This is my thesis about Polish-Jewish relations during the Second Polish Republic and WW2.
From The Second Republic to The Second World War: The Complexity of Polish-Jewish Relations
The complex relationship between the Jews and the AK1 (Armia Krajowa or "Home Army '' in English) has been an extremely controversial subject since the end of the Second World War. The AK was the largest underground organization in occupied Germany; it was supported and sponsored by the Polish Government in Exile based in London. Throughout the postwar years, the debate over whether or not the AK was anti-Semitic or welcoming towards Jews has been a lightning rod of controversy. There are those who believe the AK was deeply anti-Semitic and was just as dangerous to the Jews as the Germans were and those who say the AK did nothing to persecute the Jews and even helped them when they could. In reality, there is truth to both narratives. The situation was not all black or white, but rather a complex shade of grey. The attitude of the AK towards the Jews varied on who the commanders were at a given time, sometimes it even varied from unit to unit. To understand the complexity of AK-Jewish relations we first must understand the political climate of the Second Polish Republic.
Poland became an independent nation again in 1918 following the end of World War I. The leader of the country was Marshal Jef Pi?sudski, a Polish patriot and prominent Polish independence advocate who was also Poland's strongman from 1918-1935.2 While there were a few controversies during Pi?sudski's regime such as the criminalization of political opposition, his attitude towards the Jews and other ethnic minorities was fairly progressive. Ethnic minorities were not persecuted during Pi?sudski's regime and the general population was relatively accepting. Jews were not granted autonomy, but for the most part anti-Semitism was kept largely at bay during the Pi?sudski regime. Pi?sudski took the policy of state assimilation towards Polish Jews and other ethnic minorities in which one was considered Polish no matter what ethnic group you belonged to as long as one showed loyalty to the state. This is in contrast to ethnic assimilation in which Jews were forced to adapt culturally to the nation they lived in and give up their Jewish identity as well as speak the state language. Under state assimilation, the Jews were able to remain semi-autonomous; while they had to answer to Polish courts, they were largely left alone during the twenties as long as they demonstrated loyalty to Poland and to Pi?sudski.3
Unfortunately, the situation for the Jews in Poland deteriorated drastically with the beginning of the Great Depression in the early 1930s and with Pi?sudski's death in 1935. The Great Depression led to the rise of right-wing parties in Poland, most notably the National Party who were extremely anti-Semitic. Pi?sudski left no clear successor, as a result a government was formed by his oldest and most loyal followers. This "government of colonels" formed the Camp of National Unity (OZON in Polish) and turned the country towards a more authoritarian direction.4 Prior to its establishment, anti-Semitic violence was on the rise. Despite condemning the violence, the new government hinted that they were going down a dark path with the OZON founding declaration stating: "the instinct for cultural self-defense and the demand of Polish society for economic independence is understood" suggesting that the ruling coalition was beginning to embrace Polish nationalism.5
Before the death of Pi?sudski the National Party (SN) and other right-wing groups were rapidly gaining popularity. At the time of his death, they had a sizable number of seats in the Sejm6. The SN began taunting the OZON with accusations of being too soft towards the Jews. Under the pressure of the SN's increasing popularity, the OZON took a new approach towards the Jews, one that was more aligned with that of the National Party including the encouragement of Jewish emigration and anti-Jewish economic boycotts. By the eve of Second World War, the Polish-Jewish population suffered a catch-22. They were expected to assimilate, but they were unable to due to all the laws that made assimilation nearly impossible.
