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Polish-Jewish Relations during World War II

Yisrael Gutman

For many years now, there has been a sharp debate between Jews and Poles about the character and quality of Polish-Jewish relations during World War II. One has the impression that this polemic is growing increasingly acerbic, and that the views and charges raised by the opposing sides resemble parallel lines in that they hold no hope of ever converging and enabling thereby a genuine dialogue of encounter. This apparently insoluble divergence is, it would seem, the reason for the intensity of the controversy, which has reached the point of mutual reprobation. In the view of some Jews - especially Jews of Polish origin - the Poles are incorrigible anti-Semites, while there are Poles who claim that the Jewish complaint against them is totally unfounded and is a malicious assault on the good name of the Polish nation.

This conspicuous confrontation might be interpreted by the generous spirit of as a means of emotional release for people who have endured years of suffering, violence and humiliation. But no excuse can be made for historians and public figures, from whom we are entitled to expect a measure of dignified restraint and the ability to scrutinize events and complex problems in the spirit of scholarly detachment, for behaving in this manner.

Regrettably, many books and publications dealing with the overall issue of Polish-Jewish relations or its specific aspects are marked by fixed a priori conceptions or have actually been written in the service of one or the other schools of thought in the public debate. Consequently, a Jewish historian who, on the basis of meticulous research, dared to be critical of certain Polish political circles and institutions was immediately labeled anti-Polish, and more or less the same situation pertains in respect of Polish historians who offend the sensibilities (and what is often the hypersensitivity) of the Jews.

Under such conditions, it is obviously impossible to create an atmosphere congenial to objective and thoroughgoing research. By way of contrast, Robert Paxton and Stanley Hoffman, American writers who were critical of Vichy France and broad segments of the French population during the war, are not regarded as distinctively anti-French but as scholars who produced an illuminating analysis of this dark chapter in history. Similarly, Fritz Fischer and his disciples are not considered anti-German because they shed light on the highly controversial subject of German proclivities and intentions before World War I.

As a rule we are inclined to give a fair hearing only to arguments that are congruent with our tastes and outlook, and we tend to credit a line of reasoning that is favorable to our views. What is more, it is quite natural that Jews and Poles, peoples who have experienced generations of collective suffering, should manifest a strong sense of patriotism - which in this case finds expression as a vigorously defensive response to any hint of censure. Nevertheless, the need to face the truth - an act that calls for civil courage and objectivity - is, in the final analysis, both the test of true devotion and lasting values and the moral responsibility of the historian.

One example may be cited to illustrate the issue under consideration. In 1983 a Polish translation of a volume of writings by the Polish-Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum appeared in Warsaw. The title of the volume is The Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the author's notes on the ghetto period, as well as the essays written during the final period of his life, indeed proved Ringelblum to be more a chronicler than a historian. The Polish version includes all the works Ringelblum wrote during the war and is almost identical in content to the original Yiddish edition, published in 1961 and 1963, with one glaring exception: the section on Polish-Jewish relations during World War II. Why all the notes and articles about the ghetto's inhabitants and ghetto life were sanctioned as suitable for the Polish reader but the material directly relating to the Poles was excised is a highly intriguing question. The answer is not provided in the book's introduction, and we can only assume that a definitive decision was made to suppress the full truth about this subject.

The purpose of this paper is to draw attention to a few critical aspects of Polish-Jewish relations during the war and briefly to examine the points of view adopted by historians regarding each point, as well as the selective documentation and evidence cited to support their assumptions.

The point of departure for any comprehensive study of this subject must be the elucidation of a basic question: did the collapse of the independent Polish state, the occupation of the country by Poland's traditional enemy, and the brutal oppression suffered under the Nazis change the attitude of the Poles toward the Jewish minority in their midst? And if such a change did occur, how can it be characterized and how did it affect mutual relations in everyday life?

Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, in his introduction to the book Righteous Among the Nations (p. lxxxiv) offered a decisive reply to this question:

The conditions of the German occupation led in general to a marked decline in anti-Semitic sentiments which had existed in pre-war Poland. The common fate of the persecuted, suffering, fighting people helped to awaken a sense of solidarity and a will to help those who were dying. And although the views and prejudices formed before the war could not but affect the attitudes of people, on the whole they underwent considerable modification. There are many examples to indicate that the behaviour of individuals was determined then mainly by character and moral attitude and not by association with a specific political program or party before the war

I am quite sure that this judgment is an accurate reflection of Wladyslaw Bartoszewski's personal will and feelings. I also agree that noble human instincts moved many individual Poles to actions that were not necessarily consonant with - and may even have been contradictory to - their known political views. Nevertheless, I cannot agree that the views and actions of the Polish people underwent a general process of modification born of the conditions and bitter experience of the times. Our study of the Nazi era as a whole has taught us that the common suffering of people under occupation or of prisoners in camps did not always lead to better mutual understanding or to an awareness of the necessary conditions for self-defense. Often a slight difference in standing or privilege, deliberately highlighted by the Nazis, was a source of considerable tension and even contention between individuals or groups within the oppressed population.

I believe - and Professor Bartoszewski has made reference to this aspect of the situation in the passage quoted - that we cannot detach or dissociate the period of the war from the broader historical framework, especially as ideological trends and deep-seated prejudices proved to have a lasting vitality. Certainly I reject the notion of everlasting Polish anti-Semitism as nonsense. On the other hand, it would be equally senseless not to acknowledge that anti-Semitism constituted an important factor in the forging of Polish national policy and public opinion for a span of fifty years, from 1918 to 1968. In any case, Professor Bartoszewski's views are not corroborated by the first-hand Jewish or Polish sources relating to this subject.

One of the chroniclers of the Warsaw ghetto, Abraham Levin, noted in his diary on 7 June 1942:

Very often the question arises whether there is a moderation or mitigation of the deep-rooted Polish anti-Semitism. As is true regarding most questions, the contrasting opinions and views [about this one] are poles apart. Many Jews held that under the impact of the war and the stunning blows that have affected the country's entire population, Jews and Poles alike, a considerable change has taken place in the attitude of the Poles toward the Jews, and a majority of Poles have ascribed to the 'philo-Semitic' spirit. Those who advance this view base themselves or rely on a number of incidents to prove that as far back as the first days of the war, the Poles displayed feelings of compassion and goodwill toward the poor Jews, and especially toward the Jewish child beggars. These feelings are still valid . . . It is well known that our beggar children wandering by the dozens and the hundreds along the Christian streets receive generous [handouts of] bread and potatoes and are thus able to feed themselves and their relatives in the ghetto. This is the viewpoint of the optimists. The pessimists, on the other hand, held that the Poles had received an instructive lesson in anti-Semitism. Hatred of Jews [translated into] the concrete form of the ghetto and confiscation of property, penetrated deep into their bones. These pessimists find support for their views in various statements about the Jewish question that have been made by Poles. In conversation many Poles have expressed the opinion that once the Germans are driven out, the expropriated Jewish property will be a difficult problem to handle. By no means are they prepared to relinquish the Jewish property that the government has handed over to them . . . I myself am inclined to accept the former view. I see the relations between Poles and Jews in a positive light and believe that the present war will cleanse our globe of much dirt and savagery. The benevolent winds of liberty and brotherhood will blow from the east and the west. Moreover, after this war Poland will adhere to the ideals that have guided the Russians, the British, the Americans, the Free French and the Polish legions in their common struggle. There will be no shelter here for anti-Semitism, at least not for public anti-Semitism.

Emanuel Ringelblum, in his above-mentioned Polish-Jewish Relations, contended that:

It must be admitted with shame and sorrow that the 'Judas' press [the legal press published under German control], supported by the anti-Semitic illegal press, have aroused a predictable response among the population. Under the influence of the anti-Semitic hue and cry in the Nowy Kurier Warszawski in April and May of this year [1943], the campaign initiated by the Germans against the Jews on the 'Aryan' side elicited a response from broad segments of the population. When they crossed over to work on the 'Aryan' side, Jews employed in places of work [outside the ghetto] knew in advance that after an anti-Jewish article in the press, or even a 'reader's comment', an exasperating day of provocation, stone-throwing by the mob, and the like awaited them.

In his concluding remarks, Ringelblum was even more outspoken in contending that 'polish Fascism and its ally, anti-Semitism, have won over the majority of the Polish people'.

The Polish literary scholar Kazimierz Wyka wrote in his highly acclaimed book Zycie na niby:

Even if I am alone in my pronouncement and I can find no one to follow me, I will repeat again and again: No, a hundred times no! The methods and aims are shameful, the result of demoralization and degradation. In short, the morals and economic outlook of the average Pole vis-à-vis the Jewish tragedy is as follows: the Germans who murdered the Jews committed a crime. We are incapable of doing anything like that. The Germans will be punished for their crime. They have sullied their consciences; but we - we have already profited and will continue to profit in the future without disturbing our consciences and without having blood on our hands.

Let us now listen to the voice of the Polish underground. From time to time, the regular reports sent by the Delegate's Office to the Polish Government-in-exile in England contained information about the condition of the Jews and included remarks about the attitude of the Polish population and the underground authorities towards the Jewish question. Incidentally, the information conveyed to London constituted the raw material of several appeals that the Polish Government-in-exile addressed to the free world on behalf of the Jews being murdered on Polish soil. A report by the Interior Department of the Delegate's Office covering the period 15 August to 15 November 1941 stated:

The tide of anti-Semitism that had previously been aroused by word of how the Jews behaved under Soviet occupation has recently declined in response to the ordeal being endured by this nation. But the latent anti-Semitism that lingers on in Polish society is being exploited by German propaganda and by the underground press of various right-wing persuasions. The issue is exceptionally sensitive; it may even divide society in two, each segment having contrary political attitudes. The prevailing viewpoint is that the Jewish problem can be solved only through a massive, internationally coordinated emigration of Jews from Poland. Once Jewish supremacy in economic life is a thing of the past, mutual relations must be guided by a compromise predicated on the total loyalty of Jews to the Polish state.

Another memo from the Delegate's Office dated 31 December 1940, stated:

The boldest dreams of the staunchest anti-Semites have already been surpassed by what the occupier has managed to accomplish in the sphere of the anti-Jewish struggle. But the delicate structure they have erected may easily collapse after the victory of the democratic states. Our reactionary anti-Semites are haunted by this prospect; it is a fear that disturbs their dreams. They realize that German policies are not permanent. In private many Poles express satisfaction upon seeing the Jews being removed from Polish suburbs, offices, professions, industry, and commerce in [Warsaw] and other cities. But under no circumstances will they demonstrate their satisfaction in public.... At the same time, only a fraction of the Poles openly display favorable attitudes toward the Jews . . .

Another document written by an official of the Delegate's Office on 8 November 1941, stated:

Human compassion for Jewish suffering notwithstanding, there is hardly a person in Poland who would fail to demand a definite policy on the Jewish question, and particularly regarding the Poles' appropriation of Jewish positions in [the country's] economic life. Without at least a minimal program leading toward this objective, no government will be able to stay in power."

Finally, a quotation from a memo written by Roman Knoll, head of the Foreign Affairs Office attached to the Delegate's Staff for the Homeland, and sent in August 1943:

In the Homeland as a whole - regardless of the general psychological situation at any given moment - the position is such that the return of the Jews to their jobs and workshops is quite out of the question, even if the number of Jews were greatly reduced. The non-Jewish population has filled their places in the towns and cities; in much of Poland this is a fundamental change and final in character. The return of masses of Jews would be perceived by the population not as an act of restitution but as an invasion against which they would have to defend themselves, even by physical means . . . The Government is correct in assuring world opinion that anti-Semitism will no longer exist in Poland; but it will no longer exist only if the surviving Jews do not endeavor to return to Poland's cities and towns en masse. Considering the difficult situation, the Homeland sees only one way out: the Polish Government must take the initiative - immediately, if possible - with the aim of creating a national center for the Jews of Eastern Europe. This project should be drawn up in co-operation with Jewish Zionist circles; [it] should focus on an East European territory for the future Jewish state, in preference to Palestine - which is too small for the purpose, too exotic, and has aroused conflict with the Arab world - and in preference to some tropical colony to which the Jews will refuse to emigrate. It may be too early to decide precisely what territory should be considered. Our attitude in this matter should be philo-Jewish rather than anti-Jewish.'

