Warsaw: The Guilt of Indifference

Published by Humanity in Action in 2013, Civil Society and the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue examines the different ways that European countries and the United States responded to the Holocaust. This anthology was created as part of “Civil Society: Reactions to the Holocaust, a series of events in Copenhagen commemorating the 70th anniversary of the flight and deportation of Danish Jews in October 1943. 


It his World War II memoirs, written after the events, Polish artist Jeremi Przybora describes a scene he had witnessed after leaving a concert in occupied Warsaw. On the street “sat a Jewish child. A living little skeleton, covered in parchment skin, with a skull in which only the huge, silent, terrified black eyes were alive…A small crowd stood there motionless, and wordlessly watched, as if hypnotized, this small death, huddled there, in still broad daylight, in the very heart of the lively “Aryan” district, in a basement niche, as if it had just emerged from under the ground, and threatened no-one, until you take it by the hand. So no-one dared to take this child by the hand. And neither did I. But it did not forgive me, did not allow itself to be erased from memory. And I know that the death which will come for me will neither be an old lady with a scythe, nor the knight from Bergman’s film.” (1) During the German occupation of Poland in WWII hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of Poles had had similar experiences: the Nazis had designated Poland as the killing fields of the Shoah, and of its six million victims, half had been Polish Jews.

On the face of it, it seems impossible for Poles not to have known what was happening to the Jews, in front of their own eyes, on their own, if occupied soil. And yet this cannot be stated with full certainty. In contemporary sociological research, most Poles do not recognize that Jews suffered greater oppression under German occupation than Poles did. (2) It would be anachronistic to project this finding backwards in time, and it certainly would be historically and morally unacceptable to belittle the huge suffering ethnic Poles were subject to in WWII. (3) Yet – given the fact that basic education about the Shoah was present, even if in curtailed form, in school curricula of Communist Poland, and that in any case restrictions on what can be taught were eliminated after the transition to democracy in 1989 – one has to consider the hypothesis that the understanding of what was happening to the Jews in WWII was flawed to begin with, and that it was then passed along in its flawed form. This hypothesis is impossible to prove, of course, but circumstantial evidence can be brought to bear. And so, the eminent contemporary Polish historian Feliks Tych, former head of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, after having studied more than 400 WWII extensive documentary records written by non-Jewish Polish eyewitnesses of the occupation (4) – both contemporary diaries and memoirs written after the fact, published as well as unpublished – has discovered that most of these records do not contain any reference to the Shoah. None.

This essay will look at possible explanations of this staggering finding. It will therefore concentrate on what ethnic Poles knew, under German occupation, of the fate of the Jews. For lack of space, it will not apply a historical perspective, even though the Poles’ knowledge would have obviously been radically different in 1940 and four years later, nor a sociological one, even if the level of knowledge between different groups might have been high. It will look, rather unsystematically, at two sources – diaries and the underground press–for information which would help elucidate the question. It will not attempt to address what people belonging to other ethnic groups into which the Germans had classified their occupied Polish subjects (in particular Germans, and the Jews themselves) knew. But it will try to reconstruct the Poles’ knowledge – and to account for it.

It is of course theoretically imaginable that the 400+ sample Tych studied contains some kind of structural flaw which is responsible for the absence of references to the Shoah – yet no such interpretation has been advanced in the more than dozen years since the study has been published. We have therefore to accept as tentative fact that most Poles (especially since diarists are not just a random cross-section of the public, but are the more active observers of the world around them) failed to register what was certainly the most devastating crime committed ever in history, as it occurred in front of their eyes. This blind spot of monumental proportions cannot be explained by hypothetical insensitivity alone. The wartime diaries of Władysław Tatarkiewicz, a leading philosopher who could not be accused of insensitivity, for instance, contain not even one reference to the fate of the Jews, let alone the Shoah itself – yet he had spent the war in Warsaw, site of the Warsaw Ghetto and scene of its 1943 uprising.

One cannot seriously entertain the notion that the authors of these diaries and memoirs really did not know what was happening to the Jews. To be certain, inhabitants of the big cities ( Jews constituted 40% of pre-war Poland’s urban population) lost direct contact with their Jewish neighbors once the occupying authorities had locked them up in ghettos: in Warsaw this occurred in November 1940. Yet telephone lines still functioned, and an “Aryans only” tramline traversed the Warsaw ghetto. “I shudder at the thought that this is where my friends, and the parents of friends, live” writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz wrote in his diary after taking that tram. “ I do get news from them occasionally, but they are written as if from the afterlife. I cannot shake off this impression.” (5)

But even assuming that the ghetto walls did effectively separate Jews from non-Jews and therefore prevent the latter from realizing the fate of the former, these walls were hardly hermetic. In Warsaw, in particular, due to the pre-war intermingling of Jewish, non-Jewish and mixed neighborhoods, completely separating the ghetto from the “Aryan side” proved technically impossible, and in order to reach St. Charles Boromeus’ church one had to cut across the ghetto, traffic being regulated by a system of gates alternatively blocking Jewish and non-Jewish vehicles and pedestrians. Agnieszka Hulewicz-Feillowa remembers how, en route to her own wedding, “[w]e made a mistake in  reaching the  church, and  entered the  ghetto. German police wanted to arrest us. We experienced a lot of emotion and were late to church.” (6) This is the only mention of the ghetto in her extensive memoir.

