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Quiet Hero: Secrets from My Father's Past, How the West Learned About Nazi Germany's Unfolding Genocide of the Jews

Jan Peczkis|Thursday, September 23, 2010

Instead of repeating other reviewers, I focus on matters of direct historical significance. This is based on the testimony of Ryszard Kossobudzki (later Anglicized to Cosby), as interviewed by Rita Cosby, his journalist daughter
This encyclopedic work, by a French Jew, covers many details about the emergence of news about what has become to be known as the Holocaust. Some of the early information is valuable and correct only when viewed in hindsight.

The young "Rys" (short for Ryszard, the Polish for Richard) went through the 1939 German-Soviet conquest of Poland. He described the carnage he saw. Then things only got worse. Ryszard comments: "While the general Polish population was not as actively persecuted as the Jews, times were still hard under the occupation. German soldiers treated the Poles like animals, and supplies were stringently rationed... [Non-Volksdeutsche]...were forced to trade on a newly emergent black market for their survival." (p. 48).

The Polish intelligentsia (notably the politicians, teachers, priests, artists, etc.) were systematically exterminated by the Germans. (p. 53). In time, 3 million Polish gentiles were murdered by the Germans along with the 3 million Polish Jews. (p. 289). [It is hardly surprising that some Amazon reviewers report never before having heard of the 3 million Polish victims.]

As a teenager, "Rys" joined the ORLETA (Young Eagles), a Scout-like organization that became part of the Polish guerrilla movement (A. K., or Armia Krajowa). He was involved in scattering leaflets, and, later, falsified his age as 16 in order to actively participate in A.K. combat. Also, "...the Resistance made bombs, assassinated Gestapo agents, derailed trains, blew up bridges, aided Jews in hiding, and printed more than eleven hundred anti-Nazi periodicals." (p. 61). "The Germans were ruthless, and would torture anyone they caught whom they suspected of involvement with the Resistance." (p. 65). To reduce the danger of betrayals under torture, everyone in the A.K. knew each other only by the nom de guerre.

One common Holocaust myth is the one about non-Jewish Poles quickly knowing that millions of Jews were being gassed and cremated on their soil. This was not so. "Rys", while visiting his cousin in Lublin, climbed a church steeple to see the environs. He saw in the distance a camp (later identified as Maidanek/Majdanek) amidst conflicting rumors as to what went on there. He recognized the chimney and the smoke, and, after a shift of wind, noticed the sickening stench, which they all mistook for burning garbage. Finally, all this was quite late in the Holocaust of Polish Jews. (Spring 1943). (pp. 68-69). It is obvious that, in the absence of hindsight, distantly-originating sights and smells do not translate into certainty about human bodies being cremated, the scale of these acts (Thousands? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands?), much less the nationality of the people being cremated.

"Rys" devotes considerable attention to his combat participation in the ill-fated, Soviet-betrayed Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Although there was nominally tens of thousands of A.K. soldiers participating, only the equivalent of about 2,500 of them could be said to be "adequately" armed. (p. 87). Some weapons had been hidden in the nearby woods but, with the Germans swarming around Warsaw, the Polish fighters lacked access to them. (p. 86).

Rita Cosby digresses from her father as she recounts her interview of Stan Aronson, an openly-Jewish member of an elite branch of the A.K. (KEDYW?). (pp. 76-78). He was well-accepted by his Polish colleagues, and was wounded in the Warsaw Uprising.

"Rys" describes Polish ingenuity during the Warsaw Uprising: "When Warsaw's water supply was cut off, the Poles collected rainwater from bomb craters and shared water from wells. When the Nazis were running daily air raids and shelling relentlessly with heavy artillery, the Poles made primitive weapons such as homemade grenades out of unexploded shells or Molotov cocktails using gasoline. They created launchers out of car springs, which could carry the weapons almost two hundred feet." (p. 89).

Both sides made mistakes during the Uprising. Some 500 Poles lost their lives when an "abandoned" German tank turned out to have a time bomb (although more recent evidence suggests that it could have been an explosive accidently set off, not a boobytrap: p. 278). "Rys" and his men shot to pieces a unit of Germans that had blundered too close to the Polish positions. At another time, his men raised helmets on sticks to successfully deceive the Germans into exhausting their ammunition on nonexistent Polish fighters, thereby becoming forced to surrender: p. 273).

The Germans used human shields (Polish women and children) around their tanks, and then ran them over. All in all, the carnage of the Uprising is described by "Rys" in quite a graphic manner. So are the horrors of combatants and civilians evacuating through Warsaw's sewers. "Rys" also pays tribute to the Polish women in the Uprising. (p. 143).

