Table Of Content
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Table of Contents
- Irena Grudzińska-Gross: History Persists
- 1. Zofia Nałkowska’s ‘By the Railway Track’. Historical Precedent and Literary Adaptation
- The Woman by the Track
- Man by the Track
- The Woman by the Track Returns
- False Transcendence
- Actual Immanence
- 2. Bełk and Other Places. The Story of Decurions-as-Hostages
- The Hunt in Bełk
- The Roundup
- A Trap for Jews
- Hostages and Decurions
- The Account Given in Linz
- Pilawski’s Trials
- 3. The Brother Months: Dirty Warriors’ Testimony
- 1. Tale Type 480
- 2. Dirty Warriors
- 3. The Scene of the Crime
- 4. The Social Status of the Perpetrators
- 5. Province of Night?
- 6. How Did Members of the BCh and AK Vigilante Formations Themselves Speak about What They Were Doing to the Jews?
- 7. Methodology
- 8. The Consequences of Agency
- 9. Types of Torturers
- 10. Perpetrators’ Testimony Type: Discontinuity and Disorientation
- 4. The Home Army and Peasant Battalions’ Sabotage Teams in the Sandomierz Region. A Supplement to Zelman Baum’s Testimony
- Zelman Baum, a Profile
- The Commanders
- Letter Informing on Śliwiński, Sokół, and Skrzek
- The Killing of Szmul Penczyna, September 1942
- Błonie: the Killing of Alter Mandelbaum, October 1943
- Trzykosy: the Killing of Mordka Perelman, 20 October 1943
- ‘Two Jewish Lasses, Both Grown Girls,’ Bogoria, Before Christmas Eve 1943
- Mala Perlmuter and Twelve-Year-Old Baum boy, Krzcin, 23 December 1943
- The Wounding of Szyja Zoberman
- Smerdyna, the Dywans’ Place
- Raid on Koryciński’s Bunker in Smerdyna
- Post Factum
- The Trial
- 5. The Righteous of Giebułtów. The National Armed Forces in the Battle against the Jews
- Wartime Vigilantism
- Giebułtów 7/8 May 1944
- Witness Testimonies
- Investigation, 1954: Piątakiewicz (‘Znicz’), TW ‘Polak’
- Słowik (‘Bursik’)
- Jan Grzegorczyk (‘Lisowczyk,’ TW ‘Pstrąg’)
- Edward Ożóg (‘Nocoń’)
- Stanisław Stelmach (‘Dąb,’ TW ‘Wicher’)
- Unit Logbook: Michał Spanier (‘Bem’)
- 6. ‘When Dawn Breaks.’ Adamów and Malenie, Machory Borough, Opoczno District, June 1944
- ‘Hitler– Endek Dwa Bratanki’ (Hitler– Endek , Two Brothers)
- The National Party in the Opoczno District During the 1930s
- The ‘National’ Wartime Underground Press About the Jews
- Stanisław Jóźwik: the President of the National Party in Zacharzów
- Stanisław Wilk, Head of the National Party in Żarnów, and Lieutenant Tadeusz Zajączek
- Execution in the Machory Woods
- The Sentences for Zajączek and His Accomplices
- A Miniature ‘Poznań Speech’
- 7. The Girl and the Painter. Ostrowiec, 19 March 1945
- The Murder on ul. Radomska 34
- The Survivors’ Version
- The Accounts of the Witnesses
- The Testimonies of the Perpetrators: Ludwik Krzymiński and Kazimierz Markwart
- Markwart and Krzymiński’s Versions of Events, as Given During the Trial
- The Final Hearing and Verdict
- Other Stories
- A Postscript: Henry Silberberg’s Testimony
- 8. Terror in Przedbórz: The Night of May 26, 1945
- Oral History
- Written Sources
- Interrogations and Trial Records
- What Happened in Przedbórz: the Night Raid
- The Power and Social Structures in Postwar Przedbórz
- A Pogrom, Vigilantism or Terrorism? Categorizing Collective Violence in Przedbórz
- 9. Town of K.: Postscript on Gadulski
- Testimony of Stanisław Soja
- Chaskiel Goldkind (aka Lederman)
- Goldkind Murder: Testimonies of Józef Przybylski and Kazimierz Karwacki
- Gadulski: A Biographical Sketch
- The Klimontów Pogrom 17/4/1945
- Murder of Abram Zlotnicki
- A Motive
- The Murder of Two Jewish Women in Goźlice, a Couple from Byszów, a Tailor from Chmielnik, Two Drowned in the Koprzywnianka River, and Ultramarynówna...
