During World War II, against overwhelming odds, the Polish people saved thousands of Jewish lives from
Nazi persecution. It was a testament to the courage and compassion of many Poles to have risked their
lives to save their Jewish compatriots. No doubt this comes as a surprise to many people who perceive
the Polish nation as staunchly anti-Semitic. While anti-Semetism did manifest itself in varying degrees,
mainstream Polish society was sympathetic to the plight of the Jews.
Hitler's objective was the annihilation of Poland altogether - not only of the Jews, but Polish Christians as well. Hundreds
of thousands of Poles were arrested, tortured, and executed, or deported to concentration camps. Even more sent to
the Reich as slave labor for German factories and farms. While Poles were not herded into ghettos like the Jews, they
were prisoners just the same. Central Poland, that is, the General Gouvernement, under the command of General
Frank was in fact one gigantic penal colony. Within central Poland, Poles were frequently rounded up, tortured and
executed. Poles' suffering under the Nazi occupation was as great as that of the Jews, though few people today
At the core of Polish-Jewish relations was a common suffering, and hatred of the Germans. The Poles and Jews
were kindred spirits united in a common purpose - the defence of their homeland and freedom. They dug the trenches
together, and fought against the invading Germans. But events were to unfold that would pit them against each other.
The initial solidarity between Poles and Jews was all too short-lived. It ended on September 17, 1939 when the
Russians invaded eastern Poland. Thousands of Jews welcomed the Russians as liberators, enlisting in the Red Army
to help them fight the Nazis. In the process, Jews became the accomplices in the deportation of tens of thousands of
their fellow Poles to the Russian gulag. Some Jews who had been placed in positions of authority at Russian labor
camps were responsible for the deaths of many Poles. Yet the Jews, in an ironic twist, would also become the victims of
Russian tyranny as soon as they outlived their usefulness as Stalins' pawns.
Collaboration with the enemy was a betrayal of the Polish nation and was vehemently denounced by the Polish
Underground State, and Home Army. So strong was their hatred of the Germans and the Soviets that the majority
of Poles did not collaborate with either of them. Prominent Polish leaders refused to collaborate with the Nazis.
Alfred Wysocki, former Polish envoy to Berlin, and Ambassador to Rome, refused to negotiate with the Nazis for an
end to the Polish Resistance, even for the exchange of political prisoners. In fact, Poland was the only Nazi-occupied
country which did not have a Quisling.
Distrustful of the Soviets, some Poles and Jews felt that they had no choice but to collaborate with the hated Nazis
in order to drive the Red Army out of eastern Poland. Conversely, some Jews and Poles collaborated with the Soviets
as their only hope to rid Poland of the Nazis. Inevitably, it led to the eruption of fratricidal violence where Poles were
pitted not only against the Jews but other Poles as well.. And Jews were pitted against the Poles as well as fellow Jews.
(It is not possible to make generalizations about the Polish people nor of their Jewish compatriots.) For a country
already torn apart by violent partition and conflicting ideologies, it needed little more than a spark to bring about a
violent clash between some Poles and Jews. The Germans and the Soviets wielded their propaganda at partisan
politics, and exploited the existing tensions among nationalist movements among Polands’ minorities (the Lithuanians,
Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and the Jews).
The massacres that took place in Poland were one of the darkest episodes in Polish-Jewish history. Bromberg,
Jozefow, Lomazy, Bialystok, Warsaw Ghetto, Majdanek, Stutthof, Gruben, Radzilow, Jedwabne, Naliboki, Koniuchy,
are just a few of the places where horrible massacres took place. In its wake were thousands of Polish, and of Jewish
victims. The Germans and the Soviets used massacres as a tool in their policy of pacification - to subdue the local
population into submission. In the September Campaign of 1939, the invading German troops wiped out over 500
Polish towns and villages. In retaliation, Poles and Jews escaping from the westen front massacred the Germans and
the Volksdeutscher (Poles of German descent). But people today have no idea that Jewish partisans had also been
responsible for a number of atrocities. As part of the Soviet armies, the Jews participated in the massacre of Poles at
Koniuchy, and Naliboki, among other places. When the Germans invaded eastern Poland, and drove out the Soviet
forces, some Poles turned on their Jewish neighbors in a fit of rage because the Jews had collaborated with the other
enemy - Russia. Most infamous was the massacre at Jednabwe. The controversy continues to this day whether it was
the Nazis or the Poles who instigated the killing. Apparently some claim that the Germans were not even present.
