The treatment of Jewish partisans by ethnic Polish resistance fighters on the tactical level went beyond the benign neglect of the underground’s commanders. A Jew fleeing into the forest who had “an encounter with extreme right-wing units could result not only in the rejection of a Jewish individual but also in brutal hostility, which sometimes could end in murder.” Even in units that allowed Jews to fight under their, they were merely tolerated rather than accepted until they were able to prove themselves in battle.
Jewish partisans across Poland were isolated by the surrounding Polish resistance organizations, and left struggling for their own survival in the face of complete annihilation. The mass murder of Jews and the ensuing environment in Poland was first and foremost a product of the Nazi occupation; however, the isolation of the Jews in their own country by their fellow countrymen only compounded their unassailable tragedy and was a contributing factor to the deterioration of Polish-Jewish relations following the war.
Although this paper is focused on the tactical and everyday struggles of Jewish partisans in Poland, the context is inherently informed by the larger debate of Polish and Jewish relations during World War II. The historiography of this subject that emerged immediately following the war was markedly divided. In Polish memoirs and secondary historical accounts the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust was met with either complete silence or was downplayed by merging the victimization of the Jews with the Poles. Stefan Korbonski, who was a leading figure in the Polish underground state, chose to write about the “historical joining together of the Polish and the Jewish underground movements [in 1943].” This glowing assessment ignores the early years of the Nazi occupation in which Israel Gutman declared, “No official link existed between the Polish underground movement and the Jews,” despite the existence of Jewish armed groups.
A completely different approach to Polish and Jewish relations appeared to exist in the memoirs and testimonies of Polish-Jews following the war. Jewish historiography that emerged following the war according to Joshua D. Zimmerman, “Tended to mirror popular memory about the degree of anti-Semitism in wartime Poland.” Consequently, Jewish popular memory immediately after the war was plagued by unfounded accusations that included the popular theory that Hitler utilized pre-existing Polish anti-Semitism as the basis for building the death camps on Polish soil, a theory that has now been roundly denounced.
The assessment of Poland’s past has only now begun to shift. Michael Steinlauf in Bondage to the Dead wrote about the history of memory and how the Poles perceived their role and the role of the Jews during and after WWII. He concludes that with the occupation of Poland by a communist government and the repression that came with it, anti-Semitic tendencies and attitudes were allowed to fester. After the fall of Communism, anti-Semitism became an openly discussed issue for the first time. Only now are there attempts being made to fully integrate the history of Polish and Jewish history in Poland. While this new perspective acknowledges that the Polish population was not the main perpetrator of the Holocaust, it does acknowledge the darker side of Polish attitudes that existed throughout the war. The major lightening rod for such discussion was Jan Gross’ book Neighbors. By highlighting the massacre of 1600 Jews in Jedwabne by regular Polish villagers, Gross brought to light the latent anti-Semitism that festered among the Polish population, absent the influence of an external force. This has culminated in the work of Joanna Michlic’s, whose analysis on the nature of Polish anti-Semitism will be utilized for this paper, wrote that Polish historiography and their perception of the Jews was developed as a combination of old religious prejudice and modern ethno-nationalistic perspectives. Jews were viewed as the “other” in Poland, and incompatible with the modern Polish state.
I intend to contribute to the ongoing discussion of how we frame and reflect upon this deeply divisive subject. This has been an area, while tread on before, it hasn’t been used to explain part of the larger picture of this relationship. In the future, I see this as a subject that has significant room for expansion and could potentially include the Polish partisan perspective.
On that note I will be relying upon interviews and memoirs of Jewish partisans fighting in Poland during WWII. While this does raise the issue of reliability, their observations have been vital in understanding exactly what Jews went through during the Holocaust. Feliks Tych noted, “If it were not for Jewish testimonies and memoirs, what would we know about the degree of indifference of most Poles to the fate of the Jews? A few sentences can reveal the dimensions of the drama.” The focus of my analysis will be on the fighting that occurred in the area of the General Gouvernment. A method used by Shmuel Krakowski in his book The War of the Doomed. The reasoning behind this is that by expanding into Eastern Galicia, one has to take into consideration the conflict with the Ukrainians and the problem becomes significantly more complex.
For average Jews, life at this time became far more precarious and violent. Future resistance fighter in the Parczew region, Harold Werner experienced anti-Semitism first hand in the schools in the eastern Polish city of Wlodawa. He witnessed the boycotts of Jewish stores and was himself the victim of severe beatings in school at the hands of his fellow Polish classmates. He heard stories of people trying to emigrate and flee to America or to the British Mandate of Palestine; however, he lamented that he saw many return as these avenues of escape quickly dried up as the war drew nearer.
The experience wasn’t always uniform. Living in the city of Lenin in eastern Poland, Faye Schulman found her town to be relatively tolerant compared to the rest of the country. Despite this feeling she did note that anti-Semitic attitudes were never far from the surface. One day she overheard a man say to her mom, “There will be such a time that I will be able to kill all the Jews.” Even though one would rarely hear any anti-Semitic language, the laws and institutionalized inequalities made many Jews in her town fearful when approaching government buildings.
