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Holocaust Memoirs: Jews in the Lwow Ghetto, the Janowski Concentration Camp, and As Deportees in Siberia

Jan Peczkis|Thursday, September 23, 2010

This work covers a lot of experiences, and I focus on only a few of them. It spans the 1939 war, first Soviet occupation, Nazi German occupation, unfolding Holocaust, Soviet rule, and Communism in Poland.


In common with countless eyewitnesses, Schoenfeld confirms the indiscriminate 1939 Luftwaffe terror bombing of defenseless Polish civilians. (p. 22). Unfortunately, however, he repeats the well-worn myth of the Polish Air Force getting destroyed on the ground. (p. 11).

A commonly-cited exculpation for the 1939 Zydokomuna (Jewish-Soviet collaboration) is that of mortal Jewish fear of the Nazis, and gratitude to the Soviet invaders for having stopped them. This will not do. To begin with, those Jews who fled east were primarily war-zone-fleeing refugees (Schoenfeld among them: p. 22), not Nazi-fleers. The overall lack of particular Jewish fear of the Nazis, at that time [well over a year before the mass exterminations began], is proved by the large number of Jews who, having fled to the Soviet-occupation zone of Poland, tried to get back to the Nazi-occupied zone. All of these points are made clear by Schoenfeld, who writes: "At the beginning of 1940, bureaus were opened for the registration of refugees wishing to return to the German-occupied part of Poland. Some of the 250,000 Jewish refugees, almost all of whom were singles, availed themselves of the opportunity to return home." (p. 38).

The Jewish attitude to the Nazis at the time was, at best, mixed, as made obvious by Schoenfeld: "Those who registered for the return to German-occupied Poland were unwilling to listen to what people were saying about the ill-treatment of Jews by the Nazis. They reasoned that, although under the Germans they would have to work hard, the war could not last forever. In any case, they preferred western culture to the Soviet Union. In the end, the Soviets did not allow Jews to return to the west, and instead, using the names and addresses on the registration list, rounded them all up and sent them in the opposite direction, to Siberia." (p. 39). [This last point by Shoenfeld confirms historian Jerzy Robert Nowak.].

The author portrays the Lwow Judenrat as one that was at first trusted, and then strongly despised, by the Jewish people. (p. 66). He also writes: "One of the greatest bribe-takers was Dr. Ullrich, who demanded only gold and precious stones. But taking bribes did not prevent him from staining his hands with Jewish blood." (p. 66). Also: "The Jewish police became the rulers in the ghetto. They ruled with unabashed corruption, and finally became the sole authority representing the Jews...The police became the `elite'..." (p. 118).

Not all Jews were targeted by the Nazis for destruction. For instance, the Karaites, a Jewish sect that also practiced circumcision, were not reckoned by the Nazis as Jews, and were spared. (p. 104).

Schoenfeld credits a Polish engineer with warning the Jews about the nature of the Belzec death camp (p. 92; see also p. 120), to which many Lwow-area Jews were sent, and to other Poles for constructing fake Aryan identification cards for fugitive Jews, about which he says: "In this regard, some Poles who still held official posts in the registration office at the city hall were of great help." (p. 103). Schoenfeld's friend Fliegelman, who had managed to escape from his Jewish-body-exhumation-and-burning detail before he would've been shot by the Germans as an inconvenient eyewitness, survived the war by being hidden by a local Pole. (p. 155).

There is nowadays a tendency for criticisms to be voiced against Poles (e. g., by Jan T. Gross and his fans) for the fact that rescuers were "few", that the death penalty was no big deal because Poles regularly faced it anyway, that the Poles failed to realize that they had some kind of moral duty to save their Jews, etc. Schoenfeld, who, unlike most of Poland's critics, actually went through the Holocaust, soundly rejects this kind of thinking as he comments: "On the other hand, extraordinary courage, devotion, and heroism were displayed by those who risked their lives to save Jews, despite the fact that harboring Jews was punished by death. And does it matter how many righteous people there were? Who has the right to ask another to risk his life in order to save his own? These righteous men and women deserve to be remembered with appreciation and gratitude forever." (p. 107).

Maximilian T., a fellow Holocaust survivor, takes up the question of good and bad Poles and Ukrainians, and then quips: "And to this question, I would only add, and what about the Jews. Have we all been saints? Have there not been any rotten apples in our barrel? Based on my experiences during the Holocaust, I have come to the conclusion that generalization in this matter would be unfair." (p. 237).

The Polish szmalcowniki (extortionists)(pp. 239-242) got rich by blackmailing fugitive Jews. Some of the Jewish szmalcowniki began their careers as victims of Polish szmalcowniki, whom they agreed to systematically collaborate with, in the identification of other fugitive Jews, in exchange for not getting denounced. Before discussing the szmalcowniki, however, Maximilian alludes to the desperate circumstances in German-occupied Poland that facilitated the emergence of this overall kind of conduct: "Life in Warsaw was very hard, and the population in general lived on meager food rations." (p. 239).

Schoenfeld is candid about the makeup of the postwar Soviet-imposed Communist government and its baleful effect on Polish-Jewish relations: "Many Jews served in the UB [U.B., or Bezpieka, the hated Communist security police], held command posts in the army, or were high-ranking government officials...Minc...Berman...Spychalski..." (p. 171).

Soon after the war, while Schoenfeld was traveling on a train full of Poles, none of them betrayed his widely-known Jewishness to a group of murderous presumably-Polish boarders who were looking for Jews. (p. 166). Otherwise, Shoenfeld understands at least some of the much-discussed postwar murders of Jews as occurring in the context of postwar banditry, in which Poles were also attacked. (p. 168).
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