By Inna Rogatchi ©. February 2018.
The eye-witness testimonies of atrocities has a sad and unfair destiny. The documents are so difficult to read and perceive that it is left largely to professionals, and sometimes it stays also within families. This kind of documents usually are not read by the wide public. But at some moments of our life, and certain state of our societies it is exactly these documents, eye-witness testimonies that has to become into the focus of wide public attention because of simple reason: the truth is there, in black on white.
Part 1. Yom Kippur -1942, Poland.
1945-1947: Eye-Witnessing Kurban
Huge, one and half to two and a half meters well used map of the Nazi Germany’ visioning their Third Reich was, in a certain meaning, a focal point of the Jewish Documentation Office in Vienna where Simon Wiesenthal used to come to work to during fifty four years, and where my husband Michael and I did come to visit him often during the twenty years of our close warm friendship and detailed joined work. In my film The Lessons of Survival, the map is featured in a long close-up examining shot. It is a terrifying map, with Poland in the middle of it and with so many places there marked by Mogen David which we knew has become a giant mass grave of our people. Very often, unmarked mass graves, until this day.
When Wiesenthal was telling on the method of his and his 34-member team’s work immediately after the war, his narrative was quite matter-of-fact in its character: “We estimated that about 200 000 people had survived the war, and we have sent the members of our team to various places, throughout the Displaced Persons Camps, to speak with the survivors and to record their testimonies. We set up the questionnaire for the witness testimonies which had to be very concise: “Whom had you seen as committing the crime? Where? When? And the crime description. We had had to be that laconic because we guessed that the Allies military crimes authorities for whom we were preparing these testimonies, would not be willing to read more than one-page document, to decide on further proceeding of those cases”, Wiesenthal explained to me.
Often, when talking on the matter, he would stay next to that map which was emanating the horror of the Shoah still decades after the Final Solution had been carried on.Those evidences, thousands of the one-page’ testimonies, went to the two addresses, first to the Allies, to their military crimes prosecution office, in 1947, and later on, to Yad Vashem where they are archived since 1954.
At the same time when Simon and his 34 colleague survivors were going through the Displaced Persons Camps, the Holocaust survivors who found themselves on the Polish soil in May 1945, were also the same busy with a similar task of collecting evidences among the survivors in Poland.
It is an axiom among historians that the value of a document which is an eye-witness testimony is timing-correlated: the closer to an event in question the testimony was made, the higher is its value, due to the natural reasons and characteristics of a human memory.
And all those tens of thousands of survivors in between themselves and in their circles all over Europe and the world were talking on the Kurban, the Catastrophe. In those first after-war years, neither Shoah or Holocaust were not applied to the annihilation of the European Jewry by the Nazis and their accomplices yet. According to Elie Wiesel, “everyone was talking on Kurban; the Kurban, actually, was the only thing that was in air among us”.
“It was my sixteenth birthday”: Shalom Yoran
There had been forty four years after the war when Shalom Yaron had found, by chance, a little suitcase while cleaning his house in Israel. The one of the founders of the Israeli Aircraft industry, bravest man, great soldier, veteran of the IAF, then 65-year old the Holocaust survivor from Poland who normally did control himself exemplarily, could barely do so at the moment. As his wife, important sculptor, and dear friend Varda has told us, “Yaron thought that he did lost that most precious possession of his, the manuscript of his eye-witness account of what had happened to his family, their friends and acquaintances in various places of Poland from September 1939 through September 1945”.
In 1990, Shalom did find his most important treasure, 400 pages of his eye-witness testimony written in Yiddish in 1946. Although he was then just twenty one, Shalom, born Selim Sznycer in Raciacz in Poland, who survived the war only with his elder brother, and who had to take the name of his deceased cousin, knew that he had to write it all down , just like young 27-year old Elie Wiesel who when starting to write down everything he saw in his experience of the Shoah while sitting in a dark third-class cabin deep down the ship from France to Argentina did not stop until he finished those 760 pages in Yiddish which had been the first version of the Night.
All his life full of struggle for the right to live being Jewish, Shalom Yoran wanted to write the book based on his and his family’s first-hand experience of the Shoah. He promised to his parents to live to tell the truth, he said, and the book would be that testimony. The book called The Defiant was first published in 1996 and then re-published in 2003. Like the Wiesel’s narrative in English, this English outcome of the original Yiddish testimony is a very concise version of the chronicle of the evil-inflicted tragedy that stormed into the life of the Sznycers and so giant number of other Jewish families in Poland and all over Europe.
When talking on his book, Shalom always emphasised: “ It is a true story. A true story”. Now his widow Varda Yoran, co-founder of the Museum of the Jewish Heritage in New York along with her late husband, and big benefactor of the Tel-Aviv University also together with her late husband who used to be the governor of the university, is saying on her husband’s testimony: “ It’s all true what he wrote in the book because that’s exactly what he experienced and saw”. That ‘true’ word was and is quite essential for every Holocaust survivor and for their families. As it should be for any honest person with normal moral orientation.
