The Jedwabne Issue Against the Background of Polish-Jewish
Relations Under German Terror
Presented at the Panel “Jedwabne – A Scientific Analysis”
Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, Inc.
Annual Meeting, June 8, 2002
Georgetown University, Washington DC
I was invited to speak on this distinguished forum at the PIASA Annual Meeting as a witness to history – one of those who are disappearing – and as a participant at a high level in the events which shaped the history of the wartime period.
I am to speak of the issue of Jedwabne in the context of the enemy occupation of Poland. Ladies and gentlemen, when I listen to the discussions of this issue, when I read the most horrible accusations against Poland, headed by the accusation of genocide, I could get the impression that these things happened in a vacuum, that there was no German occupation, no Soviet occupation, as if there were no war, no Polish Underground State, just that there were Poles who murdered Jews.
This is a typical example of placing things out of context – but history is all about context. Context makes the reality of the time drastically different. I remind you that from the very beginning, the German occupation in Poland was the most cruel front of this war, while the Soviet occupation, while equally brutal, was an even more insidious crime against the Polish nation. Both occupiers were driven by the same aim: to destroy the Polish nation. The Germans intended to do this by biological destruction, which was made easier by the state of war; the Soviets intended to break not only the body of the nation, but also its soul through the application of lies and deceit.
In the grand plan of the Germans, the Poles were to become a nation of serfs, a reservoir of labor doomed to eventual extinction either through massive German colonization or through various measures of biological destruction. Only the Jews were to fare worse than the Poles. According to the plan, they were to be confined in ghettos within the General Gouvernement and killed off in concentration camps in the early stages of the plan of the Thousand-Year Reich. The Germans built up in the General Gouvernement a huge apparatus of terror similar to that operating in the Polish territories that were annexed to the Reich. The Germans were masters of life and death. The death penalty or imprisonment in concentration camps for even the most minor offense was our daily bread. Of all the territories occupied by Germany, that part of Poland known as the General Gouvernement had the greatest concentration of Gestapo headed by individuals hand-picked for their ruthlessness. A network of thousands of informers was established, recruited from the riff-raff and from the Volksdeutsche, that is, Polish citizens of German descent who declared themselves as Germans and joined the occupiers.
German control over the Polish population was further strengthened by additional SS units composed of volunteers from among the Ukrainians, Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, and – during the last period of occupation – also Russians, the so-called Własowcy. There were no such “volunteer” units from the Poles. There were no Quislings, no compromises. Because there was a universally implacable stand of the Polish people, a determination to carry on the fight against the German occupiers. And that is why, despite all of the dangers, despite the terror, secret underground organizations sprang up throughout the country, like mushrooms after a rain, to finally produce that phenomenon, unique in the history of World War II – the Polish Underground State, with its own government, parliament, underground courts and military forces, known as Armia Krajowa or Home Army.
Conducting a war against the German occupier required establishing principles of the struggle and its organizational structure. The pre-war Polish penal code and all legislative decrees were still considered to be in force in the underground state. But in addition, new rules were drawn up to address the realities of civil resistance against the occupier. The organization of a military force was something that was well-known and normal, but to keep civilian people functioning properly under the occupation required new rules of behavior.
Civil Resistance went far beyond the activities of the underground military organizations. The term applied to the universal resistance against the Germans – both active and passive – of the entire nation. The Director of Civil Resistance was my husband, Stefan Korboński. The rules of Civil Resistance regulated the Poles’ conduct with regard to the Germans and defined the do’s and don’ts of life under German occupation: a general boycott of German orders and measures that were socially harmful or damaging to the nation’s substance was the basic command of Civil Resistance. Another basic dictate was duty of obedience to the Polish underground authorities which – following the clarification with the Government-in-Exile in London – represented the legitimate Polish government within the occupied country.
As Director of Civil Resistance, one of the things created by Stefan Korboński was the system of courts of justice which tried traitors and collaborators – over two hundred of whom where executed by the Underground. He also established and maintained throughout the war radio communication with the Polish Government-in-Exile in London, including the radio station ŚWIT. I was part of that operation, and we did it together. He was not only my husband, but also my boss, and of course my hero.
There was a common bond between the Jews and the Poles during the war in Poland – we had the same country, and the same enemy. The Underground leadership, and particularly the Government delegate and the Home Army (which included a few Jewish officers in its High Command) published in their daily underground press information about the persecution of Jews, which they denounced in the strongest terms, calling on the Polish population to render all possible assistance to the Jews.
