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Arrested Mourning

Memory of the Nazi Camps in Poland, 1944–1950


Zofia Woycicka

«Analyzing the earliest debates over the memory of Nazi camps, the author makes an important contribution to the study of their origin, reducing the existing asymmetry in our knowledge on the relevant phenomena in Western and Eastern Europe. This is all the more important as the Poles and Polish Jews, whose involvement in the disputes over memory she describes, were the most important group of survivors and eyewitnesses of the camps and so the genuine group of memory.» Prof. Dariusz Stola (Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Science)
«The vast number and variety of sources used in this work create a fascinating picture of a multifaceted, rich, vivid, and at times heated debate conducted in Poland in the late 1940s. A great merit of Wóycicka is to preserve this discourse from oblivion and to bring it back into the public sphere.» Barbara Engelking (Polish Center for Holocaust Research)
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Chapter 2: Our “Jewish Comrades”? Who Belongs to the Community of Victims?

← 70 | 71 → Chapter 2

Our “Jewish Comrades”? Who Belongs to the Community of Victims?

“Despite the wartime experience, anti-Semitism is still present in Poland”, wrote Jerzy Andrzejewski in an article published in Odrodzenie in the first half of July 1946.

Polish anti-Semitism did not perish in the ruins and charred remains of the ghettos. The murder of a few million Jews has proved insufficiently horrific to erase Polish mental and emotional habits. The Nazi school of hatred and contempt is not seen as a sufficiently urgent warning. It is hard to speak about these things, but that is the truth of the matter.1

Although debate is ongoing about the causes and extent of anti-Semitism, most researchers agree that the Second World War, far from discrediting anti-Semitism in Poland, actually made it more widespread, or in any case more brutal.2

← 71 | 72 → Despite the clear resentment and hostility towards Jews, it was precisely during the initial post-war period that Holocaust memory was more present in Polish society than at any other time, perhaps with the exception of the last two decades. The subject was discussed in the media, in academic studies, as well as in memoirs and fiction. Ewa Koźmińska-Frejlak estimates that one quarter of all Polish publications on the Holocaust (not including belles lettres) appeared in the years 1945-19493, the majority being published by the Central Jewish Historical Commission (CŻKH), the Central Committee of Jews in Poland (CKŻP), and other Jewish organisations. However, other publishers were involved, too. One should mention, above all, the Bulletin of the Central Commission for the Investigation of German Nazi Crimes in Poland (GKBZNwP), which in the years 1946-1951 published a series of studies on the death camps and concentration camps and, more broadly, on the fate of Polish Jewry.4 Also of relevance here are the numerous novels and short stories written by such Polish–Jewish authors as Kazimierz Brandys, Adolf Rudnicki, and Stanisław Wygodzki, and the many texts written from first-hand experience, such as Tadeusz Borowski’s Auschwitz stories, Jerzy Broszkiewicz’s Oczekiwanie [Waiting], Zofia Nałkowska’s Medallions, and Jerzy Andrzejewski’s Holy Week.5 How can one explain the presence of the Holocaust ← 72 | 73 → in Polish public discourse at a time when there was widespread indifference, resentment, and outright hostility towards Jews?

The decisive factor seems to be that, until the end of the 1940s, there continued to exist in Poland a fairly sizeable Jewish minority (of between 210,000 and 240,000 people, according to various estimates), which enjoyed significant autonomy and which was represented by various political parties and social and cultural organisations.6 Through such institutions as the CKŻP, CŻKH, and the Jewish Religious Congregation, the Jewish community was able to lobby for its own interpretation of history.

Also significant as regards memory and commemoration of the genocide perpetrated against the Jews is the fact that in the immediate post-war years the PPR leadership, dominated by long-standing members of the pre-war Communist Party of Poland (KPP; 1918-1939), was still favourably inclined towards Poland’s Jewish minority, even if its policies were somewhat ambivalent.7 These policies were guided not just by ideology but also by pragmatism. The Communists wanted international recognition, yet after the experiences of the Nazi era, policy towards the Jewish population was for the Western allies an important criterion when evaluating the new regimes of Central and Eastern Europe.8 The Polish authorities were also aware that the existence of relatively autonomous Jewish organisations was a condition of receiving foreign aid to help Holocaust survivors.

← 73 | 74 → Perhaps another factor that influenced the attitude of the new authorities to the Jewish minority in Poland was that those same authorities included activists of Jewish origin. Although in most cases these activists maintained no contact with Jewish culture or religion, they could—for reasons of shared experience, if nothing else—be more sensitive to the problem of anti-Semitism and to issues surrounding Holocaust remembrance. The fact is that in the years 1944-1948/1949, the Polish state administration was still relatively open to initiatives concerning the commemoration and documentation of Jewish martyrdom.

Last but not least, when discussing Holocaust memory in Poland in the second half of the 1940s, it is important to note that the experience of war and occupation was a recent memory for those concerned. Although it had been the Nazis’ strategy to isolate the Jewish population in ghettos and camps, Polish society nonetheless witnessed the persecution of Jews and was aware of its genocidal nature. Moreover, Poles were not only passive observers of the Holocaust: they often derived material benefit from it9—by taking over victims’ possessions, homes, and businesses—and sometimes participated in the crimes themselves.10 To drive out these facts from the individual and collective consciousness was difficult and required time, although there were certainly many who wished to forget about them as quickly as possible.

From the outset, interpretation and commemoration of the Holocaust gave rise to many conflicts in Poland. For sure, anti-Semitism and victim rivalry should be listed among the reasons for these conflicts. Equally important, however, was the sense of isolation and alienation which caused Jews to be excluded from the ← 74 | 75 → community of victims. It was not denial of the Holocaust so much as indifference to the fate of those whom society did not treat as “its own” that characterised the memory of the concentration camps and death in the years 1944-1948/1949. However, it was not until the end of this period that the subject became completely marginalised. This coincided with the emigration of most of the survivors, the Stalinisation of public life, and the wave of anti-Semitism that swept through Eastern bloc countries, including Poland, at the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s.11 One might even say that through their deliberate actions aimed at eliminating the Holocaust from public discourse, the Polish authorities attempted to turn the subject into a taboo.


A group of twenty Jews, who had escaped the death camp in Auschwitz, returned to Rejowiec, their home town. A few days later, these Jews received written threats demanding that they leave the town immediately. Not wishing to see the threats realised, the Jews left Rejowiec and are currently living in Chełmno at the seat of the [Central] Committee [of Jews in Poland].12

The above quotation is taken from a report drafted in early May 1945 by the Central Committee of Jews in Poland (CKŻP) on the basis of information sent in from Chełmno. Both the records of the CKŻP and personal accounts reveal many similar cases of Jews who had survived the Nazi camps being greeted with hostility and intimidation by their former neighbours. These were not idle threats: many of those who returned were robbed and murdered.

When writing about Holocaust memory in Poland, it is hard to ignore the context of hostility and violence towards Jews, which was particularly intense in the immediate post-war years. Aside from the pogroms and anti-Jewish disturbances which took place in Kraków (11 August 1945), Parczew (5 February 1946), Kielce (4 July 1946), and in other places, attacks on individuals were also common.13 ← 75 | 76 → David Engel has managed to document 327 murders of Polish Jews between September 1944 and September 1946.14 Anti-Jewish riots occurred in at least 102 places across Poland, particularly in the eastern part of the country.15 Although these attacks were sometimes political in nature or amounted to plain robbery, it seems that in most cases Jews were deliberately targeted. Engel describes, for instance, how in mid-October 1944 four Jews—one man and three women—were stopped on their way to the town of Kraśnik. They were pulled out of the two carts they were travelling in, while their Christian fellow passengers were allowed to continue their journey without any problem.16 Similar incidents occurred at railway stations and on trains.17

The sources and extent of post-war Polish anti-Semitism remain a subject of research and debate. Attempts to explain the phenomenon encounter numerous difficulties. Some historians claim that the increasing hostility towards Jews was caused by the actual or alleged support lent by the Jewish community to the Communist regime and by the strong over-representation of Jews and Poles of Jewish origin in the structures of power. Thus, according to Krystyna Kersten, “the fact that the victim was a Jew, or was perceived as a Jew, was one of the causes of hostility, but usually not the only cause” and “post-war anti-Semitism was directed ← 76 | 77 → not so much against Jews as against Communists who were regarded as Jews”.18 David Engel, however, argues that there is no geographical or temporal correlation between the intensification of violence against Jews and the murders of party officials or representatives of the apparatus of repression.19 He also shows that the violence was in most cases deliberately directed against Jews and that it concerned people, including children, whom it would have been difficult to accuse of collaboration with the Communists.

Calculating the proportion of Jews and persons of Jewish origin in the post-war state apparatus may give rise to justified reservations. As August Grabski notes, aside from members of the PPR faction within the Central Committee of Jews in Poland, most Communists of Jewish origin did not identify with the culture and religion of their ancestors, nor did they act on behalf of the Jewish community in any particular way.20 Even if one accepts the data submitted to Bolesław Bierut in 1945 by the Minister of State Security, Stanisław Radkiewicz, which showed that 1.7 per cent of posts in the Ministry of State Security (and 13 per cent of the top posts) were occupied by Jews, one must conclude that despite the clear over-representation of Jews relative to their numbers in Polish society in general, they nevertheless remained in the minority.21 Equally, Jewish officers employed by the Security Service (UB) constituted only a tiny proportion of the total number of Polish Jews. The ← 77 | 78 → situation was similar within the PPR/PZPR, which had 235,000 members in December 1945, over 550,000 at the beginning of 1947, and 1.5 million in 1949 following the PZPR’s founding congress. Necessarily, Jews could only have accounted for a small proportion of the membership.22 As August Grabski writes, “the over-representation of persons of Jewish origin in the apparatus of repression or in the central apparatus of the People’s Republic does not alter the fact that, as far as the Polish authorities in general are concerned, the majority of posts were occupied by ‘indigenous’ Poles”.23 Thus, even in cases where perpetrators justified their hostility towards Jews by pointing to their ostensible collaboration with the Communists, the origin of this hostility should rather be sought in the deeply-rooted Polish stereotype of “Judeo-Communism” (żydokomuna) than in any rational motives.24

Other scholars mention the persistence of pre-war anti-Semitic stereotypes, which, far from disappearing after the Holocaust, actually became more entrenched under the influence of Nazi propaganda.25 Some researchers note that one of the key factors underlying the hatred and violence towards Jews in the immediate post-war years was economic conflict.26 During the Nazi occupation, Poles often appropriated the homes and possessions left behind by their displaced or murdered Jewish neighbours. As the latest research shows, robbery was one of the prime motives for denouncing Jews and participating directly in their genocide.27 After the war, many Poles feared that their Jewish “neighbours” who had survived the Holocaust might want to recover their property. The Manifesto of ← 78 | 79 → the Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN) promised the restitution of property stolen during the Nazi occupation and granted equal rights to Jews in both “legal and actual” terms.28 Soon after the Red Army had entered Lublin, Szlomo Herszenhorn, head of the PKWN’s Office for Assistance to the Jewish Population established in early August 1944, reported on numerous conflicts surrounding the restitution of Jewish property.29 It is worth recalling here that the impoverishment of Polish society and the brutalisation of human relationships as a result of the war and occupation undermined moral standards and respect for human life. This affected both the Polish population and—probably to an even greater degree—the Jewish population.30

What is important when evaluating the scale and consequences of post-war anti-Semitism is not just that anti-Jewish disturbances occurred, but that these were met with indifference and sometimes even approval from ordinary citizens, clergy and local state officials, from the army and Security Service, as well as from the Citizens’ Militia, whose officers, moreover, often participated in the excesses themselves.31 Anti-Semitic attitudes in post-war Poland also necessarily impacted on Holocaust (non-)memory and the conflicts over Holocaust remembrance.


No less significant for the evolution of Holocaust memory in Poland was the physical and psychological isolation of the Jewish community, both during the war and after hostilities had ended. This isolation was clearly visible, for instance, during the campaign to assist people returning from Nazi labour camps and concentration camps, where it emerged even at the organisational level.

We have only approximate data regarding the number of Polish Jews who, having survived the Nazi camps, decided to return to Poland after the war; the figure is between 25,000 and 40,000 people.32 Already in the winter and spring ← 79 | 80 → of 1945, Jewish committees were contacted by people who had survived Nazi concentration and labour camps liberated by the Red Army, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Hasag factory in Częstochowa, and the Łódź ghetto. As in the case of Polish prisoners, the return of Jews from camps located within the territory of post-war Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia did not commence until May 1945, with a few exceptions. Many Jews, having no home to which they could return, settled in the western regions of Poland, above all in Lower Silesia, and in this they were supported by the Polish authorities.

Jews liberated from the camps were in a terrible physical and mental state; the same was true of those who had survived in the forests, in bunkers, or in other hideouts. As Leon Kupferberg, chairman of the Interim Committee for Aid to the Jewish Population of Kraków, reported to the Provincial Governor of Kraków in March 1945, a large proportion of those returning from the camps were suffering from starvation diarrhoea; many others had tuberculosis.33 Equally dramatic was a letter sent a few weeks later from the Jewish Committee (KŻ) in Częstochowa to the Ministry of Labour and Social Care (MPiOS).34 Częstochowa, the author claimed, constituted one of the largest Jewish populations in Poland; it was a refuge for Jews liberated from the Hasag factory and also a stopover point for those returning from camps in Germany. This population, exhausted by persecution, hunger and disease, had no means of supporting itself, not even any clothing.

As the front advanced, Jewish committees sprang up in areas occupied by the Red Army.35 At that time, according to Alina Skibińska, the role of the committees was “primarily to organise self-help”.36 The Jewish Committee established at the end of July 1944 in Lublin had an altogether different status. Although it, too, was a non-governmental institution, from the outset it received subsidies from the PKWN. The Office for Assistance to the Jewish Population, headed by Bund member Szlomo Herszenhorn, was established by Presidium of the PKWN almost in parallel, i.e. at the beginning of August 1944.37 Both institutions cooperated closely. Their task was to organise help for survivors by supporting and coordinating ← 80 | 81 → the activities of local Jewish committees. As the troops advanced westwards, the Jewish Committee and the Office for Assistance to the Jewish Population set up their operation in successive regions of the country. They organised hostel accommodation, free food, and clothing rations. However, the resources available were far too inadequate to meet survivors’ needs. As Herszenhorn stated in his report of September 1944, despite receiving a loan from the PKWN, the Jewish Committee in Lublin still lacked many basic items: fuel, mattresses, food, and clothing.38 The hostel was overcrowded, without windows or heating, and people were sleeping on the floor. In other reports Herszenhorn complained that, despite the PKWN’s recommendations, local authorities were not giving any support to the Jewish population, while in the provinces Jews were being forced to rely exclusively on the assistance provided by the Lublin committee, which, due to lack of funds, was very meagre.39

At the beginning of November 1944, the Lublin Jewish Committee was transformed into the Central Committee of Jews in Poland (CKŻP).40 In February 1945, the committee moved its headquarters from Lublin to Warsaw. The first head of the CKŻP was Emil Sommerstein from the centrist-Zionist Ichud party, a former deputy to the pre-war Polish parliament and member of the National Homeland Council (KRN).41 The CKŻP comprised representatives of almost all the Jewish political parties and social organisations that operated legally in Poland.42 The committee therefore saw itself as the legitimate voice of Poland’s Jewish community in its dealings with authorities at home and abroad. Subordinate to the CKŻP was a network of local institutions with provincial and district committees. The CKŻP’s local structures also included Jewish aid committees that had previously been ← 81 | 82 → created at the grassroots level. With the establishment of the CKŻP, the existence of the PKWN’s Office for Assistance to the Jewish Population was no longer deemed necessary; in December 1944, it was transformed into the Office for Jewish Affairs at the Nationalities Department of the Ministry of Public Administration. Thereafter, its role was limited to mediating between the state administration on the one hand, and the CKŻP and Jewish organisations on the other.

