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An Attempted Objective Analysis of Polish-Jewish Relations in EarlyWWII

Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis|Thursday, July 16, 2009

In the Shadow of Auschwitz, by David Engel (1987). University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill London Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis An Attempted Objective Analysis of Polish-Jewish Relations in Early WWII

Although there are things in it which are slanted, I find this work a cut above the usual works on this subject. Engel begins with pre-WWII Polish-Jewish relations. He points out that, whatever local Jewish support there was for the resurrection of the Polish state in 1918, it was largely motivated by a desire to weaken the authority of the tsar (p.23), not out of love for Poland.

Now consider WWII. Engel realizes the fact that, after the Jews, the Poles suffered the most at the hands of the Germans. (pp. 158-159). As for the Polish government in exile, it, according to Engel, sought Jewish support because of a growing disinclination of the British to support the eventual restoration of Poland’s eastern frontier, even in 1940. (p. 70). [However, it is doubtful if Polish attitudes towards Jews played any significant role in British policies. All along, Britain saw Russia as a fellow imperial power, and opposed any large Polish state, especially one constructed at Russia’s expense.]

There was much fuss in the British press over the exile publication JESTEM POLAKIEM (I Am a Pole). Engel understands the clear distinction that exists between the occasional hostility towards Jews that sometimes developed out of traditional Polishness and Catholicism, and the kind that developed out of Nazism. (p. 76, 243).

The documents Engel cites alone make his book worth reading. One learns, for instance, of reports of local Jewish misconduct against Poles (e. g., p. 168, 291-292). Also, the Polish Blue Police was removed from service by the Germans when it came time to ship Warsaw’s Jews to their deaths at Treblinka. (p. 300). In England, Polish Jews commonly avoided military service in the Polish Army (p. 242), making-up charges of anti-Semitism as an excuse. 

Engel asserts that, while the Polish government in exile was the first to publicize the mass extermination of Jews in German-occupied Poland (p. 200), it did so because the information was soon to become known from other sources. (p. 201). Apart from impugning Poles and their motives, what makes Engel tacitly suppose that the Poles were supposed to have some sort of monopoly on this information?

All along, Engel seems to be projecting long-postwar developments retroactively upon WWII-related thinking. He accuses the Poles in London of downplaying what they knew about Jewish deaths at the hands of the Germans out of fear that they would overshadow Polish deaths. But, at that time, and unlike the Holocaust dominance in modern western culture, Jewish deaths were not generally seen as special or above those of others. So any such concern would’ve been weak at best.

In the end, Engel believes that both Poles and Jews were unreasonable in their approaches to each other. (p. 206). This hindered Polish-Jewish rapprochement.

For a sequel to this work, see [link]. For a published debate between David Engel and Dariusz Stola, see [link].

Review of Facing a Holocaust, by David Engel (1993). University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London

Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis

The Polish-Government-in-Exile and the Unfolding Holocaust

This book is a sequel to [link]. Some Jewish reviewers had accused it of being soft on the Poles. (p. 190). Engel clarifies his position: His books are intended to present the facts, not to make value judgments about one side or the other, nor imply moral equivalency between them. He also repudiates as unfounded the insinuation that the Germans built the death camps in German-occupied Poland because of (presumed) Polish attitudes towards the Jews. (pp. 97-98). He sees the circumstances under which Menachem Begin left the Polish Army as one that is shrouded in uncertainty. (p. 249). He admits that there is no direct evidence (p. 73) for his claim that the Polish Government-in-Exile came out strongly against the Nazi persecution of Jews only when its geopolitical status was fading as a result of western non-support in the wake of the Katyn revelation.

Engel notes that: “Indeed, the Allies on the whole proved no more amenable to Polish than to Jewish demands for action on behalf of those in mortal danger from the Nazi occupiers, and they specifically rejected the concept of retaliatory bombing.” (p. 43). This tends to further undermine Engel’s argument, in his earlier book, which he now partly admits was speculative (p. 191), which had suggested that the Polish Government-in-Exile downplayed Jewish deaths out of fear that they would eclipse Polish ones. Obviously, this was not happening.

A common theme of this book is the complaint that the Polish Government-in-Exile didn’t express itself in a manner commensurate with the gravity of the situation facing Polish Jews, and that it invariably mixed Polish and Jewish deaths. All this is based on hindsight reasoning, and one which confuses knowledge of Nazi murders of Jews with knowledge of the scale and final outcome of the same. To begin with, one Palestinian Jewish source estimated that as many as 1 million of the 3.3 million Polish Jews were out of reach of the Nazis--safely in the Soviet Union: p. 220). The fact that some Jewish ghettos in German-occupied Poland had been liquidated was not then taken as a foregone conclusion that all would meet the same fate.  And, among those Jews actually deported, no one knew how many had been murdered and how many had been resettled. Estimates of the number of Jews killed varied widely. (For example, even after the war, initial Polish and Jewish estimates had suggested a death toll at Treblinka and Auschwitz that was each 2-4 times the presently-accepted figure.)

The Polish victimization was better known because, unlike the case with most Jews, the murder of Poles by Germans was mostly overt (e. g., public shootings). When the German “Operation Zamosc” began against the Poles, no one then knew how far, and how quickly, it would advance towards the extermination of the entire Polish people. Finally, the notion that Jewish deaths were entitled to special recognition was not to develop for another 20 years.

In the chapter which Engel titled Zydokomuna [Bolshevized Judaism], he is partly candid about the Jewish support for Communism and how repulsive this was to Poles. He notes that 9 of the 10 editors of the pro-Soviet newspaper WOLNA POLSKA (creatively misnamed: Free Poland) were of Jewish origin. (p. 79, 81). The Soviet executions of Wiktor Alter and Henryk Erlich provoked a largely tepid, whitewashing response from many western Jewish newspapers. (pp. 59-61). The perceptive reader can clearly see that many opinion-forming Jews were more excited about alleged harassment of Jews in Anders’ Army than they were about the killings of two prominent Jews by the Soviets! [Besides this, how could the Soviet claim of being a champion of ethnic minorities be taken seriously in view of the elementary fact that the USSR consisted of many non-Russian peoples subjugated and ruled by Russia?]
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