While the government in the late thirties actively persecuted the Jews, it is worth mentioning that there were many opposition parties that ranged from taking a more moderate (but still anti-Semitic) stance on the Jews, to parties that were in full support of the Jews. The Party of Labor (SP) was formed from Christian Democratic parties and the National Workers Party in 1937. The SP was anti-Semitic but they were not as extreme as their SN counterparts. The SP was also not in favor of revoking Jew's citizenship.7
The Peasant Party (SL) primarily represented Poland's rural population. The SL did not see the "Jewish Question" as a threat to Poland; instead they saw the ruling party's rampant nationalism and authoritarianism as the main threat facing the country. When the SN accused the SL of ignoring the "Jewish problem" the party responded with: "We do not regard the Jewish problem as the axis around which everything revolves in Poland. The chief enemy of the Polish peasant today is the ruling party, the regime which opposes him morally, materially, politically, and culturally. The Polish peasant will not permit this fight against the regime to be weakened by the Jewish question.". The SL, took a passive stance on anti-Semitism advocating for equal civil rights for the Jews but turned a blind eye to anti-Semitism.8
The Polish Socialist Party (PPS) on the other hand, not only didn't take any anti-Semitic platform, it was also in favor of national-cultural autonomy for the Jews and other ethnic minorities in Poland such as Ukrainians and Lithuanians. The party would grow to become the government's strongest opposition in the late 30s.9 The Democratic Party (SD) was formed in 1938 and consisted mostly liberal intellectuals. Unfortunately, it had little time to make its mark on the public since they were formed just one year before the German invasion. Nonetheless, they also opposed the government's persecution of the Jews and the out-of-control Polish Nationalism. While these opposition parties dwarfed the power of the ruling OZON and their informal SN partners, many of their leaders (particularly those of the SD and the SL) would become important figures in the AK and the Government-in-Exile.10
During the Interwar Period, many Jewish adolecents wrote autobiographies on their expirences growning up in the Second Polish Republic which gives us valuable insight to what it was like to be a Jew living in Interwar Poland. The benefit of this particular memoir it is that it gives the reader an idea of life in Poland both during Jef Pi?sudski's tenure as Marshal of Poland followed by a period of increased anti-Semitism fallowing his death in 1935.
Esther was born in 1920 into a strict Hasidic Jewish family and wrote her autobiography in Yiddish in May, 1939. In this autobiography, we can see an example of how some religious Jews during this time resisted assimilation into Polish society. In Esther's memoir, she notes how she wanted to go to public school instead of the Jewish Beys Yaakov school that she was attending. However, her father wasn't comfortable with her studying in a school where Yiddish wasn't spoken or a school with coed classrooms. Eventually her father relented and let her go to public school on the condition that Beys Yaakov would be the primary focus of her studies. Even though Esther's father let her go to public school it is noteworthy that he really didn't want her to. Throughout the autobiography there are other examples of Esther's father resisting her desire to continue her studies beyond the Beys Yaakov. Her father forbade her to read any books in Polish and went as far as exclaiming "No! Enough of the 'others'!" when she wanted to attend Polish gymnasium.11 Esther's father's attitude shows how there was tension on both sides in terms of relations between Polish-Jews and non-Jewish Poles.
Despite her father's attempts at preventing his daughter from being exposed to Polish society and culture, Esther's curiosity and love of knowledge was too strong. In her memoir, she reflects on her love of Polish history and how she was accepted by the Poles in her community. She expressed her love for Poland stating: "Polish history was also a subject I loved and learned easily. I was enthralled by everything connected with Polish history. I was consumed with great martyrdom of Polish heroes in their struggle for Poland's independence. I venerated Marshal Jef Pi?sudski."12 She wrote a speech on Pi?sudski which she presented on an Independence Day celebration, one that was so impassioned that it caught the attention of the mayor. He was so impressed that he thanked Esther personally and wanted to do something to help her continue her studies.13
This is a prime example of the attitude of the Polish government under Marshal Pi?sudski. Even though Esther was a Jew, she was accepted by her Polish neighbors because she demonstrated her loyalty to the Polish state. Unfortunately, her father was not pleased and he threatened to disown her if she kept expressing her desire to continue her studies at gymnasium. We see through her father, the resistance and reluctance of state assimilation by some Jews, especially those in the older generation.
