When Jewish and non-Jewish Poles and their descendants talk about World War II, it often seems as if they are talking about two entirely different nightmares.
The Jews talk about Polish anti-Semitism, about forced marches and death camps, about brutality and ignorance-fueled hatred and death. More than three million Polish Jews died during the Holocaust. The Jews made up about 10 percent of Poland’s population — about 34 million people — in 1939; by 1945, about 90 percent of them were dead.
The Poles, on the other hand, talk about their own suffering during the war. That suffering was real. Original estimates said that about 3 million non-Jewish Poles died during the war; that estimate is now closer to 2.1 million, but that is undeniably a huge number of people, representing massive amounts of agony, fear, and loss.
“What originally drew me to the topic, about 10 years ago, was this extraordinary gap between Jewish and Polish understanding of the same event,” Joshua Zimmerman said. Dr. Zimmerman is a professor of history at Yeshiva University whose interest in the subject resulted in “The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945,” the 2015 book that he will discuss at the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah on Wednesday, March 9, at 7 p.m.
“From the Polish point of view, the general consensus is that the Polish underground were martyrs and heroes of freedom who fought the Nazis, in alliance with Western democracies, for the defeat of Germany,” Dr. Zimmerman said. “The Polish underground suffered many losses, and its sacrifices were for defending freedom.” Because Poland went straight from submission to the Nazis to submission to the Soviet Union, Poles felt the burden of those sacrifices even more deeply.
“There was a complete lack of communication between the two groups, Jews and Poles,” Dr. Zimmerman said. Among Jews, the strong feelings usually are based on family stories, “but when you go to Poland, you realize that almost everyone there, too, had a story, about an uncle, a grandfather, a grandmother who perished in World War II. Poles don’t use the word Holocaust. They call it the Catastrophe” — and yes, there is an ironic verbal echo of the Naqbah, as Palestinians call the time during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence when their ancestors left the land that became Israel.
Dr. Zimmerman is “a third-generation American Jew with no known ancestors who perished in the Holocaust,” he said. He had grown up knowing that the Germans were responsible for the Final Solution, but he hadn’t thought much about Poles. Therefore, although he certainly knew that Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust often had strong negative feelings toward non-Jewish Poles, based on historic experience, he did not grow up feeling its full force. “Then I met a Holocaust survivor who basically said to me that the Poles were worse than the Germans, and this idea recurred. I have spoken to dozens of survivors, and often their view is that anti-Semitism was endemic among Poles; that if Jews could flee the ghettos or the camps, the Poles outside would be as dangerous to them as the Germans inside.”
Dr. Zimmerman’s undergraduate degree comes from the University of California at Santa Cruz; he earned his master’s degree at UCLA and his Ph.D. at Brandeis. As an undergraduate, “I first met Polish people, in chance encounters, and I found that this Jewish perception of Poles was shocking to them. They had never even heard of it.
“They had never heard of the idea that Poles were anti-Semitic.”
“I understood fairly soon that Poles thought that the Holocaust was a German idea. The Poles had nothing to do with it. The Germans conceived of the plan to destroy European Jews, and they implemented it. The fact that this took place in Poland was only because Poland was where the Jews lived.
“There is no bridge between these two points of view.”
Dr. Zimmerman decided to learn more about the Jews and the Poles during the Holocaust, focusing on the partisans. “I wondered if, when Germany occupied Poland and decimated the country and was persecuting Poles, and there were Polish partisans fighting the Germans, if at least some of the Polish partisans didn’t see these young Jewish men and women as partners in arms because they shared a common enemy.
“The idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend makes sense, so were Polish partisans pursuing Jews? And if they were, why were they?”
He learned Polish. “I studied more about Polish history,” he said. And he listened to people tell their families’ stories. “In order to understand a person’s point of view, if you want to be empathetic, you have to listen to their stories.” He learned that “Poles suffered during World War II on a scale I had never understood before.