But if the ghetto walls were not hermetically sealed, it was not for lack of trying by the Germans. Furthermore, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising apart (we will return to it later), the ultimate fate of the Jews locked in the big ghettos was concealed from the eyes of those on the “Aryan side”: all they knew was that cattle cars would take Jews “to the East,” allegedly for resettlement. The death camps were set up in relatively secluded sites, so apart from the local residents, most people would initially not be aware of their existence, let alone purpose. But in smaller towns and villages, ghetto walls, such as were set up, usually consisted of nothing more than wooden fencing and barbered wire: whatever was happening there was visible to all. Furthermore, it often was not cost-effective to transport the inmates of the small ghettos to the death camps: they would be killed on the spot. Some 1.5 million Jews were murdered by roving execution squads–the Einsatzgruppen.

Krystyna Libiszowska-Dobrska, daughter of a well-off family of landed gentry, thus described the last day of the Jews in her home-town of Przysucha (the Yiddish Pshiskhe of Hassidic fame): “Far away on the road, in the direction of Opoczno stood a long row of peasant horse-carts. It was towards them that the SS and also Jewish police directed the [ Jewish] population being expelled from their homes…It would occasionally happen that somebody, buckling under the load, could not make it fast enough and stopped, or that one of the women, probably remembering that she had left behind at home something which now seemed indispensable, would attempt to turn around. Then one of the Germans standing in front of our house would take position and shoot…This murder of a defenseless population, on the elderly, women and children, was performed in cold blood, not in the amok of battle or even with robbery in mind, for all that could be robbed had already been taken away from these people. It was a planned, systematic action, thought out by the representatives of one nation in order to eliminate another one.” (7) Libiszowska-Dobrska had no doubts about what she was witnessing. And yet out the 37 peasant memoirs analyzed by Tych – and one can safely assume their authors had all seen similar things – only 14 mention the Shoah, and out of those only 3 express sympathy to its victims.

Circumstances left Libiszowska-Dobrska no way out but to see what was happening, and to understand it fully. Since Iwaszkiewicz, Hulewicz- Feillowa and countless others doubtless saw, and therefore knew, what was happening in the ghettos, could it be they somehow did not understand what they were seeing? The idea is less preposterous than it may seem. In 1942 Jan Karski, an officer in the Polish underground Home Army, was smuggled out of Poland, after having been taken to the Warsaw ghetto and to Izbica Lubelska, a sub-camp of the Bełżec death camp. He was to brief Allied leaders on what he had seen. In 1943 he met in the US with Justice Felix Frankfurter. Upon hearing his report, Frankfurter for a long moment was silent.

“Mr. Karski,” Frankfurter said after a further pause, “a man like me talk- ing to a man like you must be totally frank. So I must say: I am unable to believe you.” [Polish Ambassador Jan] Ciechanowski flew from his seat. “Felix, you don’t mean it!” he cried. “How can you call him a liar to his face! The authority of my government is behind him. You know who he is!” Frankfurter replied, in a soft voice filled with resignation, “Mr. Ambassador, I did not say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him. There is a difference.” (8)

We, who have grown up in a world of which Auschwitz and Treblinka are a part, know that they have existed, and therefore can exist again. (9) We might envy Justice Frankfurter his capacity of disbelieving the possibility of such a world, but we no longer have the option of echoing his choice. It might well have been the case that Iwaszkiewicz, a sensitive and compassionate writer, and Hulewicz-Feillowa, also tried to avail themselves of it. Libiszowska- Dobrska, confronted with the brutal murder of people she had known and liked, as her memoirs make clear, did not have that possibility. And yet the case could be made that the denial of an unacceptable reality is an attempt to preserve for oneself the vision of a saner and more moral world, and as such is an act of legitimate self-defense, if not of outright resistance.