The Directorate of Civil Resistance issued the following proclamation dated September 17, 1942:
“The tragic fate that befell the Polish people decimated by the enemy is now compounded by the monstrous planned slaughter of the Jews that has been carried on in our country for nearly a year. These mass murders are without precedent in the history of the world, and all the cruelties known to man pale beside them. Infants, children, young people, men and women whether of Catholic or Jewish faith, are being mercilessly murdered, poisoned by gas, buried alive, thrown out the windows onto pavements below – for no other reason but that they are Jewish… Unable to counteract these crimes, the Directorate of Civil Resistance protests in the name of the entire Polish nation, and civic groups join in this protest. As in the case of Polish victims of German persecutions, the executioners and their henchmen will be held directly responsible for these crimes.
Signed: The Directorate of Civil Resistance.”
Another proclamation was issued by the Directorate of Civil Resistance on March 18, 1943, to counteract the blackmail of Poles who were sheltering Jews:
“The Directorate of Civil Resistance makes the following announcement: The Polish people, themselves victims of a horrible reign of terror, are witnessing with horror and compassion the slaughter of the remnants of the Jewish population in Poland. Their protest against the crimes reached the ear of the free world. Their effective resistance to Jews escaping from ghettos and extermination camps prompted the German occupiers to publish a decree threatening with death all Poles who rendered help to Jews in hiding. Nevertheless, some individuals, devoid of honor and conscience and recruited from the criminal world have now discovered a new, impious source of profit in blackmailing the Poles who shelter Jews, and the Jews themselves. The Directorate of Civil Resistance warns that every instance of such blackmail will be recorded and prosecuted with all the severity of the law – immediately, whenever possible, but in any event, in the future.”
These were not empty words. Following the publication of the proclamation, the underground courts passed a number of death sentences. Among the many Poles who tried to save as many Jews as possible there were also exceptions, other than the blackmailers and informers, whom the Polish underground punished with death. But let us hear how one of the leading surviving representatives of the Jews, Adolf Berman (not to be confused with Jakub Berman, head of the Communist security apparatus in postwar Poland), appraised the role played by the Poles:
“Descriptions of Jewish martyrdom in Poland often dwell on sufferings inflicted upon hunted Jews by Polish blackmailers, informers, fascist hooligans and other scum of society. Far less is being written about the fact that thousands of Poles put their own lives in jeopardy to help the Jews. It is much easier to discern the deep, clear current under the surface. But the current was there… The time will come when we will have a great Golden Book of Poles who, in that hideous ‘time of contempt’ held out a brotherly hand to the Jews, saved the Jews from death and became a symbol of humanitarianism and the brotherhood of peoples to the Jewish underground movement.”
And that “Golden Book” has come to be, in the form of the Yad Vashem memorial.
But before I return to that aspect, let me remind you of the appeals of the Underground Authorities to the free world for help for the Jews. On November 27, 1942, the Polish National Council passed a resolution appealing to all Allied nations to undertake a joint action against the extermination of Jews in occupied Poland. The Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Government-in-Exile in London on December 10, 1942, appealed in a to Allied governments to “devise effective measures likely to restrain the Germans from further mass exterminations.”
The command of the Home Army demanded retaliatory bombing of German cities, and in his dispatch to London dated June 17, 1943, the chief of Civil Resistance summed up the demands for retaliation as follows:
“Public opinion here demands that the attention of the Anglo-Saxons would turn to Poland and calls for retaliation against the Reich, in line with the postulate, reiterated over the past year, of listing the crimes which call for retaliatory bombardments of Germany… I beg and urge that appropriate declarations be made simultaneously with the bombing raids over the Reich, that these are in retaliation for the latest German bestialities.”
No such action was undertaken by the Allies.
Going back to the Golden Book of Poles. As I’ve already mentioned, my husband as Director of Civil Resistance and I as his collaborator established and maintained throughout the war constant radio communication with London. We sent thousands of messages about everyday life under occupation in Poland, and also about the fate of the Jews – day after day, twice and sometimes three transmissions daily. It was killing work – and quite literally, because half of our team was captured at work and murdered. The two of us, by God’s miracle, avoided death. I personally did most of the coding and decoding, and on July 26, 1942, I coded the message with information about the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, as follows:
“July 26, 1942. The Germans commenced the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. Wall posters ordered the deportation to the east of six thousand persons, each allowed 15 kilograms of personal effects plus valuables. Departures today include two trainloads, obviously scheduled for execution. There is despair and suicide. Polish police were removed to be replaced by Lithuanians, Latvians and Ukrainians. Summary shootings in homes and streets are common. Dr. Raszej, professor at Poznan University, was killed during a consultation with a Jewish physician and patient.”