- The Trial and Sentence
- At the Barber
- 10. Error in Measurement. On Barbara Engelking’s Article ‘The Bielsk County’
- The Nobility, Not the Peasants?
- The Peasants
- Mixed Marriages
- The Memory of the Locals About Mixed Marriages with Jews
- In Brańsk– – the Lordlike Way
- Germans in Brańsk
- Error of Measurement
- 11. Gewalt Gegen Juden als ‘Wolnica’ (Lizenz zum Töten)
- Bauern und Juden
- Die galizischen Pogrome von 1898
- Nach der Wiedererstehung des polnischen Staates
- Der Krieg
- Die Mythen
- Der Pogrom von Kielce
- Eliten oder Abschaum
- 12. A Chronic Blunder
- The landscape after the cleansing
- ‘A new approach to the sources’
- List of Pictures
- List of Abbreviations
- Index of Names
- Series index
We are always learning our history too late and never in school, wrote the poet Alissa Valles. It is with amazement and sorrow that I, who completed my schooling very long ago, am reading the essays that compose this book. In them, Joanna Tokarska-Bakir is reconstructing the anti-Jewish violence in Poland of the middle of the last century. To truly understand what happened in the years of the Second World War and in its aftermath, she uses a whole tool kit of methodologies of contemporary humanities. Her work is rooted in archival research of prodigious thoroughness and dedication. That research forms a point of entry that allows her to map the networks of perpetrators and delineate the constraints that exposed those persecuted to violence. We start by learning microhistories, see concrete cases, faces, fates. We are facing history at its most intimate and true.
The biographical method Joanna Tokarska-Bakir uses and the empirical materials we find in the book are supported by theoretical, anthropological and ethnographic approaches. She herself calls her work the ethnography of the Holocaust. She wants to bring to us the materiality of the carnage. We follow not only what happened on the very local level, but also an understanding of the sets of beliefs that underlaid the violence. The book exposes the folkloristic and historical sources of social attitudes, pulls out the threads and themes that support the worldview hostile to minorities. She looks at the periods that are adjacent to the Holocaust ‘proper’ and shows the continuity of these beliefs even when the violence is semi-dormant. The reader is armed with conceptual frameworks that underpin the lucid presentation of concrete stories.
There are various kinds of tensions in this book that make its reading both painful and illuminating. The basic tension is between the documentation and narration: the story teller is continuously reminded of still another detail that needs to be recorded. This attention to detail is an homage to the victims and their efforts to survive. Another tension makes these details illustrative of explanatory theoretical framework. In each of the essays, a new story is told and a new approach is developed. The book tells not only the factual history of the persecution of Polish Jews, it proposes the whole series of ways to interpret that history and see through it. It asks very important questions and gives some answers.
What are these questions? The most important one, I believe, is the already mentioned issue of continuity. After establishing that what happened to the Polish Jews in Poland under German occupation was an ethnic cleansing, the author asks about its factual and cultural antecedents. She reviews an exterminatory ←13 | 14→gray zone before and after the Holocaust; the conclusion I am drawing from these examples and interpretations is of a ‘creeping extermination’ that was present in that part of Europe for a long time already before the war. She also tries to uncover the unacknowledged elements of the Polish mythology of the noble behaviour of the Polish population during the war. She is asking not only what was done but also what were the hidden or repressed motivations of those deeds. Here she uses also another domain: psychoanalysis.
For this reader, the most fascinating aspect of the book is the new, thoroughly documented image of what really happened in those dark times. The image that is not embellished or obfuscated. We see the persecuted. We gain deep insight into the kin networks and histories of the perpetrators, we see their faces too, both metaphorically and literally. We are taken into the terrain, so to speak, and we encounter all kinds of people: educated and not, well to do and poor, bad and good (more often bad). We are learning that it was not poverty that made people rob their neighbours but the opportunity and the long-practiced prejudice against them. We learn that all guerilla groups and military units were killing Jews and persecuting those who gave them shelter. We learn that the pogrom potential is inscribed into the culture and is still alive.
Professor Tokarska-Bakir is uniquely able to produce such a rich and profound book. The essays are not her first foray into this territory. In her books, she analyzed among other topics the issue of anti-Jewish prejudice (Legendy o krwi. Antropologia przesądu [The Blood Libel, Anthropology of a Prejudice], 2008), and of the violence against Jews (Okrzyki pogromowe. Szkice z antropologii historycznej Polski 1939–1946 [Pogrom cries. Essays on Historical Anthropology of Poland], 2012). In 2018, she published a magisterial two-volume history and analysis of the Kielce pogrom, overthrowing the false theory of the ‘provocation’ as the reason of that spree of killings (Pod klątwą. Społeczny portet pogrom kieleckiego [Under the Curse. A Social Portait of the Kielce Pogrom], 2018). She has published documents and analyses that transformed the way the history of Jews in Poland is understood.