Against this backdrop, even in towns deemed relatively tolerant, Jews were made to feel like outsiders in their own country. However, when the Nazis invaded the institutionalized anti-Semitic policies became more relaxed. Polish and Jewish historian Emmanuel Ringelblum observed, “Shortly before the war broke out, the Polish community came to its senses. Now it was understood that anti-Semitism in Poland was a weapon in Hitler’s hand.” Even Jews were overcome by a sense of patriotic duty for their homeland. Norman Salsitz, who considered himself a strong Polish patriot, said that despite having felt like an outsider, he still went to enlist in the Polish Army after the invasion.
Unfortunately, the universal patriotic euphoria did not last long. Ringelblum lamented that just as Warsaw began to fall, “the hydra of anti-Semitism began raising its head again.” As a member of the Civilian Air Defense, he witnessed Jews not being allowed into air raid shelter in the purely Polish blocks of apartments. From this point on the Jews in Poland became isolated from their fellow countrymen. As Michlic noted, the Poles saw their fate as being distinct and the fate of the Jews outside of their responsibility.
While anti-Semitism was rampant in Poland prior to the Nazi occupation, one can not equate the Polish treatment of the Jews to that of the Nazis. Michael Steinlauf argued that the Nazi occupation had a deleterious effect on Polish civil relations. The Poles as a subjugated class were forced to adapt to the rules of corruption, extortion, blackmail and informing so prevalent throughout the Nazi state. It became common for undercover collaborators to spy on peasants to make sure they were turning in Jews.
In many cases it is difficult to assess where anti-Semitism begins and the fear for one’s life really ends. Harold Werner was the victim of such a case. Werner spent the early months of the occupation hiding from the Hola ghetto by working for a friendly farmer he had known prior to the war named Stephan. During his time working on the farm, Werner noted a shift in Stephan’s attitude toward him. In the early stages of Germany’s invasion of Russia, Werner heard Stephan proclaim that he was certain the Russians would win the war. As the Nazis pushed deeper into Russian territory, Stephan’s tone began to shift toward praising the fighting tenacity of the Germans and that they would soon take Moscow. It was this point Werner began to feel that he had “lost the superficial sense of security.” Werner was eventually required to leave due to the threat he posed to Stephan’s family. When Werner returned to the farm for some supplies, his friend warned him that the next he returned that he would kill him. This account between Werner and Stephan, who had never shown any explicit signs of anti-Semitism, was a clear indication of how far relations had deteriorated in Poland. Under such conditions it cannot be said that Polish anti-Semitism was uniquely extreme or equal to Nazi anti-Semitism.
While fleeing into the forests became a welcomed source of freedom compared to the repressed and hopeless lifestyle of the ghettos, the forests did not ensure one’s survival. Mirroring their lives in the cities, the Jews quickly became isolated in the forests and were forced to be on the constant lookout for German patrols, anti-Semitic partisan units, and even Polish villagers. While foraging food, Harold Werner became separated from his group. During their separation his group was caught in a raid that had been organized by peasants of the Hola village. Through other eyewitnesses he soon came to realize that there hadn’t been any Germans accompanying them. Another factor that soon became a serious area of concern was the presence of Russian partisan units formed by escaping Russian POWs. These fighters, while not anti-Semitic, were known for raping the women fleeing with the men into the forests.
The Polish underground and partisan units hardly presented a united front. They were an amalgam of competing political parties vying for influence in the occupied territory. By far the largest of the underground organizations was the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), which was the armed wing of the Polish government-in-exile based in London. To the far right of the AK was the NSZ (National Armed Forces), known for its fierce anti-Semitic violence. The main competitor to the AK was the leftist Armia Ludowa (People’s Army) which received significant support from the Soviet Union. Navigating between these webs of competing underground organizations, the potentially hostile civilian population and the Nazi forces proved to be a complicated and often impossible challenge for many Jews fleeing into the forests.
Running into the units associated with AK usually meant a death sentence for those fleeing Jews. Isadore Farbstein was one such individual. In an encounter with partisans with the AK, Farbstein attempted to hide his Jewish identity, but under intense scrutiny was found to be a Jew. Their immediate response was to prepare him for execution. Fortunately, Farbstein was able to take advantage of their brief lapse of attention and escaped into the forest.
Joseph Greenblatt, a member of the Jewish Military Organization, felt it was safer to be caught by the Germans rather than the other Polish partisans. He reasoned that the Poles were more keen to his Jewish traits and accent and more likely to find him out and execute him.
The AK was not always a death sentence for Jews who came into contact with their units. It was possible for Jews to serve in the AK in areas that were commanded by members of the PPS party. Yet, this was a rare occurrence. Like the rest of the country, the AK viewed the fate of the Jews as being outside their purview of responsibility. Abraham Melezin was able to hide his identity while serving in the AK. During his tenure with the underground one of his comrades argued that their true goal was to combat Judeo-Communism and then the Nazis.
One of the main issues facing the Jews was the reality of choosing between their loyalty to Poland or to their Jewish family and friends being exterminated by the Nazis. For Pinkas Wolf Vazek, the only alternative was to join a devoted Jewish unit. By being a member of a solely Jewish unit, they would be above the internal conflicts that plagued the AK, AL and NSZ. He asserted that he would have rather died fighting the Germans than other Poles.