A feeling very often expressed by those diarists who had noticed the Shoah was that of helplessness. “I shivered when I saw such scenes,” writes an eyewitness of the destruction of the Vilna ghetto. “Unfortunately, only seldom was one able to help those people. For help to Jews was punished by death.” (10) In an important pamphlet published underground: “Na oczach świata” (“In Front of the Eyes of the World”) in reaction to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the writer Maria Kann states: “In front of the eyes of the world, in front of our eyes a nation was being murdered. We looked at it powerlessly. Regardless of all the outrage, we are getting used to the thought that it is possible to murder, it is possible to build crematoria for living people.” While Kann, rejecting the Frankfurter option, is fully aware of the huge danger of moral complacency that such an attitude entails (she will become an activist of “Żegota,” the underground Council to Save the Jews, which will dispense aid and assistance to Jews in hiding, on a scale unrivaled in occupied Europe), the already quoted Przybora takes a different position. “Among the voices raised world-wide, condemning Poles for their indifference towards the dying Jews there are no righteous who would take the danger to us into account…Let us pay homage to the heroes, let us be disgusted by the “szmalcownicy,” (11) but may no-one demand of a nation of twenty-some million to be composed of twenty-some heroes. This reasoning is probably convincing. Probably…” (12)

Kann and Przybora had drawn radically opposed conclusions from the powerlessness they had both described. For Kann, since the moral consequences of powerlessness are utterly unacceptable, therefore powerlessness is unacceptable as well. She set about doing something, became one of the heroes Przybora mentions (13) –and in the process, of course, gained full knowledge of the immensity of the crime which was being committed, a knowledge any human being could be excused for not wanting to have. Przybora, to the contrary, seems to have decided that since doing anything is impossible, then the indifference (which he does not challenge as a characteristic) which follows is morally acceptable. Yet he is much too honest a human being to fully believe that: the scene of the encounter with the Jewish child immediately follows.

The absence of references to the Shoah can then possibly be explained by a withdrawal of cognitive investment into a reality which was too horrible to contemplate, and too overwhelming to modify. And yet powerlessness, if not challenged, leads thus to indifference, and indifference in turn leads to a cognitive rearrangement of the world. This is hardly a rare or wartime-only phenomenon. Most of us, describing our everyday activities, would not include, or indeed notice, brief encounters with others who could use our help, but whom we consider beyond our sphere of responsibility: the homeless, the poor, the infirm – the list is long. It is true, we do so because we legitimately believe that someone else will help them as part of his or her professional obligations; the Jews of occupied Poland could obviously not count on such help. On the other hand, however, all that would be involved, in our case, would be an almost painless expenditure of time or money; Maria Kann, as the Vilna diarist noted, risked death. The ease with which we exclude others from the universe of shared moral obligations should serve as a reminder to those who would all too easily condemn Przybora for his depressing frankness. And yet even though he wrote years after the events of the war, he seemed not fully aware of the not only moral, but also cognitive consequences of the exclusion he had accepted. Consequences that Feliks Tych’s fine research brings out in excruciating detail.

Yet personal experience was not the only way Poles learned about the fate of the Jews under German occupation. They had at their disposal a very variegated underground press (and were exposed to an ongoing barrage of Nazi propaganda, which we will not have the space to analyze here). We will investigate, however, the impact underground media might have had on what people knew of what was happening–and on what they thought about what they knew.

The underground press was a major element of the Polish resistance movement. Though its production and distribution was punished with concentration camp or death, almost two thousand different titles were published throughout the occupation, nearly twice as much as in occupied France or the Netherlands. Their print runs would vary from several dozen to thousands, and each copy, passed from hand to hand, would reach, according to historians, at least ten persons on the average. The Polish historian Paweł Szapiro, also of the Jewish Historical Institute, is conducting an extensive study of what the Polish underground press wrote about the Jews. He has published one volume so far, collecting all known reactions to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The anthology, culled from 153 publications of all political orientations, contains 455 texts, from very brief news items to long features. (14) They date from February 1943, when the first rumors about the planned total liquidation of the ghetto started to circulate, to November 1944, when in a final copy the material damage to Warsaw, wrought by the crushing of the uprising, was being assessed. And though the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was a truly extraordinary event – the first act of armed resistance in German-occupied Europe, and simultaneously what then seemed to be the final act of the history of Polish Jews – one can assume that the coverage it got in the Polish underground media can help shed a light on the way the fate of the Jews in general was being portrayed therein, which in turn will help us understand what the readers of that press knew at the time.