The committee’s task was to rebuild Jewish social and cultural life in Poland; it established schools and cooperatives, registered survivors, and documented Nazi crimes. However, in the early years, the main function of the Jewish committees was to provide assistance to people coming out of hiding, returning from Nazi concentration camps and labour camps, or returning from the USSR. In 1945, the Department of Social Care alone claimed more than 60 per cent of the funds allocated to the CKŻP by the state, and this despite the fact that other CKŻP departments were also involved in welfare issues.43 Similarly to the PZbWP, the CKŻP developed a diverse and wide-ranging assistance campaign: hostels, orphanages, boarding houses, and homes for the elderly and disabled were created; free meals were organised; food, clothing and medicines were given to the needy; cash payments were handed out; hospitals and clinics were established. No distinction was made between former camp prisoners and other survivors: the condition of those emerging from bunkers and hideouts, or returning from distant regions of the Soviet Union, was often no better than that of people liberated from Nazi camps.

In 1945 alone, the CKŻP provided material assistance to more than 35,000 people and ran, among others, 44 canteens, 22 night shelters, 14 clinics, eight orphanages, three sanatoria, one old people’s home, and one home for the disabled.44 The list is impressive, but in reality the situation was much worse. In the aforementioned facilities there was not only a lack of staff, but also of food, clothing and bedding. The assistance given to each person was extremely modest, and many had to go without help altogether. Thus, for instance, the Jewish Committee in Milanówek near Warsaw reported:

Five per cent of our [400] dependants are passably clothed; the remaining 95 per cent wear tattered outer garments, usually summer ones. Even those who are working cannot afford to buy a shirt on account of the high prices. Most of our dependants have no change of underwear; they sleep under coats because they have nothing else with which to cover themselves, not even a blanket. The children cannot attend school as they have neither coats nor shoes. [...] The health of all the Jews, and especially the children, is such that they will require special nutrition for quite some time. Unfortunately, ← 82 | 83 → approximately 60 per cent of our dependants cannot even afford a simple meal; they mostly live on bread and coffee.45

Equally alarming news came in from other committees. Overall, argues Skibińska, help for Holocaust survivors “was symbolic or half-hearted rather than real”, and their situation was “de facto exceptionally difficult right up until the end of their stay in Poland”.46

In its first year, the CKŻP relied almost exclusively on state subsidies. More substantial help for Jewish organisations from abroad did not begin to arrive until 1946. At the same time, state subsidies steadily decreased. According to official data, in 1947 the CKŻP fund amounted to over 920 million zlotys, of which 90 per cent came from abroad, in particular from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.47 State subsidies accounted for barely six per cent of the committee’s budget. Towards the end of the 1940s, social care for the Jewish population improved somewhat. This was due both to financial support from abroad and to the fact that many Jews had emigrated.

What the above description shows is that the burden of caring for Holocaust survivors rested entirely with Jewish institutions, primarily the CKŻP. This raises the question as to why the campaign to assist the Jewish population, including those rescued from Nazi concentration camps, was conducted independently of the campaign to assist other groups of victims. It would seem that, initially, the Polish authorities had intended to pursue a comprehensive assistance campaign that would have encompassed all Polish citizens returning from Nazi labour camps, concentration camps, and forced labour, regardless of their nationality. CKŻP representatives sat on the Interministerial Committee for the Provision of Care to Persons Liberated from Nazi Camps, appointed in February 1945.48 The Jewish Committee was also represented on the Committee for the Provision of Assistance to Returnees Arriving from Germany, appointed in May 1945, which was affiliated to the Polish Ministry of Labour and Social Care.49 A resolution was passed at that time to the effect that the new reception points would provide ← 83 | 84 → assistance to all Polish citizens, regardless of their nationality. The Polish Red Cross was to be given the necessary funds to make one-off cash payments to returnees. No separate subsidies were earmarked for the CKŻP, which provoked protest from its members.50 Due to the large influx of Polish Jews liberated from camps in Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria, the Jewish Committee’s expenditure steadily rose. Accordingly, the Minister of Public Administration was asked to allocate special funds to the CKŻP for the provision of care to camp survivors. Emil Sommerstein, who had been delegated to meet with the Minister, argued that Jews returning from the camps required special assistance, since they found themselves in a far worse situation than their Polish comrades in adversity. Unlike the Poles, they had no home or family to which they could return, and thus were completely reliant on the Jewish Committee’s help.

The situation at the local level is illustrated by the example of Łódź. At a meeting convened in the summer of 1945 by the Governor of the Łódź Province in order to appoint a Coordinating Committee for the Provision of Care to Returnees Arriving from the West, a bitter dispute arose over the division of resources; on one side were delegates from the local Jewish Committee, and on the other the Governor, representatives of the Polish Red Cross, and representatives of the local Committee for Social Welfare (KOS).51 Under the resolution adopted, the Jewish Committee was to receive only one per cent of the subsidies. The Governor argued that Jews accounted for one hundredth of the total number of returnees, and that therefore the proposed figure was fair. This was rejected by the Jewish Committee representative, who demanded 10 per cent of the funds. He argued that whereas only some of the Polish returnees required assistance, practically all of the Jews were in a pitiful state. The matter was referred to the Minister for Social Care, who decided, by way of compromise, that the Jewish Committee would receive five per cent of the subsidies allocated to Łódź for the purpose of assisting returnees from the West.52

In June, at another meeting of the Committee for the Provision of Assistance to Returnees Arriving from Germany, the CKŻP representative complained that, as evidenced by the reports received from provincial committees, the problem ← 84 | 85 → of assistance for Jews returning from the camps had still not been resolved.53 In Łódź, for instance, the Jewish Committee was registering around 500 to 600 new arrivals daily, yet it had received virtually no subsidies. The situation was similar in Katowice: between 800 and 1,000 survivors were arriving each day54, yet the local Jewish Committee had a budget of only 150,000 zlotys, while its counterpart in Poznań had received no funds at all. Meanwhile, the Polish Red Cross, instead of handing out cash payments to Jews, was referring them to the Jewish committees. In light of all this, the CKŻP representative demanded a fairer division of funds. In response, Tadeusz Leszczyński, the Plenipotentiary for Returnees Arriving from Germany, affiliated to the Polish Ministry of Labour and Social Care, suggested that the CKŻP should ask the Ministry to separate completely the funds intended for the provision of care to Jews. Thus, contrary to the initial intention of the Polish authorities to create a comprehensive system of care, what emerged was a division of responsibility between Jewish committees on the one hand, and the Polish Red Cross, committees for social welfare, and other welfare institutions on the other.

Why was the CKŻP so keen to separate the help given to Jews from that given to other Polish citizens returning from the camps or from forced labour? Perhaps the Jewish tradition of self-help played a certain role here. To CKŻP representatives, for whom the inter-war period served as a model, a system of help for Jews that was not part of the general system of social care might have seemed obvious. Moreover, the CKŻP was counting on support from Jewish organisations abroad, which it could only receive if it organised its own system of social care. It seems, however, that the decisive factor in this dispute was the soon-to-be-justified fear on the part of CKŻP representatives that Jews would be discriminated against by the Polish Red Cross, the Central Committee for Social Welfare, and other welfare institutions, and that, ultimately, it would be local Jewish committees that would have to shoulder the burden of providing care to camp survivors. The CKŻP was also aware that in most cases Jews rescued from the camps were in a far worse condition than other people returning from German captivity, and in all likelihood they rightly believed that the state administration would be unable to meet survivors’ needs. As mentioned earlier, the indolence of the state administration forced not only Jews, but also other groups of victims, to create their own self-help organisations. In view of the exceptionally difficult circumstances faced by Jewish survivors, their lack of integration with the rest of society, potential cultural differences, and the prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes, such a division ← 85 | 86 → of responsibility might have seemed the only rational solution. Irrespective of its causes, this situation could only widen the gap that already existed between Polish and Jewish survivors of Nazi camps.

Jews in the PZbWP

The isolation of Polish and Jewish former camp prisoners was also reflected in the activities of the PZbWP. It would appear that very few Jews belonged to the association; the majority were probably not at all interested in becoming members. Partisans and members of the resistance movement in the ghettos and camps belonged to separate Jewish veterans’ organisations.55 Those who mainly sought welfare assistance could apply to the Centra l Committee of Jews in Poland or other Jewish charitable organisations. Likewise, those who intended to emigrate probably felt no need to contact an organisation dominated by Polish political prisoners. Nevertheless, there did exist a small group of Jewish former prisoners who were interested in becoming members of the PZbWP; when submitting their application, they had to reckon with a variety of obstacles.

The association’s statute left much unsaid in this regard. On the one hand, it stated that any citizen of Poland who had been imprisoned in a Nazi prison or concentration camp for their clandestine activities or for their social position or nationality could be a member of the association56; on the other, it declared that the association comprised people imprisoned “for freedom and democracy”, which suggested that only those who had been incarcerated for political reasons would be accepted as members. As mentioned earlier, these contradictions gave rise to major disputes within the association and—depending on the vetting committee—were interpreted in various ways. The disputes did not directly relate to the nationality of people admitted to the PZbWP. However, whereas the adoption of a more rigorous interpretation entailed the exclusion of only certain categories of Polish prisoners from the association, Jews were almost completely barred as a consequence.

Although the rules and regulations of the PZbWP’s Central Vetting Committee (GKW) from June 1946 stated that any person incarcerated on account of their nationality, whether “Polish, Jewish, etc.”, could also be a member of the PZbWP provided that their captivity had lasted at least three months and that they had not “sullied the good name of political prisoners”, over time, new conditions ← 86 | 87 → were added.57 In its instruction to local vetting committees at the end of 1947, the GKW advised special caution in the case of people who had not been arrested for resistance activities but had been captured during a round-up, or taken hostage, or arrested on account of their nationality. Such a candidate would first have to prove that during the war he had been “a good Pole” and had “displayed a positive attitude towards the issue of independence”.58 To this end, the candidate would submit his wartime CV and provide references from witnesses, ideally members of the underground. A candidate who could not provide evidence of clandestine activity, and thus did not “bear the hallmarks of an ideological or political prisoner”, could not in principle be admitted to the association.

Although in all likelihood these restrictions were not consciously directed against the Jewish community and should be seen in the wider context of efforts to transform the PZbWP from an association of victims into a veterans’ organisation, they nonetheless led to the de facto exclusion of Jews from the association, since Jews were usually incarcerated not for their clandestine activities but on account of their race. Given the very small number of survivors, even those who had belonged to the resistance movement often could not call upon any witnesses. Another contentious issue was whether the PZbWP should admit only concentration camp and death camp prisoners or also the survivors of labour camps. Many labour camps had been designated exclusively, or almost exclusively, for Jews. Members of the CKŻP, too, had doubts about the definition of political prisoner that had been adopted by the association. At a meeting convened in January 1946, the CKŻP’s Presidium debated the composition of its delegation to the PZbWP’s founding congress, to which it had been invited: some committee members believed that only true political prisoners should be sent to the congress, while others argued that the delegation should also include those who had not belonged to the resistance movement but who had been incarcerated on account of their race.59

Particularly in the years 1946-1947, when the association’s admissions criteria had not yet been clarified, much depended on the attitude of the various vetting committees, whose decisions were guided, most probably, by their understanding of the PZbWP’s profile. However, the unclear rules for admitting people to the association were often used to discriminate against people of Jewish origin; in any case, this is how the applicants often saw it. In a letter sent in the spring of 1946 to the PZbWP’s Executive Board, Zygmunt J., a former inmate of Mauthausen, complained that he had applied for membership to the association’s Kraków Branch in the autumn of the previous year. The decision, he reported, had been continually ← 87 | 88 → delayed for formal reasons. In the end he was told that concentration camp prisoners such as he, who had been “taken from the ghettos to the camps, will probably not be considered—although the matter has not yet been resolved”. “I understood that they were referring to Jewish prisoners.”60 Zygmunt J. asked whether the decision complied with the GKW’s instructions. In response to an interpellation sent from Warsaw on this matter, the Executive Board of the PZbWP’s Kraków Branch explained that Zygmunt J. had been informed that the vetting rules and regulations were still in the development phase and that therefore the branch was not admitting any new members: “We provided this information when asked by the person concerned whether former prisoners of Jewish nationality could become members of the association. At that time, the issue of admitting Jews to the association had not yet been resolved.”61 The authors of the letter went on to quote the secretary of the PZbWP’s Executive Board, who, at a meeting of the association’s Kraków Branch in June, had stated that “inmates of the ghetto” should not be admitted to the association because “the Jewish ghetto is synonymous with the Poland that remained entirely behind barbed wire”.62 Therefore, the association should only admit Jews who had been political prisoners, just as it only admitted Poles who met this criterion. From this statement, the Executive Board of the PZbWP’s Kraków Branch inferred, the Jews who had been incarcerated on account of their race could not become members of the PZbWP.63

A similar conflict arose in September 1946 in the town of Wejherowo, at the opposite end of Poland, where the Executive Board of the local PZbWP branch refused a former Stutthof prisoner (“W.”) admission to the association. Despite the prior intervention of the Wejherowo Jewish Committee, the Executive Board in Gdańsk did not take an active interest in the matter until an article entitled “The Executors of [Amon] Goeth’s Will” appeared in the Dziennik Bałtycki daily. The reporter wrote as follows:

A Jewish resident of Wejherowo, who is a Polish citizen and a former inmate of Stutthof […] recently applied to become a member of the Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners. […] A few days ago his application was returned to him together with the vetting committee’s decision, which was signed by three prominent members of the association. The committee’s decision was limited to a single word: “Declined”. On 13 September, this former Stutthof prisoner, who had been refused admission to the Association of Former Political Prisoners, contacted the secretary of the association ← 88 | 89 → to enquire as to the reasons for the refusal of his application. The kind-hearted secretary, not wanting to prolong the matter unnecessarily, and wishing to dispel any lingering doubts, amended the vetting committee’s decision, supplementing the word “Declined” with the words: “as the candidate is not of Aryan descent”. Since the rejected candidate was left somewhat dumbstruck by this unexpected reappearance of abandoned terminology, the secretary further clarified that the vetting committee’s decision had been made in accordance with the association’s new statute.64

Concerned about the risk of bad publicity, the chairman of the provincial PZbWP suspended the Wejherowo vetting committee and ordered the branch leadership to provide an explanation.65 The fate of “W.” is not known, but in October of that year, at a meeting of the Branch Executive Board, the chairman informed those present that the entire matter had been resolved “without reproach” for the members of the Branch Executive Board, who had all been restored to their former duties.66

Despite the many conflicts and obstacles, however, Jews were not completely excluded from the PZbWP. There were even cases where members of local vetting committees proposed that the admissions criteria be relaxed in order to accept more Jews into the association. Thus, for instance, one member of the Kraków PZbWP’s leadership, in a letter to the GKW in September 1947, suggested that people who had been imprisoned in the Płaszów, Skarżysko-Kamienna and Częstochowa labour camps should also be admitted to the association, since the conditions there had been comparable to those in the concentration camps.67 Representatives of the Jewish community were invited to the association’s ceremonies and commemorations and vice versa—association delegates participated in events organised by the CKŻP and local Jewish committees. Bernard Borg sat on the association’s Executive Board as the CKŻP’s official representative in all but name.68

← 89 | 90 → Although in Poland, in order to avoid friction with the PZbWP, members of the CKŻP often spoke of the solidarity between Polish and Jewish prisoners, and their common fate, on the international arena the CKŻP preferred to maintain a separate identity. This concealed a fear that Jewish martyrdom would be appropriated by Polish political prisoners and, more broadly, that Jewish losses would be subsumed within the losses of the individual countries of which Jews were citizens. Already at the first international congress of former political prisoners, which took place in Warsaw in February 1946, a bitter conflict arose when the CKŻP insisted on sending its own delegation. The main opponents of this idea were not the Poles, but the Danes, Dutch and French.69 A representative of the Danish Landsforeningen af Besaettelsestidens Politiske Fanger insisted that members of the CKŻP should be part of the Polish delegation, just as Jews in Denmark were represented by the Danish delegation. He warned against setting a precedent, since Jews from other European countries could make similar demands.