These are the quotes from an eye-witness account of what was happening in Poland during the WWII by the Jewish hero Selim Sznycer, the Israeli aviation pioneer Shalom Yoran – with warmest thanks to Varda Yoram for the permission to quote from the book of her husband which she has translated into the English:
“ – The local population ( near Bialostok, in Smorgon) who hated the Soviet regime they were under began to vocalise their plans to finish off all the Soviets and Jews as soon as Germans arrived.
- I ( the youth of 16 years old) was overcome with despair at being on the run and by now familiar sight of wagons, horses, and frightened people fleeing for their lives. I was losing count of how many times I had gone through this. I could not believe that it was happening again. In less than two years we had tried to settle in so many places.
- The farmers blamed the Jews for everything – for communism, for poverty, and used this for expressing their hatred on them. There was chaos all around, no one in charge, no one to prevent looting. The farmers took this opportunity to attack anyone they could. The fleeing refugee, largely Jews, were vulnerable and easy targets.At one of the villages, farmers stopped us and started to take away our possessions. We tried to resist but they attacked us with ticks, rakes and sicles.The
farmers began to throw stones at us, still blocking our way. I felt helpless and lost, with nowhere to turn. Many in the population began to eagerly await the Germans’ arrival, in the hope that at least some order would be restored.
- When the shooting stopped and more German arrived, we saw a shocking spectacle – local Polish and Belorussian citizens running towards the Germans, welcoming them with flowers. Girls blew kisses at them, and everybody behaved as though their savior had arrived. This was how I saw the Germans again, on June 29, 1941 – my sixteenth birthday.
- Kurzeniec was a mall town of two thousand people, half of which were Jews, mostly artisans. Whenever we heard of a massacre in another place, the whole town of Kurzeniec panicked again.There was no ghetto in Kurzeniec, and some of the neighbours living on our street were Belorussians and Poles. We knew through experience they could turn on us at any time.
- I had never seen the Belorussians or Polish farmers so subdued and submissive, terrified of angering the Nazis.These were the kind of villagers who continuously terrorized and robbed the Jews. The majority of the local population was indifferent to what was happening. Ignalia Biruk, the farmer who hid us was one of the very few decent human beings in Kurzeniec who actually tried to save the Jews.
- We were told of the some of the ( Kurzeniec) town’s non-Jewish population had played in the akzia ( massacre of September 12, 1942). Apparently they ran from
home to home, looting whatever they could. Some stood near the execution site catching the less valuable clothing which the Nazis threw to them. Some actively helped the Nazis find Jews in hiding. After the akzia they kept looking for surviving Jews and turning them in. They looted and vandalised the Jewish homes, dismantled walls, floors and chimneys, looking for the gold that they had been told was hidden by the Jews. Children also participated in hunting out the Jews hiding in the fields and other places. Even children who were once playmates turned in their Jewish friends. When they found one they would run to the Nazis or the police and point out exactly where the “Jude” was hiding.
- Apparently a local boy found my mother hiding among the wheat in the field. He disclosed her location to a local policeman, who took her away. At about nine that morning the Kuppers ( people hiding in between the walls in the same house) heard the policeman bring my mother from the fields to the house. They heard her plead with him in Polish to let her escape. He promised her that the people were being taken to work and advised her to take some clothing and food with her. She went into the house, and they didn’t hear anything more.She was only forty seven years old. My father was fifty two. My father was taken away at six in the morning, with a group of men who were praying in the synagogue. It was the day before Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Jewish religion .
- According to the testimonies of the eye-witnesses, such as the mayor of Kurzeniec Matros, a Pole of German descent, who had been brought to the site to witness the proceedings, the Jews were taken to the outskirts of town and into fields near ome empty barns. Each group was ordered to undress. Their names and ages were meticulously recorded. They were then shoved towards the barns, where a semicircle of their executioners were waiting. When people reached the barns they were shot at from all directions. The petrified people ran every which way in a frenzy, trying to dodge the bullets, until they were all killed. The second group of arrivals was forced to pile the corpses into the barns before they in turn were killed. When the piles of bodies were too high, the victims were made to climb atop and were shot there, in order to save time. The local policemen helped with the process and those who were especially vicious were given the honor of being allowed to shoot. Behind the murders were tables laid with food and drink, so that every once in a while they could refresh themselves. When the barn were filled sufficiently high with bodies, they were set on fire. The luckier ones were those who died from the bullet shots. The wounded ones were burnt to death. The succeeding groups were made to stand by the burning barns, then shot, and the groups following them were forced to show them into the flames. In addition to the systematic orderliness of their scheme, the murderers had time to play little games, like forcing a son to push his wounded father into the fire before he in turn met his death. Some mothers were forced to throw their dead or wounded babies into the flames before they were shot. Many victims had become crazed. (…). As this process probably look longer than anticipated , the next batches of living people were shoved into the next empty barn and, when they were packed in, the doors were closed and machine guns shot them down through the walls. Then the barn was set afire and anyone trying to escape was shot. One thousand and forty Jews met their death in this atrocity. Their only remains were bones, teeth, and other bits that did not burn. It was September 9, 1942, the eve of Yom Kippur”.
