Poland's Holocaust: Ethnic Strife, Collaboration with Occupying Forces and Genocide in the Second Republic, 1918-1947

By Tadeusz Piotrowski. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Company 1998. xiii + 262 pages. Appendix, notes, bibliography, illustrations, index. Hardcover. $55.00.

Judith Olsak-Glass

For 123 years, Poles lived under Russian, Prussian, or Austro-Hungarian rule. During World War I, all three of these imperialist empires collapsed. Seizing an opportunity, the Poles declared independence on 11 November 1918. A plethora of daunting problems immediately confronted the war-ravaged Second Republic of Poland. Author Tadeusz Piotrowski posits that along with a struggling economy, two problems above all others would ultimately contribute to Poland's holocaust in World War II: Poland's borders and Poland's sizeable minorities.

By 1921, after a series of armed conflicts with neighboring states, Polish borders were finalized. Although the process resulted in territorial gains, especially in the east, it also fostered much hostility and open resentment both within and outside Poland. Besides the enmity of Germany and the Soviet Union, Poland was forced to contend with rising minority discontent. As Piotrowski points out, 'the political objectives of all radical nationalists were, after all, separatist.' (5) Thus, the yearnings for an independent 'greater Ukraine,' a reunited Belarus or a Jewish state within the Polish one smoldered relentlessly. When war erupted in 1939, 'the radical members of these minorities, rather than supporting Poland in its hour of need, chose to side with the enemy and vied with one another in their support of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, hoping thereby to achieve their objectives at Polish expense.' (6)

Continuing along the lines of his previous work on interwar Poland, Polish-Ukrainian relations and Ukrainian nationalism, Tadeusz Piotrowski presents a detailed examination of collaboration with the Soviet and Nazi occupation forces of the ethnic minorities living mainly in the eastern provinces of pre-World War II Poland.

The first two chapters, titled 'Soviet Terror' and 'Nazi Terror,' provide a brief overview of Poland's subjugation. Zones of occupation and their ethnic composition are likewise discussed, as are Soviet and Nazi occupation policies and practices. Citing a comprehensive list of Soviet crimes and misdeeds, from the Katyn massacre to the 1945 Moscow show trial of sixteen kidnapped political leaders of the Polish underground, Piotrowski argues that from the very beginning, it was Stalin's aim to ensure that an independent Poland would never reemerge in the postwar period. The prisons, ghettos, internment, transit, labor and extermination camps, roundups, mass deportations, public executions, mobile killing units, death marches, deprivation, hunger, disease, and exposure all testify to the 'inhuman policies of both Hitler and Stalin' and 'were clearly aimed at the total extermination of Polish citizens, both Jews and Christians. Both regimes endorsed a systematic program of genocide.' (32) Such large-scale operations needed helpers. As a final segment to this preliminary examination, Piotrowski defines 'collaborator' and 'accomplice' to mean voluntary complicity with the Soviets or Germans for the express purpose of destroying Poland, its citizens, or its underground Home Army. He reminds the reader that collaborators were only a small percentage of Poland's 35 million pre-war citizens, but because of their cooperation with Soviet or Nazi forces, over six million Polish citizens were murdered, both Jews and Christiansall of them, he reiterates, victims of Poland's Holocaust.

As a self-described 'naturalized American citizen of Polish descent who happens to be a sociologist,' Professor Piotrowski teaches Sociology of the Holocaust at the University of New Hampshire. He broadens the scope of the term 'Holocaust' to include all Polish citizens who were murdered as a result of both Nazi and Soviet genocidal policies and practices. Although the Jewish exclusivity of the Holocaust is generally accepted, this comprehensive approach offers a broader and more accurate account, lending itself to a deeper understanding of an extremely complicated period. As the book demonstrates, the ethnocentric goals of collaborators meant a death sentence for ordinary Polish citizens. Also, with the ebb and flow of Soviet and Nazi forces over Poland's eastern territories, loyalties often switched back and forth in order to insure the fulfillment of various political agendas.

All aspects of collaboration by Jews, Poles, Belarusians, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians on Polish soil are painstakingly presented in their own densely packed chapters. Piotrowski's narrative tells the story of complicity through eyewitness testimonies, memoirs, diaries, military field reports, periodicals, hundreds of secondary sources as well as his own insights and interpretations. The book does an excellent job of integrating scholarship on the subject, much of it of recent vintage. Almost one hundred pages of notes provide much more than mere citations. Besides 15 tables within the text, ten tables illustrating population losses and deportations appear in Piotrowski's text; it also includes a discussion between scholars over the intent of the Polish Home Army General Bor-Komorowski's Order No. 116was it aimed against Jewish partisans or against bandits, some of whom may have been Jewish?1 As detailed as the notes and text are, the book assumes some background knowledge; for example, the positions of major personalities, such as Józef Beck or Jozef Pilsudski, are not explained on first mention, nor is the 30 July 1941 Sikorski-Maisky agreement. Such instances are rare and ultimately do not detract from the presentation. The Appendix with thirteen documents (e.g., the 1919 Minorities Treaty, the NKVD Instructions Relating to 'Anti-Soviet Elements,' Beria's letter to Stalin on the execution of thousands of Polish prisoners of war, and the UB [Soviet-controlled Communist Security Police] chronology of the Kielce Pogrom released in 1989) are included along with four maps, although sites mentioned do not always appear on the maps. The Bibliography is extensive and state-of-the-art, but its full value might be limited to those who read Polish or Ukrainian. The Index is excellent; particularly good are the cross references. Finally, the copy editor and proofreader deserve credit for a virtually flawless text.