In the end, the CKŻP managed to win over the other congress participants, but it was only a temporary victory. Another dispute arose over the composition of the Polish delegation to the second FIAPP congress, which was to take place in Brussels in the summer of 1946. At a meeting of the CKŻP Presidium convened on the eve of the congress, Ignacy Falk (PPR) stated that, in light of the opposition from “Polish reactionary elements” to the idea of separate CKŻP representation, Polish Jews should join the general delegation of the PZbWP.70 Likewise, Salo Fiszgrund (a Bund member) shared the belief that it was better to back down given the tension in Polish–Jewish relations. A different view was put forward by Adolf Berman (Poale Zion Left): “Jews were persecuted as Jews,” he argued. “At the congress, we should be represented as the Jewish nation. The CKŻP is, so to speak, the vanguard of world Jewry. If this were a Polish congress, then we would offer far-reaching concessions, but not when it comes to an international congress. We must not capitulate as a nation. In future, the way we shall deal with this is that the delegation of Polish Jews will come to an agreement with Jewish delegations around the world.” It is no accident that it was precisely the Zionist representatives who most wanted to send a separate delegation, while PPR and Bund members were more willing to compromise—the extermination of European Jewry was the principal argument in the campaign to establish the state of Israel. Ultimately, it was decided that Adolf Berman would consult his brother Jakub, a member of the Political Bureau of the PPR, by telephone. Jakub Berman, sharing the opinion of his party colleague, Ignacy Falk, said that if other countries were also not ← 90 | 91 → sending separate Jewish delegations, then the CKŻP representatives should join the PZbWP delegation, although the association should grant them significant autonomy and allow them to make separate speeches. Finally, it was decided to put the matter before the congress participants. In Brussels, however, the Jewish Committee delegates suffered a total defeat. Their demands were rejected not only by the PZbWP but also by practically all other prisoners’ organisations. As one congress participant later recounted at a meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, “they all declared themselves to be philo-Semites” and on this basis objected to Jewish prisoners being isolated from the other delegations. The Belgian delegate had argued that “Jews suffered the most at the hands of racists, so they should not try to isolate themselves”.71 The CKŻP representatives were eventually forced to join the Polish delegation.

On the one hand, therefore, the PZbWP’s policy led to the increasing exclusion of Jews; on the other, under pressure at home and abroad, Jewish camp survivors acted on the international arena as part of the Polish political prisoner community.

“A Separate Death”?72

In more recent works on memory of the Second World War, it is often claimed that, until the mid-1960s, neither in Western Europe nor in the United States was the unique character of the genocide perpetrated on European Jews fully understood; this lack of understanding also applies to Palestinian and Israeli Jews and to the Jewish diaspora. As Tom Segev shows in his excellent book The Seventh Million, despite the establishment by the Knesset of Holocaust and Ghetto Revolt Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah U’Mered HaGetaot, 1951) and the creation of the Yad Vashem Institute (1953), in Israel, until the 1960s, the Holocaust remained a matter for the personal memory of survivors. It was not until after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 that the Shoah came to be seen as one of the fundamental pillars of Israeli national identity.73 Likewise, Harold Marcuse, in his study of the disputes surrounding the commemoration of the site of the former Dachau concentration camp, notes that until the 1960s neither Israelis nor Jews from the diaspora nor indeed non-Jews were involved in commemorating ← 91 | 92 → Holocaust victims.74 A similar conclusion is reached by Pieter Lagrou in his study on changing public perceptions of the Second World War in West European countries:

[...] the experience of the Jews and the discovery of the systematic killing of Jewish “deportees” made far less impression than the “concentration”, bad treatment and underfeeding of the other deportees, which resulted in relatively high death rates and the often shocking physical condition of the returning survivors. A large proportion of Jews deported from Western Europe had transited through the concentration camps on their way to extermination and a small number of them survived the liberation. This fact contributed to their assimilation into the undifferentiated mass of “deportees”. It seems to the contemporary observer that [in that period] the awareness, the prise de conscience, of the specificity of the Jewish experience in the universe of Nazi persecution had not permeated public opinion….75

Lagrou later adds:

To attempt such a study [on the perception of the Shoah] for the two decades before 1965 would evince an anachronistic state of mind, since the very dimensions of the continental tragedy, as manifested in contemporary terminology, were very slow to emerge, even amongst professional historians.76

The above observations do not apply in the case of Poland, however. In fact, it would seem that the process moved in exactly the opposite direction: whereas in the 1940s the Holocaust was still present in public discourse, over subsequent decades it became a powerful taboo. One explanation for this is that until the end of the 1940s, Jewish Holocaust survivors constituted a small but statistically significant proportion of Polish society and could present their views in the wider debate on the war and occupation. Furthermore, unlike the Americans or even the West Europeans, Poles and Polish Jews had witnessed the Holocaust at close quarters, and the scale and character of the genocide was beyond doubt in Poland.

In the second half of the 1940s, the Jewish community in Poland was not only well aware of the uniqueness of its own experience but also attempted to bring this knowledge to the wider public both at home and abroad. This task was principally entrusted to the Central Jewish Historical Commission (CŻKH) affiliated to the Central Committee of Jews in Poland (CKŻP). The commission was ← 92 | 93 → established in Lublin in December 194477; its chairman was Filip Friedman, who was succeeded in 1946 by Nachman Blumental. In the autumn of 1947, the CŻKH was transformed into the Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH). The commission was involved in gathering documentation and doing research as well as disseminating knowledge about Jewish history.

The importance that both the Zionists and representatives of other political parties attributed to the work of the commission is evidenced by a statement made by the chairman of the Kraków Jewish Committee, Leon Kupferberg, in August 1945. At the founding meeting of the Association of the Friends of the Central Jewish Historical Commission, Kupferberg said that, in view of the upcoming congress, “at which the political aspirations of the Jewish nation” were to be supported by historical evidence, it was necessary to redouble efforts in order to assemble as much documentation as possible by that time.78 Barely a month later, one participant of a strategy meeting held by the CŻKH in Łódź stated that the commission’s most pressing task was to ensure that its publications were present “at the next peace conference”.79

Although the commission often doubted whether its activities would have any impact at all on changing the attitudes of Polish society, it did not abandon its efforts to reach a domestic audience. To this end, the CŻKH produced Polish-language publications and the commission’s expert witnesses participated in the trials of Nazi war criminals before the Supreme National Tribunal (NTN). An important propaganda role was also played by the occasional speeches of representatives of the Jewish community at such events as the annual Majdanek Week, successive anniversaries of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the opening of the Auschwitz Museum in the summer of 1947. Jewish historians also sat on the Central Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland (GKBZNwP), established in the spring of 1945.

Polish Jews did not use the terms “Holocaust” or “Shoah”. When referring to Nazi genocide, they used such phrases as: “mass extermination”, “total eradication”, ← 93 | 94 → “complete liquidation”, or “historical tragedy”.80 In the introduction to a collection of documents on the Jewish resistance movement published in 1946, Michał Maksymilian Borwicz (Boruchowicz), who worked with the Central Jewish Historical Commission, wrote that during the Second World War “there was no other nation which, as a whole, found itself in a situation comparable to that of the Jews”, although, he noted, “there were groups, indeed very large groups, whose situation was very similar to that of the Jews”.81 No less emphatic was Nachman Blumental in his expert opinion submitted to the trial of Auschwitz staff at the end of 1947: “The following data may serve as evidence of the magnitude of losses to the Jewish nation and of the inexpressible cruelty of the Germans towards the Jews, who, under the Nazis’ unwritten law, were condemned to total extermination, without exception. Of the 3.5 million Jews who lived in Poland before the war, barely a few tens of thousands were alive after liberation, and not because the German authorities had shown them any mercy, but simply because they had either not known of their existence or had not managed to liquidate them in time.”82 In a commentary on the trial, the Zionist weekly Nasze Słowo [Our Word] wrote that the trial presented an opportunity to inform the world, including Palestinian and American Jews who had not personally experienced Nazi persecution, that the Jewish nation held “tragic primacy” amongst the victims of fascism.83

The use of a separate notion to describe the genocide of European Jews implies a certain way of thinking about this event. The terms “Shoah” and “Holocaust”, which did not come into widespread use until the 1970s, emphasised not only the uniqueness of the Jews’ fate compared to that of other groups of victims, but also the uniqueness of the crime in historical terms. Polish Jews, however, even if they did so using different language, had already by the 1940s formulated the idea that the extermination of the Jewish nation was an historical phenomenon. The uniqueness of this crime derived primarily from its gigantic scale and industrial and bureaucratic character. As Filip Friedman stated at a meeting of the CŻKH, the catastrophe that had befallen the Jewish nation was “one of the greatest in history as far as quantitative and qualitative losses are concerned, surpassing all previous catastrophes in ← 94 | 95 → terms of the scale of the crime—an organised and premeditated plan to annihilate millions of people”.84 Michał Borwicz, in turn, wrote that the situation of the Jews during the occupation “has no precedent in human history. No other persecution in recorded history has been so cruel. [...] No other occupying regime’s behaviour has been so utterly base and yet so meticulously planned. Never before has persecution been organised with such a huge amount of effort.”85

A key element of this martyrology was the experience of the camps. In a speech given at the opening of the Auschwitz Museum in June 1947, Józef Sack, a parliamentary deputy and CKŻP member, said that the Jews were the nation which “had sacrificed the most blood” and whose torment “cannot be compared with anything in the history of humankind”. There in Auschwitz, he continued, 1.5 million Jews had perished in the gas chambers, “and their only crime was that they were Jews. [...] Millions of Jews died a separate death, a Jewish death, isolated in its painful chosenness, in Treblinka, Sobibór, Bełżec and Majdanek....”86 CŻKH members emphasised that, in the case of Jews, their very identity was tantamount to a death sentence or transportation to the camps. In the introduction to a collection of accounts of camp life published in 1946, Blumental wrote that although in the case of other nationalities, too, “the number of people sent to the camps on the basis of a court judgement or investigation or decision was insignificant” and that “any reason (e.g., being denounced, falling victim to the caprice of a Nazi dignitary, or getting caught in a round-up) was usually sufficient for a person to find himself behind barbed wire, the situation of Jews was nevertheless far worse: “it was enough that someone was a Jew for him to be sent to a camp”.87 The author also pointed out that when in captivity, Jews and non-Jews were treated differently. For Jews, the camps necessarily resulted in “total extermination”. “Although some Jews did manage to leave the camps in one piece, they were the exceptions rather than the rule; their survival was a ‘miracle’—there simply had not been time to ‘liquidate’ them”.88

In the first years after the war, there was also no single, accepted classification of the camps, while from the Jewish perspective the distinction between ghettos, labour camps, concentration camps, and death camps seemed fluid. Filip Friedman drew attention to the problem of categorising the camps. He argued against using Nazi terminology, since its purpose had been to obfuscate.89 Instead, he proposed a functional ← 95 | 96 → classification: labour camps, penal camps, protective custody camps, prisoner-of-war camps, and death camps. Omitted from this list were concentration camps, which Friedman regarded as a collective term that referred to all Nazi camps. In practice, however, it was often the case that no clear categorisation was used at all. Although Chełmno, the “Operation Reinhard” camps90, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek were often described as “death camps” or “extermination camps”, these terms were sometimes extended to other camps. Unlike their Polish counterparts, Jewish authors were also reluctant to introduce a clear distinction between labour camps and concentration camps. Whereas some Polish political prisoners were keen to emphasise their dissimilarity to inmates of labour camps and penal camps, which elevated them as heroes of the resistance movement, such a division did not seem justified from the Jewish perspective. Blumental stressed that although the Nazis had created many categories of camps, in practice there was little to choose between them. De facto, all the camps, with the exception of prisoner-of-war camps for soldiers from Western countries, “had a single purpose: to destroy the people incarcerated within them”.91 Blumental also pointed out that most of these places had been forgotten. “The names of the famous camps—Dachau [...], Buchenwald, [...] Bergen-Belsen—are known around the world; after the liberation of Poland, a little more was discovered about Treblinka, Sobibór, Majdanek, Bełżec, and Auschwitz, and that’s about it! What we forget, however, is that beside virtually every large factory or mine was a labour camp where the workers were slowly destroyed through slave labour. In practice, therefore, every labour camp was a death camp. The only difference between the two was the rate at which people died: in the labour camps, death came more slowly.”92 Among Polish publications, titles devoted to the concentration camps were dominant. The CŻKH tried to bridge this gap. Thus, for instance, in a volume entitled Documents and Materials published in 1946, Blumental included accounts of the labour camps in Trawniki, Poniatowa, Stalowa Wola, and other places.93 Filip Friedman, who, as director of the CŻKH, also sat on the Central Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland, sought to ensure that the Polish expert opinion submitted to the Nuremberg trials would also include information on labour camps for Jews.94

← 96 | 97 → For Poles and Polish Jews alike, Auschwitz-Birkenau acquired, shortly after its liberation, the status of the primary symbol of wartime martyrdom. Certainly, one of the principal reasons for this was its huge number of victims; no less important, it would seem, was its international character.95 All this, and the fact that it had been one of the few concentration camps with an organised resistance movement, turned Auschwitz into an unquestioned place of remembrance and a perfect tool of propaganda. Furthermore, a relatively large number of people survived Auschwitz; after the war, they not only published numerous memoirs, thus shaping the public imagination, but also tried to ensure that the victims of the camp were commemorated. In Poland, the majority of Auschwitz survivors were Polish political prisoners. It is no wonder, then, that the site had a critical importance for the Polish authorities and PZbWP membership on the one hand, and the Jewish community on the other.

