FORGOTTEN HOLOCAUST: The Poles Under German Occupation, 1939-1944. By Richard C. Lukas. University Press of Kentucky. 300 pp. $24.
WHEN LIGHT PIERCED THE DARKNESS: Christian Rescue of Jews In Nazi-Occupied Poland. By Nechama Tec. Oxford University Press. 262 pp. $19.95.
WINTER IN THE MORNING: A Young Girl's Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond, 1939-1945. By Janina Bauman. The Free Press. 195 pp. $16.95.
THE NAZI OCCUPATION of Poland opened a deep wound that still aches in the heart of Polish identity. Some 6 million Poles, half of them non-Jews, were murdered by the Germans, who among other things set out systematically to eradicate the Polish elite: during the war, it has been estimated, Poland lost 45 percent of her physicians and dentists, 57 percent of her attorneys, more than 15 percent of her teachers, 40 percent of her professors, 30 percent of her technicians, and more than 18 percent of her clergy.
Poland was not only the site of the Nazis' "Final Solution of the Jewish Question," it was also a vast slave labor and concentration camp, whose inmates were to toil for the Third Reich. The physical destruction was colossal, and German looting reckoned between $20 and $25 billion. The wreckage of Poland's cities was awesome. Hitler ordered Warsaw razed to the ground before his armies retreated, and this was virtually completed by January 1945 when the Soviets interrupted the work. Thereafter, the Red Army carted off to the East whatever of value remained.
As a result, recovery was even slower and more painful than it might have been. Rubble carpeted 80 percent of the Polish capital in the middle of 1947, and 30,000 corpses still lay beneath the ruins of what once had been the Warsaw Ghetto. Abandoned by the West in 1939, when they fought alone; victims of the most cruel Nazi occupation policies; and engulfed by the Russians in 1945, the Poles have ample cause to feel aggrieved.
Richard Lukas tells this story with an outrage properly contained within the framework of a scholarly narrative. Unfortunately, his work is marred by an additional agenda -- a sustained polemic against Jewish historians who, he feels, have diminished the Polish tragedy and have unfairly charged the Poles with anti-Semitism.
A plea for balance is certainly valid. It makes sense to point out that not all Poles hated the Jews, and that many risked their lives to save those targeted for the Final Solution. Lukas usefully reminds us of the channels provided by the Polish underground, the Home Army, in relaying news of the massacres of Jews to the West. And he is right to point out how the strategic objectives of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters in 1943 necessarily conflicted with those of the Home Army, which wanted to prevent a "premature" uprising in Poland, was understandably nervous about the Communists, and saw its task as helping the Polish people survive the Nazi horror.
But Lukas seriously underplays the importance of anti-Jewish ideology in the Polish consciousness. Few historians would accept his contentions that anti-Semitism was marginal, and that, for example, only one party in pre-war Poland -- the National Democrats -- was hostile to Jews. After the death of Polish leader Marshal Jozef Pilsudski in 1935 an officially sponsored, openly declared anti-Jewish policy was zealously pursued by his successors in government. Spokesmen for the regime regularly declared that the Jews were not part of the Polish nation, and that they should leave the country. Lukas completely ignores the role of prominent churchmen in this sometimes ferocious campaign, and their continuing opposition to Jews during the Nazi period. Cardinal Hlond, the Catholic primate of Poland, wrote in a pastoral letter in 1936 that "a Jewish problem exists, and will continue to exist, as long as the Jews remain Jews."
The Jews were accused of everything from support for communism to freethinking, ritual murder, usury, pornography, white slavery, and the seduction of Polish youth. It is true that much of this differed from Nazi- style racism and genocide. Nevertheless, a fierce, widely popular anti-Semitism formed part of the bleak landscape of prewar and wartime Poland, explaining much of the indifference and hostility Jews encountered during the Nazi years. Even after the war anti- Jewish riots erupted, the worst of which, in Kielce in 1946, killed more than 40 Jews. Some 1,500 more were murdered or died in pogroms before the summer of 1947.
