Joshua D. Zimmerman. The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 469 pp. $128.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-01426-8; $32.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-108-43274-0; $26.00 (ebook), ISBN 978-1-316-30839-4.
Reviewed by Jadwiga Biskupska (Sam Houston State University)
Published on H-Poland (November, 2018)
Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)
Joshua D. Zimmerman’s Polish Underground and the Jews sets for itself the enormous task of teasing out the fluid relationship between the various political and military formations in occupied Poland loyal to the government-in-exile and the country’s Jewish citizens. This broad subject excludes the radical left-wing People’s Army (Armia Ludowa) and most of the fascist formations of the National Armed Forces (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne), concentrating on the mainstream of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) and its allies. Abandoning assertions of either a wholly “negative attitude” to the Jews as ghetto fighter Yitzhak Zuckerman remembered it or a wholly philosemitic Home Army, Zimmerman wades through a literature spanning Holocaust memoirs and the hundreds of Polish occupation periodicals to determine how the relationship between the underground and the country’s Jewish community grew and changed. His answer? It was complicated.
Organized chronologically, with a few chapters that take a close look at the most important moments in wartime Polish-Jewish history, the story concludes with the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising and the different treatment of Polish and Polish-Jewish insurgents and civilians. Essential to the argument is a chapter on the varying relationships to the “Jewish Question” of the opposition political parties that would form the underground state, concentrating on their positions between the death of Józef Piłsudski and the outbreak of war. This sets the stage for the disunity of the occupation, when these parties governed Poland without consensus about their obligations to Polish-Jewish citizens or the future role of Polish Jews in postwar Poland. Some of the political complexity of these party positions gets lost in the ensuing discussion, but when known Zimmerman reminds his readers of the prewar politics of leaders and units. Particularly important here were the politics of the Bureau of Information and Propaganda (BIP) and the circles around the Biuletyn Informacyjny (Informational bulletin), the main newspaper. The editor of the Biuletyn Informacyjny, Aleksander Kamiński, was associated with the “progressive wing” of the underground and reported on the persecution of Jews early, thoroughly, and with great sympathy, shaping wider Polish opinion (p. 56). In contrast, Antyk (the “Anti-Communist Committee”), created under the BIP in 1943, was dominated by men whose understanding of anti-communism was intertwined with their personal antisemitism, and who deliberately weaponized Polish antisemitism to advance support for the anti-communist cause. Żegota, the Council to Aid the Jews, which came under the authority of the Home Army, was occasionally hamstrung by the differing politics and vision of its members, both Poles and Polish Jews.
Zimmerman offers two central explanations for the shifts in underground policy and behavior. The first is regional variety, and the second is about leadership. The most important regional variations occurred between the London government-in-exile and the Poles at home, and between headquarters in Warsaw and the eastern borderlands, occupied by the Soviets and then by Nazi Germany. The London Poles included Polish-Jewish representatives who made numerous pronouncements about religious toleration in any future Poland, admonishing the Home Army about discrimination against Jews; the underground leadership did not include Polish Jews and resisted London attempts to broadcast messages of sympathy and camaraderie with persecuted Jews that might be unpopular. Regionally, Warsaw most closely toed the London line and units around Białystok and Nowogródek departed most radically, “regard[ing] Jews as enemies no less than Germans and Russians” and killing and robbing individuals and Jewish refugee groups, including those attempting to join its ranks (p. 271). This eastern course was driven by a combination of antisemitism and the alarming approach of the Red Army from mid-1943 onward. Exacerbating these regional differences was a shift in leadership between Stefan Grot-Rowecki, whom Zimmerman clearly admires, and Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski after the former was arrested in summer 1943. Bór-Komorowski shifted the organization to the right in line with his prewar nationalist sympathies (he was affiliated with the ethnic nationalist party Endecja), and his conflation of Jewish refugees with communist partisans and unwillingness to punish insurgents for crimes against Jews changed the institutional tone in 1943-44.
Weighing in on the thorniest questions of the occupation years, the support of the Home Army for the ghetto uprising of 1943, and allegations of the murder of Jews during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, Zimmerman notes a lack of uniformity even in the mature Polish underground. First there is the question of the supply of arms to the ghetto fighters in 1943, which Grot-Rowecki initially saw as militarily inadvisable. Here “the Polish government [in London] set the policy for its underground army to provide only limited aid” (p. 221). It offered training, a few unsuccessful attempts at assistance from outside the ghetto, and at least one delivery of weapons to the ghetto fighters, though not in anywhere near the quantities they demanded. A year later, when some of the survivors of the ghetto uprising joined the Home Army in the Warsaw Uprising, atrocities against Jews were reported. Zimmerman weighs these against the rescue of Jewish prisoners and calculates that fifty Jews were killed by the Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising, with thirty murdered by Home Army men heavily concentrated in one “renegade unit” whose behavior did not represent the force as a whole (p. 407).
The Polish Underground and the Jews posits that the most important factor in determining the fate of Polish Jews was personal and not institutional: the diffuse character of the underground, the strains on it by Nazi and Soviet occupations, and its shifting regional strategies meant that decisions about help and support or murder and robbery were made by individuals at very low levels of command. Grot-Rowecki, Bór-Komorowski, and the London Poles all provided directives, but individual Polish men and women interpreted or ignored these depending on local circumstances and their own preferences. The result was profound uncertainty about Polish behavior among Jews, complicating survival strategies and feeding sharply discordant postwar narratives about the Polish underground.
This study is essential reading for modern Polish history and the Holocaust, complicating narratives about local agency in thwarting and executing German genocidal plans. It provides a framework for the expanding literature on Polish behavior in local communities during the Holocaust. It synthesizes generations of Polish historiography on the military underground, pairing it with Holocaust literature in a measured way. Moreover, the portrait Zimmerman draws of Home Army functioning offers important insights into partisan movement structure: it reveals the Home Army to have had a culture of interpretation of orders, regulations, and policies that made its operation varied rather than uniform. Though the majority of the book’s readers will no doubt be interested in occupied Poland and the Holocaust, those studying underground movements and partisan warfare should also find this a provocative and important study.
. Yitzhak Zuckerman, A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 219.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-poland.
Jadwiga Biskupska. Review of Zimmerman, Joshua D., The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945.
H-Poland, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|