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Facing the Catastrophe: Jews and Non-Jews in Europe during World War II (Occupation in Europe)

jan peczkis|Monday, September 5, 2011

This book covers topics as diverse as Holocaust denial, Nazi-occupied France and Poland, Lithuania,the Netherlands, etc. Owing to its breadth, my review is necessarily limited to a few topics.


As usual, there is the one-sided focus on Polish nationalism and anti-Semitism (e. g., Zbikowski, p. 68; Blatman and Poznanski, p. 183) without any serious considerations of Jewish conduct that tended to provoke, or at least facilitate, Jew-unfriendly attitudes. There is the customary one-sided discussion of Church teachings on Jews and the Crucifixion of Christ, but nothing on equally hostile Jewish teachings against goys--the latter of which may well have provoked more antagonism against Jews than the former.

Unlike Polish rescuers facing the German-imposed death penalty, their counterparts in the Netherlands could be sent to a concentration camp, but "...this kind of punishment was not often meted out to people who only sheltered Jews." (Verbeeck and Kosmala, p. 8). Caught German rescuers of Jews were briefly imprisoned, fined, warned, or sometimes faced no punishment at all. (Croes and Kosmala, p. 123, 129).

While focusing on the 1941 massacre of Jews at Radzilow (near Jedwabne), Andrzej Zbikowski provides a useful summary of the IPN study that was touted by the media as "proving Jan T. Gross right". It is manifestly incorrect to say that a series of Jedwabne-style massacres took place in the Lomza district. Zbikowski notes: "There were many incidents of a varied nature...In certain places, a relatively small number of `activists' indulged in violence and repressions; in others, wide circles from local society were involved...From the testimonies, it is not clear exactly how many victims there were, nor how many people participated in a pogrom. Nevertheless, the common characteristic of Jewish testimonies is that local Poles participated in such events on a mass scale. Confirmation of this can also be found in certain Polish testimonies." (pp. 42-43). The accounts were not exactly independent: "Often testimonies were provided by people who knew each other." (p. 43).

The main Jewish source of Zbikowski's information on the events of Radzilow is the memoir of Czaja Finkelstein (also quoted by Jan T. Gross) and written years later--after her departure to Palestine in 1946. Zbikowski seems to be innocent of the problems with this memoir, not to mention the tendency of pogrom accounts written by Jews to fabricate or, more likely, greatly exaggerate things (e. g., a handful of Polish killers and Jews killed each become hundreds). This is exemplified by such things as the internationally-examined 1918-1920 pogroms, and the Polonophobic tall tales of Jerzy Kosinski (Lewinkopf).

The main Poles quoted were all defendants, and, not surprisingly, had an incentive to lie about other defendants (and even about Polish bystanders) in order to escape blame themselves. The postwar trials, even if not formally staged per se, occurred in an atmosphere of rampant Communist terror. The defendants consisted of Leon, Antoni, and Ludwik Kosmaczewski, Zygmunt Skrodzki, Jozef Ekstowicz, Feliks Godlewski, Henryk Dziekonski, and Henryk Statkiewicz. Interestingly, Jozef Ekstowicz, sought by the U. B. (Communist security police), was arrested in September 1947, thanks to a tip-off by a neighbor. (p. 50). This reminds us that some Poles denounced fellow Poles, and not only Jews.

Statkiewicz is cited for having signed the Volksliste. (p. 59). How many other "Polish killers of Jews", for example, Bardon at Jedwabne, were actually Volksdeutsche (Polish-speaking Germans)?

Henryk Przyborowski, a Communist, testified that he saw "with his own eyes" how hundreds of Jews of Radzilow were murdered. Interestingly, he said that Poles who had collaborated with the Soviets were also killed. (p. 54). He adds: "I did not see Germans with them at the time, but I cannot deny it, they might have been there.'" (p. 54). However, he claimed that he saw Germans shortly after the killings. (p. 56). His testimony reminds us that an apparent absence of Germans does not equal their actual absence!

The "Gross was proved right" media spin about the IPN investigation of Jedwabne hinges on the premise that the Poles acted alone and the Germans only watched. If only one of the testimonies cited in the next paragraphs is true, then Gross' premise falls apart.

Defendant Dziekonski (p. 55) said that armed Germans were there, while the Poles had no arms, and ordered that no Jews be left alive or the same fate awaited them. (p. 58). Eyewitness Antoni Pachucki testified that the Germans arrived in two taxis, helped the Poles round the Jews up into the barn at Radzilow, and that the Poles acted voluntarily. Pointedly, he said that he heard the German commander say to the Polish police: "'If you don't destroy them, we will come and burn you.'" (p. 56). Poles acted voluntarily indeed!

Furthermore, Communist Przyborowski asserts that a German told him that "we'll burn you as well, old man." (p. 56). Defendant Ekstowicz said that the Gestapo had originally come to Radzilow, asked about the Jews, and ordered the Poles to "bring them to order", or the same would be done to them. (p. 51). Eyewitness Piotr Przestrzelski at least corroborated the fact that the Gestapo had earlier come to Radzilow and commanded the identification of the Jews. (p. 51). There are other testimonies that point, at very least, to significant active German involvement at Radzilow. (p. 53).

Defendant Ekstowicz claimed that he had climbed the roof of the Jew-filled barn, and poured 30 liters of petrol [From where did he get that much?] on it, under duress. (p. 51). Defendant Dziekonski (p. 57) denied that Ekstowicz was acting under duress. Is one of them lying, or do different people experience duress, or lack of it, differently?

Even Chaja Finkelsztejn, a decidedly hostile witness, writes that the Gestapo was in Radzilow three times before the massacre, and that it was the Gestapo who had given orders for Poles to round the Jews up. (p. 64). Finally, and not mentioned by Zbikowski, there are other Jewish testimonies that point to the Germans, and not the Poles, as the main killers of the Jews of Jedwabne and Radzilow. See the Peczkis reviews of Deliverance: The Diary of Michael Maik, a True Story and The Warriors: My Life As A Jewish Soviet Partisan (Religion, Theology, and the Holocaust).
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