HISTORY - by Max TeichmannNews Weekly
Poland's WWWII agony
, December 4, 1999
The destruction of Poland's Jews has been well-documented with numerous studies since the War. The suffering of Poland's Christians at the hands of the Nazis has needed chroniclers, particularly in the West.
Max Teichmann finds a new, harrowing, study that fills many of the gaps.
World War II was one of those struggles which split into separate theatres, such that people living, and fighting, in one theatre, had little idea of what was really occurring in another. Despite the greatly improved world news facilities, the concentration of propagandists, hence journalists, on some theatres to the neglect of others, contributed greatly to a state of general ignorance. We had to wait until the end of War and the flow of books and eyewitness reports which followed, to fill in some of the gaps.
But, structurally, the gaps and biases remain. For example, the Eastern Front and the Balkans were neglected during and after World War I; while the same thing happened again during and after World War II vis-a-vis the same areas. It was often left to a pressure group to tell about their friends or countrymen; tell us how they fared in that terrible struggle.
The Jews of the Diaspora have made sure we knew about their Holocaust, and don't forget it. But other actors and victims in that enormous conflict waged to the East and South East of Germany have not been so well served.
A new book, Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation 1939-1944 by Richard C. Lukas, sets out to unfold the history of the Poles against the Nazis and under the Nazis.
One country, Nazi Germany, conducted a War in the East, which was not simply a military campaign, nor were the military occupations mere occupations. Three groups, the Jews, the Gypsies and the Slavs were targeted for annihilation, or in the the case of Poles to massive reduction in numbers through organised killing. The remaining Poles were to be reduced to a condition of permanent servitude. Poland, as Hitler, Himmler and others said at the very outset, was to disappear from history, and Polish culture - 'so-called' - would be extirpated.
Early in the German occupation of Poland a debate took place between the various Nazi officials and military chiefs as to whether the Jews should be killed straightaway, or the healthy ones retained for labour. When the War ended, or when there was no longer need for Jewish labour, then they would all be killed. There was no argument about that; for no argument was allowed. The Germans who may have wished to save Jews - for as long as possible - could only argue that they be used as labour.
The Judenrat, the Jewish Councils, were in a dreadful predicament. Set up by the Germans to organise the regular supply of labour to the Germans, they were to replace the situation whereby Jews, and Poles, were just being snatched from the streets, from railway stations, bars, anywhere, by German pick-up trucks and press-ganged.
Tragically, when it became clear that Jews being handed over were going to liquidation, not work - the Councils had the awful task of choosing who would go first. Some councillors suicided.
The Councils have been heavily criticised in subsequent years by many Jews, but I cannot see the justice of these attacks. In might be said that younger Jews could try and make a break for it - go underground - though the chances of survival were slim indeed. But many young people would not abandon their families, even given the chance.
Poland started the war divided, politically and ethnically, and unprepared, and this tradition of division continued virtually throughout - within the resistance movement, between the London government-in-exile and those in Poland, and within factions inside the London government. When the Russians arrived to replace the Germans with their dictatorship, politically active Poles still disputed over how to react.
This inability to unite - except under a charismatic military dictator like Pilsudski - goes back a long way. Perhaps this helps to explain why Poland was partitioned by Prussia, Russia and Austria in three successive operations in the late 18th Century. She disappeared, to be reborn in 1918, a warning for some contemporary states.
Hitler, on August 22, 1939, authorised killing 'without pity or mercy all men, women and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need'. And, before the war, he said to his confreres, 'The destruction of Poland is our primary aim ... the war is to be a war of annihilation.'
General Heusinger, who headed the operations section of the Army High Command, said after the war he believed 'the treatment of the civilian population and the methods of anti-partisan warfare presented the highest political and military leaders with a welcome opportunity of carrying out their plans, namely the systematic extermination of Slavism and Jewry'.
In 1942, Frank, Hitler's Viceroy in Poland said, 'You must not kill the cow you want to milk; however the Reich wants to milk the cow and ... kill it.' So, he reflected in 1944, when the war was over and Polish labour was not required: 'As far as I am concerned the Poles and the Ukrainians and their like may be chopped into small pieces. Let it be, what should be.'