The overwhelming majority of the texts in Szapiro’s anthology are informative, and rely on outside sources: Polish eyewitnesses observing the fight- ing in the ghetto from the “Aryan” side, and later – Allied comments on the events, as broadcast by the BBC and “Świt” – a Polish government-in-exile station broadcasting from London, but very successfully masquerading as an underground radio based in Poland. Thus, the stories focus mainly on the observable – Jews are fighting – and on reactions to that event on the Warsaw street, and eventually in the free world. Very little, for understandable reasons, is being written about the development of actual events in the ghetto, both during the course of the uprising and in the months preceding it. Only a few of the newspaper articles refer to eyewitness testimony, usually from Jews who had managed to flee the ghetto. The general impression of the course of the fighting tends to attribute more military power to the insurgents than they actually had, and also does not sufficiently describe the concentration-camp-like conditions which prevailed in the ghetto.

Yet the basic facts are very well known to the authors of the articles, and therefore to their readers. In a fundamental text published in “Biuletyn Informacyjny,” the principal publication of the underground Home Army (the military organization affiliated with the government in exile), and then reprinted in at least four other publications, the anonymous author states: “After the Germans had concluded their preparations, consisting of locking up Polish Jews in ghettos, and transporting there numerous transports of Jews from Western Europe – the first act of the tragedy began. Under the orders of the death-head-marked SS-men, all kinds of German executioners would empty house after house, neighborhood after neighborhood, city after city, driving the hapless victims along cadaver-strewn roads, or transferring them under barbaric conditions to the sites of collective execution in Treblinka, Bełżec and Sobibór. There German science had in an exemplary way resolved the issue, so attractive for it, of how to collectively annihilate, possibly without a trace, hundreds of thousands of people. Smaller Jewish centers were liquidated on the spot. Only those Jews, whose work was useful to the German war machine, were left behind.” (15) The author quotes no sources for his description, assuming therefore it is common knowledge. As he was writing for the principal organ of the Polish underground, it is safe to surmise that this is what informed Polish opinion knew in April 1943 about the development of the Shoah.

And the description is rather accurate. It centers on the scale and planned, systematic character of “collective annihilation” (the term “genocide,” though advanced by a Polish Jewish lawyer, Rafał Lemkin, already before WWII, in reference to the massacre of the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, was not in use until after the war), identifies its two main methods: technological murder in death camps and assassination on the spot, and names three of the six death camps. It seriously underestimates, however, the number of victims (by spring 1943 some 4 million Jews had already been murdered, not “hundreds of thousands), but the immensity of the destruction was not obvious to any outside observers at the time. On the other hand, however, Jewish leaders whom Jan Karski had met in the Warsaw Ghetto had a better grasp of events: they told him that what was happening was “the total annihilation of the Jewish people.”

Another significant omission in the “Biuletyn Informacyjny” summary of events is that it lists only three of the six death camps in operation. While one of the remaining three – Stuthoff – was the smallest one and operated on Polish territory annexed to the Reich and might have thus escaped detection, the other two – Auschwitz and Majdanek – were well-known throughout the country, as they also served as concentration camps for non-Jewish in mates. Therefore, their omission from the “Biuletyn Informacyjny” list is difficult to explain – unless their use as concentration camps for Poles prevented them from being seen as simultaneously death camps for Jews.

This interpretation may seem far-fetched, but there is some evidence to support it. Krzysztof Radziwiłł, Polish nobleman, essayist and diplomat, was an inmate at Majdanek when, on November 3, 1943, the Germans had shot 17 thousand Jewish inmates. “On the second day after this hecatomb, camp life recovered its normal appearance again, and that was when, I remember, for the first time in my life did I slap one of my Polish companions of misfortune in the face. He had offered me to join him in a drinking party to celebrate the fact that there will be so many Jews less in the future Poland” (16). The prince’s anonymous “companion of misfortune” was doubtless extremely unrepresentative (though not entirely isolated; see below) in his expression of joy; yet his fundamental belief that the victim of the massacre were “them,” Jews, and not “us,” Polish citizens, was widespread. A witness of the mass executions of Jews in the Ponary fort near Vilnius noted in her memoirs, written after the war: “Throughout all the post-war years I carried the thought, like a pang of conscience, of how to repay the debt towards the [ethnic] Poles who were [also] murdered at Ponary…They found themselves in the pits with a human mass which was ethnically alien to us.” (17) If even sharing the death pits with murdered Jews was something that, for a Polish survivor, was unbearable, it is understandable that Jewish fate was seen as fundamentally different from Polish fate.