At the end of March 1945, the Presidium of the National Homeland Council (KRN) took the decision to appoint a Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Auschwitz. One member of the commission, the chairman of the Kraków Jewish Committee, Leon Kupferberg, wrote in a letter to the CŻKH that the urgency with which the Polish government had created the commission suggested that it wanted to use Nazi crimes in Auschwitz as a “political trump card” during the United Nations conference in San Francisco. Kupferberg went on to express his fear that both the chairman of the commission (the Minister of Justice, Edmund Zalewski) and the Minister of Culture (Wincenty Rzymowski) intended to highlight Nazi crimes against the Polish nation whilst ignoring Jewish victims. Kupferberg’s proposal that representatives of world Jewry should be invited to participate in research work and in publications for the general public, as well as in the creation of a future Auschwitz museum, had apparently not met with the approval of Polish government representatives, “who stressed that the planned work would primarily be of importance to Polish policy”.96 Kupferberg wrote:

← 97 | 98 → Having at its disposal a ready-made academic and technical apparatus, and having spent an initial sum of five million zlotys, the government is undoubtedly in a position to gather the materials quickly and, without waiting for a far-reaching academic study […], may publish, as is planned, a multilingual work that will bring the Nazis’ crimes against the Polish nation to the attention of world opinion but that might pay only scant regard to our own martyrdom. [...] By mentioning the number of Jewish victims, the government would undermine the effect it wants to achieve through the publication of this work and thus defeat its purpose. And even if the government, in this work, does add the number of Jewish victims (those who were Polish citizens) to the total number of Polish victims, foreign opinion may be unaware of the relative size of these two groups and ignore the fact that Jewish victims are not only more numerous than their Polish counterparts but that their suffering and survivor numbers are in no way comparable. And herein lies the danger of producing chaos in the mind of the civilised world; chaos which may do great harm to us if—let us be frank—we too wish (as undoubtedly we do) to use our own martyrdom as political capital in the achievement of our national aims and aspirations.

Filip Friedman’s work To jest Oświęcim! [This was Oswiecim…], published in the same year, should be seen as a response to the above concerns.97 In this brochure, the CŻKH director, whilst noting the international character of Auschwitz, nevertheless emphasised that the “lion’s share of the victims” of Auschwitz were Jews from Poland and other European countries, and that it was primarily they who provided “the human material for gassing”.98 Friedman also wrote that the situation of the Jews in Auschwitz was comparable only to that of the Roma and Soviet prisoners of war. “Certain nations were sent to the Auschwitz torture chamber without mercy and, with very few exceptions, to their death. There was no return from Auschwitz for Soviet prisoners of war, for Jews from all countries, all estates and professions, regardless of sex or age, and for Gypsies. Only very few members of these national groups were spared, in other words, sent to other camps or kept in Auschwitz for work.”99 Friedman continued: “when it came to transports of Jews, approximately 60 to 90 per cent of the transport would [...] after the initial selection procedure, be sent straight to the gas chambers. The ‘Aryan’ transports were handled differently. Many of those transports were sent to the camp in their entirety, bypassing the selection procedure.” However, as Friedman pointed out, there were also many “Aryan” transports that were immediately sent for extermination, without any pre-selection. “This was evidently the case with those whom the Nazis regarded as particularly ‘serious criminals’. It was in this manner that many transports of Poles, Russians, French, Greeks, ← 98 | 99 → Yugoslavs, Gypsies, and others were sent to their death.”100 The work appeared in English a year after its first publication.101

The concern expressed by the chairman of the Kraków Jewish Committee that the Polish authorities would seek to take advantage of the Auschwitz issue at the United Nations’ founding conference proved to be premature, since the Polish delegation did not, in the end, travel to San Francisco. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why the Auschwitz Commission’s work slackened considerably. From mid-April, the investigation of Nazi crimes in Auschwitz was being handled by only a few members of its legal subcommittee. In May, the commission was transformed into a subdivision of the Central Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland (GKBZNwP), headed by Jan Sehn.102


Jan Sehn (centre) and Otto Wolken (left), a former inmate of Auschwitz-Birkenau, examining the ruins of one of the crematoria in Birkenau (courtesy of APMAB).

← 99 | 100 → A summary of the GKBZNwP’s investigation into Auschwitz-Birkenau only appeared in 1946, published in the first issue of the commission’s Bulletin. Although the author of the expert study, Jan Sehn, devoted much attention to the martyrdom of the Poles, he did not hide the fact that the Auschwitz death camp had been primarily intended for the Jewish population. The study contained a separate chapter entitled “The Extermination of Jews”, in which the author unequivocally stated that “for Polish Jews, as for Jews from other European countries, Auschwitz was primarily a death camp”.103 He also noted that, whereas other nationalities deported to Auschwitz were usually sent to work, “on average, only around 10 per cent of the people from Jewish transports were admitted to the camp”.104 Other GKBZNwP publications from the years 1946-1951, including a study on the “Operation Reinhard”, Chełmno, Majdanek, and Stutthof camps, also presented a fairly accurate picture of the genocide perpetrated on European Jews.

Likewise, the judgement in the trial of Rudolf Höss of April 1947, despite errors and inaccuracies, was quite precise in its presentation of the numbers and dissimilar fate of each category of victim. Höss was found guilty of having committed crimes against three groups of victims, which were mentioned in the grounds of the judgement. The first was registered prisoners, the majority of whom were “Polish citizens: Poles and Jews; as far as the citizens of other countries are concerned, most were of Jewish origin”.105 The court established the number of registered prisoners at 400,000, of whom at least two-thirds died as a result of the terrible living conditions, criminal medical experiments, or as a result of selection. It was also noted that all the Roma who had been registered in the camp were exterminated in the gas chambers of Birkenau. The second category of victim comprised “those who had been brought to the camp from various European countries for the purpose of immediate extermination, and who were taken straight to the gas chambers without being registered”.106 The court estimated that there were at least 2.5 million such victims. It was noted that these victims were “mostly Jews” but that “occasionally” there had also been “Aryan transports”; the population which the Nazis had forcibly expelled from the Zamość region was cited as an example.107 Soviet prisoners of war were mentioned as a separate, third category of victim. The court established that there had been approximately 12,000 POWs ← 100 | 101 → registered in the camp, the majority of whom were slaughtered immediately or died in captivity. In addition, as stated in the grounds of the judgement, tens of thousands of POWs were exterminated in the gas chambers without prior registration.108

At the same time, the judgement emphasised the martyrology of Poles through the identification of potential as well as actual victims:

In light of the outcome of the trial, there is no doubt that the Nazis intended to continue with the gassing of people on a mass scale. The best evidence of this is the fact […], supported by the documentation, that they had planned to build Crematorium No. VI in Birkenau, which was to be so efficient that it would be possible to gas and incinerate one million people during a single year. Therefore, it was only the victorious advance of the Soviet and Polish armies that prevented the Nazis from implementing their further plans of genocide.109

According to the grounds of the judgement, next in line for extermination were the Slavic nations, primarily the Poles. This view was expressed earlier in the trial in the testimony of Józef Cyrankiewicz, who stated that the concentration camps had borne witness to the “mechanised—one could say ‘modern’, in the sense of technological advancement—destruction of a huge community. In future, [the Nazis] would have undoubtedly set about destroying the Slavic nations, particularly the Polish nation, after the prelude that was the extermination of the Jews.”110 A similar argument was put forward in a great many statements and publications from the period; even some Jewish historians made reference to it. Nachman Blumental, an expert witness in the Höss trial, confirmed that the Holocaust had been merely a prologue to the extermination of other nationalities. There was ample evidence to suggest, he argued, that “the Nazis’ ultimate aim had not been to exterminate only the Jews”:

They were rebuilding the Majdanek death camp at a time when there were virtually no Jews left. They were building a new crematorium, and reserves of Zyklon B—enough to kill four million people—were discovered in warehouses after the liberation. The same is true of the death camp in Auschwitz, the expansion of which was prevented only by the victorious advance of the Allied armies. The question remains, therefore—for whom was all this intended? The answer was given by the witnesses at the Nuremberg trial [...]. Höss also knew about it. He related how, at a conference in Berlin in the presence of the Nazi top brass, the extermination of 30 million Slavs had ← 101 | 102 → been discussed.111 For us, this conference clarified in no uncertain terms the ultimate principle of Nazism, the true meaning of “Lebensraum”.112

It is a moot point whether the use of such arguments by representatives of Poland’s Jewish community was a tactical move motivated by a desire to join the wider Polish debate on the subject of the Second World War without having to lay their own cards on the table. The minutes of the discussion on Blumental’s expert opinion, which took place at the CŻKH a few days before the trial, would seem to favour this interpretation. One participant of the meeting suggested that the text should “differentiate more clearly between the situation of Jews in the camps and that of other nationalities”.113 In response, Blumental said that it would be pointless to emphasise such differences, “since this is not the right time to be saying it; instead, we should concentrate on dealing with our common enemy”.

It would seem, therefore, that in the immediate post-war years the Polish Communists did not wish to turn the Holocaust into a taboo and that the employees of state institutions such as the Central Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland or the Supreme National Tribunal could also broach the subject in the public domain. In this context, the attitude of the PZbWP is all the more telling. The line adopted by the association’s magazine, Wolni Ludzie, was that the social isolation of Jewish former prisoners (which was discussed in the previous chapter) also affected the way in which the reality of the camps was perceived by their Polish comrades in captivity. Despite declarations that Jewish camp prisoners were treated as “friends”114 and that “the tragedy of Polish Jews was not only a tragedy of the Jewish people, but also and in parallel a tragedy of the entire Polish nation”115, in reality, Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust were seen as not belonging to the community of victims. This attitude seemed to be characteristic not only of the ex-prisoner community, but also of significant sections of Polish society; its origins lay in the pre-war era. Already in 1987, Alina Cała put forward the idea that Jews had been portrayed as “alien” in Polish folk culture.116 As regards memory of the Second World War and the Holocaust, this observation was confirmed by the German historian Klaus-Peter Friedrich in his analysis of the official and underground Polish press in the years 1942-1946/1947. Friedrich writes: ← 102 | 103 → “The dominant view in most newspapers and journals was that the Holocaust did not directly relate to ‘us’, in other words, to ethnic Poles. That is why the subject was written about less frequently and with greater emotional distance, which sprang from an attitude of ‘neutrality’ towards a war being waged by the occupying forces against ‘alien’ Polish Jews.”117 Despite the shared experiences of Polish and Jewish concentration camp prisoners, this attitude also applied to members of the PZbWP. Articles written by Jews or about Jews appeared only sporadically in Wolni Ludzie. The magazine’s principal focus was the fate of Poles. Perhaps this also reflected relations within the camps, where each category of prisoner lived in separate barracks, was often assigned to different work commandos, and thus to a large extent lived in isolation from other categories of prisoner.

The way in which Polish political prisoners perceived Auschwitz is well illustrated by a memo sent in the autumn of 1945 to President Bierut requesting that the Polish authorities take over the site of the former camp. The authors justified their appeal on the grounds that “it was a camp where millions of Poles died; a camp which became, within a few years, a symbol of the destruction to which Hitler had condemned Poland; a symbol of terror and suffering; a symbol of the dedication and sacrifice of those who had fought for Poland”.118 Such a view of the history and importance of Auschwitz-Birkenau was also reflected in the commentaries on the Höss trial published in Wolni Ludzie. Whereas the Jewish press emphasised that “Auschwitz is one of the darkest episodes in the martyrdom of the Jewish nation” and a symbol of its “suffering under Nazism”119, the PZbWP’s magazine made scant reference to the extermination of Jews at Auschwitz. The Zionist weekly Nasze Słowo, for instance, true to the original wording of the indictment, reported that the Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau had been accused of the murder of: “a) approximately 300,000 people incarcerated in the camp as prisoners, b) approximately four million people, mainly Jews, brought to the camp in transports from various countries for the purpose of extermination, and c) approximately 12,000 Soviet prisoners of war”120, while Wolni Ludzie merely stated that Höss had been accused of gassing four million people.121

It would be wrong to claim that the Holocaust was never mentioned in the commentaries on the Nazi war trials that appeared in Wolni Ludzie. When reporting on the trial of Auschwitz staff, for instance, Wolni Ludzie stated that “half a ← 103 | 104 → million Hungarian Jews had been gassed” at Auschwitz, that the purpose of “Operation Reinhard” had been to “murder the Jewish population and appropriate their property”, and that members of the Auschwitz SS had been accused of “participating in the mass transportation of Jews for the purpose of their extermination in the gas chambers”.122 However, this information was not put into context; it failed to capture the relative losses suffered by each national group and gave no indication as to the unique fate of the Jewish population. Besides offering examples of the martyrdom of Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, and other victims, the sole purpose of this information was to illustrate the criminal nature of the Nazi regime.

Yet the line adopted by the editorial board of Wolni Ludzie was not consistent. On occasion, the magazine published articles which referred to the Holocaust less obliquely. It would seem that members of the PZbWP were motivated not so much by a desire to relativize or deny the extermination of the Jewish nation as by a total indifference towards the fate of those whom they did not consider to be “their own”. The Jewish experience was beyond the bounds of their imagination. This is well illustrated by an article written for Wolni Ludzie by Ewa Śliwińska, deputy director of the Department for Museums and Monuments of Struggle and Martyrdom at the Ministry of Art and Culture, to mark the official opening of the Auschwitz Museum. Śliwińska wrote that the date of the opening—14 June 1947—coincided with the seventh anniversary of the first transport of Polish political prisoners to Auschwitz. Despite this, Śliwińska asked rhetorically, “should the opening of the State Museum at Auschwitz be connected with a particular anniversary—one of many anniversaries still observed by Polish society? Is the commemoration of this anniversary really justified?” If anyone was in any doubt about this, she replied, they ought to look at Auschwitz from the perspective of the future Aufnahmegebäude.123 For that place is “not just connected with the personal experiences of those who suffered at Auschwitz; as a vision of the future, it must also disturb the imagination and thinking of all Poles”:

Every Pole, literally every Pole, could have ended up in the Aufnahmegebäude, and there would have been space for us all. […] Today, we have at our disposal documents which prove that the next stage after the extermination of the Jews was to be the extermination of the Poles […]. That is why, for all Poles, the vision of this temple of death is at once a vision of the future of the entire Polish nation; it remains a terrible reminder to us all. And that is why all Poles, when questioning the significance of 14 June 1940, which began the first chapter in the Auschwitz drama, will agree that this ← 104 | 105 → tragic anniversary should unite us in pondering our unfulfilled fate—extermination, and our fulfilled fate—national salvation. The day of 14 June deserves a moment of solemn and collective contemplation.”124

What is striking is that the author, whilst recognising that Auschwitz was a venue for the extermination of Polish and European Jews, did not see this as sufficient reason for organising a commemorative event involving the entire nation. For Śliwińska, the fate of the Jews was not important; it was meaningful only in so far as it forewarned what might have happened to the Poles. In her eyes, Auschwitz was not so much a place where Jews were exterminated as a place where the Polish nation was miraculously saved.