For the ‘state historians’ in Poland, the work of Joanna Tokarska-Bakir has not been easy to deal with. It shows with proof a terrifying image of a culture that is exclusionary in a ruthless and dangerous way. The catastrophic situation of the Second World War activated that exclusionary potential with horrifying consequences. Tokarska-Bakir is one of very few scholars able to look at what happened without averting her eyes. Readers who take this book into their hands should do the same. Facing history is what we need to do. Let’s not confirm the quotation from Alissa Valles. Though it is late to learn this history, it is not too late.
The essays and studies in the present collection follow on from research that I carried out at Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance while working on my 2018 book Pod klątwą. Społeczny portret pogromu kieleckiego (Cursed: A Social Portait of the Kielce Pogrom). This research did not cease with the publication of the book. Indeed, no end is in sight, as each reconstructed event opened up a new perspective, which itself provided another, and that is how the present collection came into being.
One might define the subject as ethnography of the Holocaust, hence a kind of documentation in which the main role is played by local factors, expressed in the language of the peasantry and the inhabitants of small towns. The milieu of occupied Poland’s backwaters set the scene for ‘the Final Solution,’ or rather, it was there that the crimes attending the Holocaust took place, during the third phase of the Shoah. The Germans barely feature in the frame, there are only Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, and the relations between them. The Holocaust machine has already swept further east, and ants have appeared in the places through which it has passed:
Ants build around black bone,
It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,
It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foam.1
Here, I quote one of Czesław Miłosz’s so called Holocaust poem, alhough I have tried to avoid literariness in the essays themselves. By employing a language that is, as far as possible, bereft of metaphor, I strove to convey the furtive, prosaic, stark nature of the genocide.
The book is composed of twelve parts which are not directly connected with each other, but which nevertheless form a whole. Half of the essays have been published previously (three in Polish, two in German and two in English).
The first part is an analysis of an incident which may have provided a point of departure for Zofia Nałkowska’s short story ‘By the Railway Track.’2←15 | 16→
‘Bełk and Other Places: The Story of Decurions-as-Hostages’3 is an attempt to reconstruct a spontaneous manhunt for Jewish fugitives who were living in hiding in the woods near Bełk: almost all of the inhabitants of the village took part in this action.
In the essay ‘The Brother Months: Dirty Warriors’ Testimony,’4 I try to clarify the motivations of partisan soldiers in units of the Home Army and the Peasant Battalions, whose anti-Jewish actions also inspired the next essay, ‘The Home Army and Peasant Battalions’ Sabotage Teams in the Sandomierz Region: A Supplement to Zelman Baum’s Testimony.’ Here I summarise a multi-faceted study of the traces of the Holocaust in this region, a project that began with an ethnographic field trip there in 2005. It is my hope that historians from the Museum of the Polish Peasant Movement, who have been writing a completely different history of the Peasant Battalions for many years now, will engage in a discussion about this article and the picture of the occupation that emerges from it.
The essays ‘The Righteous of Giebułtów: The National Armed Forces in the Battle Against the Jews’ and ‘“When Dawn Breaks:” Adamów and Malenie, Machory Borough, Opoczno District, June 1944,’ reconstruct two murders of Jews that were carried out by partisans from the only formation that declared solidarity with Nazi plans, and which today finds itself at the centre of Poland’s official historical policy.
The next three essays: ‘The Girl and the Painter: Ostrowiec, 19 March,’ ‘Terror in Przedbórz: The Night of May 26, 1945,’5 and ‘The Town of K: Postscript on Gadulski’ chiefly explore post-war events, and it would not have been possible to write them without the help I received from the inhabitants of the towns themselves. In keeping with Dominick LaCapra’s aspiration, I hope that these studies help to cleanse local memory and thus create an ‘appropriate tombstone’ for the victims.
The three closing pieces of the collection, comprising a polemic with Professor Barbara Engelking6 and two other essays,7 explore various aspects of peasant ←16 | 17→culture. Owing to the construction of a Polish public discourse that defends both the intelligentsia (a stratum of society with roots in the nobility) and the Catholic Church, peasant culture has been stigmatised as a culture of perpetrators. This is not only historically incorrect, but dangerous for the future, as it draws attention away from the creators of anti-Jewish ideology, and thus, figuratively speaking, perpetuates the ‘conditions of possibility’ for further pogroms.
