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In Those Nightmarish Days: The Ghetto Reportage of Peretz Opoczynski and Josef Zelkowicz (New Yiddish Library Series)

jan peczkis|Tuesday, November 22, 2016

This work features the written works of Peretz Opoczynski (Warsaw ghetto) and Jozef Zelkowicz (Lodz ghetto). Much of the everyday information has been presented before (see the first comment under this review). For this reason, my review devotes considerable attention to the sociology and politics of Poland’s prewar Jews.


In his description of the authors, editor Kassow comments, (quote) Before the war, Opoczynski and Zelkowicz were journalists who knew the people they were writing for: the factious, argumentative, opinionated Polish Jews who read the morning Yiddish newspapers…Modern secular Jews loved to hear gossip about Hasidic rebbes; Hasidim avidly read exposes of crafty criminals. Yiddish-speaking Jews devoured biting satires of Polish-speaking Jews (SHMENDRIKES)[SCHMENDRICKS, that is, nobodies] and their shallow pretensions. (unquote). (p. viii). [For an exposition of the contempt of Peretz Opoczynski towards Polish-speaking Jews--as SHMENDRICKS--see p. 42 and p. 93].

Acculturated and assimilated Polish Jews were “too Jewish” for many Poles and “not Jewish enough” for many Jews. Editor Kassow alludes to the fact (as noted by Endeks) that Polish-speaking Jews remained Jews first and “Poles” second, while anti-assimilationist Jews warned that even outward Polonization meant a suicidal loss of essential Jewishness, (quote) While the Polish-language Jewish press showed great sympathy for Zionism, supported the new Hebrew literature in Palestine, and extensively reviewed Yiddish literature and theater, the Yiddish-language sector stubbornly refused to return the favor…The Yiddish writer Yehoshue Perle called them, “MENTSHN ON A MORGN”, people without a future… (unquote). (p. xi). Furthermore, (quote) Opoczynski, more outspoken,…made no secret of his contempt and even hatred of Polish-speaking Jews. (unquote). (p. xii).


Peretz Opoczynski of the Warsaw ghetto wrote of a situation where Jewish mail carriers were not acting as uprightly as Christian mail carriers. This prompted the following quoted remark of some angry Jews, “You’re worse than the GOYIM.” (p. 48).

Another derogatory term for gentiles, SHEYGETZ, was also used by Jews. This was reported by Jozef Zelkowicz of the Lodz ghetto. (p. 175, 178).


Editor Samuel D. Kassow writes, (quote) At some point he [Zelkowicz] joined the militantly secular, Yiddishist, and pro-Soviet Left Poyalei Tsiyon [POALE ZION] party, which also included the noted historians Emanual Ringelblum and Raphael Mahler. The party, which had a particularly strong presence in Lodz, was a staunch supporter of YIVO, and the Central Yiddish School Organization (CYSHO), a network of secular Yiddish schools supported by the Bund. (unquote). (p. xxvi).


Neo-Stalinist Jan T. Gross has gotten a lot of media attention through his portrayal of Poles as a dastardly people “out to get the Jews”, animated by (what else?) greed and anti-Semitism. This included lurid accounts of Jewish burial sites looted--presumably by Poles--as in Gross’ GOLDEN HARVEST.

In reality, grave robbery is no “Pole on Jew” thing. It is an unremarkable behavior that respects no nationality, and is common under the brutalizing conditions of war and occupation. Jozef Zelkowicz of the Lodz ghetto describes the funeral of a Jew who had recently died, (quote) He’s wrapped in rags with a rotten board under his back—a rotten piece of wood that will later be stolen to warm a spoonful of soup for someone still alive…Who robbed the Jews of their sense of piety toward the dead, nurtured in their hearts for centuries? (unquote). (p. 164).


By way of introduction, the public has learned via JUDENJAGD--the work of neo-Stalinist Jan Grabowski—that some Poles could be induced to turn-in fugitive Jews by rewarding such Poles with a bag of sugar. In another context, Vidkun Quisling had argued that his collaborative actions had alleviated the privations faced by the Norwegians in German-occupied Norway. The alternative--direct German rule over Norway--would only have made things worse.

Very much the same considerations applied to Jewish-Nazi collaboration. For instance, in describing the infamous Jewish ghetto police in the Lodz ghetto, Jozef Zelkowicz said, (quote) The Jewish police were bought. Then they were gotten drunk and given a kind of hashish: their children were exempted from the deportation decree, and they were provided with a kilo and a half of bread per day in exchange for this bloody piece of work, enough bread to eat their fill and an extra ration of sausage and sugar. At the same time, the police were given a rationale to justify their acts: “If our molars are ripped out, our living limbs chopped off, and our bodies cut in two by our own, familiar Jewish hands, perhaps it will not be as painful as the same acts carried out by strangers, with their rough and dirty ones.” (unquote). (p. 239).

Nowadays, Jewish collaboration with the Nazis is commonly excused by the extreme circumstances (while collaboration of others under German occupation (e. g, Poles), in accordance with the double standard, is not). Interestingly, those Jews who actually went through the Holocaust, and know better than anyone else what it is like to be a Jew trying to survive the Nazis, do not so easily let Jewish collaborators off the hook. For instance, Peretz Opoczynski of the Warsaw Ghetto commented, (quote) Someday the role played by the officials of the Jewish Council—spooning everything of value their own way—will be exposed in the harshest light. These were the corrupt civil servants who would obtain an exemption from forced labor for anyone who had enough hard cash, leaving those without any money to be deported in their place. When everything comes to light, it will also be impossible to hide the shameful role played by the Jewish police, which up until now has been completely silenced. (unquote). (p. 95).


According to the editor, Samuel D. Kassow, Lodz had the highest “natural” mortality rate of large Jewish ghettos in German-ruled Poland. Fully 21% of its original inhabitants had died from starvation and disease during its existence (1940-1944). (pp. xxix-xxx).
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