Others allege that the Germans even tried to intervene in order to stop the Poles from slaughtering the Jews. This has
all the earmarks of German propaganda. Professor Tamasz Szarota, in his article, Holocaust z perspetywy polwiecze
(The Holocaust from the Perspective of Half a Century) published by the Jewish Historical Institute, discussed the
subject of anti-Jewish outbreaks. Szarota asserted that "each time it was probably a provocation prepared by [the
Germans]. The primary purpose was of propaganda. The world was thus shown that the Germans were not the only
ones who felt the need to eliminate the Jews, and that the strength of hatred of the Jews was even stronger in other
countries than in Germany. As a by-product, there was a demonstration of the alleged approval of the occupied
countries for the way in which Nazi ideology brandished ant-Semitic slogans. By intervening for law and order, the
Germans achieved yet another aim - they suddenly appeared as defenders of the Jews against an assault by the
The Poles who were involved in carrying out these massacres were comprised from the lowest element of society -
hooligans, hardened criminals, moral degenerates, and punks. Poles from mainstream society referred to them as
szmalcowniks, a derogatory terms meaning the lowest criminal element of mankind. The Poles most likely to collaborate
with the Nazis was indeed this category, as well as the Volksdeutscher. But beneath the veneer of violent anti-Semitism,
and anti-Polonism, were Poles who were devoted to the mission of saving Jews from Nazi persecution. They were the
Polish Underground - a vast network of military and civilian organizations that had members from a wide cross-section
of Polish society - professionals, blue-collar workers, priests, boy-scouts, among many others.
Jewish collaboration with the Soviets provoked an outpouring of condemnation by the Polish people. They accused the
Jews of conspiring with the Soviets to destroy Poland. When the newly-created Polish Army was relocated from Russia
to the Middle East, thousands of Polish Jews, who had enlisted, deserted the army en masse. Though General Anders
granted them all amnesty, it is not surprising that resentment within the army ranks grew - but not for reasons of anti-
Semetism. This desertion was a betrayal of Poland, on the very eve of battle. But with the establishment of the Jewish
Ghettos, Polish opinion began to transform from one of hatred and anger to that of sympathy and deep compassion.
Poles who had themselves been victims of German bestiality knew with what anguish the Jews suffered. They were
witness to the horrors of the ghettos and the sentence imposed upon its' victims - slow starvation and the deportations
to death camps. Many Poles felt compelled to act on the grounds of decency and humanitarianism, overlooking past
resentments, betrayal, even anti-Semetism, to come to the aid of the Jews. At great risk to their own lives, Polish men,
women and children tossed bundles of food over the ghetto walls. Polish families opened their homes to Jews fleeing
Nazi persecution. Many Poles even constructed secret bunkers beneath their basements, or erected fake wall
partitions, for the purpose of hiding as many Jews as possible. Elaborate means were used to smuggle food, clothing
and medical care to the Jews in hiding, so as not to arouse public suspicion.
Poland was the only occupied country in which the Germans issued a decree warning that anyone helping the Jews
would be executed. In house-to-house searches, the Nazis often found Jews hiding there, and shot them along with the
Poles ( and their families ) who sheltered them. That the Germans even issued such a decree is indicative of the fact
that Polish assistance to the Jews was widespread. Many Poles were so traumatized that they chose to remain neutral
for fear of their lives. Our perception of them as passive or indifferent is unwarranted. Considering the circumstances
theirs was not a decision influenced by anti-Semetism. But even with the threat of discovery, and German reprisals,
many Poles continued in their mission to shelter and hide Jews.