To the best of my effort, I did not find any mentioning of any trial, arrest, questioning or investigation of anyone who had participated in the massacre on September 12, 1942 in Kurzeniec.
Part 2: ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of Enthusiastic Murdering
Collection Number 301: 6966 Personal Testimonies of the Genocide
As soon, as the Germans were forced out of the occupied Polish territory, from November 1944 onward, the newly formed The Central Committee of Jews in Poland was busy with the mission of collecting the evidences of the genocide. For this purpose they had created a special body, Central Jewish Historical Commission. Those people worked gathering evidences in all places all over Poland where survivors could be found, being especially active in the period between 1944 and 1947, as if feeling that they did not have much time for that. Both the Central Committee and its Historical Commission were liquidated in 1950 when the communist regime in Poland has become officially blatantly anti-Semitic.
Just imagine the emotional burden of the task for the people who has lost their entire families, went through unimaginable horrors for several years, and whose brethren in their country has been annihilated, the 90% of it. Just try to imagine it. Still, those people were collecting the testimonies of the survivors in Poland immediately after the war tirelessly. I have an honour to know some of them, like great Marian Turski born Moshe Turbowicz, currently the chairman of the POLIN Museum.
The documents had been archived at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw known since 2009 as The Emanuel Ringeblum Jewish Historical Institute. Among the very rich the JHI Archive, there is collection of files number 301, classified as The Collection of Accounts of the Jews the Survivors of the Holocaust. There are 6966 personal testimonies in this collection. The official description of the Collection Number 301 tells that it “contains protocols of testimonies of children and adults filled in local Jewish communities just after leaving the hiding and returning from captivity or exiles. The protocols were written up during the period of 1944-1949. They also is the evidence of the attitudes of the local population towards the tragedies of Jews and is the source of knowledge about the attitude of the Polish local population towards the Jews who survived and returned to their homes. The collection has been formed in 1947, with subsequent reports added up to 1970. 6966 individual experiences are from several hundreds ghetto in the area of the Second Polish Republic and from hundreds of German labour camps, concentration camps and mass extermination camps”. Everybody interested in real history is welcome to read the entire collection number 301 in a seven-volume’ publication of all the documents available at the bookstore of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
The one document from the Collection 301 , numbered 301/974, is a witness account of the Radzilow massacre by Menachem Finkelstein. At the time of the massacre, Menachem was 18 years old. His family has barely managed to escape the nightmare. Later on, the family members, like his sister who lived in Kansas from 1957 until her passing in 2009, were elaborating on the Menachem’s testimony, confirming it to the small detail.
The testimony has been published also in its original Yiddish at the Grayeve yizker-bukh Memorial Book published in New York in 1950. There are 500 Memorial Books like that, the only way in which the survivors of the Shoah emigrated and based in the USA could remember their fathers and mothers, and sisters and brothers, and friends, and to preserve their testimonies. And in many cases, it is the only memorial to those exterminated people until this day. This is unique phenomenon of the post-Holocaust.
The English translation of the testimony is the part of the Jan T. Gross’s Neighbours book. The book which did awake the Polish public conscience and which set a storm to the world back in the beginning of 2000s. I am very grateful to Jan T. Gross for his special permission to use this part of his book in the current publication.
The testimony of Menachem Finkelstein who later emigrated to Switzerland, has been corroborated by the Polish witness of the massacre who spoke to the journalist Andrzej Kaczynski for his well-known article “Nie zabijaj”, Do Not Kill, in the leading official Polish Rzeczpospolita newspaper in 2000 ( July 10, 2000).
Before the war, Radzilow had over 800 Jewish inhabitants. Hearing on the Germans coming near their village, all Jewish people tried to run away. This is what had happened next (excerpts):
“ The attitude of peasants towards the Jews was very bad. They didn’t allow the Jews even to enter their farmsteads. The same day when the Germans arrived, peasants chased away the Jews, cursing and threatening them. Jews had no other choice but to return to their homes. Poles from the vicinity ridiculed frightened Jews and, pointing out to their necks, kept saying “Now it will be slashed Jude.” [“Teraz bedzie rznij Jude.”] The Polish population immediately cozied up to the Germans. They built a triumphal arch to greet the German army, decorated with a swastika, Hitler’s portrait and a sign: “Long live the German army which liberated us from the horrible grip of Judeo-commune!”
The first question the hooligans asked was: “Is it permitted to kill the Jews?” Of course the Germans gave a positive answer. And immediately afterwards they started to persecute the Jews. (…) The Germans beat Jews mercilessly and robbed their property and then distributed the robbed items among the Poles. Then they proposed a watchword: “Don’t sell anything to eat to the Jews.” And so the Jewish situation got even worse. Germans, in order to put down the Jews, took their cows away and gave them to the Poles. It also became known that Polish bandits killed a Jewish girl, sawed off her head, and threw the body in the swamp, feet first. […]
On the June 24th ( 1941) Germans ordered all males to assemble near the synagogue. Immediately people understood what was the reason. They started running away from the town, but the Poles kept a watch over all the roads and brought back those who ran away. Only a few managed to escape, including myself and my father. In the meantime, German soldiers proceeded to give lessons of “good manners” towards the Jews. These “lessons” took place in the presence of many assembled Poles. Soldiers ordered the Jews to bring out all the holy books and Torahs from the synagogue and the prayer house and burn them. When Jews refused, the Germans ordered them to unroll the Torahs and douse them with kerosene and then they set them alight. They ordered the Jews to sing and dance around the huge burning pile. Around the dancing Jews, a jeering crowd was assembled, which beat them freely. When the holy books burned down, they harnessed the Jews to carts and ordered them to pull while beating them mercilessly. The Jews had to pull them all over town. Screams of pain were frequently piercing the air. But together with these screams one could hear the happily screaming Polish and German sadists who were sitting in the carts.
