Center for Jewish History Hosts Lecture on WWII Polish Underground & the Jews
- Tod Shapiro
- On December 24, 2015
Reported by the Flatiron Hot! News Editorial Staff
The Flatiron District and its residents and businesses continue to benefit from the many cultural and historic resources nearby, and that is especially the case with regard to the Center for Jewish History, which hosted yet another excellent seminar this past Monday afternoon, this time concerning the the contested and contentious relationship between the World War II-era Polish Underground and the Jews of Poland and Eastern Europe. CJH’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, as part of their Ruth Gay Series of Seminars, open to the public at no charge, invited noted historian Joshua D. Zimmerman of Yeshiva University to give a talk on his special area of expertise, namely the fraught relationship between the underground Polish Underground, who resisted the Nazis
during their terrible occupation of Poland as they implemented the “Final Solution,” and the Jews of Eastern Europe, who were the subject of the Nazi’s murderous plans and had been herded into ghettos across Poland prior to their forced shipping to Auschwitz and other death camps. Professor Zimmerman’s recent book, The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945, revisits the epochal and murderous events of World War II Poland, and Zimmerman briefed the substantial audience (many of them with relatives or friends who were involved in the actual events as victims or survivors) on his conclusions based on his extensive and original research, which included reviewing newly discovered original documents, and conducting interviews with survivors of the era who had never spoken out before.
Zimmerman’s conclusions confirmed the conventional historical narrative in some respects, which emphasized the Polish Underground’s historically documented antisemitism and failure, as a matter of policy, to do as much as they might have to help Poland’s persecuted and imprisoned Jews survive the Nazi attempts to uncover them from their hiding places, or ship them out from the ghettos across Poland to the death camps. Professor ZImmerman summarized for the audience the very mixed picture of Polish-Jewish relations in prewar Poland, which was a multi-ethnic state with many ethnic groups and political and religious beliefs represented across the land and in its government and institutions.
While post-World War I Poland under Pilsudski allowed the Jews and other groups a certain amount of freedom and the ability to live in the revived Poland, the Polish conservative elements and the Catholic Church had a residue of antisemitism that gradually grew worse over time, especially as Fascism and authoritarianism took over across Europe in the years leading up to World War II. The death of Pilsudski, and the rise to power of “The Colonels” and other right wing elements, saw a gradual downturn in Jews’ status in Poland, as the Polish government began to pursue a policy of implicit, and at times explicit, hostility toward the Jews (who made up as much as 30% of the population), calling for their expulsion or removal from the Polish state. When Poland was invaded and dismembered by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, the Polish state collapsed, and a fighting underground arose that conducted active campaigns of sabotage and resistance to the occupying powers.
Zimmerman’s research and narrative, however, sheds new light on the conventional wisdom of the Polish Underground’s blatant antisemitic hostility to and failure to help their fellow citizens. Zimmerman reminded the audience of a famous scene often recounted in fiction and contemporaneous accounts (such as in Leon Uris’s popular novel, Mila 14) where the Polish Underground leadership offered a SINGLE pistol in support of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Jewish Resistance in response to their desperate attempts to get weapons to use against the Nazis during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
In his lecture he mitigated this terrible history, and he recounted how the original leaders of the Underground did what they could to help Jews in certain cases, including taking up in the Underground ranks many Jewish fighters, or their sympathizers, and staging a desperate attack against the Germans prior to their advance on the Warsaw Ghetto, which was unfortunately cancelled in its preliminary stages after it was revealed to the Germans. He also reviews the roles of many individual members of the Underground in smuggling children out of the ghettos to safe houses in the countryside, or in working to get food and resources into the Ghetto.
Zimmerman concludes that the picture of the Polish Underground’s overwhelming antisemitism and hostility to Poland’s Jews during this time was not monolithic and untempered, and recited in some detail for the audience the stories of some of the Underground’s noted “righteous” members. Zimmerman, as do most historians, acknowledged the terrible blow to the Underground and whatever pro-Jewish tendencies it had, when in the space of a few short days, it lost its experienced and widely admired in-country leader after the Nazis finally, using brutal methods, captured and killed him, and then lost their leader abroad, Sikorski, in a tragic plane crash. Owing to the annihilation of much of the best of Poland’s pre-war officer and intellectual class by both the Nazis and Stalin (in Katyn Forest), many lesser lights were forced to step forward and they, unfortunately, were not nearly the moral and intellectual equals of those who had perished. It may be that had the two leaders survived a little longer, the course of history might have changed, at least as regards the help the Polish Underground might have offered to the Jews in a desperate time.
Professor Zimmerman received an enthusiastic round of applause from the crowd, took questions from the audience, and participated in a friendly post-lecture reception in the Center’s Great Hall. He mentioned that his next project will be what he hopes to be an authoritative biography of the Polish leader Pilsudski. This reporter had a chance to query him about his thoughts on the relative propensity of Poland for democracy, and to come to grips with its mixed role in the past with regard to the Jews. He indicated that while Poland’s current rulers have gone a long way toward recognizing the horrors of the past, they should certainly recognize that, even under the best of interpretations, the Jewish experience in Poland, as it concerns the Polish Underground, is one that still rankles even these many years later.
For those who may not have had a chance to attend the lively lecture, Flatiron Hot! News has put together a selection from Professor Zimmerman’s lecture notes and a slideshow, along with a few quick video clips of his major comments. Again, thanks to YIVO and CJH for a very informative afternoon!
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