Historical conclusions and generalizations should not be drawn on the basis of political or ideological considerations, even if they are engendered by the best intentions. The task of an historian is to study the facts and events of the past and to interpret them in their historical context. It seems to us, a small group of Israeli historians who have examined an appreciable number of Polish and Jewish sources, that anti-Semitism played an important role in forging both Polish public opinion and the country's political prospects during the war. A certain sector of the Polish population, appalled by the Nazi atrocities and inspired by sincerely patriotic motives, fought against anti-Semitism and, despite the danger to their own safety, became involved in help and rescue actions. But another segment of the population (the size of which is difficult to estimate) played a major role in exacerbating the plight of the Jews. Influenced by the Nazis, anti-Jewish policy, they not only supported the Nazi program being executed in Poland but actually abetted it by exposing Jews in hiding or those who tried to change their identity. Many of the Jews who escaped and took shelter among the Poles were first blackmailed and then handed over to the Germans by the gangs of szmalcownicy or extortionists.'

In fact, added to the anti-Jewish sentiments of the pre-war period were a host of new contentions that served to further poison the already negative atmosphere. The first of the new claims derived from the charges that the Jews had accorded the Soviet invaders a warm welcome in the Eastern territories and had exhibited hostile behaviour toward the Poles for as long as these areas remained under Soviet control. In the limited framework of this article I cannot do justice to this thorny problem. For the issue essentially constituted a major clash of interests that divided Jews and Poles. On the face of it, the decisive majority of the Poles perceived themselves as confronting two invading enemies. For the Jews, there was only one deadly enemy - the Nazis - since the Soviets (objectionable as their ideological system may have been) provided a means of escape and salvation.

The other focal issue related to the Jews was their collective expulsion from various positions in the Polish economy and the confiscation of Jewish property. Without doubt, the majority of the Polish people were overtly or covertly satisfied with the ejection of the Jews from the country's economic life, and the same majority shared the opinion that the reinstatement of the Jews in their jobs and the restoration of Jewish property was entirely out of the question. Moreover, this definitive stand on the part of so large a sector of the population largely determined the views of the political parties (with the exception of the Socialists and certain Liberal circles). Consequently, the representatives of the various political factions continued to press for the mass emigration of the Jews, and the search for a territorial solution to the Jewish problem gave rise to some very strange ideas about prospective destinations for the Jewish people.

Let me now turn to the second object of scrutiny in our discussion: the Polish underground and its relation with the Jews. In this context I do not intend to refer to individuals or single political groups. The subject under review is the Delegate and his staff, who were the official representation of the Polish regime in the underground during the occupation. The Nazis subjected the Poles to an oppressive regime and deprived them of autonomy and national rights. As a result, the Polish nation was unable to protest against the German atrocities perpetrated on its soil or aid the Jews in any way on an official level. The Germans did not consult with the Poles about how to deal with the Jews, and the Poles, as a rule, did not participate in the Nazis, anti-Jewish actions.

On the other hand, the Poles did exhibit a large measure of internal solidarity and put up a united stand against the enemy. The profound moral and political influence of the Polish underground, coupled with the efficient organization of the clandestine cells, amounted to a formidable authority that was often referred to as the 'underground state'.

Thus we are obliged to ask what means of contact and co-operation existed between the Poles and the Jews within the framework of this underground state. The answer is that until the final months of 1942 there was no contact, no assistance, no co-operation; just total segregation and alienation.

Kazimierz Iranek-Osmecki opened the chapter entitled 'Organized Civilian Help, of his book He Who Saves One Life by saying that, 'during the early years of the occupation, no official link existed between the Polish underground movement and the Jews. Because the Jews had not, at that time, evolved an underground organization of their own, the Polish underground authorities had to contact Jews unofficially'.