“They also started telling me stories of Poles who had saved Jews. Those were stories they grew up with. There was such a huge gap between the Jewish point of view that anti-Semitism was endemic and the Polish point of view that they were freedom fighters, who whenever they could helped the Jews.”
In 2004, Dr. Zimmerman, who had won a Fulbright award that funded his work, started to work with Polish-language archival materials. “I came to understand that nobody actually had written a scholarly monograph on the topic,” he said. That put him in the kind of position that historians dream of — he was able to do groundbreaking work on a subject of genuine historical importance.
“There is a massive literature on the Polish underground, and the Jews are literally absent, or mentioned briefly, in a paragraph or a sentence,” he said. “One said something about given the brutal conditions of the German occupation, only limited aid could be given to the Jews, but when it was possible, the Poles provided them with arms and health care.”
The documents made the brutal situation clear. “The Polish government had collapsed; there was no Polish administrative entity whatsoever, the Poles were subject to slave labor, and the Germans administered the country,” Dr. Zimmerman said.
Nonetheless, in a “400-page book, there would not be more than a paragraph or two about the Jews. That means that in monographs on the Polish underground, Jews are absent, and in Jewish historical works” — the writings with which we are more familiar — “the Poles enter only briefly. They aren’t as much players as they are forces that are dangerous or hostile to the Jews.”
Dr. Zimmerman’s work took him to archives in Poland and in Oxford, which houses the papers of the London-based Polish government in exile. He examined the underground newsletters that many small partisan groups put out, arranging them chronologically and geographically. “I did it scientifically, just laying the documents out without prejudice,” he said. “I was just following the trail of evidence, looking through all their internal communications and underground press, seeing if and when Jews appear.”
The government in exile was carefully structured, so there were many reports from many regions, Dr. Zimmerman said. “Each would have a small section called ‘Polish attitudes toward the Nazis,’ one called ‘Polish attitudes toward the communists,’ and some had ‘Polish attitudes toward the Jews.’ I was able to go down to the level of small towns within provinces within regions and compare. And then there is the time frame — from 1939 to 1941, before the Final Solution and before the death camps are created, and once the deportations begin from the ghettos to the death camps.”
The reporting generally was factual, but at times emotion or moral judgment leaked in, Dr. Zimmerman said. Some of the reporters were horrified at what they saw; others were openly anti-Semitic and reveled in it. He tried to analyze which differences were personal and which were regional and more generally cultural. “Some regions had a strong anti-Semitic tradition. The Polish underground was drawn from the people, and tended to reflect them. Other regions were more pluralistic and tolerant, and Jews were viewed more favorably there. I found much more condemnation on the part of the Polish underground toward the Nazis and the people who aided them there,” he said.
In the end, Dr. Zimmerman found that the bridge between Jewish and Polish ideas of the war is that nothing is absolute. It is not possible to generalize. There were Poles who behaved monstrously; on the other hand, there are more Righteous Gentiles from Poland at Yad VaShem than from any other country. He ended his book with two chapters, both called “When the Polish Underground Helped the Jews.” One focuses on institutional aid, the other on individual help; both include touching stories of courage and sacrifice. On the other hand, the chapter before that — a long chapter, Dr. Zimmerman said — is called “When the Polish Underground Turned Its Guns on Jews.” It tells stories of crimes committed by Poles against Jews, provides numbers, and tries to look at “why some of these people were so pathologically anti-Semitic,” he said.
“It is a very delicate project,” Dr. Zimmerman said. When the book came out last year, he steeled himself for negative reactions from Jews, but got none. “The reviews have been very positive from the Jewish point of view,” he said. Instead, he got strong negative reactions from Poles, accusing him of writing yet another attack. “I was surprised,” he said. “They are very sensitive. They want people to understand that Poland as a legal country had collapsed, so everything that went on there was done by the German government.”
What Dr. Zimmerman found in his search of the Polish archives, as he will detail in his talk, did not lend itself easily to any pat narrative. Jews suffered unendurably in Poland; to what extent endemic Polish anti-Semitism exacerbated the Germans’ imported evil is still an open question, but work on it has begun.