Reflections on Richard Lukas'
The Forgotten Holocaust
Ewa M. Thompson
No book is an island. Books are read and interpreted in the midst of other books, and their position in the stream of scholarship often determines what we say about them. In other words, history is written by winners. Losers have a hard time getting their story told.
The Forgotten Holocaust tells
It is in this context that one should read Lukas' book. It tells the story of a country and a people that were the prime target of Nazi hate and of Soviet hate. No other nation in Europe was thus exposed to the hate of two totalitarian regimes, and no country in Europe resisted longer, or more nobly. This is what The Forgotten Holocaust faintly outlines, but it will take many more books like this one to make a dent in the consciousness of the American public.
To understand The Forgotten Holocaust, one has to realize that the context of World War II for Poland was different than that for the United States. To understand the Polish story, it is crucial to remember that in September 1939, Poland was attacked by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. It is crucial to remember that the Soviets were sworn friends of the Nazis in 1939, in 1940, and in 1941. The year 1945 began a new reign of terror in Poland. Until 1954 in particular, the Soviet-controlled secret police murdered and terrorized people by the tens of thousands, starting with the hero of Polish resistance, General Emil Fieldorf, murdered in 1950 under Stalin's deputy in Poland, Jakub Berman, and falsely accused in a show trial by prosecutor Benjamin Wajsblech (Antoni Zambrowski, "Morderczyni sadowa na lawie oskarzonych," Tygodnik Solidarnosc, 1 January 1998).
In Poland, three names strike terror into people's hearts: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Jakub Berman, Stalin's right hand in Poland from 1944 to 1953. Adolf Hitler's crimes are well known, Stalin's crimes are beginning to be known, but Jakub Berman's crimes are totally unknown in the West.
Lukas points out that in World War II,
Poland lost one-quarter of its population in the war. Portions of Poland were polluted by Nazi invaders who built their largest extermination camp on Polish soil. Virtually every Polish family tasted the bitter taste of displacement, death, pauperization and, after the war, total powerlessness. This part of the Polish story deserves Jewish sympathy and recognition, and Poles are eagerly awaiting for tokens of these attitudes.
In 1939, Hitler said: "The destruction of Poland is our primary task. The aim
is not the arrival at a certain line but the annihilation of living forces...."
Unlike those Jews who survived the Holocaust and moved to the West, Poles
remained captives of the Soviets for 45 years.
The Germans closed all scientific, artistic and literary institutions in Poland. Some 2250 periodicals ceased publication. Polish university professors were shot or sent to concentration camps. Calorie allotment for those Poles who were not shipped to concentration camps was 669 calories per day.
While this was going on, on the other side, in the Soviet-occupied part of Poland, Polish intelligentsia perished in Katyn and in the Gulag. Twenty-one thousand were murdered at Katyn, Bologoe, Dergachi. A million and a half went to the Siberian gulag. Show me another nation in Europe that suffered the fury of two of the most murderous regimes in modern history.
Yet even in these circumstances, at least one million people were involved in sheltering Jews (Lukas 150). In these circumstances, everyone of them was a saint, a hero, deserving no fewer accolades than Raul Wallenberg who was sheltered from Nazi retribution by his nationality, wealth and social status. In contrast, Poles who helped Jews were protected by nothing.
Lukas makes it clear, for those who wish to learn, that in Poland during the war and afterwards, terror was total. Psychologists tell us that in conditions of terror, for most people the norms of human behavior dissolve and the instinct of self-preservation takes over. Encyclopedia Judaica says: "standards of normal society did not obtain in ghettos and concentration camps." (Lukas 222) Nor did they obtain in the terrorized Polish lands. That there were so many instances of heroism, generosity, and love of one's neighbor in occupied Poland is an amazing fact that still awaits the explanation of researchers. The fact that hundreds of thousands of ordinary human beings showed superhuman courage not for a day, not just in battle, but month after month, should amaze and humble us, the urbanized beneficiaries of America's good fortune.
Lukas readily admits that the Jewish tragedy in World War II had no parallels. But he helps us comprehend that the Polish tragedy had no parallels either, although in a different way. The grief of the Holocaust has obscured the tragedy of Poles whose land was polluted by the Holocaust executives: those who conceived of the crematoria and then proceeded to build them. The land on which Poles live, and which they love, was thus polluted, and this pollution is a source of suffering for every Pole. The Jewish remnants departed. The Poles stayed. It is their land. They could not afford the luxury of departure. That pain should be acknowledged by those Jews who are concerned with the ramifications of the Holocaust. Surely the people who had to pick up the pieces, so to speak, after the Germans left, deserve some attention and consideration? Surely they too deserve a measure of sympathy, just as Antigone deserved sympathy for mourning the desecration of her brother's body.
That sympathy, that understanding, have so far been denied to Poles. Poles expect from the Western world, from Americans and, yes, from America's Jews, a measure of understanding in this matter. Lukas' book strives to generate that ounce of understanding.
There is one more aspect of Lukas' book which needs to be mentioned.
