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rescued Jews Holocaust

Norman Davies (Introduction) Partner

How Poles rescued Jews from the Holocaust

[...] NOR SHOULD WE MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING that the names recorded at Yad Vashem provide the final reckoning. The Israeli authorities can only honor the names which have been reported to them and which have passed a stringent test of verification. Many others must have played a part about which we know nothing: people who sheltered a Jewish family for only two or three days, even though the danger was at its height; people who were killed in retribution by the Nazis together with their Jewish guests, leaving no trace; and people who did their duty during the war and then kept their silence. So here is another distinction. There are ’righteous Poles’, who are known to Yad Vashem, and others whose names are known only to God.

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www.rosikonpress.com

Introduction

Norman Davies


Introduction Norman Davies No one in their right mind can characterize the history of Polish-Jewish Relations as either simple or painless. Heartening magnanimity and senseless hostility can be found on both sides of the equation, and it is not possible to think of the subject as uniformly good or overwhelmingly bad. Yet two plain facts are undeniable. Firstly, for many centuries, the historic Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania was the only major country in Europe where Jews were welcome and settled in large numbers. The statute of King Casimir the Great (sixteenth century) was issued in a long period when Jews were banned from England, France, Germany, and Russia, and would soon be expelled from Spain. As a result, roughly eighty per cent of Jewish families alive today can trace their origins to the old Rzeczpospolita, to which they owe a debt of gratitude. Secondly, during World War II, the largest number of people, who risked their lives to rescue Jews, a group under collective sentence of death, were Poles, thereby earning the title of ‘Righteous Among Nations.’ The Avenue of the Righteous at Israel’s national memorial centre, at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, displays more Polish names than those of any other nationality. This should not be entirely unexpected. The Nazis mainly perpetrated the Holocaust in occupied Poland, building German concentration camps and killing centers in Polish towns and villages, for the simple reason that Poland sheltered the largest Jewish community in Europe. As a result, through no fault of their own, it was Poles who were most frequently faced with the terrible moral dilemma: whether to assist their Jewish neighbors in distress or to do nothing. To their great credit, a substantial body of Poles responded positively.

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the Righteous!

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So what has caused the complications? One set of problems arose from the circumstance that ‘Jewishness’ had no clear definition. Traditionally, Jews saw themselves, (and were seen by others) as a religious community: to be Jewish was to be an adherent of Judaism. Yet in the nineteenth century the old barriers increasingly broke down. Leaders of the Haskalah or ‘Jewish Enlightenment’ encouraged their followers to assimilate; to break out of their social isolation; to adopt the dress, manners, names and language and of the majority – usually, German, Russian or Polish; – and to practice their religion discreetly, as an issue of private choice. In this way, a substantial body of people emerged who regarded themselves as ‘Poles of the Mosaic faith.’ But many went further, casting their Jewish roots aside completely and adopting not just the Polish language but Roman Catholicism as well. After two or three generations, the descendants of these converts became virtually invisible, though sometimes describing themselves as ‘Poles of Jewish descent.’ In due course, yet another grouping made its appearance, especially among the intelligentsia and among people of socialist political persuasion. Men and women, who had rejected the religious practices of their families, whether Catholic or Jewish, were free to intermarry and to create a Polish-speaking but entirely secular community. Their attitude toward ‘Polishness’ and ‘Jewishness’ covered a wide spectrum. Those among them who retained a residual Jewish identity but no allegiance to Judaism or to traditional Jewish customs, were memorably classified by Polish writer, journalist, and political activist, Isaac Deutscher as ‘non-Jewish Jews.’ During the German occupation of Poland, however, all these fine distinctions lost their significance. The Nazis arrived in 1939 with their own pseudo-racial definition of ‘Jewishness.’ They believed in the totally unscientific concept of ‘Jewish blood,’ and feared the ‘contamination’ of so-called ‘Aryan blood.’ They decreed, therefore, that any person, who possessed even one single Jewish ancestor within three generations was to be classified as Jewish and was subject to extermination. They had no interest in their victims’ language or religion or self-identity. As a result, the millions that they killed during their ‘Final Solution’ included both people who accepted that they were Jewish and others who did not. In the Nazi-built Warsaw Ghetto, a whole district was reserved for Polish Catholics whom the Nazis had classed


the Righteous!