While the grounds of the judgement in the Höss trial presented a fairly accurate picture of the losses suffered by each nation, the judgement in the trial of the Auschwitz staff, delivered barely eight months later, blurred the identity of the victims. This change is all the more striking as certain fragments of the judgement in the trial of Auschwitz staff were simply copied from the judgement in the Höss trial, only with certain paragraphs and sentences omitted. Although it was maintained that amongst non-registered prisoners “the largest proportion were Jews from all the nations occupied by Germany and her allies”, followed by “Russians, both civilians and POWs, Poles, particularly from the Zamość and Lublin regions, and also Gypsies”, what the judgement failed to add was that, in contrast to the Jewish transports, “Aryan” transports were only occasionally sent directly to the gas chambers. Even greater falsification was rendered by a passage which listed the identities of the 400,000 prisoners registered in the camp. It was claimed that this number included “members of 21 nations, in particular, Poles, Czechs, Russians, Yugoslavs, French, Belgians, Dutch, Norwegians, Greeks, Romanians, Jews, and Gypsies. Amongst these prisoners, the majority were Poles.”125 Omitted was a detail which had been included in the judgement delivered in the Höss trial, namely, that the figure for Polish citizens included both Poles and Jews, and that Jews were also in the majority amongst prisoners from other countries.126

← 105 | 106 → Furthermore, the court divided the history of the camp into two periods—before and after October 1942. Such a division was not in itself controversial and could be found in many other contemporaneous publications. The general view was that, in the initial period, Auschwitz was mainly used to incarcerate Polish political prisoners, while in the latter period it became a venue for the mass extermination of Jews. During that second period, as stated, for instance, in the 1947 plan for the Auschwitz Museum, “life in the camp itself was easier, although there were millions of victims—eight times more than during the initial period”.127 What is shocking, therefore, is that the judgement in the trial of Auschwitz staff merely stated that the period after October 1942 was significantly better for the prisoners:

During the initial period, a prisoner could receive no help from outside the camp and was certain to die within a few weeks unless he was assigned a function that ensured a more bearable existence. [...] During the second period, however, the economic purpose of the camps became paramount: prisoners were subjected to slave labour in order to increase the military capacity of the Third Reich. [...] Although, throughout this period, prisoners eventually perished, they did so only after their labour had been fully exploited [...]. Despite these changes, the Nazis never abandoned their plan to exterminate the Slavs and the remaining Jews as well as other inconvenient groups and individuals. This is evidenced by the planned construction of Crematorium No. VI in Birkenau [...].128

In this context, no mention was made of the fact that it was precisely in the years 1943-1944 that the mass extermination of Jews at Birkenau took place.

It is not certain what caused the shift in tone between the two judgements, especially as the same judges presided over both trials. One may assume that the change ← 106 | 107 → was caused by political pressure and that the trial of Auschwitz staff was affected by the intensification of the Cold War. This is evidenced, inter alia, by a statement made by Stefan Kurowski, one of the prosecutors working for the Supreme National Tribunal (NTN), which was quoted in Wolni Ludzie. The magazine reported that the trial of Arthur Liebehenschel and others would be different from the Höss trial because the new political situation meant that the public prosecutors would want to reveal the criminality not so much of the individuals concerned as of the entire fascist system. During the Höss trial, Kurowski is quoted as saying, “the primary focus was on the individual, [...] on the violation of human dignity”.129 Such an approach proved to be insufficient, however, “since increasingly confident pro-fascist groups have begun a campaign which aims to show that the crimes of the concentration camps were solely the result of individual excesses”. Consequently, during the trial of Auschwitz staff, the aim was to present evidence “that demonstrated the link between the concentration camps and overall Nazi policy” and to show that “the camps were a vehicle for a policy whose purpose was the total extermination of peoples subjugated by the Third Reich, primarily the Slavs and Jews”. The atmosphere surrounding the trial is also illustrated by the fact that even the Jewish Nasze Słowo argued that, given a situation in which “the imperialists”, “alarmed by the victory of the people’s democracies”, were once again readying themselves for war and beginning to support “neo-fascist elements”, the trial would be hugely important in propaganda terms.130 The author of a commentary entitled “The Cracovian Nuremberg”, which appeared in Wolni Ludzie after the proceedings had ended, wrote that it had been “not only a criminal, but also a political” trial. “The trial throws light on the dark soul of a nation which, on the basis of a criminal ideology, nurtured crimes that are beyond human comprehension. [...] We know the Germans! We know them better than those on whose lands Prussian soldiers have never set foot. And that is why we demand that our truth be told, so that it may reach the cosy offices where the spirit of Munich still reigns.”131 No doubt, such an approach also helped to blur the Jewish dimension of Auschwitz martyrology in the grounds of the judgement, for what it wanted to prove was that fascism was the enemy not only of the Jews but of humanity as a whole, in particular the peoples of the Soviet Union and other allied Slavic nations. In the rhetoric of the Cold War, there was no place for commemorating the Holocaust as a crime of genocide specifically aimed at European Jews.

The grounds of the judgement in the trial of Auschwitz staff were only a fore-taste of the changes that were being planned. In this matter, the Polish authorities had no reason to fear resistance from former Polish political prisoners; on the contrary, as far as the manner of presenting the martyrdom of Jews was concerned, ← 107 | 108 → the policy of the PPR/PZPR and the attitude of members of the PZbWP were very similar. One example of such convergence of opinion was a speech written in 1949 by Tadeusz Hołuj to mark the opening of a touring exhibition entitled “Extermination or Peace?”. Hołuj, a former Auschwitz inmate, argued that those who believed that the Germans were solely enemies of the Jews, and not of humanity as a whole, were mistaken. It was enough to look at the fate of the Poles, which “may serve as an excellent illustration of what awaited other nations. To all those remaining sceptics and doubters in thrall to the ideals of ‘Western culture’, of which the Germans, let us not forget, were also part, and to all those who claim that it was only the Jews who were to be exterminated, that the whole problem of genocide does not relate to the Poles because they would somehow have come to terms with the ‘New Order’, and that it was thus only a Jewish matter—we must say: Wrong! Wrong, because every form of imperialist aggression under the banner of anti-communism, racial supremacy, and a belief in pure violence, will necessarily lead to genocide. Wrong, because the failure to wipe us out was neither the achievement nor the intention of Nazi Germany; it was merely the outcome of the situation in which Germany found itself—a country stripped of its workforce—and of the political and military situation dictated by the victory of the Allied armies, with the Red Army at the fore.”132

“Heroes of the Ghetto” or Passive Victims?

The transformation of the PZbWP from an association of victims into a veterans’ organisation largely prevented Jews from joining the association. From today’s perspective this may seem obvious, since we have become accustomed to perceiving Holocaust victims primarily as defenceless civilians. However, the glorification of World War II victims did not necessarily need to entail the exclusion of those persecuted by the Nazis on racial grounds. As Pieter Lagrou writes, in France, left-wing veterans’ organisations admitted Jews as well, classifying them as heroes of the anti-fascist resistance movement on a par with political prisoners and other members of the Résistance. Moreover, as Lagrou states, most Holocaust survivors readily accepted this classification, since the new anti-fascist version of patriotism propagated by the left, which blurred the details of survivors’ experiences, also lent meaning to those experiences.133

← 108 | 109 → Lagrou’s hypothesis finds partial confirmation in the case of Poland, as is evidenced by the discussions which took place amongst the Jewish community in the second half of the 1940s on the definition of heroism and on conduct during the occupation. What is striking is how much space was devoted at that time to the Jewish contribution in the fight against Nazism. As August Grabski writes, a major role in the creation of this heroic narrative was played by Jewish veterans’ organisations, above all the Union of Jewish Partisans (ZPŻ), created in the autumn of 1944, and the Union of Jewish Participants in the Armed Struggle against Fascism (ZŻUWZzF), created in the spring of 1947.134 One of the main tasks of both organisations was to document “the history of the struggle of the Jewish masses against the occupying forces”.135 As Hersz Smolar, chairman of the ZŻUWZzF, said at the organisation’s congress in March 1947 in Wrocław: “By recording the memory of our battles on the front, in the forests, and on the barricades of the ghettos, our military exploits and heroism, we shall uncover the true face of this most tragic period of our history; we shall help to nurture within our ranks a tradition of struggle for the honour and freedom of our nation and of unprecedented heroism in that struggle.”136 Some Jewish members of the PZbWP made speeches in a similar tone. In the dispute over whether to send a separate CKŻP delegation to the first international congress of former political prisoners, which took place in Warsaw at the beginning of 1946, one Jewish former prisoner argued that Jews had not only suffered the greatest losses during the war but had also made “a colossal contribution to the struggle against fascism”.137 No one knew more than their concentration camp comrades, he said, “about the contribution Jews made to clandestine activity in the camps” and about how few of them had managed to survive.

This heroic tone, however, could be detected not only in the statements of association activists; the armed and civilian resistance movements were also the subject of numerous CŻKH publications138, and the Jewish press paid much attention ← 109 | 110 → to the subject. The main symbol in the history of the Jewish resistance movement was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April-May 1943. Yet there were also many texts devoted to the armed revolts and clandestine activities in other ghettos and camps. Authors wrote about the revolts in Treblinka, Sobibór, and Auschwitz, armed resistance in the Białystok ghetto, Częstochowa, and Będzin, clandestine activities in the Łódź and Kraków ghettos, and the Jewish partisans. The participation of Jews in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 was often mentioned. Zionist journals also published many articles—usually reprinted from the Palestinian press—which remembered the Jews who had fought on the “fronts of the Second World War”, including Jewish soldiers in the ranks of the British Army and Jewish paratroopers dropped over Hungary and Yugoslavia.

The manner in which Polish Jews presented their own history should not be surprising. Just as their Polish counterparts, they wanted to reproduce a traditional hierarchy of values, according to which only those who had not given up their life without a fight were worthy of their successors’ remembrance and respect. Such thinking found expression in an essay by Rachela Auerbach published in the spring of 1948 in Nasze Słowo. The author recounted the story of a Treblinka prisoner who had escaped from the camp only to perish in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Thanks to this, wrote Auerbach, his death acquired “a profound, tragic meaning”. “It is as if he returned from Treblinka in order to change the manner of his death, to die with dignity.”139 Auerbach thus juxtaposed the “debased” death of the defenceless victims of the extermination camps with the heroic death of the participants of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In other accounts, too, the defence of personal honour and the honour of the entire Jewish nation was portrayed as the main reason for rebellion. For many Polish–Jewish authors, such an approach was obvious; for some, however, highlighting Jewish wartime heroism also presented an opportunity to “smash down the wall” that separated them from society at large.140 A speech marking the second anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising read: “The Jewish masses have shown the Polish nation and the whole world that they are able to fight, weapon in hand, in defence of their human and national dignity, that they are able to die like heroes. The heroic struggle of the Polish Jews will enter the history of the fight against fascism, the history of liberation struggles in Poland.”141 Moreover, for Zionists in Poland and in Palestine, Jewish sacrifice in the struggle against fascism bolstered the argument for the creation of Israel.

← 110 | 111 → However, in constructing this heroic narrative, Jewish authors encountered numerous obstacles. When trying to find examples to illustrate Jewish heroism, they often came to the conclusion that the resistance shown by those condemned to extermination had been very weak and, due to the small number of survivors, was very difficult to document. To repel accusations made by Yishuv and Poles alike about the passivity and cowardice of the Jewish diaspora, Jewish authors pointed to the context of wartime persecution. Of relevance here is Michał Borwicz’s introduction to a volume entitled The Underground Movement in the Ghettos and Camps. Materials and Documents, compiled and edited by Betti Ajzensztajn. Rather than glorifying the achievements of the Jewish underground, Borwicz, himself a participant in the resistance movement and a member of the ZŻUWZzF, tried instead to explain its weakness. Among the factors which made individual or collective acts of resistance difficult, Borwicz listed the following: the breakup of former communities through displacement to ghettos and camps; the isolation of various groups; lack of space; poverty; lack of technical resources; hunger; epidemics; physical exhaustion; the constantly changing situation; and the unpredictability of the occupying forces. He also mentioned the separateness and hostility of the non-Jewish environment, which paralysed all attempts at organising resistance or seeking help. “Many non-Jews came to the assistance of persecuted Jews, and in doing so displayed not only generosity but often also perseverance and heroism,” wrote Borwicz. “Due to the nature of the situation, however, such help could only be given in the utmost secrecy. By contrast, the rabble operated casually and openly. It was thus very difficult for a Jew to reach a friend, even if one existed, while scoundrels would hunt down Jews of their own accord. The need for people of good will to suppress their feelings and conceal their actions from the non-Jewish population, combined with the fact that the dregs of society (both the common and […] the ‘ideological’) could act so brazenly, meant that the ghettos were surrounded by a ring of hostility.”142Borwicz also pointed to the fact that other groups of victims who found themselves in a situation even approaching that of the Jews—forced labourers or concentration camp inmates, for instance—were no more brave or enterprising. “Did the civilian population, regularly ‘pacified’ by squads of German thugs, defend itself?” he asked rhetorically. “The opportunities were certainly greater than in the ghettos and camps, yet there was no active resistance. [...] People from ‘pacified’ districts often took part in guerrilla activities and did so with great courage. Armed clandestine groups often responded to ‘pacification’ with planned raids. Yet those same people, so long as they remained in a civilian environment together with their families, were defenceless.”143 It was no different in the camps. “As any former prisoner or any ← 111 | 112 → reader of the now numerous concentration camp memoirs knows,” wrote Borwicz, “the hopelessness of the situation did not give rise to desperate rebellion but, at most, to quiet resignation.”144 This attitude does not indicate that “the oppressed lacked a spirit of resistance, but simply that an army which is morally bankrupt and armed to the teeth is often stronger than a defenceless civilian population. [...] A person caught in the clutches of the Nazi machine was usually defenceless. Yet what if a community had no reserves to draw upon outside the structures of repression. What if the occupier’s talons had swept up that community wholly and completely?”145 Similar arguments were used by Rachela Auerbach. In the aforementioned essay, whilst lamenting the weakness of the Jewish underground, she nevertheless rejected the accusations made by Polish society. “Why did the Jews ‘give up’? We would have never given up…”—Auerbach thus paraphrased the claim made by some Poles. “God willing, the time for comparison will never come, but if it does, let us hope that the Polish masses, perhaps making good use of Jewish experience, will be better able to cope.”146

Already at that time, the first attempts were being made to redefine the traditional notion of heroism. Sometimes, Borwicz argued, passive resistance required greater courage and tenacity and did more damage to the occupying forces than hand-to-hand combat. Ajzensztajn, too, suggested that in the wartime context it was wrong to equate resistance solely with combat. Equally important were expressions of solidarity, mutual help, attempts to preserve traditions and identity, and even the saving of one’s own life. “Like all concepts, heroism is a relative term,” she wrote. “For people who, despite the war, carried on as usual, the acts which we regard as heroic might appear comical and insignificant, yet those who survived the ordeal of occupation know how much courage was required merely to stray from the well-trodden path of passivity or to commit a transgression.”147 Heroic acts included escaping from a ghetto or camp, arranging “Aryan papers” and living on the “Aryan” side, clandestine teaching, contributing to cultural, religious and academic life, self-help, documenting Nazi crimes, and saving cultural artefacts. Showing solidarity in death, which Janusz Korczak and many others had the courage to do, was also an expression of heroism.