Each chapter seems designed to stand on its own, closes with an assessment of responsibility and fixes blame squarely on those who colluded with the enemy to the detriment of the Polish state and the Polish people.

The chapter on Jewish collaboration is provocative, yet it has important implications for Polish-Jewish relations and the historiography of the Holocaust. Acknowledging the existence of anti-Jewish sentiment in Poland, ranging from benign to murderous, but never state-sponsored before and during the war, Piotrowski questions its causes and its extent. Part of the responsibility, he argues, 'must surely rest on the shoulders of the Jews themselves.' (36) In the interest of truth and fairness, he asserts that 'to single out and humiliate Poland for its real or manufactured anti-Semitism is, therefore, grossly unfair.' (38) His aim is not to excuse or justify wrongdoing, but to give a full accounting of circumstances surrounding events which have poisoned Polish-Jewish relations and led unjustly to blanket charges of Polish anti-Semitism.

Among the factors which negatively affected perceptions and experiences are Jewish ethnocentrism and aloofness; limited contact with Poles due to voluntary isolationism; failure to assimilate; unfulfilled political expectations; immigration of persecuted Jews from Nazi Germany to pre-war Poland; and socioeconomic conflicts. Addressing the correlation between the deterioration of Polish-Jewish relations and the Soviet invasions of Poland in 1919-1920, 1939-1941, and 1944-1945, the author states that 'some Polish Jews became co-participants in the Soviet reigns of terror.' (36) It is significant that Poles in the eastern provinces vividly recall Jews kissing Soviet tanks in 1939 and, as survivors, again in 1944. Many Poles were victims of Jewish-Soviet collaboration, targeted as they were for deportation or execution by lists drawn up partially by Jews. The author demonstrates that Jewish communists within the Soviet apparatus were quite numerous and visible in 1944-1948, holding key positions at the national and local levels. It is not hard to imagine how this situation affected Polish sensibilities. To explain is not to justify nor excuse, but serves to illuminate human failings on all sides. To bring the picture back into balance, noting that life was often difficult for Polish Jews, Piotrowski readily admits that the overwhelming majority of Jews were not communists, nor did they side with either the Soviets or the Nazis. However, during the Nazi occupation, some Jews were willing collaborators and the remainder of the chapter on Jewish collaboration decribes their role in the Polish Holocaust.

The chapter 'Polish Collaboration' under Soviet and Nazi occupation might be familiar material to some, yet Piotrowski does much to strip away the myths surrounding these terrible times. He questions the accuracy

of the often repeated allegations that the Polish underground, including the Home Army, were guilty of collaboration with the Nazis and of committing anti-Semitic atrocities. One treatment of this question focuses on the events at the shtetl of Ejszyszki (now in Lithuania), an alleged 1944 pogrom near Wilno [Vilnius]. On 3 April 1995, an article defaming Poles in that connection appeared in the U.S. News & World Report. It was followed up with an extensive piece in the New York Times on 6 August 1996. Piotrowski also deals with the activities of the Polish National Armed Forces (Narodowe Sily Zbrojne), a right-wing military organization which aligned itself, for the most part, with the Home Army in early 1944, but was never under its control. The chapter continues by relating the Soviet attempts to liquidate the Home Army, the assistance given to the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, the role of the Polish 'Blue' Police in the murders of Jews, civilian complicity, Polish assistance to the Jews, and the post-World War II years.

In his final chapter, Piotrowski examines Soviet and Nazi involvement with Ukrainian nationalists to explain how the policy of ethnic cleansing in Western Ukraine evolved and was carried out. Based on personal recollections and recent scholarship, Piotrowski brings to light a grim period of savage barbarity, one to which most English-only readers have not yet been exposed.

Overall, this book makes a valuable contribution to several fields of study. Students of the Holocaust, of wartime collaboration, of Polish, Central European and Russian history will be well served by Piotrowski's volume.


1 General Bor-Komorowski's Order reads as follows:

Well-armed gangs ramble endlessly in cities and villages, attack estates, banks, commercial and industrial companies, houses and apartments, and larger peasant farms. The plunder is often accompanied by acts of murder which are carried out by Soviet partisan units hiding in the forests or by ordinary gangs of robbers. The latter recruit from all kinds of criminal subversive elements.

Men and women, especially Jewish women, participate in the assaults. This infamous action of demoralized individuals contributes in a considerable degree to the complete destruction of many citizens who have already been tormented with the four year struggle against the enemy.

The [German] occupier has not basically opposed the existing state of affairs. When German security organs are sometimes called in, in the more serious instances, they refuse to help, avoiding the bandits. Often the reverse occurs - the greater act of banditism calls down repression upon the innocent population.

In order to give some help and shelter to the defenseless population, I have issued an order- with the understanding of the chief Delegate of the Government - to the commanders of regions and districts regarding local security. I have ordered the commanders of regions and districts, when necessary, to move with arms against these plundering or subversive bandit elements. I emphasized the need to liquidate the leaders of bands and not efforts to destroy entire bands. I recommended to the local commanders assuring the cooperation of the local population and of the representative of the Government's Delegate in organizing self-defense and of a warning system. (Piotrowski 324)

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