Jewish Ghettos in Poland during WWII
By: Ewa Kurek, Ph.D., Historian
Dr. Kurek received her doctorate in history from the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland. She is the author of four books and numerous articles devoted to the history of World War II.
For more than twenty years with brief interruptions, I have been engaged in research regarding Polish-Jewish relations and trying to understand the puzzles of WWII and the Holocaust in Poland.
It is not an easy task. As the years pass, I have found, again and again, new aspects of the puzzles… while new areas of the Polish-Jewish terra incognita surface. The task has become more and more difficult. It is partly caused by the fact that Polish-Jewish relations during WWII is a subject in which each Jew and each Pole seems to be an expert. That is why there are now more emotions on the subject than concrete facts. More than forty years ago, the first woman professor at Columbia University, Philosopher Hannah Arendt, a Jew, wrote, “these emotions are very often used to hide a real truth.”¹
This led me to ask myself:
What is it in WWII that the Poles would like to hide?
What is it that Polish Jews would like to hide?
Regarding the Poles we know the truth. For 60 years we have tried to explain why we were not able to rescue Polish Jews from the Holocaust. What is the truth as Polish Jews see it?
Professor Arendt, one of the first to research the problem of Jewish participation in the Holocaust has written: “The issue I am working over was the issue of the Jewish administration’s cooperation with the persons implementing the “Final Solution,” and this issue is so uncomfortable because it may be confirmed that these people were not the traitors. (There were traitors as well, but this is not important).”²
Looking for traces of what was described by Hannah Arendt, I questioned Jewish historical sources as to the reality of Jewish Ghettos in Poland during WWII. According to Professor Arendt “members of the Jewish administrations co-operated with Germans in implementing the Final Solution.”
In my research regarding the functioning of the Jewish ghettos in Poland during WWII, I took into account that the Jewish ghettos were the only areas where there was a functioning Jewish administration. Because Poles lived outside of the Jewish ghetto walls during the war and did not know exactly what was going on inside, I searched for answers in Jewish historical sources
When I was analyzing information from the well-known diary of Adam Czerniaków, Ringelblum’s chronicles and the Łódź Ghetto Chronicles, I came upon an unexpected discovery, which demands a re-examination of the previous way of thinking about the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations during WWII. This discovery is a fact: The Jewish ghettos in Poland during WWII were not places of isolation for Polish Jews created by the Germans. In their quest for autonomy, the Polish Jews built the ghettos themselves, with the permission and co-operation of the Germans occupying Poland.
To fully understand the issue of Jewish autonomy in Poland we have to go back to when the first Jews started to settle in Poland. It is a well-known fact that in the middle of the Thirteenth Century the Jewish colonies in Poland were so numerous that in the year 1264 the Kalish Prince Bolesław Pobożny decreed the Kalisz Statute, in which the rights of Jewish colonies were formed. The Statute put the Jewish colonies under the prince’s power and guaranteed the Jews the right to create their religious communes and freedom of economic activity. This Statute was confirmed and spread to the whole of Poland in the Fourteenth Century by King Kazimierz the Great, who promoted the possibility of Jewish colonization in Poland.³
We may ask, why did Polish princes and kings in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and ensuing centuries create these positive conditions for Jewish colonization? There are many hypotheses about this. It seems that the most logical and significant reasons were social and economic. Polish society, similar to societies of other European countries, was comprised of four social groups: the king, nobility, clergy, and peasants. The king’s task was to keep power in the Polish Kingdom, the task of the nobility was to defend the kingdom’s borders, the role of the clergy was to pray, and the peasants to work the land.
The Polish climate was very favorable for grain production. In the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, Poland had an over-production of food, especially grain. But in the Middle-Ages in Poland there was no way to sell it abroad. In Polish society there was no group which was able to specialize in the trading of food products.
Among the four social groups it was absolutely impossible for the king and the clergy to be engaged in trade. The peasants didn’t have knowledge of the world and its financial possibilities. The only social group which would have been able to be involved to the grain trade was the nobility. But Polish law banned the nobility from engaging in trade under the threat of losing their noble stature. Nobody from the nobility wanted to lose their status so it was necessary to find a social group which could transport the food produced by the Poles and sell it abroad, for a profit.
The Polish kings made their choice and selected the Jewish people, who were oppressed in Europe, but who were experienced in trade and had the necessary contacts and access to capital. The reason for Jewish colonization in Poland was deeply rooted in the contemporary economy.