This is evident from the press articles. Even though only a very small minority express an outright anti-Semitic hostility akin to that revealed by Radziwiłł’s “companion of misfortune” (17 out of 455), (18) many contain qualifiers clearly expressing Polish non-identification with the Jewish fate, and critical surprise at Jewish behavior. “The hitherto passive death of the Jewish masses,” opines the author of the quoted “Biuletyn Informacyjny” article– “created no new values–was useless; death arms in hand might bring new values into the life of the Jewish nation, endowing the suffering of Jews in Poland with the radiance of a fight for the right to live…The fighting citizens of the Polish State from beyond the ghetto walls had become closer, more comprehensible to the community of the capital, than the passive victims, who had allowed themselves to be dragged to their deaths without resistance.” There is no doubt that the author views the ghetto fighters with sympathy, as he qualifies them as “citizens of the Polish State.” Yet they are not seen as a part of “the community of the capital,” and their previous way of dying is seen as incomprehensible and worthless. It is a stunning paradox that, exactly at the time the Warsaw Ghetto uprising broke out, German authorities had publicized the discovery of the mass graves at Katyń (19) –where 23,000 interned Polish officers had been executed in batches by their Soviet captors. Yet though these were young and healthy military men, unencumbered by the presence of weak and powerless dependents, and not emaciated by years spent in concentration-camp-like ghetto conditions, nobody thought of criticizing them for having allowed themselves to be “dragged to their deaths without resistance.”

The qualified recognition of Jews as Poles is a constant factor even in publications sympathetic to the plight of Poland’s Jews. “The invader’s barbaric oppression of the Jews, Polish citizens after all, directly impacts Polish raison d’état,” remarked a commentator in another Home Army publication. (20) “Whatever the feelings one might have towards Jews, one has to bow one’s head in front of their tragedy,” concluded writing for an independent liberal democratic paper. (21) “Polish society did not recently feel any particular sympathy towards the jews (sic).…The cause of these antagonisms was not on the Polish side, but had its source within jewry (sic) itself…Regardless of all this we recognized the jews (sic) as human and were never able to resolve the jewish question through crime and cruelty” – another Home Army publication. (22) In a nutshell: if Jews were Polish citizens only “after all,” if one had to silence one’s feelings towards them in the face of their tragedy, if one felt pride that one recognized them as human – then it is hardly surprising that one did not consider them as part of one’s own community. Their fate was not ours, even if we may empathize or assist. Small wonder that most diarists fail to register that fate at all. It is not that they did not know. It is that they did not consider it relevant to their own fate.

Two qualifiers, however, need to be interjected here. First, it is not at all obvious that this exclusion from the universe of shared moral obligations did in fact mean indifference – far from it. Just as the overwhelming majority of such comments on the Shoah, as were found in the diaries express compassion and outrage, the same is true of the opinions expressed in the underground press. The majority of Poles were simply too busy surviving themselves to extend enough attention to the fate of these “ethnic aliens,” who were “antagonistic to the Polish side” and “incomprehensively passive” towards their own dying. Furthermore, many thought that what is happen ing to the Jews today might happen to the Poles tomorrow. “We stood in the same line to the Nazi annihilation, though the Jews were ahead of us,” wrote the already quoted Przybora. (23) Similar sentiments were also expressed in the underground press.

The relative rarity of unconditionally anti-Semitic views expressed in the material under consideration is of course a positive phenomenon. We do know that the increasingly virulent anti-Semitism of pre-WWII Poland did not disappear under the occupation, in view of a common enemy and the immensity of Jewish suffering. On September 25, 1941, the commander in chief of the Home Army, general Stefan “Grot” Rowecki, wrote in a periodic report to the government in exile in London: “I report that all [favorable] declarations and moves by the Government and the National Council [Poland’s parliament in exile] concerning Jews in Poland create inside the Country the worst impression possible and eminently facilitate propaganda unfavorable or hostile to the Government…Please accept as a completely real fact that the overwhelming majority of the country is antisemiticaly in- clined. Even socialists are no exception…[and they] accept the postulate of emigration as the solution of the Jewish problem.” (24) Rowecki attributes this attitude to the alleged betrayal of Poland committed by Jews under Soviet occupation.

Given this prevalence of anti-Semitism, it is to be appreciated that only a minority of the elites (as expressed in the underground media) shared it. On the other hand, however, one also needs to bear in mind that an underground paper is heavily dependent on the trust it enjoys amongst its readers – who, after all, take risks just by reading it. (25) Therefore it stands to reason that the paper would not disseminate views that its readers would reject. This holds true both of publications expressing sympathy to Jews and those expressing their hostility towards them. From a contemporary perspective, however, only the latter attitude demands investigation. Yet, if in reaction to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the newspapers of the rather influential right-wing organization “Miecz i Pług” (MiP, “The Sword and the Plough”) wrote that “these issues [i.e. the fate of the uprising] are completely indifferent to us,” (26) and “[w]e know what immense losses did the Polish Nation incur because of precisely these jews (sic), and this is why the fate which befalls them, terrible from a purely human viewpoint, seems nonetheless just,” (27) these statements need to be treated at face value. For a part of Polish public opinion, the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was the defeat of one enemy by another and the fate the defeated faced was fair.