German and Soviet propaganda distorted and magnified the facts in order to inflame Polish-Jewish hostilities. Among
the countless incidences staged by the Nazis was one in which Germans in Lodz destroyed a statue of the Polish patriot
Kosciuszko, and blamed it on the Jews. The Germans forced a group of Jews to stand in front of the rubble and
photographed it as "evidence". Immediately thereafter, the Germans burned down a synagogue and accused the
Poles for having done so in retaliation. In Warsaw, on Passover, the Germans staged a riot which lasted, ironically, for
eight days. They recruited a thousand Polish youths to destroy Jewish homes and shops while German soldiers were
nearby filming the entire onslaught. The sole objective of Nazi propaganda was to bring about Poland's self-destruction
by playing on Polish fears of being conquered by the Soviets. Moreover, the suspicion that Britain and the US had
abandoned the Poles and was about to betray them to the Soviets were reasons enough for some Poles to collaborate
with the Nazis. Any illusion of acquiring special protection or benefits by collaboration, quickly vanished, as the
German terror on Polish underground continued unabated.
The Polish Underground waged a continuous battle using counter propaganda of its own to demoralize and disrupt the
German rank and file. More importantly, the Underground sought to influence Polish attitudes by instructing them to
resist German propaganda and enticements to collaborate with them. The Nazis made numerous concessions to the
Polish people including re-opening Polish theatres and museums, and eliminating the requirement of passes for Poles
using the trains. The Germans sometimes succeeded in luring members of the AK out of hiding, only to deport them to
concentration camps, or execute them.
While the majority of the Poles complied with the directives of the Polish Underground, others did not. Poland endured
a siege of German terror and brutality that over time contributed to the increase in delinquency, especially in the
youth. No morals or laws prevailed other than that which ensured Nazi supremacy. Every kind of depravity was
encouraged by the Nazis to erode the moral fabric of Polish society. The Poles who collaborated with the Germans
represented only a fraction of the Polish population.
In the political sphere, the most rabid element was the ONR ( Oboz Narodowo Rady Kalny ), a radical-nationalist party
which produced much of the Polish anti-Semitic propaganda. They accused the Jews of starting the war and claimed
that the Jews were collaborating with the Nazis and the Soviets in order to destroy Poland. This political party was not
represented in the Polish Underground State nor in the Polish Government-in-exile, in London.
Little or no attention has been given to the sacrifices made by heroic Poles - the men, and women who made daring
attempts to shelter Jews, under extraordinary circumstances. Catholic nuns frequently sheltered Jewish children in
their convents, teaching them Catholic prayers, and catechism, so that they could pass the scrutiny of German
interrogation. Among the religious orders that gave assistance to the Jews were: the Sisters of Maria's Family (in
Otwock, Pludy and several other Polish towns), the Ursuline Sisters (in Warsaw-Powisle, among other provincial
convents), the Franciscan Sisters, in Lasku, the Sisters of the Lady Immaculate (in Warsaw, Szymanow, and
Niepokalanow), the Sisters of Charity ( in the hospitals of Warsaw), and the Polish Relief Council in Otwock.
At the start of the war, there were Poles who were anti-Semitic but who had changed their outlook because of the
Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews - men such as Stanislaw Piasecki, Adolf, Nowaczynski, Kozidkiewicz,
Witold Rudnicki, among many others. There are thousands of Poles who risked their lives and died in the process
of helping the Jews. Only a few of them have been documented and are honoured by Yad Vashem, in the Righteous
Among Nations. None have gained so much attention as the selfless act of one individual, Father Maximillian Kolbe, a
Franciscan monk. He was a Polish prisoner in Auschwitz, number 16670, who volunteered to die instead of the fifteen
Jews selected for death by slow starvation. The first victims of the gas chambers at Auschwitz were 300 Poles and 700
Soviet POWs. Until 1942, Poles constituted 90% of the inmates of Stutthof.
Jan Karski, a national hero of the Polish Underground, was the first to report the news of German atrocities to the Allied
nations. He embarked on a gruelling mission through several occupied- countries, transporting secret microfilm to the
Polish Government-in-exile in London - on it was documented evidence of the crimes committed by the Germans -
photographs, decrees, and statistics.