Facing no other option, Esther was sent to study at the Beys Yaakov teachers' seminary in Krakow where she completed the course work and was sent to be a Bey Yaakov teacher in a small town. It was here that she noticed that she, and other Jews were being treated with more hostility by the Poles than she was used to. There is a parallel between the discrimination Esther faced and the events that were going on throughout Poland. Around the time she was beginning her studies at the teachers' seminary in Krakow, Marshal Pi?sudski died; along with the Polish government's accepting attitude towards ethnic minorities, including the Jews. Esther had problems in her life before, but now it was because of intensifying anti-Semitism. She could no longer think about returning to gymnasium stating that: "Relations between Jews and Poles had deteriorated significantly. The loyal Polish patriot in me suffered. Now I, whose soul was bound to Poland, had to give up my cherished dream of Poles and Jews living together in harmony. -- Every day the newspapers brought fresh, grim news of the persecution of Jews. My faith in Poland's 'heart' was tarnished."14 With Polish nationalism and anti-Semitism on the rise, it was no longer enough for Esther to be a patriot to be accepted by her Polish neighbors.
While Esther was a teacher at the age of 17, she witnessed the steady rise of anti-Semitism in the community by noticing how Jewish owned shops were receiving less buniness along with the sound of late-night vandalism of Jewish property. In addition, peasants would make fun of the "Jewish school" every Sunday while the police found excusses to harass her classes, the most common one being that her school didn't meet the state's financial requirments.15
Through this autobiography, we see how a patriot who happened to be Jewish went from being accepted as a fellow Pole in the 1920s and early 1930s to getting ostracized by the local Polish population in the late 1930s. The persecution Esther begins to face starts right around the time Poland became more right wing after the death of Marshal Pi?sudski. In her autobiography, Esther does not mention that she experienced any anti-Semitism until after the government began to move further right towards Polish nationalism. Indivudaly, Poles supported politcal parites acoross the spectrum, but there was a trend in anti-semitism leading up to the outbreak of World War II.
The Second World War began on September 1,1939 with the German invasion of Poland, the valient Poles put up a fierce resitance but were overwhelmed in a month. The Polish government fled the country by crossing the border into Romania; some officials were interned by Romanian authorities while others made it to France. The prewar government fell out of favor in Poland and with the Western Allies due to their hasty flight from the country.16 This allowed for a more moderate figure to take control of the Government-in-Exile which would be periminetly headquartered in London after the Fall of France in June 1940. This figure was W?adys?aw Sikorski, Sikorski was able to evade detention in Romania since he didn't hold any government office during the German invasion. The Western Allies also favored Sikorski since he wasn't affiliated with the prewar government. On September 30, 1939, Sikorski became the first Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-Exile and in an effort to maintain national unity; he formed a government made up of the Polish Socialist Party, the Peasant Party, the Christian Democratic Part of Labor, and the National Democrats. A Sejm, in exile was also formed which was known as the National Council.17
The ZWZ-Home Army (or Union of Armed Struggle) was formed in 1939 as an underground organization and predecessor to the AK and on February 14, 1942, the AK was officially established and was recognized by the Polish Government in Exile as their underground wing within Occupied Poland. From the beginning, the relationship between the Jews and the AK was complicated. The leadership of the AK and the Government-in-Exile were filled with individuals with vastly differing stances on the "Jewish Question" and the treatment of Jews in Nazi Occupied Poland.18 The AK had a political wing known as the Chief Political Council, which had representatives from all major prewar political parties.19 Naturally, with the AK leadership consisting of members from parties across the political spectrum that all had their own stances on the plight of the Jews and how Poland should be governed after the war, it makes for a very gray scenario in terms of Jewish-AK relations.