Another underground publication, connected with the National Party (SN), concurs: “Simply, the jews (sic) finally understood that the Germans have condemned all of them, without exception, to annihilation. And having to choose between death by firing squad or by gas, or fighting arms in hand, in which it might be even possible to save themselves, they chose the latter, sure thing. There is no heroism, or even risk involved. And this has nothing whatsoever to do with the Polish cause.” (28) And the Jewish peril to Poland has not disappeared with the extermination of most of the country’s Jewish population: “We stress to the utmost our condemnation of the beastliness of the Hitlerite goons, but we will not renounce our economic and political struggle against jewry (sic), by becoming sentimental over the crocodile tears of jewish financers and politicians, who are preparing to impose their power over us. If we are to shoot at jews (sic) – it will probably be on the barricades, in the fire of a red revolution imposed on us” (29) warns another SN publication. The organ of the extreme right military underground NOW agrees: “Let us remember, that several hundred thousand jews (sic) (and this is as many as have been preserved, in the country and abroad) is enough, were they capable again to dominate our economic life and penetrate the centers of political-cultural life, to maybe even more influence the fate of Poland, than the hitherto million-strong jewish masses.” (30) In all those, and other similar articles, the alleged treason of the Jews was invoked as justification of the views expressed.

Hence the logical conclusion, supporting general Rowecki’s quoted report: “Today, a tear in the eye over the burned ghetto notwithstanding, the programs of all Polish movements agree on the elimination of jewish influence. Victory has been achieved,”31 triumphs, certainly somewhat exaggeratedly, the SN. Most Poles, even if not directly concerned with the fate of the Jews, would have in all probability disagreed. And yet the support base of SM, MiP and NOW did exist. Józef Górski, a landed gentleman from near Kosów Lacki and certainly a patriot, was torn in his reaction to the Shoah. “As a Christian I could only feel compassion towards my [ Jewish] brethren…” he notes, “but as a Pole I looked at these events differently. Following the ideology of [Roman] Dmowski [the leader of Poland’s pre-WWII right] I considered the Jews an internal occupier…so I could only feel satisfaction that we are getting rid of that occupier, and not through our own handiwork, but through that of the other, external occupier…I could not conceal my satisfaction when I crossed our towns which have been rid of the Jews, and when I saw that the revolting, sloppy Jewish hovels with the inseparable goat have stopped spoiling our landscape.” (32)

Yet even he notices there is an inconvenience to this otherwise welcome development: the demoralization of a segment of the population: “Some peasants hid Jews in their homes, and took ample compensation for it; then, when the constant danger, to which they were exposed, started to weigh on them too much, they cut the Jews’ heads with axes.” (33) This aspect of the Shoah–the participation of numbers of individual Poles in the murder of Jews– was not realized by Polish public opinion until the great historical debates of the early 21st century, brought about by the books of Jan T. Gross (34). Yet at the time they occurred, these actions were already to an extent described, discussed and condemned in the underground press. The Catholic writer (and pre-war anti-Semite), Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, who was under the occupation the single most influential individual in setting up, at great personal risk, the Council to Help the Jews “Żegota,” had in May 1942 published in the organ of the Catholic “Front Odnowy Polski (FOP; “Front for the Renewal of Poland”) a damning report on the collaboration and demoralization of some Poles: “The question of the demoralization, savagery that the Jewish massacres generate in us is becoming a burning one. For not only the Shaulis [Lithuanian collaborationist police], Volksdeutsche or Ukrainians who are used for monstrous executions. In many localities (Kolno, Stawiski, Jagodne, Szumów, Dęblin) the local population volunteered to participate in massacres. All available means are to be used against such outrage. It is necessary to make people realize they are becoming Herod’s goons, to brand them in the secret press, to call for executioners to be boycotted, and to announce against the murderers severe verdicts of the courts of the free Republic.” (35) The “Jagodno” she mentions is almost certainly Jedwabne, the site of a major massacre of Jews conducted by Polish neighbors, described in Jan T. Gross’s ground-breaking book. It lies next to Kolno and Stawiski, which were also sites of such massacres, while no information has been found, however, on similar events in the remaining two localities mentioned.

In retrospect, then, the absence of references to the Shoah in the majority of the diaries studied by Tych is less stunning that it would seem. Poles, as evidenced by coverage in the underground press, were reasonably well informed about the fate which had befallen their Jewish neighbors. Most withdrew their cognitive investment in that fate in part out of powerlessness, and in–clearly lesser–part out of hostility to its victims. That withdrawal led at times to agonizing moral dilemmas, but more often to the acceptance of the belief that the fate of the Jews was not something the Poles could influence, and therefore not something they should have been involved in. This in turn led to an attitude which could be characterized as indifference, even if we know that this was often not the case.