It is important to note that the proposal made by the Polish kings and princes for the Jews to settle in Poland and engage in food trading was made at a time when “Jewish life space” was rapidly diminishing in Western Europe. Almost all important countries of Western Europe denied the Jews asylum.
The Jewish historian Majer Balaban had written: “The fates of Israelis were similar everywhere. The same human emotions […] pushed the Jews from the borders of Loraine and France, through Germany to Poland, to concentrate the Jews there in a small space [……]. The [Polish] kings took care of them in the most appropriate way. These kings, with small exceptions, were positive to the Jewish needs. To the honor of Poland it had to be said that in the long line of Polish kings there was no one who treated the Jews as did King Karol IV of Prussia had, who sold Jews for heavy money to the city’s crowds, or as King Albrecht V had, who, based on the accusation of one woman burned all of Vienna’s Jews in 1421. […] Not to mention the Jews’ exile from England (1290), from France (1306), and from Spain and Portugal in the XIV century. It is only from this point of view that we should look at the history of the Jews in Poland. […] The Polish Jews were not exiled and it was a great success in times of the dark medieval period. This degree of tolerance was unknown in the whole of Europe. The fair treatment by the king and the support of the nobility were the fundaments for the Jews who settled on Polish land as comfortably as was possible.”⁴
The Jews therefore played a concrete role in the economic structures of the Polish state. Castellan Jacek Jezierski wrote in 1791: “I know the Jews as the support of Polish citizens, because there are no other sellers in Poland except of the Jews, who are exporters of the national product.”⁵
The Jews, as Polish citizens, lived in the cities and in small towns and they had their own legal structure, religion and, until the end of the Eighteenth Century, had their own parliament, called “The Jewish Parliament of the Four Lands in Poland.” This parliament was unique in the whole world. Poland was the only country in which the Jews were allowed to have a separate parliament for their people. The Jewish parliament functioned on the same principles as the Polish parliament, and the Head (Marshall) of the Jewish parliament (named by the Polish kings: “Judeanus, qui in nostra aula resident” or “The Jew who resides near our throne”⁶) legally represented the Polish Jews in the Polish state.
In the Jewish Parliament of the Four Lands and in their style of life, the Polish State guaranteed the Jews their own political, legal, social and religious structures. In modern terms this is full autonomy.
That situation existed as long as the Polish State itself existed. But during the partition of 1795, Poland disappeared from the map of Europe. Thus, together with the Polish State, Jewish autonomy no longer existed. None of the nations occupying Polish land (Russia, Germany and Austria) permitted the Jews to keep their autonomy.
Until 1795 the Polish Jews had no obligations to be involved in Polish political and military issues. This tradition was formed during several centuries that “leaving Jews to their own” created an ersatz of their own Jewish state.
This model which had functioned for several centuries started to erode at the end of the Eighteenth Century. In 1795 when the Polish State was destroyed, the social-political relations between Poles and Jews broke down unexpectedly, and forever. As a consequence of Poland’s partitions, those elements which were not important in Polish-Jewish relations for centuries had now become the most significant.
The Poles had never accepted the loss of their own statehood and, for several generations fought in a death-and-life struggle to gain back their independence. During the 123 years of Poland’s partitioned slavery, never more than 2% of Poland’s Jewish population supported the Poles in their struggle for the reconstruction of the Polish State. Throughout the whole Nineteenth Century, the Poles realized they could not expect solidarity with the majority of Polish Jews in their struggle for freedom. During this time the Poles subordinated the conditions in which Jews would live in an independent Poland.
Historian Joahim Lelewel, in 1832, wrote (in Polish, German and French) an appeal to the Polish Jews: “The children of Israel! […] On the day of Victory we would like to make a precise calculation with you, each son of Poland, a Jew or a Catholic, will make a report to say what he had done for the common benefit of Poland. How much had he supported the Motherland’s reconstruction. Each effort and each service will be measured in the moment when we will be able to call this land our own, and when that time comes we will divide the freedom between us, all together or each alone, to the common harmony.”⁷
The Polish attitude toward the Polish Jews during the 123 years was clear: if you would support us in the struggle for freedom, we would together create the Polish State. But if you would not struggle for the Polish state, we shall remember that.
