There are far more than six million stories in the Holocaust.
There are the stories of the Jews murdered by the Germans; there are the stories of those who ultimately escaped; there are the stories of those who took part in the murders, and those who stood by. There is, in short, plenty for historians to study, each focusing on a small but manageable piece of a larger, horrible jigsaw puzzle.
Dr. Katarzyna Person, 40, is one such historian. She grew up in Warsaw, shortly after the formation of the Polish Solidarity trade union sparked the process that would lead to the collapse of the Soviet empire and its concomitant silencing of Jewish memory and history in the name of its Communist ideology.
“I grew up surrounded by history and those stories,” Dr. Person said. “I wanted to keep pressing at that story and learn more.”
On Sunday, February 13, Dr. Person will talk about some of what she has learned for the inaugural program of “What Is the Holocaust Today,” an online series from Yeshiva University’s Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. (See box.)
After studying journalism at the University of Warsaw, where she lives today, Dr. Person earned a doctorate in history at the University of London. Her research there is recorded in her 2014 book, “Assimilated Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1940-1943.”
In prewar Poland, assimilation for Jews meant at the least speaking Polish as their primary language, and at the most outright baptism and conversion to Christianity. In the 1931 Polish census, only 12 percent of the country’s more than 3 million Jews reported Polish as their primary language.
Of course, speaking Polish didn’t spare Jews living in the Warsaw district from being forced into the Warsaw Ghetto after the occupying Nazis set it up in 1940. Neither did having pledged fealty to the Catholic Church, or even being born to Jewish parents who had converted.
So what was it like for these Jews who had thought of themselves as Polish citizens — or even Christians — to be thrust into this very Jewish situation?
Dr. Person is able to answer that question because of an incredible historical project conducted by the ghetto’s doomed Jewish leaders. Emanuel Ringelblum, who had been a researcher for YIVO and an administrator for the Joint Distribution Committee, oversaw a secret project to preserve records of Jewish life under German occupation. From September 1939 through January 1943, his team — known as Oyneg Shabbos — gathered some 35,000 pages of documents, testimonies, and even theater posters, and buried them in milk cans and metal boxes, which were recovered after the war. Dr. Person works at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, where she is part of the team editing, translating, and digitizing these materials, a fraction of which have served as the raw material for that first book and the volume that came out last year in English translation, “Warsaw Ghetto Police: The Jewish Order Service during the Nazi Occupation.”
The documents produced and preserved by Oyneg Shabbos “are fascinating,” Dr. Person said. “They wanted to show the whole complexity of social life. They gathered a lot of oral histories. They looked extensively at the experiences of women and children. It’s a very modern way of writing and documenting history.”
And in that history she found the stories of the ghetto’s small subculture of Polish-speakers — assimilated Jews and Christians of Jewish origin. The Polish-speaking inmates of the ghetto were a minority — but there were enough of them to support Polish-language theaters as well as two Catholic churches, “which were an important community building place for them.”
And because they were disproportionately likely to be well educated and have strong professional backgrounds, the Polish-speaking Jews became leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto community. They might be a director of a hospital, or a high-level doctor, or people in the Jewish administration. They became part of the ghetto elite.
But these assimilated Jews did not have it easy.
“It was difficult for them because they were in a completely new environment,” Dr. Person said. “They felt rejected by the non-Jewish Poles who they did not have any contact with anymore. In the ghetto, they very much remained in their own circles. They created their own little island within the ghetto, where they were often trying to escape the reality by holding on to their Polish identity.”
Her subsequent study of the ghetto’s Jewish police flowed from her focus on the assimilated community, because in the aftermath of the war, “there was a strong opinion that the Jewish police force was composed of people who were strongly assimilated and did not have links to their community, and that’s why they acted as they did.”
Those actions involved carrying out the decrees of the German rulers — whether providing cruel punishments or participating in the deportations to the death camps.
“They were part of the gray zone of people considered to be collaborators after the war who acted against their community,” she said. In this, they were very similar to the kapos who played that role in the concentration and death camps. “They were deeply hated after the war.”
But that’s not how the ghetto police started off.
“To begin with, it was an order-keeping organization,” Dr. Person said. “It replaced the Polish police. A large number of people who joined as volunteers were young lawyers, people with a legal background.”
As the Germans tightened the screws on the ghetto’s inhabitants, they also increased the pressure on the police. “Gradually it becomes more corrupt and brutal. The Germans imposed more and more brutal tasks, such as taking people to labor camps or participating in executions. More and more duties involved the use of force.”
When this happened, “the ghetto community turns against them and sees them as foreign, not as part of the Jewish community. Once deportations begin in July 1942 and they are tasked with bringing people to the trains, the hatred becomes even stronger. The first armed actions of the Jewish underground in Warsaw are aimed against Jewish policemen, not the Germans.”
In carrying out the deportations to Treblinka — within a month word reached the ghetto that the deportees were doomed, though most in the ghetto were unable to believe it — the Jewish police were party to a corrupt bargain imposed by their German masters. If they cooperated, they and their wives and children would be spared.
For Dr. Person, this is a lesson that “you can never assume how you will react in different circumstances. When you read their life stories, they are just law students or young professionals whose lives would have turned out quite differently if not for the war. And they are put in a spot where they have to make a choiceless choice, choosing between their families and others.”
One thing that surprised her in her research “is how quickly their lives change under the brutality of things they carry out once they join the police. How quickly they are alienated from the community they were part of before the war. They still sleep in their own beds, but they become rejected by their community.”
Those who survived the war faced persecution from other Jews. Some were tried in Jewish courts in Poland and Displaced Persons camps, and in state trials in Israel in the 1950s.
“A lot of them volunteered to stand in front of the court in order to clear their names,” she said. “They went through rehabilitation trials to remain part of the community.”
This postwar reaction is the center of her next project, about “the postwar search for justice, how people after the war came back with the need to get some sort of justice, and how they cope with the inability to get any sort of justice or peace or retribution, and how they were able to rebuild their lives without it. It based on the Jewish honor courts to a large degree and Jewish cases of crimes against Jews in Polish state courts, as well as Jews who were witnesses in Nazi trials.
“It’s very sad,” Dr. Person said. “All of it is very sad. But the more you learn, the more you want to tell. You just want to give justice to them and to their memory.”
What: Lecture by Dr. Katarzyna Person on her book, “Warsaw Ghetto Police: The Jewish Order Service During the Nazi Occupation,” followed by a panel discussion featuring three other scholars of Polish-Jewish history: Dr. Natalia Aleksiun of Touro College, Dr. Glenn Dynner of Sarah Lawrence College, and Dr. Joshua Zimmerman of YU.
When: Sunday, February 13, at 4 p.m.
Where: Online, on Zoom, at www.yu.edu/fish-center/events
Presented by: The Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Yeshiva University