Poles and Germans continued to torment the Jews until they chased them to a swampy little river near the town. The Jews were ordered there to undress completely and to get up to their necks in the swamp. Sick and old men who could not obey these beastly orders were beaten up and thrown into even deeper swamps. […]
From this day on, a horrible chain of sufferings and torments began for the Jews. The Poles were the main tormentors, as they mercilessly beat men, women, and children, irrespective of their age. ( During house looting) Germans were accompanied by Poles, whose leader, Henryk Dziekonski, later would also distinguish himself with barbarity. He destroyed everything ( in our house) with an even greater ferocity. He broke tables, wardrobes, and candelabras. When they finished destroying things, they started beating my father. Escape was impossible because the house was surrounded by soldiers […]. Much more painful than the wounds and damages we suffered that evening was the awareness that our situation was much worse on account of the Polish population taking a hostile attitude towards the Jews. And they were becoming more active and bold in their persecutions. […].
Who will be able to survive this? Jews were like a defenceless lamb in the midst of a pack of wolves. One could feel, it was in the air, that the Polish population was getting ready for a pogrom. That’s why we had all decided that my mother should go and plead with the local priest, Aleksander Dolegowski, whom we knew well. We wanted him, as a spiritual leader of the community, to influence the believers not to take part in persecution of the Jews. But how big was our disappointment when the priest, with anger, replied: “It is well-known that every Jew, from the youngest to those 60 years old, are communists, and that he has no interest whatsoever to defend them.” (…) his cruel heart did not soften and he said in the end that he cannot say anything good about the Jews, because his believers would throw mud on him. The same answer was received from all the other prominent Christian town citizens to whom Jews went to intervene in this matter.
The consequences of these answers were not long in coming. On the very next day squads of young Polish sons were organized: Kosmaczewski brothers, Jozef, Anton, and Leon, Feliks Mordasiewicz, Kosak, Ludwik Weszczewski and others who inflicted terrible moral and physical pain on frightened and miserable Jews. From morning till night they led old Jews, laden with sacred books, to a nearby river. They were sent on their march by crowds of Christian women, children and men. When they got to the river the Jews had to throw their books into water. They also had to lie down, get up, hide their heads, swim, and perform other idiotic exercises. Spectators laughed loudly and applauded. Murderers stood over their victims and beat them mercilessly if they didn’t execute an order. They also took women and girls and ordered them to get wet in the river. On the way back, squads armed with sticks and iron bars surrounded the tired, barely-alive Jews and gave them a beating. And when one of the tortured protested and refused to obey orders, they threatened and cursed them, that they would be taken to account for this soon, and they beat him so that he lost consciousness.
After nightfall, squads assaulted Jews in their houses by breaking down windows and doors. They took the hated Jews out, beat them till the Jews fell down bloodied and unconscious. Not even women and children, or mothers with newborn babies, were spared. From time to time they brought Jews from their houses to the square and they beat them there. Screams were unbearable. Around the tortured ones crowds of Polish men, women, and children were standing and laughing at the miserable victims who were falling under the blows of the bandits. There were many wounded and mortally sick Jews as a result of these orgies. And their number was increasing day by day. The only Polish doctor who was in town, Jan Mazurek, refused medical assistance to people who had been beaten. The situation was worsening day by day. The Jewish population became a toy in the hands of the Poles. There were no German authorities as the army moved on and did not leave power to anyone. (…).
The Jews were simply of no concern to anybody, but a propaganda started coming out from the upper echelons of Polish society which influenced the mob, stating that it was time to settle scores with those who had crucified Jesus Christ, with those who take Christian blood for matzoh and are a source of all evil in the world – the Jews. Let’s stop playing around with the Jews. It is time to clean Poland from these pests and bloodsuckers. The seed of hatred fell to a well-nourished soil, which had been prepared for many years by the clergy.
The wild and bloodthirsty mob took it as a holy challenge, which history had put upon it – to get rid of the Jews. And the desire to take over Jewish riches wetted their appetites even more.
The Poles were in charge, since not even a single German was present. On Sunday July 12, at midday, a lot of Poles from the neighbouring town of Wasosz came to Radzilow. It was immediately known that those who came had previously killed in a horrible manner, using pipes and knives, all the Jews in their own town, not sparing even women or little children. .