On November 11, 1918 the Poles finally won their freedom for Poland. The Polish Jews immediately started their quest for autonomy at the Zionist Conference held in Warsaw in October, 1918, and demanded the application of national autonomy for Jews to be guaranteed in the Constitution.⁸ The form of autonomy which the Polish Jews had expected to get in Poland was discussed in the Polish Parliament session in May, 1919. The Chairman of the Zionist Federation in Warsaw and all of Poland, Itskhak Grünbaum, who had arrived from Petersburg in 1918, had said: “We demand only one thing be given to the Polish Jewry; an opportunity to organize and to satisfy our specific needs. We demand to permit us to establish an organization which will satisfy the specific needs of the Polish Jews on the basis of the Polish Constitution.”⁹
The ideas of Itskhak Grünbaum were developed by another parliament member, Samuel Hiszhorn: The Polish Constitution had to guarantee a self-government for the Polish Jews, whose borders will be the same as the border of a political commune, and which is headed by the General National Council.¹⁰
From these quoted sources it can be clearly seen that, in 1918, the Polish Jews demanded from the Poles the same life conditions as they were guaranteed by the Polish kings before 1795. It is easy to understand that the Jewish parliament member’s proposal is simply a reconstructed form of the Jewish Parliament of the Four Lands.
Poland, during 1918 – 1939, known as the Second Polish Republic, had little in common with the state ruled by the Polish kings before 1795, known as the First Polish State. The Second Polish Republic was a democratic state with a President as its head, and the Poles – the state power as well as the people – were not able to understand or forgive the Jews for their lack of solidarity during the fierce struggle for Poland’s independence. That is why there was no chance for any type of Jewish autonomy; not a Jewish parliament nor a territorial autonomy. However, the Poles gave Polish Jews the possibility to develop their culture, science, political parties and social organizations. But, understandably Poles did not want to hear anything about any form of political autonomy in 1918-1939, when today this seems only fair and logical.
Before WWII Poland was the biggest Jewish center in all of Europe, and one of the biggest in the world About 3.5 million Jews constituted about 10% of Poland’s population and more than 36% of the population of most Polish towns. Hebrew or Yiddish was used by 85% of the Jews as their mother tongue. In no other European country in the first decades of the 20th century do we find any similar statistics.
Who exactly were the Polish Jews before the eruption of WWII? They may be divided into at least three groups: Hasidism, the very few “Polonized” Jews; about 10-15% were so-called “emancipated” Jews: and the huge amount of the Orthodox Jews, who represented a specific Polish branch of orthodox – the Hasidism.
The Orthodox Jews (Hasidism) were centered in urban communities and lived in their own quarters, where only the Jewish language was spoken. One could be born a Jew, finish school and spend one’s whole adult life not knowing any Poles nor the Polish language and not feel any necessity to know and learn such. According to Jewish memoirs from Lublin, on the eve of World War II, there were Jews who did not even know they were living in Poland!
Polish Jews had created their own system of survival, because they truly did not want to be assimilated. The most important elements of their system was organized isolationism.
Polish Historian Władysław Bartoszewski writes, “Before the Second World War there were several thousand Jews who became strongly rooted in Warsaw’s Polish society (lawyers, doctors, engineers, journalists, writers and actors) and more than 300,000 who lived within their own ethnic group, in their own circle, in a sort a ghetto. No Jew would ever rent a room in this area to a baptized man, no matter if he were a Pole, a German or Scottish. It is a sin and impossible on principle for pious Jews to have someone not of their faith in their community. A home for religious Jews is a community and someone of another faith should not have access to it. The Jews have built their own ghettos through this type of isolation. That is why the Jewish ghettos in Poland were originally created by the Jews themselves. Jewish ghettos existed in Poland long before the German occupation, and it was not Poles who created these ghettos, but the Jews themselves.”¹¹
Jewish historian Aleksander Hertz said: “During the centuries of their stay in Poland, till the moment of the Holocaust, Polish Jews, living in the local ghettos had composed a caste system which had a custom form of social regulations which may have power bigger than most restrictive legal acts often without legal instruments.”¹²
The key element for understanding what had happened to Poles and Polish Jews during WWII is the result of one thousand years of parallel co-existence.
The truth about the specifics of the one-thousand-year co-existence on Polish land of the Poles and the Jews is with great difficulty coming to the consciousness of both peoples. Maybe, in the most pitiful way this truth was described recently by Dawid Warszawski, a modern Orthodox Polish Jew, who wrote, “Only the assimilated Jews can write about a “Polish-Jewish marriage,” where there are better and worse days. The Poles and the Jews know that there was no marriage at all. This was only caused by the historical existence under the same roof.”¹³
On September 1, 1939, WWII started. The Germans had attacked Poland. Nothing had yet changed in Polish–Jewish relations. In the political sense the Poles had chosen their own road, the Polish Jews their own.