We can learn a lot about the complexity of how the AK and the Government-in-Exile regarded the Jews by analyzing official AK reports and how the Government-in-Exile reacted to the reports. The underground didn't report much on Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis until after June 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. There were a few reasons for this, one was that in the early days of the Nazi Occupation of Poland, more Poles than Jews were being sent to concentration camps and Gestapo prisons.20 At this time, Jews were being forced into ghettos while the Nazis deliberated on how to solve "The Jewish Problem". However, many leaders in the AK saw the fact that Poles were being deported and imprisoned in a more traditional sense as worse.21
Another reason is that there was still a lot of anti-Semitism in Poland, especially in the eastern half of the country occupied by the Soviet Union. A courier for the ZWZ-Home Army, Jan Karski described the situation as: "The Poles regard them [the Jews] as devoted to the Bolsheviks and - one can safely say - wait for the moment when they will be able simply to take revenge upon the Jews. Virtually all Pole [in the Soviet occupation] are bitter and disappointed in relation to the Jews; the overwhelming majority look forward to an opportunity for 'repayment in blood'"22 Many Poles saw the Jews as better off than them in the areas of Poland annexed by the Soviet Union; as a result, many harbored resentment towards their Jewish neighbors. For the first year of the AK's existence, reports and underground newspaper stories focused primarily on the suffering of the Poles while also reporting on the Jews' situation to a lesser extent. The reports that did discuss the plight of the Jews were generally delayed in being sent at first.23
After the Wasnsee Conference in January 1942, the Nazis instigated the Final Solution across Occupied Europe. When the Nazis began deporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in July, 1942 the AK made their reports more public and they began appearing in the Underground newspaper: Biuetlyn more frequently. Like all the other organizations that made up the Government-in-Exile and the underground, the Biuetlyn was constantly at odds within the organization. Those who wrote the newspaper articles came from different political backgrounds so it's important to remember this factor when reading official reports and articles published in the Biuetlyn. Proof that the Biuetlyn had editors who cared about Nazi atrocities against the Jews can be seen in this published AK report from October, 1942 during the deportations from Polish ghettos to extermination camps: "Death camps in Belzec, Treblinka, are Sobibor are working day and night. In Radom only 7% of the Jewish community remains. About 1,000 people were shot on the spot and the remaining 22,000 deported to Treblinka. In Kielce, the entire ghetto was liquidated in a single night with 1,200 shot on the spot and 16,000 departed. While fragmentary and incomplete, these reports illustrate the scale of the crimes carried out by the Germans."24 Despite there being constant arguments amongst officials across the political spectrum in the AK and Government-in-Exile about the Jews, it is clear that there were some people in high places who sympathized with the Jews, otherwise the official underground newspaper wouldn't publish stories reporting Nazi atrocities.
One of the complications of Jewish-AK relations came about with the change of command within the AK. Until that point, the AK's commander was Stefan Grot-Rowecki who was seen as sympathetic to the Jews and aided in the ghetto uprisings against the Germans. For example, he authorized AK assistance to the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by smuggling in ammunition and helping Jews escape the Ghetto through the sewers. SS General Jgen Stroop, the man in charge of suppressing the uprising wrote: "It must be further stated that since yesterday, some of our formations have been reportedly shot at from outside the Ghetto."25
In March 1943 however, there was a change in the AK command after Rowecki was arrested and executed by the Gestapo. The man who took his place was General Tadeusz
B-Komorowski, Komorowski to this day is a very controversial figure. Some historians including Richard Lukas, author of Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under the German Occupation 1939-1944 argue that Komorowki was not anti-Semitic siting that we was decorated by Yad Vashem for aiding the Jews during the war.26 Other historians such as Joshua Zimmerman, author of The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945 argue that Komorowki was anti-Semitic quoting Komorowki in stating "no one wants to accept Jews in the Warsaw neighborhoods."27 He also sites Order 116; an AK order issued by Komorowki which was meant combat banditry in the Polish countryside.28 However, this caused acts violence against Jews to occur which resulted in many historians and Jews after the war to argue that Order 116 was designed to target Jews hiding in the forests rather than bandits.
Like all the pieces to this puzzle, the one with Komorowki and Order 116 was a complicated one. The order also never mentioned Jews anywhere in the text.29 There were also similar orders that Komorowki issued during that time to combat banditry.30 His order was meant to apprehend bandits who robbed Poles no matter what nationality or ethnicity they belonged to, sometimes the bandits happened to be Jews but there is no evidence in Order 116 that suggests that it was designed to superficially target Jews.31 When Jews did commit acts of robbery it was only out of desperation, such as stealing food and clothes to survive. Under Order 116, bandits no matter what ethnic group they belonged to were punished for violating the order. Even AK soldiers who were caught in acts of robbery were severely punished, as well as ethnic Polish civilians caught violating the order.32 While there were violent acts against Jews within the ranks of the Home Army, it wasn't a result of Order 116. There's no doubt that Komoroki was a Polish nationalist and was fiercely anti-communist, however to say whether or not he was responsible for the deaths of Jews at the hands of anti-Semitic units and individuals in the AK is too simplistic. He was arguably more passive in terms of assisting the Jews and did undermine his predecessor's measures meant to aid the Jews but he did not advocate for mass murder. When it came right down to it, the way the AK treated the Jews really varied from unit to unit. Some units were deeply anti-Semitic and persecuted any Jews that they did find. Other units did the opposite; they helped Jews escape certain death at the hands of the Nazis and allowed them to join their ranks.