Translated by Nicholas Hodge
I shall explore here the contents of two volumes that were found in the Archive of the Institute of National Memory,1 which are perhaps related to the events described by Zofia Nałkowska in her short story ‘By the Railway Track’.2 I say perhaps, as allusions scattered across other sources seem to indicate that a historical-literary topos was rather more the case, and not specific incidents.3 Let us suppose however, that the aforementioned material does in fact pertain to the short story, and we may duly try to ascertain how the historical precedent was reworked. The point of departure for this analysis will be Jerzy Jedlicki’s contradistinction: ‘If […] literature is that which is added by the author’s individual superconscious mind during the telling, his deliberate task being to shape his own experience according to his own vision of human existence, then the historian is ←19 | 20→in turn trained to peel away this very layer of creation and subjective judgment from the testimony which he intends to use as a source.’4
We shall start this process of peeling away with an outline of Nałkowska’s short story, which is set in the winter of 1942 or 1943. The central character is a Jewish woman who is shot by the Germans while escaping from a transport, and she collapses onto the railway embankment, incapacitated. A number of inhabitants of a nearby village gather around her. Although there are some initial acts of kindness – someone offers her a cigarette, someone else brings her a cup of milk – no further help is provided and no attempt is made to hide her. ‘No one wanted to take her from there before nightfall, or to call a doctor, or to transport her to the station, whence she could reach a hospital.’ ‘Nothing of the sort was envisaged. The only matter that was of importance was that she should die, one way or another.’ The death penalty loomed over those who aided Jews, and the villagers were too fearful of a denunciation from a neighbour to risk providing help. The fate of the fugitive is preordained. The woman must die, even though the Germans are not aware of her plight. The occupiers indeed have delegates in the village, two members of the Polish ‘Blue Police,’ but they are not eager to act. Ultimately, the Jewess is killed by a young man, ‘a smalltown rogue,’ who had previously offered her cigarettes.
It emerges in the narrative that the story had been recounted to the narrator by an eyewitness, ‘a man who is incapable of understanding, and incapable of forgetting.’ He does not ponder the reason for the crowd’s passivity, as this is obvious to him, and he does not question it. He is solely preoccupied by the question of why that particular ‘kind lad’ had carried out the execution: ‘But why he shot her is unclear. I can’t understand it. You could have thought that he actually felt sorry for her.’
As Tomasz Żukowski has written, the reader’s interpretation of the story is blurred by this action. Questions about the mechanisms behind the collective behaviour, about why the crowd did not help, give way to consideration of the mysteries of the human soul and the traps of the individual psyche.5 Collective violence is obscured by that which is carried out by an individual.6 This distraction does not enable us ←20 | 21→to see a lethal community, or to question the difference embodied by the Jewish woman. Her death is depicted as an inevitable stroke of fate, and not as a consequence of identifiable mechanisms within society.
A slightly different picture of events to the one perpetuated in Nałkowskla’s tale emerges from the files of an investigation conducted in 1947 by the Provincial Office for Public Security in Gryfice. The generic image of the chattering ‘group of peasants’ disappears, and the figure of the ‘small-town rogue’ comes into the foreground, yet with some fundamental differences.
For one, his background was not in the least bit small-town. Stefan Wielebski, son of Jan and Józefa (née Irzydrychowicz), was born in 1925 in the city of Poznań, where he had completed his fourth and final year of studies at a gimnazjum (junior high school) by the outbreak of war in 1939. He always gave the impression of being a responsible and meticulous person: following the war, he was even employed as an assistant at the State Orphanage in Gryfice. In 1940, he and his family were resettled by the Germans near the town of Chełm, where in spite of his tender age, he was employed as a clerk/forwarding agent at the timber depository by the railway station in Ruda-Huta. In the meantime, his widowed father Jan joined the Blue Police, and was the chief officer at the police station in Ruda-Opalin. One can thus say that the Wielebski family were members of the local elite. The father and son drank together and terrorised the vicinity. During a post-war trial, witnesses said that the younger Wielebski ‘went around with a gun’ and that he ‘harmed Jews and looted former Jewish property.’