The Poles started to act efficiently and had worked out a civil mechanism against their oppressors. The Poles created a Polish Underground State which was ruled by the Polish Government in Exile. The structure of the Underground State was formed by a coalition of government, military, parliament, administration and the courts. It was built during the first three years of the occupation. The historians of WWII in Poland agreed to this chronology: the years 1939-1942 – as a period of the Polish Underground State construction, the years 1943-1944 – a period of State development.
During the early months of the war, the Polish Jews acted in the same way that they acted in all Polish wars during the previous 1000 years, and considered that this war “as not a Jewish problem or business.” The Jews started to create a new quality of a political-national Jewish life under the German occupation. At the beginning of WWII Polish Jews acted as if the invasion of Poland was solely a “Polish problem,” and did not concern the Jews. This fact is well confirmed by the notes of Emanuel Ringelblum, the words of Mark Edelman, and other Jewish historical sources.
During 1939 - 1942 the position, decisions, and activities of the Polish Jews were not the cause of the coming Holocaust. During that time the forthcoming Holocaust was only known to a small group of Germans in the top hierarchy of the German State.
From the beginning of WWII, with no regard to the differences in political views or religious faith, the common belief of all Polish Jews was a conviction that:
1. The Polish-German and the Polish-Soviet wars are a “Polish issue,” towards which the Jews have to keep their separate indifferent position.
2. Based on the above facts, the Jews had to get autonomy for themselves from the Germans - the new governors of Poland - because to get autonomy on Polish land from the Poles was impossible.
During September 1939, “within the structure of the Polish Army, about 120,000 Jewish Polish citizens took part in the struggle against the Germans. Over 32,000 Jews - soldiers and officers – were killed, and 61,000 were taken prisoner.” Among the Jewish soldiers only a small group (who took their example from the Poles), founded a Jewish anti-German and anti-Russian organization called “Świt.” This organization later changed its name to the “Jewish Military Union” (Żydowski Związek Wojskowy, or ŻZW), an organization which is comparable with the Polish Home Army in its aims and activities. The head of the ŻZW was Lieutenant David Apfelbaum. The soldiers of the ŻZW had contacts with the Polish Underground State and about 150-400 well-armed ŻZW soldiers struggled during the Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.
The rest of the Jews in late 1939 had chosen their own political means in an attempt to gain national autonomy. The key person who helps us understand the chronology, logic, and facts of the Jewish choice was a pre-war Senator of the Polish State, Adam Czerniaków, the “Head of the Jewish Religious Community in Warsaw,” under the German occupation he was the “Head of the Warsaw Judenrat” and “Mayor of the Warsaw Jews,” an autonomy commonly known as the “Warsaw Ghetto.”
Remember, Warsaw was the capital of Poland, a nation which had the biggest concentration of Jews in all of Poland. What prompted the decisions in Warsaw and steps taken by Adam Czerniaków, was the example of the positions and behavior of Jews in other places where there were large concentrations of Jewish population.
From the beginning of the war until his death, Czerniaków kept a diary, most of which has been saved. It is a historical resource and treasure which permits one to see the developing chronology and problems of the Jewish-German and Jewish-Polish relationships during 1939-1942. This is a very important source for an understanding of the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations in those years.
Adam Czerniaków was a Senator in Poland. In any democratic state in the world the position of a parliament member obliges the Senator with the power to represent the interest of the electorate within the state and to be loyal to the state. The obligations of the Polish Parliament members were the same for all: for those who represented the Poles as well for those who represented the ethnic minorities, including the Jewish minority. So it was in the Polish State, as it is most other multinational states. For example, in the United States of America, whose American Senator, elected by the votes of the Americans of Polish origin, has the same obligations towards the United States as a Senator elected by the votes of Americans of Jewish, Chinese or Thai origin.
In September, 1939, Adam Czerniaków, as the “Head of the Jewish Religious Community in Warsaw,” represented more than 300,000 Jewish inhabitants in the capital city. He made no contacts with the Polish authorities ruling the capital during their defense against the Germans, nor with the authorities of the Polish Underground State who ruled later. It can be seen from the notes in his diary that almost all of the days after the Germans entered Warsaw he had spent his time with the Germans negotiating the conditions of co-operation, and immediately implementing those conditions. In light of his later notes (and other historical facts from 1939-1942), the Jewish Senator it becomes obvious that the negotiations with the Germans about the “conditions of co-operation” had to do with negotiations of administrative and legal matters and the creation of Jewish autonomy in Warsaw.
