The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nazi guards weren’t the only ones killing Jews during the Holocaust. Some — but not all — communities did it themselves first. Why?

Jakiw Palij, a former Nazi concentration camp guard, is carried on a stretcher as he is deported to Germany on Aug. 20. (ABC/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

As the United States deports a former Nazi concentration camp guard to Germany, the world has been reminded again of the popular image of the Holocaust as one of impersonal mass slaughter. In the death camps, Jews and other victims died at the hands of murderers who didn’t know their victims but were filled with anti-Semitic hate.

But by the time that the death camps’ gas chambers became operational, approximately half of the Jews who would perish in the Holocaust were already dead. Many of these Jews were tortured or killed by “ordinary” non-Jews at close quarters: in apartments, in streets, in the woods and anywhere else Jews could be found. The perpetrators often knew or knew of their victims, and the means were often primitive: guns, axes, crowbars, bricks, fire, beating and drowning.

Jews did not face this kind of personalized anti-Semitic violence in every community. Our recently published book, “Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust,” identifies the factors that put Jews at risk in some places but not others. And these factors involve more than just anti-Semitism.

Targeting Jews in Poland and Ukraine

Our book examines a particularly brutal wave of anti-Jewish violence that occurred across hundreds of predominantly Polish and Ukrainian communities on the eastern front in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. We document 219 communities of local non-Jews attacking their Jewish neighbors, nearly 10 percent of the 2,304 localities where Jews and non-Jews lived together. Ethnic Poles were the primary perpetrators in approximately 25 percent of these pogroms; in the remaining instances, ethnic Ukrainians predominated.

These attacks were often gruesome. In Wasosz, a small town in northeastern Poland, Szymon Datner’s testimony describes the events of early July 1941:

… women were raped, their breasts cut off, little children were smashed on the walls, the fingers of the dead were cut off along with their gold rings, gold teeth were torn out of mouths; when in a house children were found with their parents, they would torture the children first, and then the parents.

In the Ukrainian city Drohobycz, Jakub Gerstenfeld’s account notes that on July 1, 1941, “a few dozen people were killed in the most brutal possible way, hit with hammers or axes in the head.” The archival record is packed with similar accounts.

Why did some communities have anti-Jewish pogroms?

What made these 219 communities so toxic for Jews, while leaving the vast majority of other localities untouched by pogroms? Our answer is more complicated than “anti-Semitism.” Of course, some form of anti-Semitism was prevalent in most Polish and Ukrainian communities, whether they experienced a pogrom or not. Although in some ways Jews prospered in interwar Poland, they still faced persistent discrimination, boycotts of Jewish businesses, and even the bombing of synagogues, stores and apartments. The National Democrats, an anti-Semitic party, remained one of the most popular parties in Poland. And the Roman Catholic Church, while opposing anti-Jewish violence, still depicted Jews as Christ-killers and corrupters.

But paradoxically, anti-Semitism’s prevalence diminishes it as the primary driver of pogroms. If anti-Semitism were the key, then there would have been far more pogroms than there were.

So what made a community succumb to pogrom violence? The answer lies in Jewish aspirations for equality, and the threat this posed to Polish and Ukrainian nationalists. Pogroms were more likely to occur in communities where Jews, through their support of “Zionist” political parties, signaled their demand to be recognized as a nation rather than just a religion. For them, Zionism meant refusal to accept anything less than the same rights accorded to other nations.

For example, Zionist politicians in interwar Poland called for publicly funded schools in Hebrew and Yiddish, an end to discriminatory Sunday closing laws, curtailing restrictions on employment of Jews in the public sector, fairness in taxation and public goods provision for Jewish majority settlements, and representation in government commensurate with Jewish demographic weight. As taxpaying citizens of Poland, Jews had every right to advocate for these things.

But Poles and Ukrainians from across the political spectrum did not see Jews as national equals. Polish and Ukrainian nationalists had a stronger reaction: They considered Zionists a mortal threat to their goal of building homogeneous national communities. And so, in communities with a Zionist presence, Poles and Ukrainians seized the opportunity provided by the German invasion and local indifference to get rid of “foreigners” who would never accept their political dominance.

What spared the Jews in communities that did not experience pogroms?

It was not the absence of anti-Semitic Polish and Ukrainian nationalists. They were certainly present in these communities, too. Instead, the key was how the broader community reacted to opportunity for anti-Jewish violence in the first chaotic weeks of the war. Poles and Ukrainians who dwelled alongside non-nationalist Jews were less likely to view those Jews with indifference, less willing to condone violence against their Jewish neighbors and more likely to feel solidarity with them as members of the community who deserved protection.

Preventing pogroms depended more on the protection of such “friends” from other groups than on the absence of “enemies” who were never very far away.

Read more:

Poland’s new Holocaust law is just the latest attempt to officially redefine its history

Yes, some Poles were Nazi collaborators. The Polish Parliament is trying to legislate that away.

Property stolen during the Holocaust made some communities richer, even 70 years later.

Jeffrey S. Kopstein is professor and chair of political science at the University of California at Irvine.

Jason Wittenberg is associate professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley.