Bystanders, Betrayers, and Perpetrators: the Poles and the Holocaust
Memorial for the victims of the Jedwabne Pogrom
In reading Ordinary Men, I learned many difficult truths about the enactment of the Final Solution in Poland. Yet of all the atrocities committed by the Germans, what I found to be especially impactful was the level of collaboration and complicity among Polish citizens. We often think that the Holocaust was perpetrated solely by the Germans, yet it is a little know fact that other nationalities also played a large role in the eradication of the Jews. It would have been virtually impossible for the Germans to murder 6 million people across Europe without the “assistance” of local populations.
As I read about Polish complicity, I found myself asking the question: how could people turn against their neighbors, people they had probably known for most of their lives, and willingly participate in their murder? For while there was undoubtedly forced participation in the Holocaust, there was also a large amount of voluntary Polish involvement. How could people just stand by and let their neighbors be taken away and brutally murdered? Or, even worse, how could they play a role in their deaths? Evidence shows that many Jews betrayed their neighbors to the Germans; Jews that might have survived had their hiding location not be given away by their fellow Poles. Browning gives a powerful example of this in citing one of the policeman’s testimony:
“I found it very disturbing at the time that the Polish population betrayed these Jews who had hidden themselves. The Jews had camouflaged themselves very well in the forest, in underground bunkers or in other hiding places, and would never have been found if they had not been betrayed by the Polish civilian population.” (1)
Part of this answer I think can be found in looking at the situation during German occupied Poland. Many people may have thought that they had to denounce their neighbors in order to survive. The Germans didn’t only kill Jews, but also many everyday Polish citizens as well. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
“Poland was brutally occupied by the Germans. The Nazis viewed Poles as racially inferior and targeted Poland’s leadership for destruction, killing tens of thousands of Catholic priests, intellectuals, teachers, and political leaders. Over 1.5 million Poles were deported as forced laborers. In total, at least 2.5 million non-Jewish Polish civilians and soldiers perished.” (2).
Based in this, it is reasonable to think that many Poles chose to betray their neighbors in order to save themselves. Many would have thought that complicity could incur, for lack of a better word, “favoritism” among the Germans, turning looming violence away from themselves towards the Jews. As we have learned throughout this course, fear can make the most ordinary people into monsters. While it is not an excuse for their terrible actions, I believe that it can at least bring an understanding to why the Poles may have participated in the Final Solution.
However, there is also a darker side to Polish complicity. While some Poles may have acted in order to save themselves, sometimes “Poles utilized criminal means of blackmail and extortion to gain from the Jews’ situation.” (3) I think that this above all other things is a truly horrifying factor of Polish complicity. In the midst of such atrocities, there always seems to be “opportunists” who will utilize a horrible situation for their own gain. While this is not unique to the Poles, it is nonetheless still incredibly horrible to process.
While there are so many horrible examples of Polish complicity in the Holocaust, I find it important to remember that not everyone helped murder the Jews in Poland. While we may want to focus on events such as the Jedwabne Pogrom (an event where the townspeople of a Polish town, of their own accord, murdered hundreds of Jews by locking them in a barn and setting it on fire), there were good people out there who did help the Jews. Many Poles hid Jews in their own homes or helped them to escape at the risk of their own lives. Not every Pole was willing to be a bystander or participant in the Final Solution. Even in the midst of brutality, there will always be those who will stand against evil.
In our present society virtually untouched by war, it is difficult for us to imagine ourselves acting in the same ways as many Poles did. While many of us probably would like to think that we could never, ever participate in the brutal murders of others, I think it is important to remember that it often was the everyday people who enacted them. As we learned about Reserve Police Battalion 101, it was the ordinary men who carried out the cold-blooded murder of thousands of Jews. We must ask ourselves the question: In that situation, would I
- Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 156.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Press Releases “Collaboration and Complicity during the Holocaust”, 2015
- Jacob Flaws, “Bystanders, blackmailers, and perpetrators: Polish complicity during the Holocaust” (Masters Thesis, Iowa State University, 2011), 2.
Photo Credit: Jacek Haliki “Pogrom memorial in Jedwabne”, 2009. Accessed from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jedwabne_Z-pomnik.jpg