To Polish Christians it has become increasingly clear that events of World War II need to be viewed not only in moral terms but also in terms of interests. It has to be said, bluntly, that while the interests of Jews and Catholics were the same concerning the Nazis, namely, the Nazis were a sworn enemy, in regard to the Soviets these interests did not coincide. For the Jews, the Soviet Union was a possible refuge from the horrors of Nazi occupation. For all too many Jews, the Soviet Union was a land of promise. A significant part of the secular Jewish community in Poland greeted the Soviets as friends and collaborated with them in every way until the mid-1950s, thus contributing mightily to the destruction of Polish economy, culture, and population. Similar things could be said about the Polish-Soviet war in 1919, when mendacious gossip of "pogroms in Poland" was spread by Marxist and non-Marxist Jews in the West, to prevent the creation of a non-Marxist independent Polish state (Norman Davies, God's Playground, vol. 2, Columbia 1984, 262-3). In contrast, for Polish Christians the Soviet Union was, from the beginning, the country of the Gulag, a sworn enemy bent on destroying the Polish identity.
This aspect of World War II is virtually unknown in the United States.
Here we touch upon an issue which is extremely sensitive and has to be approached not in the spirit of accusation but in the spirit of understanding. In Revolution from Abroad: the Soviet Conquest of Poland's Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia (Princeton, 1988), Professor Jan Gross says: "For the record, it must be stated unambiguously" that when the Red Army attacked Poland, it was welcomed by smaller or larger but, in any case, visible, friendly crowds in hamlets, villages, and towns. These crowds were largely Jewish ( Gross 29).
As I said in my article on the Katyn murders and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (World War 2 and the Soviet People, edited by John & Carol Garrard, St. Martin's Press, 1993, 213-233), for Jews, the choice between Nazis and Soviets was clear. Throughout the war, a highly visible percentage of Jews in eastern Poland sided with the Soviets and not with the Poles. For Polish Christians, this was an act of treason. For the Jews themselves, it was a means of survival and an ideological choice. The interests of the two groups were dramatically different and I propose to look at it this way. When Polish resistance against the Nazis and against the Soviets got organized, the pro-Soviet groups, including Jewish groups and their sympathizers, were treated like any other segment of enemy forces. In underground struggle, where there is no time for due process and decisions have to be made quickly, it was kill or be killed for the Jews who sided with the Soviets; and for the Poles who sided with the cause of Poland. Lukas cites examples of the pro-Soviet partisans and sympathizers, in the Bialystok and Wilno (Vilnius) area, who were killed by the Polish underground forces. Such was also the case with the family of Ms. Yaffa Eliach who shielded the Soviet NKVD officers, and who now lives in the United States, is rabidly anti-Polish for both psychological and ideological reasons, it seems, and whose hatred, vented in The New York Times, added to that mountain of prejudice against Poles that has ruined many a Polish career in this country. From the standpoint of Polish interests, people like Ms. Eliach's family were traitors who collaborated with the enemy. From the standpoint of Jewish interests, these were Jews who sided with those who offered the best odds for survival. The disparity of interests was tragic for Jews and Poles alike. We have to recognize it, acknowledge it, and come to terms with it. But to recycle these enemies of Polish independence as victims of anti-Semitism is deeply unjust to Poles. Yet this has been done countless times, in countless books, statements, articles, policies, decisions.
After 1945 came the Soviet occupation, the aforementioned Jakub Berman, the most dreaded man in Poland, on whose conscience lie the deaths of 30,000 Home Army soldiers murdered in prisons and torture chambers in Soviet-occupied Poland (Teresa Toranska, Them, Harper & Row, 1987, 201-354).
Now I realize that these must be painful facts to learn or to recall for those who are overwhelmed by the uniqueness of the Holocaust. But nevertheless, they are significant facts which, for instance, Ms. Eva Hoffman chose to ignore in her book, while resorting to the customary repertoire of anecdotal evidence and insinuation to reinforce the all too pervasive image of Poles as gratuitous anti-Semites and as primitives whose indifference was largely responsible for Jewish losses in World War II. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
While Poles in Soviet-occupied Poland after World War II were forced to maintain a frustrated silence, there developed quite a repertoire of invectives that created their own universe of discourse, a universe which no single review can hope to deconstruct. I can only signal its existence. The fact remains that even such relatively mild writers as Ms. Hoffman could not abstain from invoking that repertoire. Yet these accusations, of the alleged deeply-seated and gratuitous anti-Semitism in Poland, are sadly reminiscent of the Nazi strategy of presenting Jews as forever diseased, mentally and physically, and forever a pernicious influence.
To cast these impoverished Polish peasants, who never experienced the luxury of a hot shower or of an elegant meal, as near-criminals, to condemn these mute people grilled by American cameramen until they say what the producer wanted them to say, reminds me of the Nazis expressing disgust at some impoverished Jew in the ghetto because he smelled bad and could not afford the luxury of self-defense.
No book is an island, and Lukas' book nearly drowns in the sea of scholarship on East Central Europe written by those who have engaged in the generation-old business of demonizing Poles as a nation and as a political entity. Former Nazi collaborators, the Soviets, recycled themselves as allies of the West, and repositioned themselves as legitimate suppliers of evidence and scholarship about Eastern and Central European history. We are still the dubious beneficiaries of this process. The authority of Lukas' book is pitted against the authority of books of that earlier provenance.
No book is an island. Yet I am trying to make Lukas' book resonate with you in a way that defies the odds. Lukas' book has nearly drowned in the sea of books that do not want to know what Lukas knows. Perhaps I am engaged in a hopeless task. But I believe that those present here came in order to partake of the truth to hear the full story, to understand and to learn.
In spite of tremendous odds, I am confident that the Polish story will have a chance to be heard. I do hope that for the small segment of the Jewish community present here, the book and my presentation of it will make a difference.
This paper was read at the Polish—Jewish dialogue, Houston Holocaust Museum, March 1, 1998.