemy. Although they were better off than the Jews, they suffered just the same. (unquote). (p. 177).


Recently, neo-Stalinist Jan T. Gross has called attention to postwar Poles looting the sites of the Jewish dead for valuables. This actually was a common war-related event, not limited to any one nationality. Rubin revisited her native Nowogrodek, now long part of the USSR and with the Poles long gone, in 1969. She was told about how the locals (now Byelorussians and Russians) had been looting the graves of the Nazi-German murdered Jews, (quote) I heard a terrible story from my friend who went with us. She had a son in that grave. It seems that, many times, peasants from all around would come, dig up the mass grave of some 18,000 to 20,000 people and seek treasures left by the Nazis--gold crowns on teeth, or such--and then cover the bones again very shallowly. (unquote). (p. 255).
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