Notes from Czerniaków’s diary written in 1939, indicate that he and other Warsaw Jews were still living in Poland, and in addition to “Jewish problems” in Warsaw, there were also “Polish problems.” During the first ten days of October 1939 Czerniaków had received from the Germans the position of the “Head of the Warsaw Judenrat.” At the same time, in Łódź, the Germans named a Jewish representative as “The Leader of the Oldest Jews, M. Chaim Rumkowski.”
The rest of the centers of Jewish life in Poland also followed the example of Warsaw and Łódź. I do not know of any city or town in Poland “occupied by Hitler’s troops where a Jewish community had rejected the Germans’ wide co-operation.” Because of that “wide co-operation” the Jews had accepted the Germans as the new power in Poland.
In such a way the Judenrats (the future Jewish autonomous powers) co-operating with the Germans during the first months of the war had covered all the territories of Poland under the German occupation. The Judenrats, except in the spheres of religion and education, were involved in such activities as: employment, directing of the Jews to work for Germans; supply; health care system; organizing of the Jewish police and prisons; transport systems and the postal service. It very soon appeared that the Judenrats had played a very important double role in the life of the Polish Jews:
1. For the Germans they were a continuation of German power in the ghettos and “the Jewish Gendarmerie,” which was responsible for the implementation of German orders;
2. For the Jewish people it was the only power which coordinated all aspects of Jewish life.
In Autumn of 1939 the Polish Jews broke off communications with the last representatives of Polish State power and did not make contact with the emerging Polish Underground State. They, however, had started an active and organized contact with the German occupation authorities, under German stewardship they also started to transform the existing Jewish ghettos into territorial autonomies, on Polish lands.
The Jewish autonomy negotiated by the Warsaw Jews with the Germans occupying the Polish lands, and the chronology of the creation of this autonomy is evident by a reading of Adam Czerniaków’s diary:
January 1940 – Their attempts to create a Jewish administration.
May 1940 – Their self-government, with a right of execution [like taxes from the Jewish population].
June 1940 – “In the morning I had a meeting with Braun. He said that in 3-4 weeks there will be self-government for Jews.”
5 September 1940 – “In the Jewish Community I was visited by Rumkowski [from Łódź] accompanied by an SS-man. He announced that he had already created the Ministries and that his budget is about 1500 000 Mk.”
20 September 1940 – “In the Conference the Germans introduced me to the highest authority of the district. We have to get independent autonomy.”
5 May 1941 – “Judenrat have to be only a self-government power, and Obmann have to be a mayor.”
11 May 1941 – “I had visited Auerswald. I wanted the position of a Mayor.”
14 May 1941 – “The Germans informed me that the governor had nominated me to the position of Mayor of the Jewish district.”
19 May 1941 “The day full of impressions […] The Germans declared that I had been nominated on the Mayor position.”¹⁴
A deep analysis of Adam Czeniaków’s notes leaves not even a shadow of doubt that in 1939-1941 the Jewish ghettos were transformed by the Jews into Jewish autonomies. Independent autonomy had appeared for the first time in the diary, entry for 20th of September 1940. The fact that two weeks earlier the Warsaw Judenrat was visited by Chaim Rumkowski the head of Łódź Jews was not accidental. Emanuel Ringelblum had written about Rumkowski:
“Today, on the 6th of September  Rumkowski “the King Chaim” came from Łódź. He told us miracles about the ghetto. There was a Jewish State with 400 policemen and 3 prisons. He had a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and all the other Ministries. During his visit to Warsaw Rumkowski had swaggered: “You will see, in a year or two I will have the best ghetto in Poland.”¹⁵
From the sources noted here it is evident, that except for the agreements from the first weeks of the war, in autumn 1940, intensive German-Jewish talks were held regarding the final form of Jewish territorial autonomy in Warsaw. It is evident also that these talks took part not only for the future mayor of the Jewish territorial autonomy in Warsaw, Adam Czeniaków, but also the leaders of Jewish autonomies from other cities.
In May, 1941, it was decided that a Judenrat will only be a self-government power, and a head of a Judenrat would be a mayor. That meant that a Judenrat got back a position as a pre-war manager of the Jewish communities, practically the same as the traditional self-government function. At the same time, the Jewish mayors had become state authorities representing the power of the German State towards the inhabitants of the different Jewish autonomies.
