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Zegotain the Context of German-Enslaved Poland: Holocaust Misconceptions Corrected

Jan Peczkis|Thursday, May 5, 2011

The title of the book does not do full justice to itscontent. It provides a broad overview of the German terror directed againstboth Poles and Jews. Much of the content on Zegota is repeated from theirearlier book (see my review of LINK) and will not be repeated here.  Against the misconception that Zegota wasmerely the work of a handful of altruistic individuals, the authors stress thefact that it was a full-fledged, widely-deployed operation of the PolishUnderground Home Army (Armia Krajowa: A.K.)(e. g., p. 25, 35, 69, 94).



In the Introduction, British historian Norman Daviessurveys Jewish attitudes toward Poland. He alludes to the pressures created byPolonophobic Jews against a fair portrayal of Poles: “Some [survivors] sharedtheir stories but asked to remain anonymous because their friends would resenttheir ‘whitewashing’ the Poles.” (p. xxiii). What of the charge, Zegota notwithstanding, that “so fewPoles” helped Jews? Norman Davies comments: “The Polish-Jewish writer and oneof the founders of the Institute of Polish-Jewish Studies in Oxford, RafaelScharf, once suggested that such critics should try a role reversal. If thelife of a Pole depended on the sacrifice of a Jew (or anyone else, for thatmatter), would the human and moral outcome be any better?” (p. xxii). Perennial accusations of “most Poles being indifferent toJews” overlook the fact that the Poles had their own battle of survival underthe German occupation. Holocaust-survivor Ludwik Hirszfeld, as quoted by theauthors, realized this basic fact: “The city (Warsaw) was so full of Germans,Ludwik Hirszfeld wrote, that the Polish character of the city had visiblychanged. The Poles themselves were cowed, their resistance largely confined tothe Underground since any overt rebellion would quickly be suppressed bybullets. Walking along the streets they seemed preoccupied with their ownprecarious position, mourning their dead, fearing for the missing, and worryingabout their own; most were not prepared to risk their lives for others.” (p.45). The Polish Blue Police (POLICJA GRANATOWA) carried only apistol, and had to account for every bullet used. (p. 72). After guard duty,the police had to return the weapons to stations. Also, unlike truecollaborationist police of other nations: “They did not generally accompanyGermans in any armed actions.” (p. 169). The authors discuss the szmalcowniks (blackmailers ofJews) and denouncers, and put them in the broader context of the situation ofPoles under German occupation: “Towards the end of the occupation, Zegota notedthat the long years of brutality and terror had destabilized society to aserious extent, swelling the ranks of criminals and roving bands of lawlessyouths.” (p. 72). However, the authors overlook the destabilization of Polish societyas a factor in the occasional postwar killings of Jews by Poles, attributing itinstead to rightists or to Soviets. (p. 99). Nevertheless, during the Nazioccupation, Jews could pass through a series of Polish towns withoutencountering a single blackmailer. (p. 129). Polish peasants, desensitized by brutalization,eventually developed an attitude towards the Jews reminiscent of aspects ofperennial questions about why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Thisfact is obvious from the authors’ comment: “At the end of 1942, she (ZofiaKossak) analyzed the effect of the long war on the peasantry. At first, shewrote, the peasantry reacted against German brutality with horror and behavedhumanely against the Jews. That was still so in 1941. But by the next year, theexposure to daily atrocities had weakened their judgment. They startedwondering: The murderers go unpunished, there is no revenge, maybe it’s truethat the Jews are cursed?” (p. 84). Obviously, had traditional Christianteachings against Jews been the primary determinants of Polish conduct towardsJews, as often charged, it would have been more or less constant throughout. Therewould not have been a change in Polish attitudes towards Jews in 1942. This book includes personal testimonies. In one of them,Zdzislaw Przygoda, a Jewish member of the A. K., recounts the active A. K.involvement within and on behalf of the Jews’ 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising:“Three of my friends, Leszek Halko, Jerzy Rozwadowski, and Jerzy Burski, werein AK units that helped provide arms and diversionary tactics for the ghettofighters. On April 22, 1943, the Germans reported executing 35 Polish ‘bandits’who were caught fighting with the Jews.” (p. 136). This work also includes information about the Poles owngenocide at the hands of the Nazis. For instance, “Poles comprised 65 percentof all clergy at Dachau where they were subjected to medical experiments.Eighty-five percent of all clergy killed in Nazi-occupied Europe were Polish.”