In the Armia Ludowa and other Russian partisan units the Jews were able to operate more openly, but they were still plagued by periodic cases of isolation and anti-Semitic discord. This was the reality that Charles Gelman faced. While attending the funeral for a fallen comrade and fellow Jew, he observed the Political Officer giving a scathing eulogy that accused the fallen partisan of dying of fright and of being a coward. He tempered this case by saying that this was clearly an isolated incident and that the officer was the exception to the rule. Yet he could not deny the isolation he was made to feel by other partisans. He was constantly fielded questions by other partisans who asked why the Jews had gone so willingly without a fight.
The liberation from Nazi occupation came at a heavy toll for everyone involved. For many Jewish partisans their fight did not end with the war. Many Jews who had served in AL units or independent Jewish units became law enforcement agents for the new government. Unfortunately, this only served to enrage the local populations against the Jews. Now Jews were seen as an occupying force tied to the Communist regime. Jakob Binstock attempted to resume his normal life; however, after the Kielce pogrom in which members of the AK killed 48 Jews he decided to leave along with thousands of other Jews. Henry Barbanel, who was eventually made a police officer in Lublin, lamented, “I finally came to the conclusion if we want to live we better get out of here.” To compound the struggle against anti-Semitism after the war, Jewish partisans returning home were now left to rebuild their lives in what they considered a massive cemetery. Faye Shulman recognized the enormity of the tragedy that just occurred when she realized that of the 45,000 Jews that once lived in Pinsk, she was unable to find 10.
At every stage of their experiences during the war, Jews were left struggling for their very survival while being isolated and marginalized by their fellow citizens. While the historiography has shifted to avoid unfounded anti-Polish rhetoric, the actions of the Polish underground must be singled out as a contributing factor to the decay of Polish-Jewish relations following the war. Israel Gutman and Shmuel Krakowski concluded, “The over-all balance between the acts of crime and acts of help, as described in the available sources, is disproportionately negative… To a significant extent, this negative balance is to be accounted for by the hostility towards the Jews on the part of large segments of the Polish underground.”
 Israel Gutman, “Resistance,” (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 173.
 Feliks Tych, “Jewish and Polish Perceptions of the Shoah as Reflected in Wartime Diaries and Memoirs,” in Contested Memories, by Joshua Zimmerman (Rutgers: Rutgers State University Press, 2003), 139.
 Joanna Michlic, Poland’s Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present (New York: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 178.
 Charles Gelman, “Do Not Go Gentle: A Memoir of Jewish Resistance in Poland 1941-1945,” (New York: Archon, 1989), 226.
 Tych, 137.
 Stefan Korbonski, “The Polish Underground States: A Guide to the Underground, 1939-1945,” trans. Marta Erdman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 125.
 Israel Gutman, “Historiography on Polish-Jewish Relations,” in Jews in Poland, ed. Chimen Abramsky, Maciej Jachimczyk and Antony Polonsky, (New York City, NY: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1986), 184.
 Joshua Zimmerman, “Changing Perceptions in the Historiography of Polish-Jewish Relations during the Second World War,” in Contested Memories, by Joshua Zimmerman (Rutgers: Rutgers State University Press, 2003), 3.
 Michael Steinlauf, “Bondage to the Dead,” (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 123.
 Jan T. Gross, “Neighbors,” (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2001), 170.
 Tych, 137.
 Shmeul Krakowski, “War of the Doomed,” (New York City, Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc, 1984), xi.
 Harold Werner, “Fighting Back,” (New York, Columbia University Press, 1989), 7.
 Ibid., 8.
 Faye Schulmann, interview by Lisa Newman, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, June 21, 1998.
 Faye Schulmann, “A Partisan’s Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust,” (New York, Second Story Press, 1995), 25.
 Ringelblum, 24.
 Norman Salsitz, interview by Rhoda Daum-Kenner, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, June 9, 1995.
 Ringelblum, 35.
 Michlic, 132.
 Steinlauf, 25.
 Frank Blaichmann, “Rather Die Fighting,” (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2009), 55.
 Werner, 62.
 Ibid., 77.
 Michlic, 13.
 Werner, 77.
 Henry Barbanel, interview by Merle Goldberg, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, May 16, 1995.
 Isadore Farbstein, interview by Phyllis Dreazen, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, March 17, 1996.
 Joseph Greenblatt, interview by Miryam Rabner, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, August 1, 1996
 Michlic, 153.
 Ibid., 156.
 Abraham Melezin, interviewed by (need to return), USC Shoah Foundation Institute, date.
 Pinkas Wolf Vazek, interviewed by (need to return), USC Shoah Foundation Institute, Sept. 8, 1996.
 Gelman, 226.
 Ibid., 149.
 Jakob Binstock, interviewed by Barbara Linz, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, October 19, 1995
 Israel Gutman and Shmuel Krakowski, Unequal Victims: Poles and Jews during the Second World War (New York: Holocaust Publications, 1986), 246.