Adam Czerniaków, on the 19th of May 1941, got from the Germans a nomination to the position of the Jewish Autonomy Mayor. In a formal and legal sense, the Warsaw Jewish territorial autonomy and all the others Jewish territorial autonomies had become independent from the rest of the Polish General Government areas, and had become an element of the Third Reich!
The former senator of the Second Polish Republic and the other mayors of the Jewish autonomies had become state authorities representing inhabitants of the Jewish autonomies (the Polish Jews) under the power of the German State. For persons creating the Jewish autonomies it was very important that these autonomies now had a self-government character, and that the authorities of the autonomies (Czerniaków, Rumkowski, and the others) were, at the same time, the state authorities of the Third German Reich. The Germans proposed the final version of the budget for the Jews in Warsaw on the 19th of August 1941. That was the end of the many months of creating the Jewish territorial autonomy in the capital.
The structure of the Jewish autonomies, commonly called the “ghettos,” created under the protectorate of the Germans on the Polish territories, was the same everywhere. The power of the Jewish Warsaw Autonomy, by the end of 1941, was enormous with more than 2,000 employer institutions, including all their subordinated units. It was the same in Łódź, Cracow, Silesia and other centers of Jewish life. It is not generally known that in other Jewish autonomies (ghettos) the heads of the Judenrats also took on the title of mayors. Chaim Rumkowski from Łódź used the title, “Head of the Oldest Jews,” but the Jewish inhabitants had called him “the king” or “the prince.” The same nickname was given to Meryn in Silesia, The mayors, heads or leaders of all the Jewish territorial autonomies (ghettos) on Polish territory had unlimited power over the Jewish people. For example, life in Łódź “reminded one of the feudal system from medieval times as in the case of a rich Russian noble person. Everything around a manor was covered by darkness and swamps. The farmers, a personal property of the prince [Rumkowski] were only the working machines. They were born and lived for the prince, to bring him profits and satisfaction.”¹⁶
Jewish sources show that Jewish power in the ghettos was copying the style of the German power. The Jewish historian Lucjan Dobroszycki from the YIVO Institute in New York wrote: “The system of ruling in the Łódź ghetto was built similarly like Hitler’s Germany.”¹⁷
So-called “Historians of the Holocaust” write of factual information such as: “the ghettos were only a result of an extermination policy of the Germans towards the Jewish people. The ghettos were built with no participation of the Jews and against their will. Not so! The Jewish sources show that neither in the process of creating the Jewish autonomies (ghettos) nor in the process of surrounding them by walls and barbed wire were Jews actively participating in the powers of Jewish autonomies.” However, factual and documented accounting shows that the separation of Jewish autonomies from the external world (construction of the walls with barbed wire) was actually financed from the budget of the Jewish community and some social funds! It means that the isolation of the Jewish territorial population in Warsaw, the Poles living behind the walls, commonly called a ghetto, was really a part of the Jewish idea.
Emanuel Ringelblum adds: Today [March 1940] there were rumors that the fences around the ghetto will be replaced by walls. On the 2nd of April 1940, the construction of the walls around the ghetto had started. It made a strong impression. People saw in this fact a beginning of a real ghetto. On the streets it is absolutely calm. 26, 27 of April 1940 – The construction of thick walls costs for the Jewish community a quarter-million złotys.¹⁸
This information was confirmed by Adam Czerniaków in his diary:
April 1940 – The walls have to be constructed in different places of the city. Tomorrow the Germans will decide who will cover the costs. The walls are constructed to defend Jews from aggression. The bricks may be brought by the Jews. Everybody from the age of 10 to 60 may bring several bricks. This is an idea of the ghetto; I had touched the issue of the walls. I gave some material. In several places the Jewish Community had started to construct the walls. We will pay for the walls.
May – “Today I got a Map of the closed district of Warsaw”
August 1940 – “The plan of the Jewish district (widened) was signed.