This explanation of why the Polish underground did not establish contact with the Jews during the early years of the occupation, simply cannot be accepted. For it is neither correct nor honest to cite the lack of parallel Jewish underground organs as a justification for not having approached the Jews. The fact is that the Jewish underground parties and youth movements in Warsaw were organized almost immediately at the start of the occupation, and very soon thereafter a body was established to co-ordinate the Jewish underground and self-help activities. The connection between Poles and Jews did not exist because the Polish underground subscribed to the view that the Jews were an alien body whose fate neither concerned the Polish nation nor required any special action. The Polish Government-in-exile claimed to represent the entire Polish population - minorities included - and from the start one representative of a Jewish political faction, and subsequently two, were members of the Polish National Council, a sort of parliamentary body formed in exile. Yet no Jewish representative was included in the broad clandestine organization established in Poland by the Delegate, despite the fact that he was the official executor of the exiled government's policy on Polish soil.

In May 1944, at a time when no Jewish community or ghetto (other than the remnant of the Jews of Lodz) remained in Poland, a secret report on the Jews and the Jewish problem during the Holocaust was sent out of Poland. It was addressed exclusively to the Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-exile, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk. The author of the document, Witold Bienkowski ('Witold', 'Kalski'), was well versed in the Jewish tragedy, having been one of the founders of 'Zegota', the Provisional Committee to Aid the Jews, and from the early part of 1943 onward head of the section for Jewish Affairs in the Delegate's Office. Bienkowski's report states that '. . . If during the first stage of the war (until the end of 1941) there was no Jewish problem, either in the political or the visceral sense, beginning with the establishment of the ghettos and the steadily rising Jewish martyrdom, there emerged a sense of understanding and partnership in suffering and struggle of the entire population of the Polish Nation'.

In point of fact, the complete segregation and alienation continued until the last month of 1942, not 1941. But the crucial point here is to expose the reason for this 'block' and the total indifference of the Polish underground when it came to the Jews. Obviously the Polish nation was enduring a period of oppression and suffering, and it is quite natural that the focus of attention was on the condition of the Poles. The Jews themselves have a saying that the fate of the poor in your own town is closer to your heart than the fate of the poor far away. Nevertheless, the martyrdom, or the special treatment that the Nazis accorded the Jews, did not start at the end of 1941, just as the establishment of the ghettos did not begin then but went back to the end of 1939. In 1941 alone, 43,000 Jews died of starvation and epidemics in the Warsaw ghetto, meaning that ten per cent of the ghetto's population succumbed to inhuman conditions. So that the disturbing question is inevitably why, for the extended period of three whole years, no help in the field of welfare, no support of either a material or moral kind, was ever extended to the Jews - citizens of Poland in every way - by the official Polish underground.

Can the developments that occurred during the last months of 1942 be considered a substantive change in the general Polish attitude towards the Jews? Prior to that time, a few concrete steps had been taken by individuals and groups of Poles, but the involvement of the underground marked a new phase in Polish-Jewish relations. The activities of 'Zegota', a clandestine organization founded by Poles with the declared aim of aiding and saving Jews, were unique in all of Europe. The impetus to create 'Zegota' came from two quarters, but credit is due primarily to a small group of truly noble people whose feelings were expressed in an appeal drafted by the prime mover behind the organization, the Polish-Catholic writer Zofia Kossak-Szczucka: 'Whoever remains silent in the face of murder becomes an accomplice to that murder'." From the end of September 1942 onward, in the light of the harrowing expulsion and mass murder in the Warsaw ghetto, the Provisional 'Zegota' Committee initiated its operations.

The other impulse came from the political parties and their activists in the underground. The Delegate's Office took 'Zegota' under its wing, and from the beginning of 1943 onward the organization was officially affiliated with the Office. Delegate was guided in this decision primarily by political considerations, namely, Poland's interest and image throughout the free world both at the present time and in the future. But the activists of 'Zegota', the people who actually bore the taxing and perilous task of rescue, were among the bravest heroes of the war, truly 'the righteous among nations'. I will not go into the various aspects of this heroic humane struggle during those terrible times of indifference in the face of cruelty. The effectiveness of the aid rendered by 'Zegota' has been and continues to be the subject of a debate in which I have taken part. But here I will only state in brief that 'it was very little considering the dimensions of the tragedy, and it was considerable in the light of the conditions and spirit of the times,.

