Nation where ‘so many angles were found’
Jerzy Robert Nowak
The especially outrageous practices used in Jan T. Gross’s books include complete omissions of numerous Jewish testimonies that showed very positive behaviours of Poles towards Jews during the war. Since they were in complete contrast to the disrespectful generalisations of Gross, suggesting that ‘only few Poles’ helped Jews (as he wrote in ‘Upiorna dekada’[Ghastly Decade]) or ‘small minority’ (as he wrote in ‘Fear’). Gross consistently used this method showing extreme limits of partiality in his most slanderous anti-Polish and anti-Catholic lampoon ‘Golden Harvest,’ written with his wife Irena Grudzinska-Gross. Let me remind you that the Grosses, gathering selective information resorted to such meanest calumnies as ‘murdering Jews during the occupation was a public matter, subject of the interests of all people [Poles – J.R.N.]. The well-matched couple of slanderers cynically omitted all Jewish testimonies showing Poles rescuing Jews, showing numerous examples of limitless sacrifice and risking their lives for the Jewish neighbours. And there are many Jewish testimonies. They come mainly from the period of the war and the first post-war decades when generally no one dreamt of speaking about anti-Polish calumnies in the style of the Grosses. The Jewish documents testifying about good Poles, which Gross silenced completely, include many beautiful and very moving texts. Here are some of them. Arnold Mostowicz, the President of the Association of Polish Veterans, stated, ‘No other nation made such a hecatomb of sacrifice helping Jews as Poles although this help did not involve such risk in many occupied countries’ (cf. ‘Warszawscy sprawiedliwi’ [Warsaw righteous], ‘Zycie’ – ‘Zycie Stolicy,’ 25 February 1998).
‘So many romantics [...] so many angels’
The Jewish author Klara Mirska wrote in her book published in Paris in 1980, ‘I gathered many testimonies about Poles who saved Jews, and many a time I think that Poles were weird. They can be quick-tempered and unjust. But I do not know that in any other nation one could find so many romantics, so many noble men, so many spotless people, so many angles who would save strangers with such a dedication, such a negligence of their own life’ (the underline is mine; K. Mirska, ‘W cieniu wielkiego strachu’ [In the Shadow of Great Fear], Paris, 1980, p. 457).
Another Jewish woman Janina Altman, writing to Marek Arczynski about Poles who risked their lives to save Jews during the war, stated, ‘I do not know whether we, Jews, would have been able to make such sacrifices when facing such a national tragedy’ (quoted by M. Arczynski and W. Balcerak in ‘Kryptonim Zegota’ [Code Name Zegota], Warsaw 1983, p. 264.). Gabriel Moked, the outstanding Jewish literary critic, professor at the University of Tel Aviv, in his interview for ‘Wprost’ on 28 June 1992 said, ‘I am convinced that it is the Germans, strictly speaking the Nazis, that are responsible for the extermination of Polish Jews. Even if some part of the Polish society did not help Jews or agreed to their extermination easily, the majority of the nation helped Jews very much.’
The most moving pro-Polish testimonies of the war included the evaluation of the Hebrew teacher Abraham Lewin who lived in the macabre conditions of the Warsaw ghetto. On 7 June 1942 he wrote in his diary, ‘Many Jews think that the influence of the war and terrible blows that the country and his citizens, Jews and Poles, received from the Germans’ hands, changed the relationships between Poles and the Germans to a great extent, and the majority of Poles experienced philosemitic feelings. Those who proclaim this opinion base their views on numerous events that illustrate how from the first war months Poles showed compassion and politeness towards Jews, who were destitute, and especially showing compassion for begging children. I have heard many stories about the Jews who escaped from Warsaw on that meaningful day of 6 September 1939 and received shelter, hospitality and food from Polish peasants who did not demand anything for their help. It is known that our children who beg and turn out en masse in Christian streets get a great amount of bread and potatoes, and thus they managed to feed themselves and families in the ghetto […] (A. Lewin ‘A Cup of Tears. A Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto,’ ed. by A. Polonsky, New York 1988, pp. 123-124).