The most elaborate covert operation in saving the Jews was an organization called Zegota. Although its official name
was Council for Aid to the Jews, it had to have been referred to in code in order to protect the organization from
blackmailers and informers. Zegota members represented a wide cross-section of Polish society. It was an enormous
network which overlapped with organizations in the Polish Underground State, Home Army, and a countless array of
individual Poles from every profession and trade. All were devoted to helping the work of Zegota. The major scope of
activity dealt with finding safe houses in which Jews could be hidden, the provision of food, clothing, and whenever
possible, medical care. They produced thousands of fake documents, such as birth certificates, and passports to
conceal the true identity of the Jews. Many Jews were able to live on the Aryan side (outside the ghettos) because
their features were not Semitic. They were the lucky few. Many others whose appearance was obviously Semitic, had
to be hidden at all times, otherwise they would risk their death and the death of the Poles sheltering them. Because of
this risk, many Poles had no choice but to refuse to help them
The largest source of aid to the Jews, which far surpassed Zegota, and the spontaneous efforts given randomly by
groups or individuals, was the Polish Underground State. Its' organization, along political, military and civilian divisions,
was devoted to the restoration of Poland’s freedom and independence. Among its activities was the mission to provide
the Jews with a means of escape and shelter from Nazi persecution.
In 1940-41, the Polish government-in-exile and the Underground State were the first to report the news of the
persecution of the Jews in Poland. Initially, the British government received the reports with a great deal of skepticism,
believing that the Poles may have exaggerated. It was difficult for the British to comprehend how German Kultur could
descend to such depths of depravity. Irregardless of British stonewalling, Polish interventions were immediately set into
motion. Diplomatic meetings were held in Britain, and the U.S., resolutions were drawn up and submitted to the United
Nations. Ambassador Papee made several visits to the Vatican, meeting with Secretary of State Cardinal Maglione,
and Monsignor Tardem and Montini. He presented them with a memo from Prime Minister Sikorski, in which he
discussed the persecution of the Poles and Jews under Nazi occupation, and requested the intervention of Pope Pius
XII. Issues of the Black Book were also submitted. Papee also met with the General of the Jesuit Order, Father
Wlodzmierz Ledochowski to discuss using the Church and its agencies to shelter Poles and Jews in Poland.
The Polish Foreign Office published a White Book entitled, "The German Occupation of Poland ", printed in English,
French and Spanish. There were also two Black Books; Volume I "The German Invasion of Poland " described the
September Campaign. Volume II, "The German New Order in Poland “ described the German administration in Poland
and the Soviet-German war of June 1941. It provided details concerning the fate of the Jews, German regulations,
descriptions of German atrocities, the burning of synagogues, locations of burials and names of victims, confiscation of
Jewish property, loss of freedom and rights, forced labor, ghettoes, and death camps. Included were 30 photographs
illustrating in graphic detail, life in the ghetto, as well as copies of German decrees. This book was widely distributed in
Great Britain and the US. Copies were sent to press agencies and newspapers around the world.
Prime Minister Sikorski made several visits to the US as well as to London, and the Polish Embassy in Washington,
D.C. A flurry of telegrams between London and Warsaw document the extent of Polish efforts in pressuring the Allies
for military assistance. In 1941-42, Sikorski asked for an American declaration condemning German oppressive
policies against the Poles and the Jews. The US was unresponsive. As time passed, the situation grew more ominous,
Sikorskis’ appeals became more frequent and urgent. Poles and Jews demanded that Britain execute Germans in
reprisal for Nazi atrocities committed against the Polish nation. The British refused to intervene because it was not
within the scope of their political objectives.
The American Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress were receptive to Sikorski’s arrival in the US and
expressed hope for the liberation of Poland, but they quickly resorted to a litany of accusations of Poland’s pre-war
administration. They accused the Polish military of anti-Semetism and referred to the periodical issued by the ONR,
entitled " Jestem Polakiem " ( I am Polish), that was radically nationalistic. Its circulation lasted only from August 4, 1940
to May 15, 1941, at which time the Sikorski govenment called a stop to its publication, declaring it to be detrimental.