A horrible panic broke out. People understood that this was a tragic signal of destruction. Immediately all the Jews, from little children to old men, fled the town for neighbouring fields and forests. No Christian let any Jew into his house or offered any help. Our family also ran in the fields and when it got dark, we hid in a field of wheat. Late at night we heard subdued calls for help not far from us. We covered up our presence as best we could, understanding that over there a fate of a Jewish life was being decided. Calls were getting fainter, and then they subsided. We didn’t speak one word to each other then, even though we felt that we had so much to say, but it was better to be silent since there was nothing to lift our spirits that could be said.
We were sure that some Jews had been murdered. Who killed them? Polish murderers, dirty hands of people from the underworld, people who were blinded, and driven by animal instinct to kill and rob, who had been raised for decades by reactionary clergy, which built their existence by preaching racial hatred. Why? What wrong have we done? This was the most painful question which multiplied our suffering, but there was no one to complain to. Whom to tell about our innocence and the great injustice which history threw our way?
In the morning, the Poles spread the news that the murderers from Wasosz were chased away and that Jews can safely return home. Exhausted and tired, everybody started to walk across the fields towards town thinking that the news was truthful, but they shuddered at a horrible sight which they encountered when coming closer. In the vicinity of the town two dead bodies of Moses Reznel and his daughter (whom we heard as they were being murdered) were brought. They were then taken to the square, which will later become the place where the execution on all the Jews will be carried out. As if to some ill-fated miracle, all the Poles, from children to elders, men and women, were running, with joy on their faces, to see the victims who had been clubbed to death by Polish murderers. Before burial the girl opened her eyes and sat up, clearly she just lost consciousness from the beating, but the murderers did not pay attention and buried her alive, together with her father.
A (Jewish) delegation was sent to the newly established Polish municipal authorities made up of the priest, the doctor, a former secretary of the gmina Stanislaw Grzymkowski, and a few other prominent Poles to plead with them to stop what the population was doing. They replied that they cannot help and sent the Jews to people from the underworld, to negotiate with them. Those in turn said that Jews should compensate them, and that everybody’s lives would then be spared. Jews, thinking that this may be the last straw, started bringing to Wolf Szlapak various valuables: china, suits, sewing machines , gifts of silver and gold. They also promised to give up the last cows which they had hidden. But all this was a comedy organized by the murderers. The fate of Radzilow Jews was already sealed. As was later learned, the Polish population knew one day ahead when Jews would be liquidated and in what manner. But no one […]
Note: After these words, half of a large sheet of paper on which Finkielsztejn pencilled concluding parts of his recollection about the mass murder of Radzilow Jews is missing. The next sheet, the very last one, has been preserved intact. He brings the matter to a close in the following manner:
What a terrible sight this presented can be gauged from the fact that the Germans stated that the Poles had gone overboard. The arrival of the Germans saved 18 Jews who managed to hide during the pogrom. There was an 8-years old boy among them, who had been already buried, but who revived and dug himself out […]. In this manner the Jewish community in Radzilow was wiped off the face of the earth after 500 years of existence. Together with the Jews everything Jewish was destroyed in the village as well: the study house, the synagogue, and the cemetery”.
Any investigation of that hideous crime, one might be curious? In 2010, the case had been ‘investigated’ by the Institute of National Remembrance of Poland, and had been dropped due to the ‘lack of evidence’. Typical. And still screaming of falsehood and injustice.
New Evidences in Abundance
The Radzilow massacre occurred on July 7th, 1941. On July 5th, 1941, the very similar massacre in nearby Wasosz, with 800 victims exterminated brutally; on July 4 and 5th the same atrocities was carried on in Stawiski with murdering 700 Jewish people in barbaric way. On July 10th, the Jedwabne massacre had happened. All those vile atrocities were quite similar in nature and detail prompting historians to speak, as Jan T. Gross observed it sharply, about ‘Bermuda triangle’ of the atrocities in July 1941 in the area of the eastern Poland between Grajewo, Lomza and Bialystok. The behaviour of the Polish population there and their enthusiasm seemed to be infecting and spreading like a fire among themselves. It was only the case of Jedwabne that had been prosecuted after the war although the investigation and trial were conducted very unscrupulously and much off-hand, as it is seen quite clearly from cross-examination of the document of the Jedwabne trial.
In a forthcoming book Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust its authors, American researchers Jason Wittenberg and Jeffrey Kopstein ( Cornell University Press, June 2018) listed 219 cases of documented anti-Jewish atrocities carried on by the local population in the eastern part of Poland in the weeks following the German invasion in the summer 1941. According to the conclusion of authors, “in 25% of the atrocities committed by the local population Poles were primary perpetrators; the rest was predominated by the ethnic Ukrainians”. They also calculated that “the atrocities against Jewish population had been documented as carried on in about 10% of the 2314 communities in Poland where Jews were inhabited”. Although 75% ascribed to the complicity of Ukrainians and 90% of the places where Jews lived without committing barbaric murder against them by the local population might sound as a music to many ears in Poland today, it does not diminish for a bit the actual horror of the conclusion of the American researchers. Just think about those figures. And the world was flabbergasted when learning on a sole case of Jedwabne just 17 years ago.