September 1940 – “Preparing of the plan of defense of the Ghetto (Złota, territory between the Hale Mirowskie, the Old City, etc.)”¹⁹
Henryk Makower summarized the end of the demarcation of the borders of the Jewish autonomy in Warsaw: “We had a real reason for joy, because the Germans gave us such a big and nice ghetto in the middle of the city.”²⁰
Antoni Marianowich, who was a member of a Polonized Christian Jewish family, wrote about the first months behind the walls: “All people had found for them a good place. The atmosphere of relaxation was overwhelming. The optimist triumphed. There were a lot of voices that believed we will be able to calmly survive the war.”²¹
During the second half of 1940 the Warsaw Jews had discussions with the Germans on the creation of a Jewish education system, and the forming of Jewish police units, which were officially created just before the ghetto was closed. The Jewish Police took over guard duties in the Warsaw ghetto in November 1940. The duties of that service included: to keep a guard at the border crossing points, to regulate the street movement, to execute the duty to work, to execute the moving from one place to another in the ghetto, and to serve against the epidemics. The Jewish police were created in all Jewish ghettos on Polish lands. Jewish policemen had to support the Jewish authorities from the Judenrat in their executions of Jewish inhabitants per German orders. The year of war, 1941, had brought together with the mentioned above constitution of the Jewish state power (Mayor’s office), the further development of the Jewish institutions.
By 1942 the Germans had started the extermination of Polish Jews. The evilness of the German plans were based on being able to use the Jewish dreams about an independent autonomy in Warsaw and “a Jewish state” in Łódź. This concentration of the Jewish population in the big cities, and the obedience of the Jewish population towards the authorities of the Jewish autonomies without protest served to make the extermination process easier for the Germans.
The unthinking obedience of the Jewish population towards the authority of the Jewish autonomies, without protest, was simply used by the Germans.
In Roman Polansky’s movie, “The Pianist,” there is an episode when Władysław Szpilman is walking with his family to the wagon, through rows of uniformed men. It was the last road for the Warsaw Jews. The wagons would go to Treblinka. The person with no historical orientation watching this movie will pay no attention that the uniforms of the men staying close to the wagons are not German uniforms, nor Polish, but Jewish. This historical memory of the pianist Władysław Szpilman supports the notes of the Warsaw ghetto chronicler, Emanuel Ringelblum, who wrote about the extermination of 300,000 Jews: “Why only 50 of the SS-men (some witnesses say that even less) with the support of 200 Ukrainians, and about the same number of Latvians, were able to exterminate the Jews so easily? The Jewish police had a very bad reputation even before the displacement of the Jews. But the bottom of their evilness was reached during the displacement. There was not even one word of protest against their despicable function, to provide their brothers with death. The other Jewish organizations and groups (except the police) had switched to the displacement action of their own free will. The leading place in this sense belonged to the Emergency Support Service. Except for them, the Jewish community authorities were supporting the actions of the Jews moving.”²²
One of the most shocking Jewish historical sources about the Holocaust are the little-known poems of Icchak Kacenelson. With poet’s susceptibility, he shows the nightmare of the crime committed on the Jews, by the Jews. In his poem “About my pain” there are these lines:
I am the one who had seen this, who had observed it from very close
And my hands are broken from a shy, from shy and shame
By the hands of the Jews were killed the Jews – disarmed Jews
On the side the German with a sly smile had watched on them.
The German had stood far aside and watched – he did not interfere.
He kills my Jews by the Jewish hands!”²³
There is no doubt about the cooperation of the Jewish administration in the process of Jewish extermination, as is shown in Jewish historical sources. We must mention again, the Jewish Senator Adam Czerniaków. He was not the only one oriented in the direction of the German policy. But when Czerniaków learned that the Jewish autonomy he had created in Warsaw, with the support of the Germans, was a trap, he committed suicide!
To return to Hannah Arendt’s words, about the problem of the Jews’ participation in the extermination, “The issue I had worked over was the cooperation of Jewish authorities with the committers of the “Final Solution.” It was a very uncomfortable issue because it was not possible to say that those persons were traitors (they were the traitors as well, but it is not significant).
The cooperation of the Polish Jews with the Germans – from the Jewish point of view - was not a betrayal but the realization of Jewish political plans. The Poles did not give autonomy to the Polish Jews in 1918-1939, and that was why the Jews had used the first political opportunity and had built ghettos on Polish lands in 1939-1940-1941. From that point of view the authorities of the Jewish autonomies, cooperating with the Germans, might not be called traitors. They cooperated with the Germans for what they saw as a benefit for their Jewish people.
The Polish Jews did not foresee a dramatic end of the Jewish autonomy. But the Holocaust was not foreseen by anybody. In any civilized peoples’ imagination (Jews, Poles and Americans) until the horrors of World War II, no one could imagine the industry of death: gas chambers, crematoriums etc.