Sikorski tried to assure the Allies that the governments position was strongly opposed to anti-Semetism and considered
it foreign to its government. He stated that “the common suffering has created a community of spirit between Poles
The Jewish Morning Newspaper did acknowledge that the Sikorski government was moderate, but instead chose to
focus entirely on the fact that a few of its members were National Democrats. Many criticisms were made purely on
hearsay - as one by Jozef Tennenbaum, President of the American Federation of Polish Jews. He claimed that tens of
thousands of Poles helped the Germans to exterminate the Jews - it is completely unsubstantiated. Jews were
frequently at odds even with each other over the issue of anti-Semitism. Rabbi Z. Babad, who represented the Polish
Agudists in Great Britain, condemned the Jews who made irresponsible generalizations about Polish actions towards
the Jews. He was a loyal supporter of the Sikorski government, and he criticized foreign Jews, especially Zionists, for
interfering in Polish internal affairs. Ludwik Grosfeld, a Polish Jew, was appointed Minister of Treasury by Prime
Minister Mikolajczyk. Grosfeld was severely criticized by the Jews who accused him of being an "assimilationist "
After the Germans invaded Russia, the attacks on the Jews intensified. The Polish government countered German
propaganda by issuing a Declaration, entitled, "Instruction No. 2 ", dated June 23, 1941. It read as follows:
"The government lays great stress on the necessity of warning the nations not to give in to German
baiters and not to adopt an active anti-Jewish attitude in the territories freed from Soviet occupation.
This is imperative for reasons of principle and political ones such as actions would be bound to make
it terribly difficult for the government to profit from the situation in the international field. "
On Jan 13, 1942 Sikorski attended an inter-allied conference of nine countries ( which had been occupied by Germany
), including delegates from Britain and the US. A resolution was made calling for the prosecution of Germans who
violated international law by committing violent crimes against civilians. Britain and the US refused to sign it on the
grounds that there was no verification that the reports were true.
The Polish Underground reported on the increase in German killings. One of many memos read as follows:
"I inform that the news about the murder of several thousand Jews in eastern Galicia is true. Mass
murder of Jews were also committed in the Wilno province, in Byelorussia, and in the Lublin province.
In Wilno alone, about sixty thousand Jews were murdered.... Delegate, April 8, 1942 "
As the massacres began to spread throughout eastern Poland into the General Gouvernement, Prime Minister
Sikorski sent dispatches to the Allied governments reporting that :
" Extermination of the Jewish population is taking place at an unbelievable extent...mass slaughter
of tens of thousands of Jews is being carried out. In the ghettos of Warsaw and Krakow, mass
executions are being carried out every day. Jews ill with typhus are being shot. The Jews of Poland
are suffering the most terrible persecution in the entire history......
"The Polish government informs the governments of the Allied powers of these facts and states that
they are in violation of international law and of the Hague Convention. The perpetrators of these crimes
must be brought to justice and this principle should become the mainstay of the war policy of the
Allies....reprisals on the part of the Allies should be again proclaimed and applied wherever possible....
The Germans and their allies in the Axis... must know that their crimes will not go unpunished otherwise
they will intensify the terror in the occupied countries....."
On June 9, 1942, Sikorski made a speech at the BBC warning the Germans of the consequences of their actions. The
Polish National Council, on June 14, 1942, addressed the parliaments of the world of the situation in Poland and of the
urgency of punishing the Germans.
On July 26, 1942 Stefan Korbonski, the head of the Directorate of Civil Resistance in Poland sent a message to
London informing them that the Germans had began mass deportation of Jews to the death camps at Trebllinka,
the slaughter of the Warsaw Ghetto, and shootings in the streets and in houses. Over a month had passed before the
BBC even broadcast it. The US press however was quick to respond and reported the news the next day.
On October 29, 1942, Jewish organizations held a public meeting at the Royal Albert Hall in London, at which General
Sikorski addressed the audience. He defended the rights of Poles and Jews and assured them that a postwar Poland
would guarantee equal rights and freedoms for all.
The Polish Underground government leaders, and Prime Minister Sikorski all made appeals to the British government to
send the RAF to bomb the railroad lines that lead to the extermination camps. The Polish army did not have the
resources to destroy the rail line, though they were able to cause damages by sabotage. However it only resulted in
delaying rather than stopping railway traffic. Britain refused to carry out an attack even when the AK provided them
with a detailed map illustrating the railway network.
