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The Jews of Warsaw 1939-1943, by Yisrael Gutman; Courier from Warsaw, by Jan Nowak

Nazis, Poles, Jews

The Jews of Warsaw 1939-1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt.
by Yisrael Gutman.
Translated from the Hebrew by Ina Friedman. Indiana. 475 pp. $24.95.

Courier from Warsaw.
by Jan Nowak.
Foreword by Zbigniew Brzezinski. Wayne. 479 pp. $24.95.

January 1983 marked half-a-century since Hitler’s advent to power. Forty years ago in April, Hitler’s tanks and artillery were called out to level the remnants of what had only recently been Europe’s largest Jewish community. Eventually, the ghetto of Warsaw was reduced to smoldering rubble, with all but a handful of its defenders killed.

The events themselves inevitably recede into the past and memories grow dimmer. And while oblivion may be understandably painful to those who still retain emotional ties to the events, the stakes are considerably higher for all of us. A concerted effort is under way not merely to efface the historical record of the Holocaust, but to turn its symbols and imagery against its victims and survivors. In the window of a picturesque little house in the medieval Flemish city of Ghent, I saw last fall a poster that looked deceptively familiar. It showed a mournful, emaciated child staring from behind barbed wire, with soldiers armed to the teeth in the background. The inscription appealed for help to Arab victims of Israeli “genocide.”

The appearance of the English version of Yisrael Gutman’s meticulously researched, detailed account of the fate of Warsaw’s Jews under Nazi rule could thus hardly be more timely. Drawing on a vast array of archival materials and published sources in German, Polish, and Yiddish, Gutman, a professor at the Hebrew University and a director of the Yad Vashem memorial institute in Jerusalem, is also a survivor of the ghetto of which he is here a chronicler. That his account is restrained, dispassionate, and impartial almost to a fault attests to his scholarly integrity—and, one might add, to a rare ability to control his emotions.

The stage for the Warsaw ghetto’s heroic and tragic end was set from the outset of the Nazi occupation. For months, the Jews endured seemingly spontaneous “attacks by individuals and gangs of Poles on Jewish passersby and apartment houses, which took on the proportions of a wave of pogroms.” While there were indications that segments of the Polish intelligentsia condemned these outrages, it was also a fact that the Polish masses appeared to approve. It soon became apparent that the Jews could not count on assistance from any quarter, a premonition of sorts that they would stand alone in their final hour:

The [Nazi-backed] Polish police ignored the rampages; the novice Polish underground did not respond at all; and the hoodlums learned that most of the Polish public, as well as the Germans, allowed them a free hand to attack Jews.

The otherwise hostile camps of defeated Poles and victorious Germans appeared united in their attitudes toward the country’s Jews, in part because both profited economically from their plight. Hence, the establishment of the Warsaw ghetto, on November 16, 1940, may have been viewed by some as not an altogether sinister event. The walls of the ghetto would, after all, protect Jews from “spontaneous” mob violence, as such walls had done in the distant past. At the same time, the impression of a return to stability and order was fostered by the establishment of a Judenrat, a Nazi-appointed Jewish municipal administration over the almost 400,000 people (about a third of Warsaw’s population) cramped into about 2 percent of the Polish capital’s territory. (Since Nazi racial laws paid no attention to religious affiliation, the ghetto’s inmates also happened to include nearly 2,000 converts to Christianity. These, however, were the chief beneficiaries of aid from Roman Catholic Poles.)

Hunger stalked the ghetto from the outset. According to a Polish source, the daily caloric content of Warsaw food rations in 1941 was 2,613 for Germans, 699 for Poles, 184 for Jews. Smuggling food into the ghetto was not, Gutman emphasizes, a form of aid. While most of the smugglers were, of course, Poles, “the smuggling enterprise operated on the basis of middlemen’s profits and must be seen as one of the facets of black marketing that developed in wartime conditions.” Starvation and disease plagued the ghetto, and corpses were picked up routinely from the sidewalks. (Incredibly, there was no serious crime. Not a single case of murder occurred during the ghetto’s entire history.) There was also systematic plunder of the ghetto’s inhabitants, with considerable interservice rivalry among the Wehrmacht, the SS, the SD, and the Gestapo.