So the Nazis set to it with a will. By the end of the war, almost six million Poles, half of them Polish Jews and half Polish Christians, had been killed, from a peace time population of around 20 million.
The first priority was to liquidate the Žlite, and 'see no seeds begin to sprout again': Himmler to his officers, quoting Hitler. The Žlite included even anyone who attended secondary school. Like Pol Pot's policy.
When the Russians arrived to do their little bit, e.g. 30,000 Polish officers and other leaders murdered at Katyn - the Nazis had already done much of the dirty work.
'The Poles,' said Frank, 'do not need universities or secondary schools; the Polish lands are to be changed into an intellectual desert.' Polish archives, museums, libraries, the press and publishing houses, art galleries were destroyed or looted. Greater destruction than under the Tartar invasion occurred during those terrible years.
And yet, as Richard Lukas asks, why has this holocaust been so strangely neglected, even unto this day?
The Polish Resistance fought most gallantly, killing some 150,000 Germans and inflicting serious material damage on the invaders. But they suffered very heavy casualties and gave the Nazis the pretext to massacre enormous numbers of Polish civilians by way of reprisal. Which is perhaps why the London Polish Government called upon the Resistance to save their efforts for the major rising, when the Germans were virtually defeated and on the run. Hopefully, the Poles could seize the main cities before the Russians arrived.
But it wasn't possible to restrain the Underground and the Partisans, who simply could not stand by while the Germans ran amok. Chronically short of arms, and defective in training, they found it difficult to dent the German machine - but the psychological effects, many Poles believed, were crucial. This chronic shortfall in military power, plus some inept tactics, probably doomed the Warsaw Uprising.
This is not to take anything away from Polish heroism, and in any case the rising was predicated upon the Soviets, then approaching the Vistula, supporting the Polish forces. They did nothing of the kind - waiting until the Germans had destroyed Warsaw and the core of the home army. Their puppet government of almost unknown communists entrenched in Lublin, became the Government of Poland. The Poles had been betrayed - by just about everyone.
Lukas has some severe criticism for the Polish Catholic hierarchy, with five of the six leading Bishops leaving their dioceses early on. The Pope refused to condemn the Germans, even as hundreds of priests were arrested and sent to camps, where many died. Masses of nuns were driven out, and the Catholic press silenced. Polish Catholics felt leaderless and marginalised by their own people outside.
Some Jewish writers have charged Pius XII with being anti-Semitic because of his silence over the treatment of the Jews. But so was he silent about the treatment of his own Catholics, lay and clerical alike, in Poland and in Germany. The key may be his fear of communism, and what the communists might do, if victorious. This seemed to determine his priorities. But that was cold comfort for the strongly-religious Poles, in their hour of agony. And the Jews.
Relations between most Poles and Jews were distant, and the inter-war years had seen recurring friction, and, especially after Pilsudski's death in 1935, economic and educational discrimination against Jews. But, the fact is, most Polish Jews remained unassimilated.
In the 1931 census, 80% of Jews declared Yiddish to be their mother tongue and a similar percentage considered themselves to be Jews by nationality. Many Jews did not understand, let alone speak, Polish. 40% said they were Zionist. So there really were two separate communities, for whom close cooperation in any resistance activities might have been a trial.
Whether the Nazis could have turned many Poles against Jews in really destructive ways - and they did lay down a massive anti-Semitic barrage in the early months appealing to Poles - cannot be decided; for Poles very soon realised that they were in the same boat as the Jews and vice versa. The Nazis hated both groups and were out to get both.
Memorywise, Polish Jews and Polish Catholics are still in the same boat, and I therefore find it hard to understand why either should ignore or devalue the sufferings of the other or begrudge either group the right to claim our total sympathy.
Lukas does bemoan the fact that most writing on the horrors of wartime Poland has come from Jewish writers, and that too many have spent much time in producing examples, true or exaggerated, of Polish hostility towards Jews, almost as if this should reduce our concern for the three million Polish Catholics who died.
What Poles and Jews did - or might have done to one another - are but peccadilloes compared to what the Nazis did to both, and what, but for defeat they would have done.