Relations Between Jews and Poles during the Holocaust

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Havi Dreifuss (Ben-Sasson)
Ora Cummings
  • Jerusalem, Israel: 
    Yad Vashem Publications
    , January
     350 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The scale of Polish collaboration in the genocidal Nazi project is a topic hotly debated, especially in the first half of 2018, not only by scholars but also by politicians, journalists, Holocaust survivors and their descendants, as well as the general public in Poland, Israel, and the United States. As scholars continue their efforts to illuminate the problem, one important question is rarely, if ever, asked: What did the Jews think about the Poles during the Holocaust? How did they perceive their Polish surroundings? How did the Jewish image of Polish society develop and transform as the realization of the Final Solution progressed in the Nazi-occupied Poland? Havi Dreifuss’s (Ben-Sasson) work is devoted to answering these questions, and the answers she provides are based on an analysis of a plethora of contemporaneous and retrospective war-time sources. Dreifuss’s work is unique in her approach and sheds light not only on an important aspect of the history of the Holocaust but also on contemporary debates about Polish-Jewish relations during World War II. 

The book is divided into four chapters corresponding to major changes in the situation of the Polish Jewish community. In chapter 1, Dreifuss analyzes Jewish perceptions of the Poles in the period of the Defensive War of September 1939. Chapter 2 is devoted to the sources from the beginning of the German occupation of Poland and before the concentration of the Jews in the ghettoes. Chapter 3 focuses on the period of ghettoization, and chapter 4 on the portrayals of Poles as they can be gleaned from sources written from late 1942 to 1944. Chapters 1 through 3 focus primarily on accounts contemporaneous with the events described, while chapter 4 analyzes both contemporaneous and retrospective writings. The geographical limits of Dreifuss’s project are identical with the boundaries of pre-World War II Poland. 

Aware of the methodological difficulties inherent in a project that sets out to analyze, as she puts it, Jewish “hopes and fears vis-à-vis Poland and the Polish people” during the war years, Dreifuss treads carefully and emphasizes chronological, geographical, and social variables contributing to the variety of ways the Poles were seen by the Jews. She identifies main trends in Jewish perceptions of their Polish environment while emphasizing first that lacunas in available sources make it impossible to present a complete picture, and second that Jewish accounts cannot be treated uncritically as accurate descriptions of reality but rather as constructions fueled by expectations on the one hand and apprehensions on the other. 

As Dreifuss documents, during the Defensive War the Jews formed a very favorable image of Polish society. Most sources from the time emphasize solidarity and a strong belief in the unbreakable bond between Jews and Poles who stood united in the face of Nazi aggression. Through the use of what Dreifuss calls “persuasive definition” and “comforting interpretation,” charitable behavior was described as typically Polish while animosity and violence were attributed to the fringes of Polish society and treated as exceptions to the rule. This image, Dreifuss shows, became even stronger in the period of ghettoization. 

One of the periodicals printed in the Warsaw ghetto in September 1941 asserted: “The two years of mutual slavery and poverty saw many changes in our joint relationship [and even though] certain mouthpieces of the Polish underground have forgotten nothing and have learned nothing, their voices are nonetheless singular and isolated even within the Polish society, while conversely, the majority supports us openly both in words and in actions, despite this being banned by the Germans” (122). Another periodical echoed that sentiment: “The grocer, the merchant, the criminal on the Polish street, borne on the damned wave of Hitlerism and antisemitism and looking out only for their own skins, are not—in our eyes—representatives of the Polish nation. We know a different Poland” (120). 

These and similar approving opinions stand in sharp contrast with sentiments expressed in Jewish accounts written after 1942. It was towards the end of that year that the predominantly negative image of Polish society, which had been marginal earlier, took hold. And so, for example, in December 1943, Mordehai Tenenbaum-Tamaroff wrote: “Were it not for the Poles, were it not for their passive and active help in ‘solving’ the Jewish issue in Poland, the Germans would never have dared to do what they were doing. They—the Poles—called out Żyd after every Jew who managed to escape from the train that led to his death. They caught poor creatures, they rejoiced at every Jewish agony—they are the despicable ones” (185).

What explains this change in Jewish perception of the Poles? According to Dreifuss, “From the Jewish point of view the story of the relationship that had developed between the Jews and the Poles during World War II was first and foremost one of disappointment. During the Holocaust, the Jews of Poland formulated an extremely positive image of their environment and when the Poles ‘failed’ to adjust themselves to that image, the way in which they were perceived underwent an about-turn. On the ruins of the benevolent image, there grew another, largely negative one, which viewed the Poles as people who, right from the start of the war, had looked forward to the death of the Jews” (206). 

This study was originally written in Hebrew and unfortunately the quality of the translation and editorial work does not match the quality of the project itself. Sentences like “Needless to say, notwithstanding the abundance of existing documentation, it is needless to say that the contemporary sources in our possession cannot testify to the innermost secrets of three-and-a-half million Jews who found themselves under Nazi occupation” (29) can make one’s teeth hurt. Due to the translation’s dubious quality, this important study requires of its readers more patience and perseverance than it should.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Barbara Krawcowicz is a postdoctoral fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Havi Dreifuss (Ben-Sasson) is Professor of Holocaust and Eastern European History at Tel-Aviv University.


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