In tribute to these people, I would like to quote the closing passage of the chapter entitled 'The Idealist, in Ringelblum's Polish-Jewish Relations:

There are thousands of idealists like these in Warsaw and throughout the country, both in the intelligentsia and the working class, who help Jews very devotedly at the risk of their lives. Every Jew snatched from the clutches of the bloodthirsty Nazi monster had to have an idealist like this watching over him day after day like a guardian angel. The great majority of these people helped the Jews in return for remuneration, but is there in fact money enough in the world to pay for their self-sacrifice? People who hid Jews for money alone and lacked a strong moral motivation rid themselves of their dangerous ballast sooner or later by turning the Jews out of their flats. The ones who kept the Jews in their flats were those who did so not only for Jewish money. This gallery of Polish heroes could provide subjects for wonderful novels about the noblest idealists who feared neither the enemy's threats on his red posters nor the obtuseness and stupidity of Polish Fascists and anti-Semites who deem it an anti-national act to hide Jews.'

From this encouraging subject, I turn to the final point of my argument: Polish-Jewish relations in connection with the armed resistance of the Jews. We are not free to avoid the sine qua non that largely informed this issue: the Jews lacked the tradition, the proper training, and the means to mount an effective armed resistance. In the eyes of the Poles, and of the European peoples as a whole, Jews were generally considered unfit for military service and were often viewed as a cowardly people incapable of acting or reacting as fighters. Certainly no less important was the concern of many AK officers that the Jews were being guided by communists and served as a tool of the communist movement and Soviet aims. In fact, the influence of the communists over the Jewish population in general and the Jewish resistance movements in particular was very limited.

The chief obstacle among Jews was a certain skepticism about the efficacy of resistance. After all, the portrayal of the European resistance movement as ever-ready and ever-resolute in its determination to fight under any conditions is more legend than historical fact. The armed organizations in the occupied countries entered into armed confrontation only when they stood a reasonable chance of bringing about a modicum of relief in the oppressive situation or achieving some gain in the future. These prospects were not open to the Jews, who could not hope to achieve any gains by fighting. Their fate was sealed. The prospect of aid and rescue could come only from outside. Regardless of what they might do, the Jews could not rescue themselves.

Yet despite these reservations, faced with the prospect of final, total annihilation, the Jews in many of the ghettos established Fighting Organizations peopled by members of the Zionist and Socialist youth movements. From the foundation of the very first cell, a constant effort was made to establish contact and enter into co-operation with the Polish armed underground. For the Jews living in the General Government and the territories annexed by Germany, the Polish underground was the only source of arms, intelligence and training. From Wilno, Bialystok, Czestochowa, Krakow and other ghettos, the Jewish fighters urgently appealed to the officers and commanders of the AK. In each case the response was evasive or lacking altogether. A few reports and orders of the AK's high command went so far as to describe Jewish partisans as 'criminal gangs established by fugitive Jews and mainly by young Jewish women'. And in a number of instances, Jews who had escaped the ghettos were pursued and killed by units of the NSZ.

I prefer to focus my remarks on Warsaw where, once contact was established, a limited quantity of arms was transferred to the ghetto and the Jewish Fighting Organization ultimately acquired the formal recognition of the AK. Much has been written about the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the link between the ZOB and the AK. Yet only a few of the many books and articles are based on credible material and have delved into the complex process of approach or elucidated the positions of the two sides. More astonishing still is the role played by people who were themselves involved in the events and, who have tried, in retrospect, to create a new, subjective and ultimately fictional version of the affair.

The example of General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski is typical in this respect because of his high level of responsibility and the scope of his fantasy. In his memoirs, The Secret Army, Komorowski wrote about the Jewish connection at length:

As early as July 29th we had learned from the reports of railroad workers that the transports were being sent [from Warsaw] to the concentration camp at Treblinka and that there the Jews disappeared without trace. There could be no further doubt this time that the deportations were but a prelude to extermination.

General Rowecki, swift in his decision as always, made up his mind that we could not remain passive, and that at all costs we must help the Jews so far as it lay in our power. He called a conference, at which, however, some doubts were expressed. The argument ran: 'If America and Great Britain, with powerful armies and air forces behind them and equipped with all the means of modern warfare, are not able to stop this crime and must look on impotently while the Germans perpetrate every kind of horror in the occupied countries, how can we hope to stop them?' Rowecki's opinion was that failure to show active resistance would only encourage the Germans to further mass extermination on the same lines.