Wittenberg and Kopstein are making the point on the German encouragement of the local population to participate in atrocities coming to this conclusion: “It’s true that the Germans encouraged non-Jews to do their dirty work; some pogroms took place with the Germans observing. But in many other cases, the violence began before the Germans arrived or after they left”. There are many chilling details in the documents, testimonies, evidences of what the authors of this new research called as ‘festival of violence’, especially emphasising ‘a carnival-like atmosphere’ of sadism unbounded taken over sleepy Polish villages hunting so enthusiastically for their Jews. And grabbing their possessions so happily, too.
What really is telling on the current state of the Polish society that according to the very recent sociological research published in Poland, 46% of the young population believe that in the Jedwabne massacre the victims burned alive in the barn were ‘Poles who had been murdered by the Germans in retaliation for Polish protection of Jews’. It is direct result of the tendencies in the recent years in Poland in teaching the history of the Holocaust both in schools and universities poorly, in editing everything in connection to Holocaust in Poland throughout Wikipedia shamelessly in uber-revisionist way; stopping to bring their school students to the concentration camps, to teach them the history at the place. Instead, today in Poland are building residential cottages at the sites of the concentration camps – as it is happening at the place of Gross-Rosen camp 40 km from Wroclaw now.
There is another detailed account of evidences to appear soon, in March 2018, in Night Without an End: Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland, the two-volumed result of five years of meticulous research of the team of the Polish Centre for the Holocaust Research, a highly respectful institution; the team was led by professors Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski, star historians in their honesty, visioning, professionalism and devotion. All this to add to existing multitude of evidences which one is welcome to read in the Grabowski’s Hunt for Jews, Engelking’s Such a Beautiful Sunny Day, Anne Bikont’s The Crime and the Silence, and all three books of Jan T. Gross , Neighbours, Fear, and The Golden Harvest. Plus many articles and documentaries on the very matter of the documented evidences of the Polish complicity in the genocide against the Jews during the WWII, before and after the Nazis there.
The first anti-Jewish pogrom in Poland after the end of the WWII had happened in Crakow on August 11, 1945, four month almost to the day of the signing the Capitulation Act by the Nazis. At that moment, Poland had 86 000 of its survived Jews, 2,47% of its 3,47 million Jewish population prior to the WWII ( the Polish Jews from the Soviet territories and Jews from Germany were not relocated to Poland at that moment as yet). Practically all Jewish population of the Polish cities had been whipped away, and in many big cities as Warsaw, Lodz, Lublin, it could be up to one third part of the city population before the war. It was a tectonic change throughout Polish society. So, it is against those 2,47% of the Jewish survivors of the genocide, the Polish population in after-war Poland had turned in vicious attacks in Bytom, Bialystok, Bielawa, Czestochowa, Legaica, Otwock, Rzeszow, Sosnowiec, Tarnow, exemplified in the most terrible Kielce massacre, plus many attacks in the Polish villages and small towns all over the country with no Germans around. This is to mention only those atrocities which are documented, with stated knowledge by many historians that many episodes went unregistered, on the purpose by the pro-Soviet Polish after-war authorities. And what is the argument of the present Polish anti-Semites to that? – “ As for Kielce pogroms, etc, those were totally insignificant compared to Jewish crimes against Poles after WWII”, this quote and many alike flooded the social media with regard to the international outcry after the passing the notorious law. And we are treated also with such delicacies as lecture on ‘the Jews’ passivity during the Holocaust and Israeli ever -lasting anger because of that’ by nobody else but the adviser to the president of Poland. Was the cast for advisers being conducted among the champions of lowliness? The world has witnessed it just now, in a baffled disbelief.
Part 3: The Pope, the President and the Surviror
Conversation with the Saint: Pope John Paul II
In the beginning of 2000s, the facts emerged from the evidences regarding the Polish complicity in the anti-Jewish atrocities during and after WWII were so compelling that it had made even such hard-core and biased against Jews person as late cardinal Glemp, the primate of the Catholic church in Poland, to confess publicly in his statement on the heated discussion on the Jedwabne massacre made on March 4th, 2001: “In particular, the burning alive of the Jewish population, forcibly herded by Poles into a barn , is indisputable”. It is known that even issuing that statement, cardinal Glemp was opposing the thought that the Polish nation should bear responsibility for the massacre, and, in the clear message of his attitude to the matter, he refused to participate in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the massacre in Jedwabne when the memorial was erected there. It was during that ceremony on July 10, 2001 when then Polish president Kwasniewski did apologise for the Polish complicity in that terrible war crime.
Why Cardinal Glemp who was internationally notorious for his open anti-Semitism for which he had been made to apologise publicly, had made that exceptional for him statement in the first place? Accordingly to historians and some Vatican insiders, it had happened after direct intervention of the Pope John Paul II, who had influenced the primate of church in Poland to consider the facts of Jedwabne as they were.