(p. 6). Meanwhile, in Germany, 100,000 Jewish men were given certificates ofexemption so that they could serve in the Wehrmacht. (p. viii).   Review of Inside aGestapo Prison: The Letters of Krystyna Wituska 1942-1944. 2006. Edited andTranslated by Irene Tomaszewski. Wayne State University Press, Detroit. Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis NaziGenocides Prefigured, The Imprisonment, A Good German, Last-Minute Killings ofnon-Jews, etc. This work begins with a solid introduction to Nazi Germanpolicies in conquered Poland. For instance, the Germans closed seminaries withthe goal that there would eventually be no more Polish priests. (p. xvii). Over2.7 million Poles were deported to Germany as forced laborers. Polish POWs werealso turned into slave laborers, in violation of the Geneva Convention. (p.xxviii). The Gestapo catches Krystyna Wituska for relatively minorPolish Underground activity. She is imprisoned in Berlin. The letters ofKrystyna Wituska mention simple joys such as the arrival of spring, andopportunities to attend Mass. One by one, her cellmates are removed and put todeath. She realizes that she, too, is doomed, but does not fear death,reasoning that death comes to everyone in time, and that, unlike her, mostpeople do not know when their time will come. She expresses reluctance inasking God to spare her life, considering the millions who have alreadyperished in the war. Some of her fellow inmates, unable to stand the tortures,consider suicide, but she does not, wanting the Germans to bear the moralresponsibility of ending her life. Interestingly, Krysyna Wituska, in her October 6, 1943letter (p. 91), used the term genocide (WOLKSMORD, LUDOBOJSTWO), in referenceto what the Germans were doing to the Jews and Poles, before Raphael Lemkinformally coined the term the following year. Lemkin understood the term both inthe sense of rapid biological extermination (the Jews) and long-term series ofacts with the same eventual goal (the Poles). (p. xiii). At times, Krystyna knows what is going on at the fronts.She expresses delight in the fact that the Allies have taken Italy, but isdisquieted by the realization that the German occupation of Poland can only beended by a Soviet occupation of Poland. The cell to which Krystyna is confined is very small,unheated, insanitary, and infested with multitudes of insects. (p. 59). Hersufferings are alleviated by the actions of Hedwig Grimpe, a woman who issympathetic to the inmates, and the one who smuggled the letters out of prison.Krystyna calls Grimpe Sonnenschein (Sunshine) in her letters. Krystynaexpresses anger upon learning that Grimpe had been robbed during an air raid.(p. 52). After a long spell in prison, Krystyna is guillotined. Krystyna’s mother writes a letter of thanks toSonnenschein for her help. In response, Helga Grimpe, Hedwig’s daughter, writesback after the war on behalf of her mother, stating the following: “I am Germanand so I can’t help but feel responsible for all the deeds and atrocitiescommitted by my nation. Therefore Krysia’s death, as all the others, willalways be for me a terrible guilt…Her courage and that of her friends proved tome that I must honor the Polish nation, all Polish people…I will try to doeverything possible so that you will be able to believe that there are betterGermans.” (p. 124).  Holocaust-uniqueness advocates mention the fact that theNazis sometimes killed Jewish forced laborers and inmates of concentrationcamps in the last weeks and days of the war. However, these last-minute victimswere not limited to Jews. For instance, Zbyszek Walc, an acquaintance of theWituska family, was incarcerated at Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. In the lastweeks of the war, during a forced march, the Germans herded him and otherinmates into a barn and burned them alive. (pp. 126-127).
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