More fundamentally, Lukas seems unwilling to accept the distinction between German policies towards Jews and other Poles. In the Nazi vision, the Poles were to suffer a dreadful fate -- their leadership was to be murdered and most of the population was to be enslaved, brutalized, oppressed and deported to an uncertain fate in the east. Only with the Jews, however, did Hitler decree a total, systematic annihilation. What makes the Jewish catastrophe unique is not the staggering numbers involved, nor even the heavy proportion of the Jewish people finally killed, but rather this hate-inspired program to annihilate an entire people -- down to the last man, woman and child. To achieve this, the Nazis developed their monstrous system of ghettoization, physical marking, mass shootings, gassings, and death factories. Other peoples too suffered from these horrible experiments, but only to the Jews, deemed by Hitler to be the demonic force in world history, were they systematically applied.
SOME SENSE of the singular character of the Jewish experience comes from Nechama Tec's analysis of Christian rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland, based on lengthy interviews with both rescuers and rescued. Tec's boo celebrates one segment of Polish society -- men and women from many backgrounds and social circumstances who risked their lives to help Jews escape. Their achievements are all the more heroic in view of the deadly climate of antipathy that enveloped Jews and their helpers -- a climate formed not only by Nazi terror, but also by the menace of the Jews' Polish neighbors. "Please accept it as a fact that the overwhelming majority of the country is anti-Semitic," the commander of the Polish Home Army relayed to London in 1941. "Anti-Semitism is widespread now. Even secret organizations . . . adopt the postulate of emigration as a solution to the Jewish problem." Because of this climate, Tec suggests, the rescuers turn out to be strong individualists, determinedly unwilling or unable to blend with their environment, often marginal within their own communities. "I always had my own goals and aims in life regardless of how others felt about it," explained a rebellious socialist who hid Jews from the Gestapo. "I fought against what I considered to be wrong. . . . This did not mean that others agreed with me but I was not bothered by it."
Perhaps because she is a Jewish survivor, sheltered for three years by Christian Poles, Tec was able to tap the sometimes long-repressed memories of rescued and rescuers alike. Their vivid accounts of flight and hiding are undoubtedly the strongest parts of her book. I am struck by the frequent reference, among Jews and non-Jews, to physiognomy. All seem to agree that there were typically "Jewish looks," that these were readily discerned and that with them a Jew could scarcely appear in public. "Sad, dark eyes," in wartime Poland, could mean death. That is why so many Jews stole about with their faces bandaged. To my reading, details like these are far more telling than Tec's frequent statistical evaluations based upon a necessarily random sample, and her strained emulation of social science literature Janina Bauman's beautifully written memoir of her Jewish childhood in the Warsaw Ghetto and escape beyond its walls offers remarkable testimony to the durability of the human spirit, even when crushed with adversity. Bauman came from a wealthy, cultivated, highly assimilated Warsaw family; occupying a lavish apartment, together with a maid and a cook, they enjoyed a Christmas tree as well as celebrations of important Jewish festivals. Her grandfather, a prominent physician, had a chauffeur who later denounced the family to the Nazis. Bauman remembers not only the ghastly reality of the Warsaw Ghetto -- naked bodies on the streets covered with newspaper, emaciated children begging for food, and the terrifying roundups and deportations to Treblinka -- she also recounts her adolescent flirtations, her rigorous underground schooling, and her visit to the dentist just before being smuggled to the "Aryan" side. A highly personal account, Bauman's story, like that of all Polish Jews, is inextricably linked with the agony of her country and the nightmarish hostility that Jews faced there. Her father, a Polish medical officer, was killed by the Soviets in the forests of Katyn. Tracked from hiding place to hiding place, befriended by some Poles and rejected by others (Bauman's sister went about with a bandaged face), she was unable, at age 17, to join the underground Home Army because she was Jewish. Go to the communists, she was told, they accepted Jews.