A grotesquely analogous rivalry existed in the ghetto among the prewar Jewish political parties. These continued to function, oblivious to the seemingly self-evident fact that, in the words of Emmanuel Ringelblum, the ghetto’s historian, “for Hitlerism, there was no difference between a Zionist and a Bundist; both were hated to the same degree. It wanted to destroy them both”—and ultimately did. Yet the Jewish socialists, for instance—both of the Zionist and of the anti-Zionist variety—could not shed their ideological blinders. Thus, on July 1, 1941, while Nazi tanks were already rolling through the USSR, the anti-Zionist Bund’s paper, Yunge Gvardye, intoned:

Every time the Jewish community falls upon hard times, whenever the reactionaries launch an attack on the freedom of the workers’ movement accompanied by expressions of anti-Semitism, Jewish nationalism stirs beneath the surface. . . . All the peoples that Hitler has subjugated are in Hitler’s exile. The Austrians[!], Czechs, Poles, and Dutch are persecuted and oppressed. They have all been dealt a fate similar to that of the Jews, even though they have a country of their own. [Emphasis added]

After the wave of deportations to death camps late in 1941, however, the political parties began to unite in a Jewish combat organization. And by the summer of 1942, after another series of mass deportations, it became clear that the Nazis’ ultimate aim was the murder of all of the ghetto’s inhabitants. The suicide of Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Judenrat, was tacit admission of this fact. (In retrospect Czerniakow, long viewed, understandably, as a traitor, emerges as a tragic figure who honestly thought that he could save at least some of Warsaw’s Jews.) The rest of Yisrael Gutman’s book is devoted to a detailed—occasionally too detailed—account of the uprising itself.

What of Poland’s non-Jewish population? Toward the end of 1942 the Council for Aid to the Jews (Zegota) came into existence and its members helped thousands of Jews, often at a risk to their own lives. As for the bulk of the Polish population, “apathy and longstanding hostility [toward the Jews] intensified during the war.” In Gutman’s view, this was the result of two causes: the Poles’ belief that the Jews had Communist leanings, and the fact that many Poles had inherited Jewish homes and businesses. Be that as it may, when the ghetto uprising flared up on April 19, 1943, “There was not so much as a single Pole inside the ghetto, either in the ranks or in the command of the fighting organizations.” General Sikorski, the Prime Minister of the Polish government in exile, did broadcast an appeal for help to the ghetto on May 5, seventeen days after the uprising began, and three days before the fall of the Jewish headquarters. But in the London Polish government’s official daily, Dziennik Polski, “the uprising in the ghetto was not mentioned at all for weeks preceding and following Sikorski’s address.” The amount of weapons and ammunition offered to the Jews by the Polish underground, then reasonably well-supplied, was negligible.

_____________

 

That the fate of Poland’s Jews was not among the central concerns of Poland’s government in London is also indirectly attested by Courier from Warsaw, a most interesting and informative book by Jan Nowak which, as Zbigniew Brzezinski rightly points out in his introduction, belongs among the very few war memoirs that are simultaneously fascinating, revealing, and historically important. Nowak is undoubtedly right in emphasizing that people in the West, including Jews, refused to believe that Poland’s Jews were being systematically exterminated. The suicide in London of Shmuel Zygielbojm confirms that fact. (Zygielbojm, a Jewish socialist leader in prewar Poland, had hoped through his suicide to call attention to the tragedy of Polish Jewry; he failed.) This was not, however, the only or even the main reason for what was, above all, callous indifference.

But of this book’s 477 pages, only about eight are devoted to the subject of Polish Jewry. The story Nowak is mainly concerned to relate is the story of how in the closing stages of World War II, the Western allies not only did nothing to avert the annexation by the USSR of roughly one-half of prewar Poland’s territory and the imposition on Poland of a puppet Communist government, but actually helped Stalin in the execution of the plan. The ostensible reason for this duplicitous behavior with regard to a staunch, even if small, ally was a fear that unless appeased, the USSR might, in those closing months of the war, conclude a separate peace with Nazi Germany (a second stage, as it were, to the Nazi-Soviet honeymoon of 1939-41), thus making it more costly for the West to pursue the war until victory.

Needless to say, such rumors, if not actually concocted by Soviet propaganda, were strongly encouraged by the USSR. As a result, as Britain’s official History of the Second World War conceded in 1971, the British failed to inform their Polish allies of the full story of the 1943 Teheran conference. In the wake of the conference, the Soviets “had left themselves free in Europe to enforce upon the Poles territorial and political conditions which would insure their subservience to the Soviet Union.” In the view of Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, Prime Minister of the Polish government in exile:

Stalin was playing a crafty game, knowing very well that in the matter of the eastern frontier of Poland he had not only the support of Churchill but also of British and American public opinion, which was influenced by the knowledge that in our eastern territories Ukrainians and Byelorussians, not Poles, were a majority.

Mikolajczyk was no fanatic. “I am prepared to agree to any [territorial] compromise,” he declared, “if somebody will convince me that territorial concessions will save our independence.” Ultimately, of course, Mikolajczyk was prevailed upon to trade territory for peace—not that he had any choice in the matter. The rest is history, and a decade later Mikolajczyk was once again an émigré.

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