Yet for Jews who encountered that attitude – and this involved the quasi- totality of those, who were able to survive “on the Aryan side” and therefore were in daily contact with Poles – it left an indelible mark on their perception of their Gentile neighbors. “They know but they don’t care” was a feeling often expressed by survivors, both during the Shoah and after. And since it was much safer for those Poles who were genuinely indifferent to the Jews’ fate, or actually approved of it, to express their attitude in public – expressions of sympathy to the Jews were penalized by the German authorities – many survivors drew the conclusion that the indifference they felt masked hostility rather than powerlessness. And so a minority opinion became attributed to the majority of Poles who often, even now, react to it with the outrage of someone who is being unfairly accused but at the same time is aware that he does have something to answer for.


•     •     • 

About the Author

Konstanty Gebert - International reporter and columnist at Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest daily newspaper, and associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He was an underground journalist in the 1980s under martial law, and later founded the Polish Jewish intellectual monthly Midrasz. He has written ten books on a variety of topics including the Polish democratic transformation, the European 20th century, the Yugoslav wars, the wars of Israel, Torah commentary and post-WWII Polish Jewry. His articles have appeared in newspapers in Poland and around the world.


Gebert, Konstanty. "Warsaw: The guilt of indifference." In Civil Society and the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue, edited by Anders Jerichow and Cecilie Felicia Stokholm Banke, 40-55. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2013.


B.N. Dz. Rękopisów stands for National Library, Warsaw, Manuscripts Department

1. Jeremi Przybora: Przymknięte oko Opatrzności, Memuarów część II [The Closed Eye of Providence, Memoirs Part II], Warszawa 1998, p. 47. Cit. in Feliks Tych: Długi cień Zagłady, Warszawa 1999, p. 31.

2. Antoni Sułek: Zwykli Polacy patrzą na Żydów [Ordinary Poles look at Jews], in Gazeta Wyborcza, Jan 15, 2010.

3. It is generally believed that 3 million non-Jewish Polish citizens (mainly Poles, but also Ukrainians and Byelorussians) died in WWII, although contemporary historical estimates tend to lower this estimate somewhat.

4. Op. cit.

5. Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz: Notatki 1939 – 1945 [Notes 1939 – 1945]; Andrzej Zawada (Ed.), Warszawa 1991, p. 48. Cit. in Tych, op. cit.

6. Agnieszka Hulewicz-Feillowa: Rodem z Kościanek [Born in Kościanki], Kraków 1988, p. 203. Cit. in Tych, op. cit.

7. Krystyna Libiszowska-Dobrska: Trochę wspomnień z lat okupacji [Some Reminiscences from the Years of Occupation; unpublished manuscript], B.N., Dz. Rękopisów, akc. 11666, rozdz. III, k.11-12. Cit. in Tych, op. cit.

8. E. Thomas Wood and Stanislaw M. Jankowski: Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust, New York ( John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994; paperback February 1996).

9. As David Rieff had said in his book “Slaughterhouse,” on the Bosnian war: “After Sarajevo, after Srebrenica, we know what “Never again!” means. ``Never again’’ simply means ``Never again’’ will Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940’s. That is all it means.”

10. Leszek Jastrzębiec: Tułacze życie; Pamiętnik [A Wanderer’s Life; Memoirs; unpublished] B.N. Dz. Rękopisów, akc. 9314, t. III, k. 145. Cit. in Tych, op. cit.

11. Colloquial term to designate blackmailers, who made a living out of threatening to denounce Jews.

12. Przybora, op. cit., p. 47. Cit. in Tych, op. cit.

13. Poles constitute over one third of the Righteous Gentiles recognized by Yad Vashem, the single biggest national group.

14. Paweł Szapiro: Wojna żydowsko-niemiecka [The Jewish-German War], London 1992, Aneks Publishers.

15. “Ostatni akt wielkiej tragedii” [The last act of the great tragedy]”, “Biuletyn Informacyjny”, 17 (172), April 29, 1943. Cit. in Szapiro, op. cit. # 63.

16. Krzysztof Radziwiłł: Mój pamiętnik. Od feudalizmu do socjalizmu. [My Memoirs. From Feudalism to Socialism; unpublished manuscript], B.N., Dz. Rękopisów, akc. 9213, k. 297- 298; Cit. in Tych, op. cit.

17. Helena Pasierbska: Wileńskie wspomnienia z lat wojny [Vilna Memoirs from Wartime; unpublished manuscript], B.N., Dz. Rękopisów, akc. 127715, k. 42. Cit. in Tych, op. cit.

