Last Thursday, an episode in the “In Dialogue” series—events focusing on Polish-Jewish relations throughout history—was held in Low Library. Senior Staff Writer Abby Rubel attended.
The third episode of the “In Dialogue” series featured two notable scholars discussing Polish-Jewish relations during World War II. Piotr Wróbel, the Konstanty Reynert Chair of Polish History at the University of Toronto, spoke first, giving the Polish perspective on the topic at hand. Samuel Kassow, the Charles H. Northam Professor of History at Trinity College and “one of the world’s leading scholars on the Holocaust and the Jews of Poland, according to the program, spoke on the Jewish perspective.
Wróbel acknowledged in his opening words that the subject of Polish-Jewish relations during World War II is “emotionally loaded.” Indeed, before the talk began, I was approached by an elderly gentlemen who asked if I wanted “additional information” and then shoved two stapled pages into my hands. The packet, which did not bear any identifying information, was rife with grammatical errors. It criticized the lack of actual debate in the event, asserting that Wróbel and Kassow are unlikely to criticize the other’s views. “There will be no one to defend Polish society at this event, and it will be akin to a kangaroo court, or a communist [sp] mock trial.”
It went on to detail and rebut specific claims the author anticipated Kassow and Wróbel making in their talks. Most of the cited issues did not come up, although there was virtually no disagreement between the two speakers. The author of the packet clearly wished to advance his own agenda—a rosier picture of Polish-Jewish relations than both Kassow and Wróbel described. “Poles prefer to talk about those who did the opposite [of killing Jews or turning them over to the Nazis], and tried to help the Jews, even though Poles were killed themselves by the Germans in high numbers just for being Polish,” he wrote. (Estimates vary dramatically, but the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum puts the number of ethnic Poles killed at between 1.8 and 1.9 million. The Polish government’s study came up with numbers closer to the six million the packet cites.)
Wróbel began his talk with the question of why so few Jews (just 10% of Polish Jewry) died in German-occupied Poland. He hypothesized that the reasons were a longer and more oppressive occupation than in other European countries, and that the Polish Jews were the least-integrated Jewish community in Europe and thus easier to separate and persecute. Additionally, although the Holocaust was an exclusively German idea, he argued that the Poles could have done more to save their Jewish neighbors.
Although Jews were fighting alongside the Polish army in 1939, Nazi propaganda undermined the developing sense of solidarity between the two ethnic groups. Wróbel also cited the reaction to the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland as a source of friction. For the Jews, the USSR was seen as a lesser evil because it at least promised equal treatment. The Poles, on the other hand, despised it and saw Jewish support for it as treason.
Wróbel then detailed the various ways in which the Polish government in exile made some moves to help Polish Jews, but were generally unsuccessful. For example, they eventually promised full equality for Jews after the war, but Polish nationals, by and large, refused to accept Jews as their countrymen. The government in exile did not appeal to underground resistance movement to help Jews, and the movement did essentially nothing, according to Wróbel.
He concluded his talk by contrasting the minority of Poles who helped Jews out of kindness with those who did it simply for money and then killed or turned over the Jews when it became inconvenient or the money ran out. Although only a minority of Poles either saved or actively persecuted Jews, the vast majority of Polish bystanders were also complicit, Wróbel said. It is not surprising that the Polish government would want to counter this view, and so, Wróbel said, the issue remains an “open wound.”
Although Kassow’s remarks were much shorter, they were much more engaging. He began by agreeing with the packet that the issue is often oversimplified. The Polish government, he said, has encouraged an overly rosy view of Polish actions during the war, but neither do Poles “imbibe antisemitism with their mother’s milk,” as an interim Israeli foreign minister asserted this year. Studies have been done to determine what actually happened, but these haven’t had much impact, he said, because people on both sides like the simple narrative. Throughout his talk, Kassow tried to introduce complexity into what is often a “zero-sum game.”
Kassow took as his primary sources Jewish writings during the war. Using contemporary sources, he said, gives a more accurate picture than the writings after the war, which were often intensely biased. Until 1942, he said, many Jewish sources still showed some positive feelings towards the Poles. After all, just before the war Polish-Jewish relations seemed to be improving. Additionally, Polish smugglers provided 90% of the calories available in the ghettos and without them the Jews there would have starved. Now, it is said that the smugglers only undertook the risks because the profits were enormous, but at the time, Kassow said, it was interpreted as mutual need.
There were certainly many instances of anti-Semitism. Jews were attacked in Polish prisoner of war camps, for example, and crowds gathered to laugh at Jews forced to do labor. But Jewish writers tried desperately to keep an open mind about their neighbors, interpreting negative events as the actions of a few marginal people, the dregs of society.
After 1942, when Germans began exterminating Jews in earnest, the sources change their tune. They felt betrayed by the active participation and the indifference of the Polish people. In fact, by 1943-1944, Kassow said, bands of Polish peasants were actively hunting down Jews to kill them or turn them over to the Germans.
He ended his talk by citing the Jewish historian Emmanuel Ringelblum, who wrote Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War while hiding in the Warsaw ghetto. Ringelblum was writing both as a historian and a victim, Kassow said, and his history had harsh words for the Polish underground that viewed the Jews as separate and refused to help them. Ultimately, Ringelblum concluded,the Poles had failed in the face of mass murder.
That seemed to be the dialogue’s overall point: there were some Poles who helped, there were more who persecuted, and the majority did nothing. Although the exact numbers and proportions are up for debate, neither Wróbel nor Kassow shied away from concluding that the Poles could and should have done more to help their Jewish neighbors.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum via Wikimedia.