Of one thing we are absolutely sure: the establishment, in May 1941 of the Jewish ghettoes in Warsaw, and the other Jewish autonomies on the Polish lands (Łódź, Cracow, Lublin, etc.) is the key element for the understanding of the Polish Jews’ Holocaust, and for a full understanding of Polish-Jewish relations during 1939-1945. And, surprisingly, even now! The sooner that the whole world understands what is documented in the Jewish historical sources that Jewish ghettos were in reality on Polish lands, the quicker the truth is known about the history of the Jews and the Poles during the World War II. It is vital that we all come to a clear understanding of all these facts and work toward erasing old rumors and lies.
Taking into account the information from Jewish historical sources during WWII, the Jewish ghettos in Poland were in reality the “Selbständlige Autonomie,” and Polish-Jewish relations in that time should be further researched. But at this time things can be explained as follows:
1. The Jewish “Selbständlige Autonomie” were political, administrative and ethnic units not connected with Polish society. In these units the Polish Jews in 1939-1942 had their own social structure. The Poles had no influence on the social life of Polish Jews.
2. In 1939-1942, when the Polish Jews were creating the “Selbständlige Autonomie”, the Poles were absorbed into a creation of the Polish Underground State, where the Polish Jews had no influence.
3. When the Germans started the Holocaust of the Jewish people in 1942 there was no connection between the “Selbständlige Autonomie” and the Polish Underground State.
4. The connection and cooperation between the Jews and Poles emerged at the end of 1942, during the Holocaust, and the highest form of this was “Żegota,” supported by the Polish Underground State, actions created to rescue Polish Jews. The scale of “Żegota” actions and of all other similar actions was severely limited by the Germans who imposed the death penalty on any Poles who even attempted to rescue Jews.
1. H. Arendt, Reichmann w Jerozolimie, Kraków 1987., p.394
2. H. Arendt, op.cit., p.394.
3. Ibidem, Vol. II, p.572.
4. M. Balaban, Dzieje żydów w Krakowie i na Kazimierzu 1304-1868, Kraków 1912,p. XVIII-XIX
5. A. Żbikowski, op.cit., p.53
6. M. Balaban, Dzieje Żydów w Galicji, Lwów 1914, p.3
7. Ibidem, p. 121.
8. „Materiały w sprawie żydowskiej w Polsce”, red. I. Grunbaum, vol. I, Warszawa 1919, p. 6-7; „Hajnt”, Nr 198 from 27 October 1918, p. 3.
9. Sprawozdania stenograficzne Sejmu Ustawodawczego, pos. 37, 13 Maj 1919, ł. 5-6; in: Archive of Polish Parliament.
10. Sprawozdania stenograficzne Sejmu Ustawodawczego, pos. 37, 13 Maj 1919, ł. 66; in: Archive of Polish Parliament.
11. W. Bartoszewski, Warto być przyzwoitym [It Pays to Be Decent], Editions spotkania, Paryż 1986, p. 25.
12. A. Hertz, Żydzi w polskiej kulturze [The Jews in Polish Culture], warszawa 1988, p. 83-87.
13. D. Warszawski [Konstanty Gebert], Siła odrzuconych, in: „Wprost” from 20 October 2002.
14. A. Czerniaków, Adama Czerniakowa dziennik getta warszawskiego, Warszawa 1983.
15. E. Ringelblum, Kronika getta warszawskiego, Warszawa 1983.
16. Leon Hurwitz, Pamiętniki [The Memoirs], in: Kronika getta łódzkiego [The Łódź Ghetto Chronics], Łódź 1965, p. XIII.
17. L. Dobroszycki, Kronika getta łódzkiego [The Łódź Ghetto Chronics], Łódź 1965, p. XXI.
18. E. Ringelblum, Kronika getta warszawskiego, Warszawa 1983.
19. A. Czerniaków, Adama Czerniakowa dziennik getta warszawskiego, Warszawa 1983.
20. H. Makower, Pamiętnik getta warszawskiego [The Diaries from Warsaw Ghetto], Wrocław 1987, p. 13.
21. A. Marianowicz, Życie surowo wzbronione [The Diaries from Warsaw Ghetto], Warszawa 1995, p. 48-49.
22. E. Ringelblum, Kronika getta warszawskiego, Warszawa 1983, p. 404, 407, 410, 426-428.
23. I. Kacenelson, Pieśń o zamordowanym żydowskim narodzie, Warszawa 1982, p. 23.