The first street round-up (so-called łapanka) was carried out by the Germans in Warsaw on May 8, 1940. More than a thousand Poles were caught and taken to concentration camps in Germany. Many never returned home. With time, the practice became common in the largest towns of the General Government. Poles were usually taken to Germany for forced labor. Altogether some two million people went to work in the Reich during the entire occupation. Victims of round-ups could end up in concentration camps or be executed as hostages in retaliation for insurgent action. If I had come to the Führer and said: ‘Mein Führer, I would like to report that I liquidated 150,000 Poles more,’ he would have said: ‘Fine, if necessary.’ General Governor Hans Frank speaking in Rzeszów,

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March 16, 1944


Inmates of KL Auschwitz lost their names, becoming a number instead. Different symbols on their concentration camp stripes signified their belonging to specific classes of enemies of the German Reich.

The General Government was different from the lands directly incorporated into the Reich in that it retained certain institutions where Polish was still used: the internal revenue office, the lower courts, municipal and communal administration, police. Primary schools with four grades were open, although banned from teaching history and geography. Charities were active, such as the Polish Red Cross and the Central Welfare Council. All pre-war state businesses became the property of the German Reich, whereas private factories and large farms were assigned German stewards. Polish periodicals were closed, but tabloids continued to be published, entirely subordinated to Nazi propaganda. Theaters with a dramatic repertoire were shut down, but small theaters were allowed to present a semi-pornographic repertoire. The objective was to stupefy the local populace with cheap entertainment, effectively dampening all higher aspirations.

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the Righteous!

(November), finally Kraków, Lublin, Radom (March–April of this year) and smaller towns. There are three kinds of ghettoes: completely closed (Łódź), partly open (e.g. Warsaw, passes for entry and exit), and open (a few smaller towns).

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The author of the text in Biuletyn Informacyjny pointed to the outrageous scale of plundering of Jewish property by the Germans. He also wondered what the third stage of the ‘Jewish solution’ would be like. He anticipated “gradual dying from poverty, hunger and contagious diseases.” He did not expect that a nation believing itself to be an advocate of high culture (Kulturträger) would permit genocide organized like an industry on a mass scale. Every Jew that we catch will be exterminated without exception. If we fail to destroy the biological foundation of Jewry now, then Jews will one day destroy the German nation. Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler To the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp commander Rudolf Höss, 1941

The German march east left more than a million Jews under their rule. This meant a dramatic change in the plight of the Jewish population living in areas now controlled by Germans. Special SS units followed in the wake of the Wehrmacht. These Einsatzgruppen (special units) mass murdered Jewish civilians, killing also Roms, prisoners-of-war, and communist party members.


The victims were driven to special places, usually in the forest far from any houses, and shot. The bodies were buried in pits in the ground. Many Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Bessarabian and Baltic Jews were exterminated in this way. Local collaborators were some-

Selling armbands in the Warsaw ghetto. In territories administered by the Germans, Jews over the age of ten were obliged to wear an armband with the Star of David emblazoned on it.

times used to help in the killing. In conquered Soviet territory, the biggest murder by the Germans took place in the Babi Jar gorge near Kiev. About thirty three thousand Jews died there. It is calculated that by the end of 1941, the Germans had murdered about a million Jews east of the Ribbentrop–Molotov line of 1939. In the eastern borderlands of the Republic of Poland, which were incorporated into the Soviet Union in the fourth partition, the Germans

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the Righteous!

The historical exhibition ’Bełżec death camp’ commemorates the victims of Germans genocide in this place.

julia pępiak died in 1971. She was honored posthumously in 2000 with a ‘Righteous among the Nations of the World’ medal.