Borwicz went one step further. He tried not only to reformulate the notion of heroism but to deconstruct it completely. The damage, he noted, that the resistance movement could do to the occupying forces was disproportionately small compared to the retribution that would follow. “Demonstrations, even those for which the highest price must be paid, serve future history,” he wrote. “But what ← 112 | 113 → if the price is the total eradication of that future history through the biological annihilation of an entire nation?”148 Borwicz expressed these doubts even more forcibly through one of the heroes of his fictionalised account of the camp on Janowska Street in Lwów. During a discussion on the preparations for a revolt, one of the prisoners was to have said:

You’re talking rubbish […] as if you were writing a silly story about the camps without ever having seen one in reality. [...] Each one of us […] has been up against the wall and knows what it’s like. We should have tried to defend ourselves—indeed! When a prisoner in the Czwartaki camp killed an SS officer, besides the massacre within the camp, several dozen Jews were hanged from the balconies of the Judenrat [Jewish council building]—if you’ll pardon the expression. Never mind, if you have to die for such a “demonstration”, then so be it. But what did it achieve? Not a single soul gave that prisoner a moment’s thought. [...] When you’re going to your death, hands bare, surrounded by dozens of machine guns, the only thing left to you is precisely to do nothing. It’s the hardest thing—to go quietly, lips shut. I’ll never forgive your “world” for managing to slander the victims even for their supreme concentration at the moment of death. It’s the blood-stained silence of thousands of women… When you can do nothing to stop a crime, you should at least know how to remain silent. Three-quarters of the tortured manage it. That is also dignity. It’s rotten dignity, but dignity all the same….149

Other Groups of Victims

The importance of the existence of relatively autonomous Jewish organisations able to “lobby” for their own interpretation of the past is underscored by the situation of other victims of the Nazi terror, such as Roma, Belarusians, and Ukrainians, who had no such means of exerting influence. Their fate was almost completely forgotten.

The extermination of the Roma was mentioned only in certain judgements of the Supreme National Tribunal (NTN) and certain publications of the Central Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland (GKBZNwP).150 The information was usually perfunctory, however, and explained neither where ← 113 | 114 → the deportees had come from nor their earlier fortunes. In his study on Auschwitz-Birkenau, Jan Sehn described in detail the fate of Poles, Jews, and Soviet prisoners of war, but only twice, and only in passing, mentioned the Roma who had been incarcerated in the camp.151 The study ignored the history of the Gypsy Family Camp and failed to mention that almost all Roma inmates were exterminated in the gas chambers of Birkenau. Wolni Ludzie likewise alluded the fate of the Roma on only a few occasions.152 In the 1940s, Jerzy Ficowski was one of very few authors interested in the martyrology of the Roma during the Second World War. In June 1949, he published an announcement in Wolni Ludzie in which he asked readers to send in materials and information about the extermination of the Roma in the years 1939-1945, since he planned to write a piece on the subject.153

Although, when writing about the camps, authors frequently spoke of the Nazis’ plans to exterminate the Slavs, in this context Ukrainians and Belarusians were rarely mentioned; only in very few statements and publications did they figure as separate groups of victims. One exception was the appeal of Polish political prisoners “To Comrades from the Concentration Camps”, published in the first issue of Wolni Ludzie in March 1947, in which Ukrainians and Belarusians were listed alongside other “friendly peoples of the USSR”.154 In the main, however, when authors wrote about other Slavic nations, it was usually Czechs, Yugoslavs, and Soviet prisoners of war who were mentioned. The last of these groups was usually seen as synonymous with Russians. In the report on the GKBZNwP’s investigation into Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sehn uses the terms “Soviet prisoners of war”, “Russian prisoners of war”, and “Russians”, interchangeably.155 A similar approach was taken in the case of civilian victims. Thus, for instance, the judgement in the trial of Auschwitz staff stated that between 2.5 and 4 million people had been murdered at Auschwitz, of whom the greatest proportion were Jews from Poland and other European countries, followed by “Russians, both civilians and POWs, Poles [...], and also Gypsies”.156 Other texts simply referred to Soviet prisoners of war or to citizens of the USSR, without stating the nationality of the people concerned.

← 114 | 115 → This categorisation was adopted primarily for reasons of domestic and international policy. The emphasis placed on the heroism of Russians and their sacrifice in the struggle against fascism was a carbon copy of Soviet propaganda. Furthermore, to list Belarusians and Ukrainians among concentration camp victims might have raised uncomfortable questions about their citizenship prior to 1939, evoking memories of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. That this issue remains a subject of controversy between Moscow and Warsaw is evidenced by the dispute that arose over a new Russian exhibition in the State Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was reported the press in the spring of 2007.157 The point of contention was precisely the fact that the authors of the exhibition had included amongst the USSR’s war losses the inhabitants of Polish territories occupied by the Soviet Army in September 1939.158

Already in the 1940s there emerged the stereotype that Red Army soldiers imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps were Russians, while the members of auxiliary SS units—largely recruited from amongst Soviet prisoners of war—who became concentration camp and death camp staff, were Ukrainians159; this stereotype still functions to this day. There are several factors that helped to consolidate this categorisation. The experience of the war years meant that many Poles, particularly refugees and displaced persons from the Eastern Borderlands (Kresy) of the Second Polish Republic, saw Ukrainians as oppressors and not as victims of the German occupation.160 What this view ignored was the complex relationship that existed between Germans and Ukrainians during the Second World War and the fact that many Ukrainians, including Ukrainian nationalists, had been ← 115 | 116 → persecuted by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps. In light of the ongoing battles between the Polish Army and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in the years 1945-1947, the forced expulsions of the Ukrainian population to the USSR in 1944-1946, and Operation Vistula in 1947, during which approximately 140,000 Polish Ukrainians and Lemkos were resettled from south-eastern Poland to northern and western regions of the country, the Communist authorities were also keen to maintain the image of Ukrainians as enemies of the Polish nation and collaborators of the Third Reich. In these circumstances, there was all the more reason for Soviet prisoners of war to be seen as “Russians”.


1     Jerzy Andrzejewski, “Zagadnienie polskiego antysemityzmu”, Odrodzenie, 7 and 14 Jul. 1946. For more extensive information on the debate amongst Polish intellectuals in the second half of the 1940s on the subject of post-war anti-Semitism, see: Dariusz Libionka, “Antysemityzm i zagłada na łamach prasy w Polsce w latach 1945-1946” in Michał Głowiński et al. (eds) Polska 1944/45-1989. Studia i materiały, Vol. 2, Warszawa 1996; Klaus-Peter Friedrich, Der nationalsozialistische Judenmord in polnischen Augen. Einstellungen in der polnischen Presse 1942-1946/47 (PhD), University of Cologne 2002, published online: (10 Mar. 2013), pp. 467-475ff; Joanna Michlic-Coren, “The Holocaust and its Aftermath as Perceived in Poland: Voices of Polish Intellectuals 1945-1947” in David Bankier (ed.) The Jews are Coming Back: The Return of the Jews to their Countries of Origin after WW II, New York 2004.

2     On the subject of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews in Poland in the second half of the 1940s, see, inter alia: David Engel, “Patterns of Anti-Jewish Violence in Poland, 1944-1946”, Yad Vashem Studies 26 (1998); Joanna Michlic-Coren, “Anti-Jewish Violence in Poland 1918-1939 and 1945-1947”, Polin. Studies in Polish Jewry 13 (2000); Bożena Szaynok, “Polacy i Żydzi lipiec 1944-lipiec 1946” in Łukasz Kamiński and Jan Żaryn (eds) Wokół pogromu kieleckiego, Warszawa 2006; idem, “Problem antysemityzmu w relacjach polsko-żydowskich w latach 1945-1953” in Barbara Engelking-Boni, Jacek Leociak and Anna Ziębińska-Witek (eds) Zagłada Żydów. Pamięć narodowa a pisanie historii w Polsce i we Francji, Lublin 2006; Jan T. Gross, Fear. Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz. An Essay in Historical Interpretation, New York 2006.

3     Ewa Koźmińska-Frejkal, “Świadkowanie Zagłady—Holocaust jako zbiorowe doświadczenie Polaków”, Przegląd Socjologiczny, Vol. 49, 2 (2000), p. 183.

4     See, inter alia: Biuletyn GKBZNwP, Vol. 1 (1946): Filip Friedman, “Zagłada Żydów polskich w latach 1939-1945”; “Obozy zagłady, obozy koncentracyjne i obozy pracy na ziemiach polskich w latach 1939-1945” compiled by Zofia Czyńska and Bogumił Kupiść; Jan Sehn, “Obóz zagłady Oświęcim”; “Obóz zagłady Chełmno” compiled by Władysław Bednarz; “Obóz zagłady Treblinka” compiled by Zdzisław Łukaszkiewicz. Biuletyn GKBZNwP, Vol. 3 (1947): “Obóz Zagłady w Bełżcu” compiled by Eugeniusz Szrojt; “Obóz zagłady w Sobiborze” compiled by Zdzisław Łukaszkiewicz. Biuletyn GKBZNwP, Vol. 4 (1948): “Obóz koncentracyjny i zagłady Majdanek” compiled by Zdzisław Łukaszkiewicz.

5     Belles lettres include works such as: Jerzy Andrzejewski, “Wielki tydzień” in Noc i inne opowiadania, Warszawa 1945 (English: idem, Holy Week: A Novel of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, introduction and commentary by Oscar E. Swan, foreword by Jan Gross, Athens, Ohio 2007); Kazimierz Brandys, Samson, Warszawa 1948; Jerzy Broszkiewicz, Oczekiwanie, Warszawa 1948; Adolf Rudnicki, Wielkanoc, Warszawa 1947. Other titles that should be mentioned in this context include some of the novellas by Zofia Nałkowska from the volume Medaliony, Warszawa 1946 (English: idem, Medallions, translated and with an introduction by Diana Kuprel, Evanston, Illinois 2000), and some of the short stories by Tadeusz Borowski, including “The Death of Schillinger”, “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” and “The People Who Walked On” (idem, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, selected and translated by Barbara Vedder, London 1976). Mention should also be made at this point of one of the most chilling novels touching on the Holocaust, Czarny potok by Leopold Buczkowski, which was written as early as in 1946, but not published until 1954. A selection of Polish texts on the Holocaust is to be found in Męczeństwo i zagłada Żydów w zapisach literatury polskiej, compiled by Irena Maciejewska, Warszawa 1988. On the same subject, see also: ibid., editor’s introduction, and Władysław Panas, “Szoah w literaturze polskiej” in Jerzy Święda (ed.) Świadectwa i powroty nieludzkiego czasu. Materiały z konferencji naukowej poświęconej martyrologii lat II wojny światowej w literaturze, Lublin 1990.

6     Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową”, pp. 398-400; Lucjan Dobroszycki, Surviors of the Holocaust in Poland. A Portrait Based on Jewish Community Records 1944-1947, New York–London 1994, p. 19. There are no reliable data on the size of the Jewish community in Poland after 1945, which is due partly to the fact that the only organisation registering these data was the CKŻP, to which not everyone reported. Many people also concealed their Jewish identity after the war. Secondly, owing to constant migratory traffic, the number of Jews in Poland was fluctuating all the time in the period 1944-1950/1951. The data cited above, referencing 210,000-240,000 people, date from the first half of 1946, when, after the repatriation from the USSR, but before the Kielce pogrom and the foundation of the State of Israel, the number of Jews in Poland was at its highest any time after the war.

7     On this subject see, inter alia: August Grabski, Działalność komunistów wśród Żydów w Polsce (1944-1949), Warszawa 2004, pp. 26-38; Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową”, p. 405.

8     This aspect is noted in: Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową”, pp. 405, 473-474.

9     For the benefits garnered by Poles from the Holocaust, see also: Jan Tomasz Gross and Irena Grudzińska-Gross, Golden Harvest. Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust, New York 2012. Another text worth mentioning here is: Kazimierz Wyka, “Gospodarka wyłączona” in Życie na niby, 2nd ed., Warszawa 1959.

10   Over the past two decades or so, a number of works have been published that analyse attitudes in Polish society towards the extermination of the Jews. These have shown that the involvement of Poles in the Holocaust was greater than had previously been thought. A major breakthrough in this debate came with the publication of the book: Jan Tomasz Gross, Sąsiedzi. Historia zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka, Sejny 2000 (Eng. edition: idem, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, Princeton University Press 2001). Many other important works have come out since then, however. See, inter alia: Wokół Jedwabnego. Studia, Vol. I, edited by Paweł Machcewicz and Krzysztof Persak, Warszawa 2002; Polacy i Żydzi pod okupacją niemiecką 1939-1945. Studia i materiały, edited by Andrzej Żbikowski, Warszawa 2006; Barbara Engelking, „Jest taki piękny słoneczny dzień…” Losy Żydów szukających pomocy na wsi polskiej 1942-1945, Warszawa 2011; Jan Grabowski, Judenjagt. Polowanie na Zydów 1942-1945. Studium dziejów pewnego powiatu, Warszawa 2011; Zarys krajobrazu. Wieś polska wobec zagłady Żydów 1942-1945, Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski (eds), Warszawa 2011.

11   On this subject see: Arno Lustiger, Czerwona księga. Stalin i Żydzi, Warszawa 2004, pp. 261-361; Bożena Szaynok, “Walka z syjonizmem w Polsce (1948-1953)” in Tomasz Szarota (ed.) Komunizmideologia, system, ludzie, Warszawa 2001; idem, Z historią i Moskwą w tle. Polska a Izrael 1944-1968, Warszawa 2007, pp. 150-262; Marcin Zaremba, Komunizm, legitymizacja, nacjonalizm. Nacjonalistyczna legitymizacja władzy komunistycznej w Polsce, Warszawa 2001, pp. 198-201.