Despite Polish appeals, Britain and the US refused to liberate those imprisoned in concentration camps. TheAllies
claimed that they could not divert its mililtary resources that were already allocated to other operations. This was an
outright lie. In 1944, the Allied bombers had destroyed industrial areas just a few miles from the gas chambers. They
could easily have bombed the railways leading to Auschwitz, but didn't.
On December 17, 1942, eleven Allied governments, and the French National Committee condemned the Nazis. The
United Nations promised a postwar crimes tribunal would punish those Germans responsible for the atrocities. The US
government published a declaration that condemned " in the strongest possible terms the bestial policy of cold-blooded
extermination ", and promised retribution for " that barbarous Hitlerite tyranny ", and that the US would " press on with
the necessary practical measures to this end " This warning, coming from the US, had no effect. The Germans
continued the slaughter of innocent Jews, and the Polish Underground, powerless to stop it, could do nothing more
than continue to send dispatches to the Polish government-in-exile. Szmul Zygielbojm, one of the members of the
National Council of the Polish government-in-exile, committed suicide on May 11, 1943, as a public protest for the
inaction of the Western World.
The Polish government carried out many services to help the Jews. It cooperated with numerous international Jewish
organizations in sending food and medicines through neutral countries such as Portugal and Sweden, to the Jews in
Poland. Financial aid was by far the most vital of its services. When Jews began escaping from the ghettos, in July
and August 1942, the Delegatura began to grant subventions in an effort to help them. From January 1943 to August
1944, the Polish govenment was sending regular endowments to the Council for Aid to the Jews ( Zegota ). In 1943,
Zegota received a total of 4.75 million zlotys. It rose to 12 million in 1944. And for the month of August alone 1944,
after the Warsaw Uprising, it was 5 million zlotys. The total amount received by Zegota was 37.2 million zlotys. Western
Jews also sent funds through various organizations. The money was handled by the Sixth Special Bureau of Polish
General Headquarters of the Polish government-in-exile. It was delivered to Poland in parachute drops by
paratroopers wearing specially designed money belts, each carrying a quantity of 100,000 zlotys. Safeguarding the
money was a dangerous prospect as Nazis patrolled every zone. It seriously hampered the activities of the
underground. It was estimated that of the total of $ 34 million transported to Poland, almost $ 2 million was lost to Nazi
Despite the heroic sacrifices of many Poles, the world continues to exploit Polish anti-semetism to the exclusion of all
that is good and noble among the Polish people. Much of the blame belongs to the media for perpetuating the image
of Poles as passive, indifferent, or virulently hostile to the Jews. It should be obvious that this viewpoint is one-sided,
and can only mean that it is not the whole story. Such sweeping generalizations ought to be avoided and recognized
for the propaganda that it is.
After more than sixty years since the end of World War Il, Polish-Jewish relations still bear the strain of resentment and
suspicion. Despite some episodes of acrimony between Poles and Jews, there are visible signs that their relationship is
changing for the better. There are numerous Jewish institutes, cultural centers, and community projects launched in
Poland at improving Polish-Jewish relations.
Contrary to the media hype, Poland is not a hot-bed of Anti-Semetism According to the "Center for Monitoring Racism
and Xenophobia" , there are several hundred anti-semetic incidents occuring every year in countries such as Great
Britain, Germany, Holland, and France. In Germany alone the number of incidents reaches about 1,500 every year,
including major anti-semetic attacks. In comparison, Poland has far fewer incidents. The Stephen Roth Institute
based in Tel Aviv reported that in the space of one year, there were few anti-Semetic incidents, all of which were minor,
and that anti-semetic feeling in Poland is on the decline. This has also been noted by the American Department of
State in the World Report on Anti-Semetism.
|"THE FLOTSAM AND JETSAM ON THE SURFACE
OF A TURBULENT RIVER IS MORE VISIBLE THAN
THE PURE STREAM RUNNING DEEP
UNDERNEATH, BUT THAT STREAM EXISTED.