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guards arrived in the Bełżec death camp after special training at Trawniki.

How Poles rescued Jews from the Holocaust

The war was coming to an end and the frontline was moving east toward Bełżec. Julia decided to celebrate with a festive lunch, which her wards could eat in peace, because Julia knew the Gestapo’s schedule. When they left for work, she laid the table sumptuously and brought the mother and daughter from their hiding place. Just then one of the Germans came back. He banged on the window, shouting to be let in. She told the Jews to get in bed and covered them with the bedclothes. The German reeled inside a little drunk. He asked Julia to go buy him some vodka, while he took a nap. He headed for the bed and Julia, frightened, started to pray fervently. Just then gunshots were heard outside. The German sobered up immediately, cursed, drew his gun and ran out of the house. Seconds had separated Julia, her family and the two Jewesses from death. They all survived.

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of three hundred seventy-five thousand people, was sentenced to four and a half years in jail. He was paroled for good behavior after two years.

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Right after the victims were unloaded from the train we were gathered in a courtyard surrounded by soldiers and here Fritz Irman gave a speech. The silence was heavy, everyone wanted to hear, we suddenly had hope: ‘If they are talking to us, then perhaps we shall live, perhaps there will be labor, perhaps.’.. Irman spoke loudly and distinctly: now you shall bathe and then we will send you to work … It was a moment of hope and illusion … Everything was completely quiet. The crowds walked on in complete silence, the men through the courtyard to a building, which had ‘Baths and inhalation’ written on it in big letters … I heard the doors slide shut, moaning and shouting, I heard hopeless crying,

TURKEY


in Polish, Yiddish, blood-curdling lamenting of women and children, then one common terrifying scream. It lasted about fifteen minutes – the machine went on for twenty minutes and after twenty minutes everything was silent again. From the memoirs of Jewish entrepreneur Rudolf Reder, Bełżec, Kraków 1946

The decision to exterminate the Jewish population was taken at the highest echelons of German power. The operation described as the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’ was managed by the Reich Security Head Office (RSHA), of which Obergrupenführer SS Reinhard Heydrich was chief. Acting in his name was Obersturmbannführer SS Adolf Eichmann. The objective of the so-called Action Reinhardt was to liquidate all individuals of Jewish nationality or considered as such.

Cement tokens with numbers, presumably ‘receipts’ for deposits of valuable goods left by the Bełżec victims before being gassed in the gas chambers. Discovered during archaeological excavations in 1997–2000.


Memorial Site – a place of commemoration in Bełżec, established in 2004 at the former death camp.


rescued Jews Holocaust

Norman Davies (Introduction) Partner

How Poles rescued Jews from the Holocaust

[...] NOR SHOULD WE MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING that the names recorded at Yad Vashem provide the final reckoning. The Israeli authorities can only honor the names which have been reported to them and which have passed a stringent test of verification. Many others must have played a part about which we know nothing: people who sheltered a Jewish family for only two or three days, even though the danger was at its height; people who were killed in retribution by the Nazis together with their Jewish guests, leaving no trace; and people who did their duty during the war and then kept their silence. So here is another distinction. There are ’righteous Poles’, who are known to Yad Vashem, and others whose names are known only to God.

Righteous!

The

J a nus z Ro s i ko ń

s u o e t ! Righ

The

H o w P o l e s f r o m t h e

Grzegorz Górny

!

s u o e t h g i R the

G r z e go r z G ó r ny

ws e J d e u c s re How Poles ust a c o l o H e from th

www.rosikonpress.com

Introduction

Norman Davies

The Righteous! How Poles rescued Jews from the Holocaust  

[...] NOR SHOULD WE MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING that the names recorded at Yad Vashem provide the final reckoning. The Israeli authorities...

The Righteous! How Poles rescued Jews from the Holocaust  

[...] NOR SHOULD WE MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING that the names recorded at Yad Vashem provide the final reckoning. The Israeli authorities...

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