We had a department in our organization which arranged protection and help for escaped Jews and the distribution of money to them which had been sent to us from London for the purpose. A certain 'Waclaw' was chief of the department, and he was now instructed by Rowecki to get through to the Ghetto and establish contact with the Jewish leaders. He was to tell them that the Home Army was ready to come to the assistance of the Jews with supplies of arms and ammunition and to co-ordinate their attacks outside with Jewish resistance from within.

The Jewish leaders, however, rejected the offer, arguing that if they kept quiet the Germans might deport and murder 20,000 or 30,000 and perhaps even 60,000 of them, but it was inconceivable that they should destroy the lot; while if they resisted, the Germans would certainly do so. When 'Waclaw' reported this to Rowecki, the General decided to intensify the sabotage of German lines of communication in such a way as to hamper and delay the deportations.

Not a single one of the details in Komorowski's description - the meeting, the decisions, the offer of aid, or the independent actions by the AK - is based upon fact. Komorowski, who penned his memoirs in exile, evidently wished to present a more positive picture of the Poles, behaviour during the war. The truth of the matter is that the alleged meeting and the decisions adopted on Rowecki's initiative are pure fiction. Moreover, the civil and military branches of the Polish underground did not make approaches to the Jews at that time, and neither was there any department for providing beleaguered Jews with aid. It is true that an AK officer, whom Komorowski refers to as 'a certain "Waclaw,,, and whose real name was Henryk Wolinski, was assigned to handle 'Jewish affairs,. But during the period under consideration, Wolinski's task was limited to gathering information on what was happening on the Jewish front for the benefit of the AK and the Delegate's Office.. Indeed, Wolinski wrote a detailed report on his ties and work with the Jews, but it contains no reference to Rowecki's alleged order, or the negative reply supposedly received from the Jews, or to any independent action decided upon by the Poles, as Komorowski would have us believe.

I should note that, as a rule, the Polish scholars have not adopted Komorowski's curious version of events, and Professor Bartoszewski has made a very positive contribution toward achieving a reconstruction of the truth. On the other hand, writers and historians further removed from the sources and atmosphere of the time are inclined to believe a man who bears a famous name or appears to have been a reliable commander. Thus so outstanding a scholar as Raul Hilberg accepted Komorowski's version without reservation or doubt.

The fact is that the aid extended in Warsaw - and we must emphasize that aid eventually was provided to the Jews - was a classic instance of too little too late. Due to a few obstacles, contact between the AK and the ZOB was broken for a time, and when Yitzchak Zuckerman arrived on the 'Aryan' side of Warsaw a few weeks before the outbreak of the ghetto uprising, the AK pressured him to have the revolt canceled. In its place they suggested smuggling the Jewish fighters out of the ghetto and attaching them to partisan units outside the city. This plan was a corollary of the AK's own political considerations and tactics. According to the organization's long range strategy, the time was not yet ripe for a revolt, and fighting in the ghetto would only engender an even more repressive atmosphere. This is yet another example of the attempts to protect political interests during this period. In the end, units of the AK and the AL mounted a few modest actions during the ghetto uprising, but their outcome was of marginal importance to the broader battle.

In concluding this paper, I wish to state my belief that we historians bear a heavy responsibility as witnesses to an epoch of bestiality. The challenge we face is difficult and sometimes even painful, but silence is tantamount to denying or avoiding the truth. I do not know whether the writing and study of history is an effective way of preventing future human disasters. After all, mankind has been contemplating history and pondering the mistakes of its forebears for generations, but the reality of our lives has continued to be one long chain of wars and oppression of our fellow men. Nevertheless, I believe we must give every new lesson a chance to check the spread of evil. This demands of us, first of all, the courage to admit the truth to ourselves, to overcome many obstacles, and to confront challenges boldly. Such a course is almost a mission, and we are merely mortals plagued by all the weaknesses of our kind. But we are obliged to try.

 

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