12   Report drawn up at the CKŻP on the basis of data from the Chełm branch, Apr./May 1945. Quoted after: Dzieje Żydów w Polsce 1944-1968. Teksty źródłowe, compiled by Alina Cała and Helena Datner-Śpiewak, Warsaw 1997, p. 27.

13   On the subject of the pogrom in Kraków, see: Anna Cichopek, Pogrom Żydów w Krakowie: 11 sierpnia 1945, Warszawa 2000. On the subject of the events in Kielce, see: Bożena Szaynok, Pogrom Żydów w Kielcach 4 lipca 1946, Warszawa 1992. Cf. also: Krystyna Kersten, “Pogrom Żydów w Kielcach—znaki zapytania” in idem, Polacy, Żydzi, komunizmanatomia półprawd 1939-68, Warszawa 1992; Wokół pogromu kieleckiego, edited by Łukasz Kamiński and Jan Żaryn, Warszawa 2006; Gross, Fear, pp. 81-166. Collections of documents on the Kielce pogrom: Antyżydowskie wydarzenia kieleckie 4 lipca 1946 roku. Dokumenty i materiały, edited by Stanisław Meducki and Zenon Wrona, Kielce 1992.

14   Engel, “Patterns of Anti-Jewish Violence in Poland”, pp. 49-50. Many historians believe this figure to be a considerable underestimate. According to various estimates, over the years 1944-1947, between 1,000 and 2,000 Polish Jews fell victim to murder. Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową”, p. 401; Michlic-Coren, Anti-Jewish Violence in Poland, p. 39; Gross, Fear, p. 35. Indeed, Engel himself admits that the documentation he has gathered is incomplete.

15   Natalia Aleksiun, Dokąd dalej? Ruch syjonistyczny w Polsce (1944-1950), Warszawa 2002, p. 88.

16   Engel, “Patterns of Anti-Jewish Violence in Poland”, p. 74.

17   David Engel states that in June and July 1946 alone, at least eleven such incidents took place (“Patterns of Anti-Jewish Violence in Poland”, p. 74). Such “train campaigns” directed against Jews returning from the Soviet Union and carried out by units of the National Armed Forces (NSZ), and attacks on Jewish passengers travelling from Kielce to other towns and cities in Poland on the day of the Kielce pogrom, are also discussed by: Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową”, p. 402; Szaynok, Pogrom Żydów w Kielcach, pp. 58-60 and Gross, Fear, pp. 109-117.

18   Kersten, Narodziny systemu władzy, pp. 192, 195.

19   In the conclusion, Engel writes: “Comparing the most identifiable and quantifiable features of attacks upon Jews and Polish government supporters appears to suggest, then, that each set of aggressive acts displayed its own characteristic fingerprints, as it were, and that the two fingerprints deviated from one another far more than they coincided. Jews were more at risk of being killed at different times and in different places than were government supporters, and Jewish women and children were in considerably greater danger than were Poles of the same sex and age.” (“Patterns of Anti-Jewish Violence in Poland”, p. 70).

20   Grabski, Działalność komunistów wśród Żydów w Polsce, pp. 31-35. Others who draw attention to this are: Stanisław Krajewski, “Żydowscy komuniści—problem dla Żydów?” in idem, Żydzi, judaizm, Polska, Warszawa 1997, pp. 207-208; Jan T. Gross, “Cena strachu” in idem Upiorna dekada. Trzy eseje o stereotypach na temat Żydów, Polaków, Niemców i komunistów 1939-1948, Kraków 1998, pp. 93-94. Cf. also: Andrzej Paczkowski, “Żydzi w UB. Próba weryfikacji stereotypu” in Szarota (ed.) Komunizmideologia, system, ludzie, p. 199.

21   Cited after: Kersten, “Żydzi—władza komunistów” in idem, Polacy, Żydzi, komunizm, pp. 83-84. Andrzej Paczkowski claims that the data in the official note drawn up by Bierut from his conversation with Radkiewicz were applicable to executive positions both at the central office and in the field. Paczkowski states that according to other sources the proportion of officers of Jewish origin at the headquarters of the ministry was around 30 per cent, while 63.5 per cent were Poles (Paczkowski, “Żydzi w UB. Próba weryfikacji stereotypu”, pp. 196-198). Cf. also: Zaremba, Komunizm, legitymizacja, nacjonalizm, pp. 187-188.

22   Grabski, Działalność komunistów wśród Żydów w Polsce, pp. 26, 33. See also: Kersten, Narodziny systemu władzy, p. 153. Adelson’s breakdown indicates that the biggest Jewish party in Poland in 1947 was the centrist-Zionist Ichud (with 7,000-8,000 members), with the PPR faction affiliated to the CKŻP in second place (with 7,000 members). Taken together, the other Zionist parties, both right- and left-wing ones, had a total of 9,000-9,500 members, while some 1,500 people had applied for membership of the socialist Bund. In spite of the significant support for left-wing parties, including the Communists, it is thus clear that the political sympathies of the Polish Jews were strongly divided (Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową”, p. 434).

23   Grabski, Działalność komunistów wśród Żydów w Polsce, p. 34.

24   This view is also shared by Kersten, who writes that: “in the opinion of society, anyone who collaborated with the Communists might be a Jew”, while “Poles of Jewish origin and the large group of people on the road leading from the culturally Jewish community to the Polish national community” were certainly considered Jews (Narodziny systemu władzy, p. 195).

25   See, inter alia: Michlic-Coren, “Anti-Jewish Violence in Poland”.

26   Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową”, pp. 400-401; Gross, Fear, pp. 39-47.

27   Engelking, „Jest taki piękny słoneczny dzień…”, pp. 180-187; Alina Skibińska, “‘Dostał 10 lat, ale za co?’ Analiza motywacji sprawców zbrodni na Żydach na wsi kieleckiej w latach 1942-1944” in Zarys krajobrazu..., pp. 377-378. Mention should also be made here of another important, though in my opinion controversial book: Gross, Grudzińska-Gross, Golden Harvest.

28   Manifesto of the Polish Committee of National Liberation, Journal of Laws 1944, no. 1, item 1 (annex).

29   “Sprawozdania z działalności Referatu dla Spraw Pomocy Ludności Żydowskiej przy Prezydium Polskiego Komitetu Wyzwolenia Narodowego”, compiled by Michał Szulkin, Biuletyn ŻIH 1 (1971).

30   This is noted by: Marcin Zaremba, “Biedni Polacy na żniwach” in Daniel Lis (ed.) Wokół „Złotych żniw”. Debata o książce Jana Tomasza Grossa i Ireny Grudzińskiej-Gross, Kraków 2011, pp. 161-173.

31   Szaynok, Pogrom Żydów w Kielcach, Michlic-Coren, “Anti-Jewish Violence in Poland”; Gross, Fear, pp. 81-166.

32   Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową”, pp. 388-390; Dobroszycki, Surviors of the Holocaust in Poland, pp. 11-13.

33   Interim Committee for Aid to the Jewish Population of Kraków to the Provincial Governor of Kraków, 2 Mar. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 335.

34   Jewish Committee in Częstochowa to the MPiOS, 19 Mar. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 335.

35   The section below, on organisation of aid to Holocaust survivors, including concentration camp prisoners, is based largely on the following text: Alina Skibińska, “Powroty ocalonych” in Barbara Engelking, Jacek Leociak and Dariusz Libionka (eds) Prowincja noc. Życie i zagłada Żydów w dystrykcie warszawskim 1939-1945, Warszawa 2007. See also: Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową”, pp. 387-477; Aleksiun, Dokąd dalej?, pp. 49-72.

36   Skibińska, “Powroty ocalonych”, p. 527.

37   Report I on the work of the Office for Assistance to the Jewish Population for the period 8-31 Aug. 1944. Cited after: “Sprawozdania z działalności Referatu dla Spraw Pomocy Ludności Żydowskiej”.

38   Report II on the work of the Office for Assistance to the Jewish Population for the period 1-17 Sep. 1944. Cited after: “Sprawozdania z działalności Referatu dla Spraw Pomocy Ludności Żydowskiej”.

39   Reports III-V on the work of the Office for Assistance to the Jewish Population for the period 18 Sep. - 25 Nov. 1944. Cited after: “Sprawozdania z działalności Referatu dla Spraw Pomocy Ludności Żydowskiej”.

40   Originally the committee was termed “provisional”; not until 1945 was it officially registered as the CKŻP. On the subject of the appointment of the CKŻP: David Engel, “The Reconstruction of Jewish Communal Institutions in Postwar Poland: Central Committee of Polish Jews 1944-1946” in East European Politics and Societies 10, 1 (1996); Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową”, pp. 424-428.

41   The next chairmen of the CKŻP were Adolf Berman (1946-1949) and Hersz Smolar (1949-1950).

42   The CKŻP Presidium comprised representatives of the Jewish faction of the PPR, the Bund, Ichud, Poale Zion Left, Poale Zion Right, Hashomer Hatzair, the Jewish Fighting Organization, the Association of Veterans of the Armed Struggle against Fascism, and Hehalutz.

43   Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową”, p. 467.

44   Ibid., pp. 466-467.

45   Survey of the Committee of Polish Jews in Milanówek, no date. Quoted after: Skibińska, “Powroty ocalonych”, pp. 539-540.

46   Skibińska, “Powroty ocalonych”, p. 548.

47   Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową”, p. 452.

48   Circular of the Interministerial Committee for the Provision of Care to Persons Liberated from Nazi Camps, Lublin, 14 Feb. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 386; Meeting of the Council of Ministers, 19 Feb. 1945, AAN, URM 5/1097 (mcf. 23154).

49   Resolution of the Council of Ministers in the matter of care of returnees from Nazi camps, 26 May 1945, AAN, URM 5/1097 (mcf. 23154); Excerpt of minutes of the meeting of the Council of Ministers, 26 May 1945, AAN, MAP 2441 (mcf. B-47169); Official note regarding appointment of a Committee for the Provision of Assistance to Returnees Arriving from Germany, 30 May 1945, AAN, MPiOS 384.

50   Archives of the Jewish Historical Institute (AŻIH), Prezydium CKŻP 303/I/1-1b: Minutes of the meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, 30 May 1945; Minutes of the meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, 4 Jun. 1945.

51   Minutes of the meeting convened by the Governor of the Łódź Province in order to appoint a Coordinating Committee for the Provision of Care to Returnees Arriving from the West, 12 Jun. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 305.

52   Minutes of the meeting of the Provincial Coordinating Committee for the Provision of Care to Returnees Arriving from the West, Łódź, 19 Jun. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 306.

53   Minutes of the meeting to discuss provision of care to former prisoners, 23 Jun. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 384.

54   These figures seem slightly inflated, though it is likely that this period coincided with a wave of arrivals.

55   For more on this subject see: Grabski, Żydowski ruch kombatancki w Polsce.

56   Statute of the Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners of Nazi Prisons and Concentration Camps, Warszawa 1946, AAN, PZbWP 9.

57   Regulations of the GKW PZbWP, 21 Jun. 1946, AAN, PZbWP 28.

58   Instruction for vetting committees of local groups and branches of the PZbWP, 1 Dec. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 28.

59   Minutes of the meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, 3 Jan. 1946, AŻIH, CKŻP 303/I/2a.

60   Zygmunt J. to the ZG PZbWP, 25 May 1946, AAN, PZbWP 150.

61   Letter of the Kraków Branch of the PZbWP to the ZG PZbWP, 1 Jul. 1946, AAN, PZbWP 150.

62   Minutes of the general assembly of delegates of the Kraków Provincial Branch of the PZbWP, 23 Jun. 1946, AAN, PZbWP 143.

63   Letter of the Kraków Branch of the PZbWP to the ZG PZbWP, 1 Jul. 1946, AAN, PZbWP 150.

64   “Wykonawcy testamentu Goetha” (bem), Dziennik Bałtycki, 21 Sep. 1946.

65   Minutes of the extraordinary meeting of the Branch Executive Board (ZO) of the PZbWP in Gdańsk, 25 Sep. 1946, AAN, PZbWP 101.

66   Minutes of the meeting of the ZO PZbWP in Gdańsk, 14 Oct. 1946, AAN, PZbWP 101.

67   Zofia Mączka, Vetting Committee of the Kraków Branch of the PZbWP, to the GKW PZbWP, 9 Sep. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 151.

68   Leadership personnel list of the ZG PZbWP, no date (1947-1949), AAN, PZbWP 11. Before the war Bernard Borg had been a member of the Communist Party of Poland; during the occupation he had belonged to the Jewish Fighting Organization and the PPR, and had participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising; in the years 1943-1945 he had been imprisoned in Majdanek and Auschwitz. After the war he was a member of the PPR faction affiliated to the CKŻP. In 1945 he was chairman of the Warsaw Jewish Committee (KŻ). From 1946 a member of the ZG PZbWP. Information cited after: Grabski, Żydowski ruch kombatancki w Polsce, p. 177.

69   Report of the Jewish delegation to the FIAPP Congress on 3-6 Feb. 1946, AŻIH, CŻKH 3030/XX/35.

70   Minutes of the meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, 20 Jul. 1946, AŻIH, CKŻP 303/I/3a.

71   Minutes of the meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, 26 Jul. 1946, AŻIH, CKŻP 303/I/3a.

72   Text of Józef Sack’s speech, Biuletyn Żydowskiej Agencji Prasowej (BŻAP) 58/306, 20 Jun. 1947.

73   Segev, The seventh million. Cf. also: Friedländer, “Memory of the Shoah in Israel”, p. 151; Sznaider, “Nationalsozialismus und Zweiter Weltkrieg. Berichte zur Geschichte der Erinnerung—Israel”.

74   Marcuse, Legacies of Dachau, p. 266. On the subject of awareness of the Holocaust in the USA see, inter alia: Peter Novick, “Holocaust Memory in America” in The Art of Memory; idem, The Holocaust in American Life, Boston/NY 1999; Gulie Ne’eman Arad, “Nationalsozialismus und Zweiter Weltkrieg. Berichte zur Geschichte der Erinnerung—USA”, in Verbrechen erinnern.

75   Lagrou, The Legacy of Nazi Occupation, p. 252.

76   Ibid., p. 254.

77   More on the subject of the establishment and work of the CŻKH has been written by: Natalia Aleksiun, “Reconstructing History and Rescuing Memory: The Central Jewish Historical Commission in Poland, 1944–1947”, Polin 20 (2008), passim; Stephan Stach, “Geschichtsschreibung und politische Vereinnahmung. Das Jüdische Historische Institut in Warschau 1947-1968” in Simon Dubnow Institute Yearbook 7 (2008), pp. 402-410.

78   Minutes of the organisational meeting of the Association of the Friends of the Historical Commission in Kraków, 24 Aug. 1945, AŻIH, CŻKH 336/151.