As a historian, it is reckless to say that the relations between the Polish Jews and Poles, was either that of complete hostility or of absolute friendship. There were many factors that contributed to this complex chapter in Polish and Jewish history. The fact that Poles belonged to a vast array of political parties that were scattered across the political spectrum on how they felt about the Jews, laid the groundwork for the complexity of the AK's and Government-in-Exile's attitude towards the Jews during the Second World War. When one understands the complexity of Polish politics in the Interwar Period, one can understand how one AK officer felt one way and another could feel a completely different way, or how one unit could be more Nationalist and anti-Semitic while another unit could be sympathetic towards Jews. It is imperative not to think of the Poles as one collective entity, but rather as a diverse people that must be evaluated on an individual level.
Armstrong, John. "The Polish Underground and the Jews: A Reassessment of the Home Army Commander Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski's Order 116 Against Banditry." Seer, Vol. 72 (1994): 259-276.
Esther. "Esther." In Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust, edited by Jeffery Shandler, 321-343. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002.
Lukas, Richard. The Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation 1939-1944. New York, New York: University Press of Kentucky, 1986.
Pulawski, Adam. "The Polish Government-in exile in London, the Delegatura, the Union of Armed Struggle-Home Army and the Extermination of the Jews" Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History, Vol. 18 (2015): 119-144.
Zimmerman, Joshua. Contested Memories: Poles and Jews During the Holocaust and its Aftermath. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Zimmerman, Joshua. Poles, Jews, and the Politics of Nationality. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.
Zimmerman, Joshua. The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
1 Polish Underground
2 Between 1923 and 1926 Pi?sudski's opponents were in power but he secured his grip on Poland with a coup in 1926.
3 Joshua Zimmerman, Poles, Jews, and the Politics of Nationality (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press), 166.
4 Joshua Zimmerman, The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press), 16.
5 Zimmerman, The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945, 16.
6 Polish Parliament
7 Zimmerman, The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945, 27-28.
8 Ibid., 28-30.
9 Ibid., 31-32.
10 Ibid., 32-34.
11 Esther. "Esther." In Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust, edited by Jeffery Shandler (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002) 327.
12 Esther, "Esther," 326.
13 Ibid., 327.
14 Ibid., 339.
15 Ibid., 338-339.
16 Zimmerman, The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945, 43
18Adam Pulawski, "The Polish Government-in-Exile in London, the Delegatura the Union of Armed Struggle-Home Army and the Extermination of the Jews". Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History, 18, 2-3. (2012): 121.
20Pulawski, "The Polish Government-in-Exile in London, the Delegatura the Union of Armed Struggle-Home Army and the Extermination of the Jews," 126.
22 Zimmerman, The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945, 74.
23Pulawski, "The Polish Government-in-Exile in London, the Delegatura the Union of Armed Struggle-Home Army and the Extermination of the Jews," 124.
24 Zimmerman, The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945, 161.
25 Richard Lukas, Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation 1939-1944 (New York: University Press of Kentucky, 1986), 179-180.
26 Lukas, Forgotten Holocaust, 79.
27 Zimmerman, The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945, 254.
29 John Armstrong, "The Polish Underground and the Jews: A Reassessment of the Home Army Commander Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski's Order 116 Against Banditry," Seer 72, 2. (1994): 265-267.
30 John Armstrong, "The Polish Underground and the Jews: A Reassessment of the Home Army Commander Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski's Order 116 Against Banditry," 267.