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Forgotten Survivors

Polish Christians Remember the Nazi Occupation

Roger Cooke

Edited by Richard C. Lukas. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2004. viii+232 pages. Hardcover. $29.95.

The Nazi assault on European civilization led, as everyone knows, to the massacre of millions of human beings. Following Hitler’s lead, Nazis were implacable enemies of all the colored races, although for the sake of a temporary alliance with the Japanese those aspects of Nazi racism could be ignored. What seems strange from a purely intellectual point of view was the strained effort to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable varieties of Caucasians-inventing a fictitious “Nordic” type to inherit the Earth and relegating other Caucasians to perdition, especially Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs. Mediterranean types-Greeks and Italians-would also have been among the Untermenschen, if not for the alliance with Mussolini.

There were different circles in the Nazi Inferno, and the bottommost pit was reserved for the Jews and Gypsies. The Nazis regarded them as a toxic element in society and had little interest in them other than annihilating them as rapidly as possible. Those consigned to a slightly higher circle, the Slavs, were regarded as culturally worthless, although not actively harmful. Regarding the Poles, the Nazi aim was to wipe out their culture by destroying its artifacts and liquidating the educated elite that was its highest expression. The mass of Slavs were regarded as natural Sklaven, to be used as a source of cheap labor. Modern technology provided the weapons that made it feasible to attempt the utter devastation of Warsaw and Leningrad, and the Nazis undertook these tasks without any reservations. After all, the Master Race needed room to live, and these ancient masterpieces of art and architecture were to be replaced by better, German creations. In contrast, the Nazis apparently regarded Paris as a great prize, and did not plan the razing of its architecture.

An indicator of the Nazi mentality in Nazi-occupied Poland is the fact that the music of Frederic Chopin was forbidden.

Thus, there were differences in Nazi aims in regard to their victims. The amount of organizational effort expended on rounding up, cataloguing, and methodically dispatching Jews seems to be qualitatively different from the assault on the Slavs. (I suspect that is because Hitler’s obsession with Jews left him with less time to articulate a plan for annihilating Slavs.) Were these differences felt by the victims themselves? If you are in a concentration camp, does it matter if you are going to be gassed or merely worked to death? If you are marked for death, does it matter whether you are marked because your grandparents practiced Judaism or because you yourself are a Catholic priest? Neither role can be denied without denying a very important part of one’s humanity and constantly risking discovery.

The destruction of European Jewry is now a major area of historical study, given its impetus by the now-classic three-volume work of Raul Hilberg, a colleague and friend of the reviewer. The purely academic interest in this topic is justified because of its uniqueness: the careful planning of a massacre whose only goal was the removal of an ethnic group from the world, not because of greed for its possessions but merely to be rid of the people. The assault on the Slavs had a different, more mercenary motive, and has been comparatively less studied, except in the former Soviet Union where the primary interest was naturally more focused on the invasion of the USSR in 1941 and the suffering of Soviet citizens. Information about the two years preceding that invasion, the years of the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty by which Poland was partitioned, was suppressed, as was the reality of the postwar Soviet occupation of Poland.

The editor of the volume under review, Richard C. Lukas, Professor of History Emeritus at Tennessee Technological University, is America’s foremost authority on the Nazi treatment of Christian Poles with his earlier books The Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation, 1939-1944 [1986] and Did the Children Cry? Hitler’s War Against Jewish and Polish Children, 1939-1945 [1994].

The volume under review represents one of the essential steps toward a fuller picture of the Polish resistance to Nazism. The twenty-eight authors report a range of experiences ranging from awful to ghastly during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Some links with the Jewish resistance are also mentioned in connection with these experiences. It is well known in Poland, unfortunately not elsewhere, that the Polish government in exile set up a special council to assist Jews against the Nazis, thereby exhibiting the same kind of solidarity with its Jewish citizens as was shown by the Dutch and the Danes. But the effort cost more on the Eastern front than it did in the West, as one can see from the civilian casualty rates for the various nations: 1,000 civilian deaths in Denmark out of a population of 4 million (less than 1 percent); 250,000 in Holland out of a population of 9 million (nearly 3 percent), but 2.5 million in Poland out of a population of 35 million (7 percent*). Of all the belligerent powers in the war, only the USSR and Yugoslavia, with civilian deaths at Nazi hands amounting to 10 percent and 9 percent of their populations respectively, suffered higher casualties.

What the Nazis would have done with ordinary Poles had they won the war is difficult to know. What they did with Polish intellectuals, however, was hardly different from what they did with Jews. Lawyers, doctors, musicians, professors, and priests all represented a concept of human dignity and worth that the Nazis would not tolerate in a subject people of supposedly inferior race. They had to be removed. A strong indicator of the Nazi mentality is revealed by the fact that the music of Chopin was forbidden. Music was not merely a matter of the sense of hearing to the Nazis. Those polonaises, mazurkas, and ballades could have real effects on the human spirit. The Nazis knew that, and were determined to prevent it.

What we learn in the camp narratives in this volume is the experiences of people who survived, some having undergone physical and mental trials that I am certain would have killed me. And of course, they tell us what they remember about those who did not survive. It would be pointless to recapitulate in a review the actual experiences of the survivors; those experiences varied greatly from one to another, and it would be unfair to deprive any of the narratives of their full context. The reader is urged to buy the book and read each of the stories in its entirety.

In reflecting on the book as a whole, one needs to fit it into a comprehensive picture of the interaction between perpetrator and victim. That we do not yet fully understand what was planned for the Poles and how the plans were frustrated by the Nazi defeat appears in a number of facts that seem to be anomalous amid the general suffering and degradation. Why, for instance, were there infirmaries in the camps, where prisoners could get minimal medical care? Given the general callousness toward all “non-Aryan” life, why bother saving the life or health of the prisoners? From a purely economic point of view, this seems to make no sense. Was there not a plentiful supply of slave labor for the occupiers? Likewise, the capriciousness of fate in the camps is striking. Some prisoners, doing their best to conform, were summarily executed on the whim of a guard. Others were able to take astonishing liberties with impunity. Was anything other than pure chance involved in these differences? These and other questions might be answered if a comprehensive study of the Polish experience from 1939 to 1946 were available. In the meantime, the reader of this collection of narratives can make his or her own conjectures. ∆

*This figure does not include Polish deaths at the hands of the Soviets. Altogether, Poland’s 1939 population of 35 million had shrunk to 24 million in 1946. Even with the loss of the Ukrainian and Belarusan lands incorporated into the USSR, the total percentage of Polish (Christian and Jewish) losses is usually estimated at 6 million, or 17 percent. Ed.

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