This dispatch was sent my me personally from our radio station, but nowadays I read in numerous publications that it was “a certain good German” who passed such information about the ghetto to the West. And here are some other examples of messages sent to London from the Chief of Civil Resistance:
“January 29, 1943. In recent days Jews in the Warsaw ghetto defended themselves with arms in hand and killed a few Germans. The Jewish National Committee requests that this information be passed on to Histadrut in Palestine.”
“March 18, 1943. Remnants of Jews in Radomsk, Ujazd, Sobolew, Radzymin and Szczerzec near Lwow have now been liquidated.”
“May 8, 1943. They are finishing off the ghetto. Two hundred houses were burnt down. The members of the Jewish council, held since April 19 as hostages, were shot. They were Chairman Lichtenstein, the Deputy Chairman Gustaw Cielikowski, Alfred Sztocman and Stanislaw Szereszewski. Their bodies were thrown into a pile of garbage.”
June 3, 1943. Broadcast repeatedly, instructions of the Directorate of Civil Resistance on helping Jews in hiding.
Etc. etc. etc. May be just one more:
“April 20, 1943. Yesterday the Germans began the liquidation of thirty-five thousand in our ghetto. The Jews are defending themselves. We can hear shots and explosions of grenades. The Germans are using tanks and armored cars. They have losses. There are fires in several places. Speak to the ghetto today.”
In his letter to his colleague Cukierman, the leader of the ghetto uprising Mordecai Anielewicz refers to this dispatch on which the SWIT broadcast was based: “The fact that… radio SWIT broadcast a beautiful program about our struggle (which we heard on our set here) was the source of great satisfaction. It gives us courage in our fight to know that we are not forgotten on the other side of the ghetto wall.”
Well, I am taking your time to recall these wartime stores because you won’t hear about them during the Jedwabne debate and you won’t any traces of them in the Holocaust Museum. You won’t find there any of the numerous books describing these historic events…
In 1980 my husband was awarded the Yad Vashem medal for saving Jews during World War 2. It was presented to him during a touching ceremony at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. That was – how many? – 22 years ago. Time have changed since then. And the Jewish attitude has changed. According to present Jewish theories about the Golden Book – “Some Poles did save Jews – individuals did. Not enough of them, but yes, some did and they are on the Yad Vashem list. But the organized Polish Underground, the leadership – they were ANTI-SEMITIC!”
So that’s it. So, Mr. Stefan Korbonski, who was one of the leadership, does not fit the theory and is never ever mentioned by the Jews as being among the leaders, he only appears on the list of individuals. Ridiculous, you might say. But meaningful. Because there is a method in this foolishness. It is no coincidence that Jedwabne is discussed out of its historic context and background.
The purpose of all of these behind-the-scenes maneuvers seems obvious: to change the Polish image on the international scene, to present Poland in a bad light, the worst possible light. Charges of genocide are a step toward destruction, a changing of history, and a BIG LIE!
We hear now more and more of “good Germans” and more and more of “bad Poles.” Soon we will probably be reading about “Poland the aggressor, no more the victim.” Well, this strategy leads to nowhere, to a dead end. Presenting only one side of the medal is the equavelent of the Big Lie. Removing the issue of Jedwabne out of its true historical context is a Big Lie, just as Holocaust denial is a Big Lie, and is harmful and wrongful for Poland.
The test of intentions of those who accuse Poland of committing this murder, of genocide, would be to allow the finishing of the the exhumation to the end. There is truth buried there in those two graves. It is as simple as that – of course, if the truth is what the accusers are really looking for.
Unfortunately, there are no more Anielewiczes and his kind, heroes of the “common bond” era. Now comes the era of political dealers and monery-makers.
Today we all live in times of EVIL. But in the final analysis, the last word does not belong to evil – this is the fundamental thesis of Christian faith and hope. And mine too! The last word belongs to the TRUTH.