In February 1943, an incident took place in Ruda-Huta which was described by the person concerned, namely Stefan Wielebski, as follows: ‘One day in 19427 […] during wintertime, I went home [he lived at the police station with his father during that period]. At the [same] time, Muszyński8 [a policeman] appeared at the police station [where a bout of heavy drinking was underway], and he proposed that I go with him to the bridge over the River Uherka, which I did. I found a Jewess there, who was hiding from the Germans. On the way, when we were conducting this Jewess, I don’t know her surname, I took a rifle from the chief of ←21 | 22→the Blue Police, and I shot the Jewess on that little bridge.’ The officer conducting the interrogation asked some additional questions: did the suspect know who he was shooting9 and did that person try to flee? The reply was as follows: ‘That Jewess didn’t make any attempt to run away from me. […] I knew very well before I shot her that she was a Jewess who was hiding from the Germans.’
The mention of a bridge over the Uherka refers to a point on the railway line that led to Włodawa.10 It was indeed there that the woman had decided to dive into ‘the roaring darkness,’ to borrow Nałkowska’s phrase, leaping from a train that was bound for Sobibor. A railway attendant named Franciszek Mikulski, Wielebski’s future father-in-law, said that he had recognised her as a woman called Esta, who lived near Ruda. According to him, Esta was ‘badly wounded in the head, so she was unable to get on the sleigh by herself.’ Mikulski had intended to use the sleigh to take her to the police station, but it is not known whether he ultimately transported her. Instead, it has only been confirmed that he informed the police chief about her. He was told that ‘she would have to be sent to the Gestapo, or she would have to be finished off, as we cannot give her medical help.’ ‘We cannot,’ because the local people had looted Esta’s property. If that was discovered, the Gestapo would want to conduct an investigation and punish the guilty. These details reveal the most commonplace, financial Polish motive for doing the Germans’ dirty work, as practised by the Polish police and others who helped carry out the Holocaust.
However, two days later, references to the bridge over the River Uherka disappear from Stefan Wielebski’s testimonies – he now claims that he did not encounter the injured Jewish woman until she was in police custody in Ruda. His explanation for the murder was that he had been inexperienced: he was fifteen at the time (in fact he was already an adult in legal terms) and that he had been craftily exploited by others. ‘The Jewess’s possessions had been looted by the Polish populace. The police knew very well about this theft and did not admit this matter to the Gestapo.’
The details given in passing are also interesting, such as the words of the policeman Muszyński, who encouraged him to carry out the murder. ‘You’ve got a gun, take a shot.’ In another variation: ‘Take a rifle and sort this problem out with her.’ Or those attributed to the accused: ‘Give me the rifle father, I’ll shoot.’
After killing the woman, Wielebski supposedly had a troubled a conscience. In his testimony, he insisted that ‘that kind of mistake didn’t happen again.’ This is in contradiction to the testimonies of subsequent witnesses – those who lived in the vicinity of the embankment and members of the civil guard (such groupings were created in eastern Poland during the war).
One night in February 1943, Konstanty Głowacz, a factory-worker (b.1903) who lived in the house closest to the railway track, heard a burst of gunfire. The shots had been fired at fleeing Jews by escorts of a transport bound for Sobibor. ‘After the shots, I hear someone coming towards my house. A moment later a battered, badly injured man comes inside. I gave him some water, because he wanted a drink. He was a Jew.’ ‘When this man came into my house, he asked […] for help.’ He drunk some water and was given some cotton wool to put over a wound in his groin. ‘He sat down, rested, warmed up a bit, and after about fifteen minutes I heard shots […]. Not long after these shots, two members of the civil guard came to my house, as at that time, civilians formed guards by the railway tracks. But I can’t remember which of the guards came to my house.’ Głowacz was fully aware of their names, but after all, he had ‘to live amongst people somehow.’ So he kept quiet.
In all probability, one of those guards was Józef Kędzierzawski (b. 1892). He gave evidence that he had been on guard that day. ‘Around nine o’clock in the evening, a train came from Chełm, heading towards Włodawa. It was a transport of Jews. When that train arrived at the station in Huta, you could hear rifle shots, and they were being fired by the people who were escorting this transport.’ Before long, one of the fugitives who had been shot was brought to the guardhouse. He apparently only spoke Yiddish. Nevertheless, this did not prevent him from conveying a great deal of information about himself: he was from Rawa Ruska, he was 27, he was a farmer, he had a plot of land and a cow. His sister had been the first to jump from the train. The statement that ‘he only spoke Jewish’ can be understood as an attempt by the testifier to distance himself from the fugitive, who he had not wanted to help – the process of segregation amounts to, in Aranzazu Calderón Puerta’s analysis, an explicit form of fear.11
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- 2021 (November)
- the Holocaust Polish countryside genocidal violence postwar pogroms the Holocaust facilitators non-German participation in the Holocaust
- Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 440 pp., 61 fig. b/w.