Pope Saint John Paul II born Karol Wojtyla in Poland is the one of the most outstanding figures of our times in many aspects, and his stand against anti-Semitism had made a revolution inside the Vatican and the Catholic church in general. He was the first Pope who visited Auschwitz, just half a year since being elected, during his second pastoral visit in general; he was the first Pope who visited Yad Vashem in what was deep and dramatic visit, not a mere formality. He was the Pope who has established the relations between Vatican and Israel; he was the first Pope who did come to the Kotel, touched the stones of our Temple, and put his note there asking for forgiveness for the atrocities against Jewish people. That man was the first and the only Pope whose idea was to organise a special memorial concert in Vatican in memory of six million murdered Jews, the big meaningful event which he hosted. This is not to speak on him to be the first Pope ever visiting a synagogue, or receiving a Jewish priestly blessing shortly before his death; or issuing several important documents not on the Christian-Judean relations in history and theology only, but on the Shoah which he always used as the main term for the destruction of the European Jewry. That brave, intelligent, honest and strong man, that unique Pope, that Pole did understand Jewish history and the Shoah. My husband and I always respected Pope John Paul II highly, and we always will.
In September 2004, I received a few telephone calls from both Vatican and Poland, from the good friends, the people who were close to the Pope. I was invited to come to Vatican, any time soon. His Excellency the Pope wanted to talk to me. It has happened shortly after I was filming in the Auschwitz and the Cracow ghetto for the second time, and after my husband gave master-classes at the Auschwitz Historical Jewish Centre on How to Reflect on the Holocaust in a Visual Art to tnon-Jewish, Polish and international youth, in connection with his exhibition at the Centre. Michael’s big exhibitions featuring powerful but still laconic and self-contained series on the Holocaust had been also shown with a very big interest from the Polish public in both Crakow and Warsaw, at the Jewish Historical Institute, just across the place of the blown up Great Warsaw Synagogue.
It is not every day that you are called in to come to talk with a Pope. Especially, such giant of men as Karol Wojtyla was. But my mom’s terminal cancer was on its final stage, and it prevented me from making the trip to Vatican immediately at the time, very sadly indeed. I know though, on the topic which Pope John Paul II would like to talk to me about. His Excellency wanted to talk to me on the camera, importantly, on his attitude on the Shoah. Great Polish cinematographer Andrzej Jeziorek, awarded by the Oscar and Emmy for cinematography of the famous One Survivor Remembers documentary on the book by Gerda Weissmann Klein, and who also worked for the both versions of the unique PBS John Paul II: The Millennial Pope documentary, would be the person to film that conversation with the Pope John Paul II. As it happened, despite all that the Pope did with the regard to the Shoah, there was no his filmed talk about it, his reflections, memories, his understanding, his essential feeling of what Shoah was for him personally, and it was important for him to have it recorded in that way. In September 2004, a bit more than a half of a year before his death, he felt it was the time for that. He was already quite ill then, but the details of his health conditions were kept to the very close circle inside the Vatican. The time was ticking, with us not realising it well enough at the time.
My mom’s nasty cancer was progressing rapidly, very much in parallel, timing-wise, with the path of the illness of the Pope. And I was completely occupied with the ending of the life of my mother. From the beginning of 2005, the John Paul’s II health has become to deteriorate quickly, and he had a tracheotomy in February 2005 which put an idea of filming our conversation off the agenda. My mom passed away a month before the Pope, in early March 2005. And I flew to her funeral from Rome, leaving that last conversation with the Pope John Paul II unfulfilled.
I cannot say enough of how sorry am I perpetually on that missed opportunity to film the reflections and thoughts of the Pope Saint John Paul II on the Shoah, to hear and preserve on what that he wanted to tell to us all about it. And here comes his testimony on the matter in writing, from the essentially important, but rarely visited, and yet rarely applied, document called We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah prepared by the Vatican Commission for the Relations with Jews on the initiative, in close cooperation with the Pope John Paul II who had supervised the document word by word. The document created to be a guiding outline for the Catholic church and its believers world-wide in their attitude to the Shoah and the Jewish people with that regard. It was presented at the special press-conference on March 16, 1998 by Cardinal Cassidy. The document is archived at the Vatican Archive.
“ (..) it may be asked whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts. Did anti-Jewish sentiment among Christians make them less sensitive, or even indifferent, to the persecutions launched against the Jews by National Socialism when it reached power? […].
In the lands where the Nazis undertook mass deportations, the brutality which surrounded these forced movements of helpless people should have led to suspect the worst. Did Christians give every possible assistance to those being persecuted, and in particular to the persecuted Jews? Many did, but others did not. Those who did help to save Jewish lives as much as was in their power, even to the point of placing their own lives in danger, must not be forgotten. During and after the war, Jewish communities and Jewish leaders expressed their thanks for all that had been done for them (…).
Nevertheless, as Pope John Paul II has recognized, alongside such courageous men and women, the spiritual resistance and concrete action of other Christians was not that which might have been expected from Christ’s followers. We cannot know how many Christians in countries occupied or ruled by the Nazi powers or their allies were horrified at the disappearance of their Jewish neighbours and yet were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest. For Christians, this heavy burden of conscience of their brothers and sisters during the Second World War must be a call to penitence”.
Indeed. Rarely, public figures of the our time are able to formulate so lucidly as it was always done by the Dr of Moral Philosophy Karol Wojtyla known to the humanity as Pope Saint John Paul II.