18. It needs to be remembered, however, that the overwhelming majority of the articles culled were information, not opinion, so the relative proportion of the antisemitic texts is much larger.

19. The massacre was immediately attributed by the Germans to “Jew Bolshevik executioners”, an explanation which found large credence among the Polish population, and adversely impacted its reaction to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In broader terms, the alleged collusion between Polish Jews and Soviet authorities during the 1939-41 Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland generated strong anti-Semitic reactions throughout the country. This is a topic, however, that cannot be addressed properly in such a brief essay.

20. “Agencja Prasowa” nr 17 (159), April 28, 1943, Cit. in Szapiro, op. cit., #53

21. “Nowy Dzień” nr 551, April 28, 1943, Cit. in Szapiro, op. cit. # 54.

22. “Twierdza” nr 19 (122), May 8, 1943, Cit. in Szapiro, op. cit.# 130

23. Had Hitler won the war, this might have eventually become true. During the war, how-ever, the difference between the fate of the Jews, who were to be hunted down to the last child hiding in the woods, and the Poles, who were “only” to be reduced to slave labor, remained stark, even without factoring in the fact that the Shoah had been almost completely successful, while most Poles remained brutally oppressed, but not enslaved. The fallacious argument of commonality of fate was, and continues to be used, for two very different reasons: to shame those among the Poles who would approve of Nazi policy towards the Jews, and to oppose granting Jews the moral high ground due to their unique suffering.

24. Cit. in Andrzej Żbikowski: Studia z dziejów Żydów w Polsce, Warszawa 1995, v. 2, p. 63.

25. The author of this paper was the editor of an underground newspaper in Poland under military dictatorship in the 80s.

26. “Polska Żyje”, April 24, 1943, Cit. in Szapiro, op. cit.# 37.

27. “Nurt Młodych”, nr 4, April 30, 1943, Cit. in Szapiro, op. cit.# 72.

28. “Wielka Polska”, nr 19, May 5, 1943, Cit. in Szapiro, op. cit.# 104.

29. “Walka”, nr 28, August 28, 1943, Cit. in Szapiro, op. cit.# 215.

30. “Kierownik”, nr 30, May 16, 1943, Cit. in Szapiro, op. cit.# 173.

31. “Młoda Polska”, nr 18 (32), October13, 1943, Cit. in Szapiro, op. cit.# 339.

32. Józef Górski: Na przełomie dziejów [At the Turning-point of History; unpublished manuscript], B.N., Dz. Rękopisów, III 9776, k. 33, 74. Cit. in Tych, op. cit.

33. Ibidem, k. 57.

34. Jan T. Gross: Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001; Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. Random House, 2006; with Irena Grudzińska-Gross: Golden Harvest. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

35. “Prawda”, nr 2, May 1942.

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2013


Related Media

Different Realities, Different Perceptions: Case of Poland, Bulgaria and France
by Konstanty Gebert, Anthony Georgieff, Flemming Rose, Anette Wieviorka, Denmark 2013
European Reactions to Holocaust Persecution
by Bob Moore, Denmark 2013
The United States: Facing Nazi Policies of Mass Murder
by Richard Breitman, Denmark 2013
The Final Day of My Childhood
by Herbert Pundik, Denmark 2013
The Ambivalence of Holocaust History
by Bent Blüdnikov, Bo Lidegaard, Klaus Rothstein, Cecilie Stokholm Banke, Denmark 2013
The Holocaust in the Nordic Periphery: Norway, Sweden, Finland
by Anders Jerichow, Karin Kvist Geverts, Irene Levin, Oula Silvennoinen, Denmark 2013
Did Europe Learn?
by Paula Larrain, Manfred Nowak, Søren Pind, Denmark 2013
Civil Society and the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue
by Annette Wieviorka, Richard Breitman, Konstanty Gebert, Anthony Georgieff, Judith Goldstein, Ulrich Herbert, Anders Jerichow, Karin Kvist Geverts, Sofie Lene Bak, Ronald Leopold , Irene Levin, Bob Moore, Oula Silvennoinen, Cecilie Stokholm Banke, Denmark 2013
Sofia: Double-Faced Bulgaria
by Anthony Georgieff, Denmark 2013
Berlin: The Persecution of Jews and German Society
by Ulrich Herbert, Denmark 2013
Paris: A Family Under German Occupation
by Annette Wieviorka, Denmark 2013
Washington: Focused on Winning the War
by Richard Breitman, Denmark 2013
Stockholm: Antisemitism, Ambivalence and Action
by Karin Kvist Geverts, Denmark 2013
Oslo: The Escape from Norway
by Irene Levin, Denmark 2013
Amsterdam: Heroes, Villains and Many Shades of Grey
by Ronald Leopold , Denmark 2013
Browse all content