Oswald Rufeisen, a Carmelite of Jewish background (Fr Daniel), one of the most courageous Jewish partisans during the war, said in his interview for Polityka, ‘I never speak about Polish anti-Semitism and wherever I can I struggle against it since it is a superstition, a prejudice […] It seems to me that those who survived the Holocaust do not speak about anti-Semitism but those who came to Israel from Poland before the war speak about it. This is what I think. Those who were cut from the Polish society, who translated their psychological conceptions on the war situation […]. I am over 70 years old. I lived in Poland before the war. I survived the war in the eastern Polish territories […], I did not see Poles murdering Jews there but I saw Belarusians, Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians who murdered and I did not see any Polish units who murdered. But these idiots here cannot see all these things’ (Polityka, 9 May 1993). Saved by Poles Laura Kaufman, professor, member of the Polish Academy of Sciences, recollected, ‘As it results from what I have written I received help from representatives of various social strata; I was not an especially privileged exception. Before the war I was advised to leave the country if a war broke out. It was still possible in 1940. I have never regretted that I did not take this advice. I lived under constant danger for five years. I experienced moments of horror but one should survive in the Polish society to get to know their values’ (quoted after ‘Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej’ [This one is from my homeland], ed. W. Bartoszewski and Z. Lewinowna, Kraków 1966, p. 241).
Eli Rosenbaum, the director of the American Office of Special Investigations, ‘tracker of the Nazis,’ said in the spring of 1995 in his interview for the daily Newsday, ‘Like many Jewish children I grew up hearing that Poles were the worst anti-Semites. However, my work continuously gave me evidence that numerous Polish peasants risked their lives to hide Jews. And one should remember that Poles hiding Jews knew what consequences they could experience. Their own children would have been killed in their eyes and then they would have been murdered. I, as father of three little daughters, do not know whether I would have been so heroic in a similar situation.’
‘They hate Poles more than the Germans’
Let us compare this confession of Rosenbaum with the slandering the picture of the Polish peasants included in Gross’s book! Thinking about the behaviours of Poles-eaters of Jews such as Gross I involuntarily recollect the evaluation of the famous Polish scientist of Jewish background Ludwik Hirszfeld. In his letter to Jerzy Borejsza dated 27 October 1947 (letter that is not often mentioned) Hirsztfled regretted, ‘Jewish nationalists hate Poles more than they hate the Germans and consciously take towards the pro-German direction as I foresaw it in my book […]. If I do not stress these matters in public it is because I do not want to harm Jews and deepen the gap between Jews and Poles which the Jewish nationalism is creating’ (the underline is mine, quoted after B. Fijałkowska, ‘Borejsza i Rozanski. Przyczynek do dziejow stalinizmu w Polsce’ [Borejsza and Rozanski. A Contribution to the History of Stalinism in Poland], Olsztyn 1995, p. 139). The hero of Roman Polanski’s film, famous pianist of Jewish background Wladyslaw Szpilman strongly defended Poles many a time. In his memoirs he wrote, ‘Between 300,000 and 400,000 Poles risked their lives to save Jews. Out of 16,000 Aryans who saved Jews in Europe and were honoured by ‘tree of the righteous’ in Yad Vashem one third were Poles. Why should these numbers be quoted? Because the whole world knows how strong is the traditional anti-Semitist plague among Poles. But only few know that no other nation but Poles hid so many Jews from the Nazis. Who hid a Jew in France, risked the punishment of imprisonment or concentration camp, in Germany such people faced death but only in Poland the price was their own lives and the lives of the whole family’ (W. Szpilman, ‘Pianist,’ Kraków 2001, pp. 198-199). On 17 April 2000, in his last interview given to Tadeusz Knade, two months before his death, Szpilman said, ‘Let us remember that participation in some action aiming at saving Jews was punished by death […]. I was saved by at least 30 Poles. At least 30 people risked their lives […]. Was it easy to risk one’s life when one had a family? Today Poland has almost 40 million people. Can we speak about the whole Poland that it is anti-Semite if several people paint something on walls? (‘Ostatni wywiad z Wladyslawem Szpilmanem’ [The last interview with Wladyslaw Szpilman], ‘Glos Polski’ from Canada, 29 October 2002). Let us add that in this interview Szpilman expressed his adherence to the Polish spirit in a beautiful way, saying, ‘I do not feel I am Jewish. Although I do not deny my background – the evidence being that I did not change my name. It sounds as it was. But I am feeling more Polish than Jewish. I was born in Poland, brought up here; it is my homeland. I can live in the whole world but I want to die in Poland’ (ibid). The American Jew Frank Morgens, living in New York, wrote in the introduction to his war memoirs, ‘We have survived thanks to the sacrifice and heroic efforts of a Polish woman, representing humanity in its most pure form. She brought through the threat of the Holocaust a Jewish family consisting of six members and two other Jews hiding them in the attic […].