After the surrender of the Uprising, "Rys" was deported into Germany, and became a POW incarcerated at Stalag IV B. He saw the bright fires of the February 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden. The Germans approached the Poles with the offer of freedom, in return for being parachuted into Poland to fight the Soviets. (p. 207). All the Poles refused. Later, "Rys" and hundreds of other POWs escaped in order to avoid falling into Soviet hands, and successfully walked to the American lines.

This book has a moving ending. For instance, "Rys" and his daughter open up a suitcase, thought long thrown away, full of wartime mementos that "Rys' hasn't looked at for 60 years. (p. 259-on). Father and daughter later visit Poland, including all the wartime locations, and get to meet Poland's President Kaczynski. And so on...
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 17, 2010 4:38 PM PDT    
  5.0 out of 5 stars

Several factors stood as immediate barriers to the appreciation of the information that came in. One of these was the recalling of WWI-era mass-atrocity accounts that later turned out to be bogus. For instance, the DAILY TELEGRAPH published an article, in March 1916, stating the gassing of 700,000 Serbs by the Austrians and Bulgarians. (p. 9). Second, Polish Jews were not, for a long time, particularly afraid of the Germans, whom they regarded as the Kuturvolk. In fact, Laqueur estimates that the Jews who voluntarily moved from Soviet-occupied Poland to German-occupied Poland numbered in the "many thousand(s)." (p. 124).

The first stage of the Holocaust--the mass shootings of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen units in the wake of Operation Barbarossa--was regularly publicized by Polish sources. (p. 68, 72, 83, 109). Similar information came about the death camps at Chelmno, Belzec, and Sobibor. Later, the OSS (British intelligence) was kept informed about the Treblinka death camp, before August and September 1942, by Polish sources. (p. 97).

The flames in the Auschwitz crematories were said to rise 5 meters above the chimneys (p. 24), and to be visible 15-20 km away. (p. 23). The odors were said to be noticeable not only in the kilometers around the camp, but even at Katowitz (Katowice) (p. 23), some 25 km away. [I knew an eyewitness, Jerzy Gnat, who lived in Katowice at the time, and he scoffed at this notion.]. Laqueur does not make it clear how, in the absence of hindsight, distantly-originating sights and smells by themselves translate into certainty about human bodies being cremated, the scale of these acts, and the nationality of the people being cremated.

Although bits and pieces of information about the systemic murders of the Jews trickled in from many sources, the author is unambiguous in his identification of the German-occupied nation that did the most to alert the world about the unfolding Holocaust: "The first authentic and detailed news about the `final solution' came from inside Poland." (p. 101). "The records, to repeat, show that the first authentic news about the `final solution' was transmitted to the West by couriers and the radio station of the [Polish] Home Army...The Polish case is very briefly that they did what they could, usually at great risk and in difficult conditions. If the news about the mass murders was not believed abroad this was not the fault of the Poles." (p. 106). "The record of the Polish Underground and the Polish Government-in-exile was not perfect, as far as the publication of news about the `final solution' is concerned. But the long report submitted by Edward Raczynski, the Polish representative of the Allied governments, of 9 December 1942 contained the fullest survey of the `final solution'. No other Allied government was remotely as outspoken at the time and for a long time after." (p. 121).

The author reviews certain insinuations about Poles being tardy in disclosing what they knew (p. 106, pp. 200-201) (accusations later revived by, for example, David Engel). He leaves these insinuations an open question and comments: "If the Poles showed less sympathy and solidarity with Jews than many Danes and Dutch, they behaved far more humanely than Romanians or Ukrainians, than Lithuanians and Latvians. A comparison with France would be by no means unfavorable for Poland. In view of the Polish pre-war attitudes towards Jews, it is not surprising that there was so little help, but that there was so much." (p. 107). [In making the last statement, Laqueur evidently does not appreciate the essential difference between the conventional anti-Semitism practiced by some Poles and the exterminationist anti-Semitism practiced by the Nazis.]

Pointedly, Laqueur also realizes that there was plenty of blame to go around: "The Poles did not realize immediately the scale of the Nazi plot to exterminate all Jews. But most Polish Jews were even slower in understanding that they were not facing isolated pogroms but something infinitely worse." (p. 107). "If one finds fault with them [Poles], what is one to say about the Russians, who deliberately played it down from the beginning to this day? What about the British Foreign Office which decided in late 1943 to delete any reference to the use of gas chambers because the evidence was untrustworthy? What about the American officials who tried to suppress the `unauthorized news' from Eastern Europe? What about the Jewish leaders who continued to doubt the authenticity of the news well after it should have been obvious that there was no more room for doubt?" (pp. 121-122).

As for the conduct of the Vatican, Laqueur characterizes its alleged inaction as follows: "Probably it was a case of pusillanimity rather than anti-Semitism. If the Vatican did not dare to come to the help of hundreds [actually, thousands] of Polish priests who also died in Auschwitz, it was unrealistic to expect that it would show more courage and initiative on behalf of the Jews." (p. 55).
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