“We Are Standing On the Tormented Land”: President Kwasniewski
In his speech in Jedwabne just 16 years ago, the former two-termed president of Poland who still be acting as the international public figure today, said, among the other things ( excerpts):
We know much about this crime, though not yet everything. May be we will never learn the whole truth. But this did not prevent us from being here today. (…). We know enough to stand here in truth – facing pain, cry and suffering of those who were murdered here. Face to face with the victims’ families who are here today. Before the judgment of own conscience.
This was a particularly cruel crime. It is justified by nothing. (…). The victims were helpless and defenceless. The criminals had a sense of being unpunished since German occupants incited them to such acts. We know with all the certainty that Poles were among the oppressors and assassins. ( …).
We are standing on a tormented land. The name Jedwabne, by a tragic ordain of fate had become for its today’s citizens a byword recalling to human memory the ghosts of fratricide. It is not only in Jedwabne that superstitious prejudice was enkindled into the murderous flame of hatred in the “furnace era”. Death, grief and suffering of the Jews from Jedwabne, from Radzilow and other localities, all these painful events which lay a gloomy shadow on Poland’s history are the responsibility of the perpetrators and instigators.
Let us all be the citizens of Jedwabne today. Let us feel what they feel! (…). Thanks to a great nation-wide debate regarding this crime committed in 1941, much has changed in our lives in 2001, the first year of the new millennium. Today’s Poland has courage to look into the eyes of the truth about a nightmare which gloomed one of the chapters in its history.
We have become aware of the responsibility for our attitude towards the dark pages in our history. We have understood that bad service is done to the nation by those who are impelling to renounce that past. Such attitude leads to a moral self-destruction. (…).
For this crime we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness. This is why today, the President of the Republic of Poland, I beg pardon. I beg pardon in my own name and in the name of those Poles whose conscience is shattered by that crime.
President Kwasniewski was finishing his truly rare speech by the imperative – To turn the wrong into the right. There was a lot of people in Jedwabne on July 10th, 2001, 60 years after the massacre. They all listened to the president in attentive silence. In ten years time, on July 2011, the same person, former president Kwasniewski visited Jedwabne again, this time it was 70th commemoration of the massacre. There were barely a few dozen people instead of hundreds a decade ago. It is sobering to observe how drastically the concept of ‘turning wrong into right’ can be changed so drastically in Poland in no time.
“We are living in year 1934-1935 today”: Marian Turski
After a few weeks of silence, while the world went stunned by the situation in Poland prompted by the notorious law, the legendary 91-year old Marian Turski, the Holocaut survivor, writer, historian, the chairman of the POLIN Museum and virtually all leading Holocaust-connected Polish and international institutions gave his first comment on the situation in Poland: “ Which year we are living here ( in Poland) today? 1934? Or is it 1935? And my main worry is on how to avoid the year 1939” ( Marian Turski in interview with Dorota Wysocka-Schnepf, TV-Wyborcza, 14th February, 2018).
I am just thinking: if the Holocaust survivor who lost his family, went through the living hell, being 91 years old has to describe his feelings in his country in this way, the situation in Poland in 2018 is truly precarious.
It seems to me though. that those in Poland who are enjoying currently the second-hand carnival of their loud, vulgar, and crude racism and applying it hastily into the system of life in Poland, those who are frantically re-writing history there in a low-brow, utterly provincial hope that it will stay that way for good, they did under-estimate the people who are led by such universal humanist authorities as our dear friend Marian Turski. Calm, contained, elegant, sharp, witty, and highly intelligent, with a steel-like inner strength of the real Jewish man, Marian Turski has something to tell to the Poles today ( the quote below is a compilation of the Marian Turski’s statements throughout the interview):
“Today, we can see the symptoms of the releasing of demons in our country. The worst thing about that process, as we saw from the history of the WWII and Holocaust, is the inert, the biggest, part of society which starts to accept, gradually, what the demons brings with them: first limitations in work and study, then boycott of stores, then ghettos, then concentration camps… To release the demons it takes only a fracture of a second; to put demons back is an arduous process. What we are seeing today gives me a great sadness because it is huge recession to the point of many years back, and the damage might last also many years, because we are dealing here with a state of mentality which is in the process to be distorted again, as it was in 1968. A severe mental wound had been inflicted upon the Jewish people already, and we have to resist it from happening any further, from it to be accepted by the society as a norm, again. Defy the demons, oppose them, do not let them to become a natural part of your daily life, of our reality”.
© Inna Rogatchi – with thanks for the permissions for re-printing the parts of their books to Varda Yoran and Jan T. Gross.
INNA ROGATCHI is writer, scholar and film-maker working in the area of inter-crossing in between history, culture and mentality. The theme of Holocaust and post-Holocaust has a central place among her subjects of interest. She is the author of the internationally acclaimed The Lessons of Survival film on Simon Wiesenthal. Her forthcoming book is A View From the Cattle Wagon ( 2018), the collection of essays on post-Holocaust. She is the author of Shining Souls. Champions of Humanity cultural and educational project from The Rogatchi Foundation Outreach of Humanity series. She is co-founder and President of The Rogatchi Foundation.