79   Minutes of the CŻKH’s second strategy meeting, 19-20 Sep. 1945, AŻIH, CŻKH 3030/XX/12.

80   Foreword to Dokumenty zbrodni i męczeństwa, Michał Borwicz, Nella Rost and Józef Wulf (eds), Kraków 1945, pp. X, XV; Friedman, Preface to Dokumenty i materiały, Vol. I (Obozy), compiled by Nachman Blumental, Łódź 1946, p. I; Nachman Blumental, “Żydowska ekspertyza w procesie Hoessa (Fragment wystąpienia przed Najwyższym Trybunałem Narodowym)”, Nasze Słowo, 31 Mar. 1947.

81   Michał Borwicz, Foreword to Ruch podziemny w ghettach i obozach. Materiały i dokumenty, Betti Ajzensztajn (ed.), Warszawa–Łódź–Kraków 1946, p. VIII.

82   Nachman Blumental, “Teoria zagłady narodów (Fragment ekspertyzy Blumentala przygotowanej na proces załogi oświęcimskiej)”, Nasze Słowo, 19 Dec. 1947.

83   “Na posterunku. 40 z Oświęcimia”, Nasze Słowo, 1 Dec. 1947.

84   Minutes of the CŻKH’s second strategy meeting, 19-20 Sep. 1945, AŻIH, CŻKH 3030/XX/12.

85   Borwicz, Foreword to Ruch podziemny w ghettach i obozach, pp. VII-VIII.

86   Text of Józef Sack’s speech, BŻAP 58/306, 20 Jun. 1947.

87   Nachman Blumental, “Obozy niemieckie w Polsce w latach 1939-1945” in Dokumenty i materiały, Vol. I (Obozy), pp. 7-8.

88   Ibid., p. 4.

89   Friedman, Preface to Dokumenty i materiały, Vol. I (Obozy), pp. I-V.

90   This was the cryptonym used to refer to the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jewish population of the General Government (1941-1943). Among the “Operation Reinhard” camps were Sobibór, Treblinka II, and Bełżec (Akcja Reinhardt. Zagłada Żydów w Generalnym Gubernatorstwie, edited by Dariusz Libionka, Warszawa 2004).

91   Blumental, “Obozy niemieckie w Polsce”, p. 5.

92   Ibid., p. 4.

93   Dokumenty i materiały, Vol. I (Obozy).

94   Natalia Aleksiun, “Organizing for Justice: Jewish Leadership in Poland and the Trial of the Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg” in Johannes-Dieter Steinert and Inge Weber-Newth (eds) Beyond Camps and Forced Labour: Current International Research on Survivors of Nazi Persecution. Proceedings of the International Conference 2006, Osnabrück 2008.

95   According to the most recent studies, a total of 1-1.5 million people perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau; estimates from the 1940s were close to four million, and on occasion even six million victims. See: Franciszek Piper, Ilu ludzi zginęło w KL Auschwitz. Liczba ofiar w świetle źródeł i badań 1945-1990, Oświęcim 1992; idem, “Weryfikacja strat osobowych w obozie koncentracyjnym w Oświęcimiu”, Dzieje Najnowsze 26, 2 (1994).

96   Report on the organisational meeting of the Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Auschwitz held in Kraków on 29 Mar. 1945, letter dated 31 Mar. 1945, AŻIH, CŻKH 336/33. The letter is not signed, but from the context we may deduce that its author must have been Leon Kupferberg, the chairman of the Kraków Jewish Committee. The author is referring to the audience that was the founding conference of the United Nations Organization (UN), which was held in San Francisco in April-June 1945. Ultimately, the Provisional Government did not attend the conference. Nevertheless, Poland was one of the 51 founder states to ratify the UN Charter on 15 October 1945.

97   Filip Friedman, To jest Oświęcim, Warszawa 1945.

98   Ibid., p. 86.

99   Ibid., p. 12.

100 Ibid., p. 25.

101 Filip Friedman, This was Oswiecim: the Story of a Murder Camp, London 1946.

102 Report on the work of the Kraków Branch of the GKBZNwP “from the beginning of its existence until today”, signed by Jan Sehn and Edward Pęchalski, 18 Dec. 1945; text entitled: “Do Prezydium KRN. Pierwsze sprawozdanie miesięczne GKBZNwP”, no date, signed by Jerzy Kornacki and Stanisław Janusz. Quoted after: Główna Komisja Badania Zbrodni Niemieckich w Polsce i jej oddziały terenowe w 1945 roku. Wybór dokumentów, Mieczysław Motas (ed.), Warszawa 1995, pp. 28-31, 81-93.

103 Jan Sehn, “Obóz zagłady Oświęcim”, Biuletyn Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Niemieckich w Polsce 1 (1946), p. 79.

104 Ibid., pp. 80, 83, 120.

105 “Sentencja wyroku w sprawie Rudolfa Hössa” (2 Apr. 1947) in Tadeusz Cyprian and Jerzy Sawicki (eds), Siedem procesów przed Najwyższym Trybunałem Narodowym, Warszawa 1962, pp. 113-114.

106 Ibid., pp. 115-116.

107 Ibid., p. 118.

108 Ibid., p. 117.

109 Ibid., p. 113.

110 Józef Cyrankiewicz, “O Oświęcimiu walczącym (głos J. Cyrankiewicza—świadka w procesie Hössa)”, Polska 11 (1964), p. 16.

111 Blumental probably had in mind here Master Plan East (Generalplan Ost), a plan devised during the war by the Reich Main Security Office (Reichsicherheitshauptamt, RSHA).

112 Blumental, “Żydowska ekspertyza w procesie Hoessa (Fragment wystąpienia przed NTN)”, Nasze Słowo, 31 Mar. 1947.

113 Minutes of the meeting of CKŻKH employees, 21 Mar. 1947, AŻIH, CŻKH 3030/XX/14.

114 “Do Towarzyszy z obozów koncentracyjnych”, Wolni Ludzie, March 1947.

115 “Z naszej perspektywy. Nie wolno przejść obok niej obojętnie”, Wolni Ludzie, 15 Jul. 1947.

116 Alina Cała, Wizerunek Żyda w polskiej kulturze ludowej, Warszawa 1987.

117 Friedrich, Der nationalsozialistische Judenmord in polnischen Augen, p. 687.

118 Memorandum of former prisoners of the Auschwitz Camp regarding the safeguarding of the site, 13 Nov. 1945, AAN, MKiS, CZM, Wydz. Muzeów i Pomników Walki z Fa–szyzmem 19B.

119 “Oświęcim—obóz zagłady”, Nasze Słowo, 18 Mar. 1947.

120 Ibid.

121 “Kat Oświęcimia Hoess w Warszawie”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Mar. 1947.

122 “Przed rozprawą Oświęcimską”, Wolni Ludzie, 15 Nov. 1947; “Polska karze katów Oświęcimia”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Dec. 1947.

123 The camp reception building. This building was not completed until late summer 1944, and it is probable that only one transport of prisoners ever passed through it—Polish civilians from the Warsaw Uprising (Auschwitz 1940-1945, Vol. I, p. 60).

124 Ewa Śliwińska, “Perspektywa i uroczystość”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Jul. 1947.

125 “Sentencja wyroku w procesie przeciwko członkom załogi oświęcimskiej” (22 Dec. 1947) in Siedem procesów przed Najwyższym Trybunałem Narodowym, p. 183.

126 One source of the confusion was the lack of clarity as to the number of victims of Auschwitz. According to the findings of the Soviet Commission for the Investigation of Crimes in Auschwitz, the camp was to have claimed some four million human lives (“Miejsce kaźni czterech milionów ludzi. Wyniki nadzwyczajnej komisji do badań zbrodni niemieckich w Oświęcimiu”, Życie Warszawy, 9 May 1945). As a witness in the Nuremberg Trials, Rudolf Höss testified that in all, around three million people perished in Auschwitz, 2.5 million of them by gassing and 0.5 million due to exhaustion. During his trial before the Supreme National Tribunal (NTN), the accused revised this figure, claiming that no more than around 1.1 million people could have died in the camp. These data are similar to the estimates given by the expert witness Nachman Blumental, who claimed that the number of Jews murdered in Auschwitz could have been around 1.5 million. Ultimately, the NTN found Höss guilty of the deaths of at least 2.8 million people, including around 300,000 incarcerated in the camp as prisoners and at least 2.5 million “largely Jews taken to Auschwitz in transports from various countries in Europe for the purpose of immediate extermination”; the figure of 3-4 million victims was given as having “all the attributes of possibility”. In spite of this, in Poland, it was the old, inflated figure of four million murdered that took root. While authors such as Filip Friedman and Jan Sehn articulated clearly that, irrespective of the actual number of Auschwitz victims, the vast majority of them must have been Jews, in later periods this inflated figure often led to distortions regarding the identities of the victims. On this subject see: Piper, Ilu ludzi zginęło w KL Auschwitz, pp. 30-60; idem, “Weryfikacja strat osobowych w obozie koncentracyjnym w Oświęcimiu”; Kucia, Auschwitz jako fakt społeczny, pp. 148-156.

127 Planning principles of the museum in the former concentration camp at Auschwitz, no date (probably spring-summer 1947), AAN, PZbWP 13. Cf. also: “Oświęcim w krwi i walce”.

128 “Sentencja wyroku w procesie przeciwko członkom załogi oświęcimskiej” in Siedem procesów przed Najwyższym Trybunałem Narodowym, pp. 191-192.

129 “Polska karze katów Oświęcimia”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Dec. 1947.

130 “Na posterunku. 40 z Oświęcimia”, Nasze Słowo, 1 Dec. 1947.

131 Mieczysław Kieta, “Krakowska Norymberga”, Wolni Ludzie, 15 Jan. 1948.

132 Paper by Tadeusz Hołuj for delivery as part of the touring exhibition “Zagłada czy pokój?”, 1949, AAN, MKiS, CZM, Wydz. Muzeów i Pomników Walki z Faszyzmem 72.

133 Lagrou writes: “There may have been an ideological hegemony assimilating various experiences to the holistic martyrdom, but this was at the same time what many of the Jewish victims who actively adhered to the anti-fascist paradigm needed at the moment. Antifascism as a ‘universalizing’ device offered a generous and heroic interpretation. For individuals who had barely survived inconceivable suffering, the identification with antifascism was a means of overcoming the appallingly arbitrary affliction that had hit them, a way to take possession of their own destiny, a retrospective revenge on the inhuman enemy.” (The Legacy of Nazi Occupation, p. 260). Cf. also: Bachmann, Długi cień Trzeciej Rzeszy, p. 112.

134 Grabski, Żydowski ruch kombatancki, passim.

135 From the speech made by Hersz Smolar at the ZŻUWZzF provincial congress on 10 March 1947 in Wrocław. Quoted after: Grabski, Żydowski ruch kombatancki, p. 82.

136 Ibid.

137 Report of the Jewish delegation to the FIAPP Congress on 3-6 Feb. 1946, AŻIH, CŻKH 3030/XX/35.

138 See, inter alia: Ruch podziemny w ghettach i obozach; Michał M. Borwicz, Uniwersytet zbirów, Kraków 1946; Gusta Dawidsohn-Draengerowa, Pamiętnik Justyny, Kraków 1946; Józef Kermisz, Powstanie w getcie warszawskim, Łódź 1946.

139 Rachela Auerbach, “Dlaczego tak późno?”, Nasze Słowo, 19 Apr. 1947.

140 Cf. The speech by Hersz Smolar at the ZŻUWZzF provincial congress on 10 March 1947 in Wrocław. Cited after: Grabski, Żydowski ruch kombatancki w Polsce, p. 82.

141 Points to be made in an article and speech entitled: “II rocznica powstania w getcie warszawskim”, no date. Quoted after: Grabski, Żydowski ruch kombatancki w Polsce, p. 196.

142 Borwicz, Foreword to Ruch podziemny w ghettach i obozach, p. XV.

143 Ibid., p. XI.

144 Ibid., p. XII.

145 Ibid., p. IX.

146 Rachela Auerbach, “Dlaczego tak późno?”, Nasze Słowo, 19 Apr. 1947.

147 Ajzensztajn, “Tło” in Ruch podziemny w ghettach i obozach, p. 25.

148 Borwicz, Foreword to Ruch podziemny w ghettach i obozach, p. X.

149 Borwicz, Uniwersytet zbirów, pp. 65-67.

150 See, inter alia: “Sentencja wyroku w sprawie Rudolfa Hössa” in Siedem procesów przed Najwyższym Trybunałem Narodowym; “Sentencja wyroku w procesie przeciwko członkom załogi oświęcimskiej” in ibid.; “Obozy zagłady, obozy koncentracyjne i obozy pracy na ziemiach polskich w latach 1939-1945”; “Zagłada Żydów polskich w latach 1939-1945”; “Obóz zagłady Chełmno”; “Obóz zagłady w Sobiborze”; “Obóz koncentracyjny Stutthof”; “Obóz zagłady Oświęcim”.

151 “Obóz zagłady Oświęcim”, pp. 78, 83.

152 See, inter alia: Krystyna Walska, “Jak królowa cygańska tańczyła w Oświęcimiu”, Wolni Ludzie, 15 Sep. 1947.

153 Jerzy Ficowski, “Ogłoszenie z prośbą o nadsyłanie materiałów dot. zagłady Cyganów 1939-1945”, Wolni Ludzie, 7-15 Jun. 1949. On the subject of the extermination of the Gypsies in Poland, see also: Mróz, “Niepamięć nie jest zapomnieniem. Cyganie-Romowie a Holokaust”, Przegląd Socjologiczny, Vol. 49, 2 (2000).

154 “Do Towarzyszy z obozów koncentracyjnych”.

155 “Obóz zagłady Oświęcim”, pp. 92-94.

156 “Sentencja wyroku w procesie przeciwko członkom załogi oświęcimskiej” in Siedem procesów przed Najwyższym Trybunałem Narodowym, p. 184.

157 See, inter alia: “Nowy skandal w relacjach polsko-rosyjskich?”, Gazeta Wyborcza, 15 Jun. 2007, published online:,74655,4034452.html (3 Apr. 2007); “Rosyjski MSZ protestuje przeciwko zamknięciu wystawy”, Gazeta Wyborcza, 15 Jun. 2007, published online:,34248,4036030.html (3 Apr. 2007); “Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau: Polska nie zamknęła wystawy rosyjskiej”, Gazeta Wyborcza, 15 Jun. 2007, published online:,53600,4035307.html (3 Apr. 2007).

158 In January 2010 a temporary Russian exhibition was opened in the State Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau devoted to the liberation of the camp. It is to form part of a future permanent Russian national exhibition. The display was prepared by the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, commissioned by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. Published online: (27 Jan. 2010)

159 Peter Black, “Prosty żołnierz akcji ‘Reinhardt’. Oddział z Trawnik i eksterminacja polskich Żydów” in Akcja Reinhardt. Zagłada Żydów w Generalnym Gubernatorstwie.

160 On the subject of the Polish-Ukrainian conflict during the war and in the immediate post-war period see, inter alia: Grzegorz Motyka, Tak było w Bieszczadach. Walki polsko-ukraińskie 1943-1948, Warszawa 1999.