A Microcosm of Wartime Polish-Jewish Relations
On April 17, 1996, PBS first broadcast Shtetl, a Frontline documentary by Marian Marzynski, a Jewish-American film-maker who, as a child, was found shelter in a Catholic convent in German-occupied Poland. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has repeatedly endorsed the film as "a fair, truthful and important account of what happened to the Jewish population of Bransk during World War II" (Marrie Campbell, Series Editor), and "a fair and truthful portrait of events in Bransk during World War II" (Joanna Cherensky, Program Information).
PBS has also actively promoted the film for use in schools as a resource to teach the Holocaust, winning the endorsement of the Facing History and Ourselves Foundation. A teaching guide has even been prepared for this purpose. There was no shortage of funds for this lavish production. Money came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Righteous Persons Foundation, among others, as well as from public television viewers. Awards followed suit: in France, in Israel, and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for broadcast journalism in the United States.
Despite such praise, a growing body of scholars and many members of the public, have raised serious concerns about the film’s historical content and polemical focus. In an open letter to PBS, American producer-director and broadcaster, Dr. Joseph S. Kutrzeba, another Jew who was sheltered by Poles, called Shtetl a travesty of the rules of objective and honest journalism. Man Elchanan, who heads the Brainsker Association in Israel, voiced his disappointment in a film which, in his view, failed to show the positive aspects of prewar Polish-Jewish co-existence, the true extent of Polish rescue efforts on behalf of the Jews, and the complexities of wartime Polish-Jewish relations. He also bemoaned the serious harm that it has caused to Polish-Jewish relations. Knowledgeable American historians—among them Richard Lukas, Stanislaus Blejwas (a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council), and John Kulczycki—have also commented on Shtetl’s many and serious shortcomings.
Among the most glaring incongruities to a lay viewer is the fact that, in the film, Marzynski’s father supposedly died in two very different circumstances: once in the Warsaw ghetto, and then as a partisan in the forests after his escape from a freight train headed for the death camps. Marzynski has provided yet another twist in the Miami Herald: his father actually joined the Soviet partisans—the only problem is that there weren’t any in the area at the time. This is a fairly minor example, but indicative of the film’s shortcomings.
There exist comprehensive, scholarly accounts of what transpired in Brańsk (pronounced Braisk, i representing a nasal front semivowel), a small town in the eastern part of Poland, during World War II authored by Zbigniew (Zbyszek) Romaniuk, the town’s former vice-mayor, who was featured prominently in Shtetl and who is an excellent historian in his own right. There are copious Jewish historical sources as well, such as the Brainsk Book of Memories (Brańsk Memorial Book), a huge compilation of memoirs published by the Brainsker Relief Committee of New York in 1948. Extensive documentation can also be found in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and the Yad Vashem Archives in Jerusalem.
These authors, historians and documents—Jewish and Polish—tell a dramatically different story of Brańsk from that found in Shtetl. That story was known well before PBS aired this film and was fully related to Marzynski by Zbigniew Romaniuk. It was then manipulated and large portions that didn’t fit the "preferred story line" were suppressed. After all, according to the Frontline press release, the stated purpose of the film was "to search for what happened to the shtetl in Brańsk and to uncover the origins and depth of Polish anti-Semitism." Why clutter up a "documentary" with large quantities of facts that simply don’t fit into that preconceived picture and unnecessarily complicate this one-dimensional and static view of Polish-Jewish relations? So what if the film constitutes, in essence, an attempt to shift responsibility for the Holocaust onto the Polish co-victims? These were facts reviewers and viewers never heard, and this failure to tell the story correctly has had a major impact on the film’s reception.
The language and innuendoes of the Frontline press release peppered the North American reviews: "the role that Polish anti-Semitism played in [Brańsk’s] destruction," "the degree of the Poles’ responsibility for the deaths of millions of Jews" (New York Times); "Marzynski wants to gnaw at the knot of Polish complicity in their [i.e., the Jews] disappearance" (Miami Herald).
Many of the reviewers even heralded the theory of Polish complicity in the Holocaust quite enthusiastically. Chris Hume of the Toronto Star, for instance, claimed that the German invaders didn’t need more than a handful of troops because "a great many" of the local Polish population "were only too willing to help." In his determination to outdo Marzynski, Hume alleged that the Germans and Poles took it upon themselves to tear up grave markers in the local Jewish cemetery. The equally inspired Greg Quill of that same newspaper alleged that it was the Poles who systematically rounded up 2,500 Jews in Brańsk.
Another journalist, Robin Dougherty of the Miami Herald (April 17, 1996) assures us that "2,500 Bransk Jews could not perish without Polish indifference." Walter Goodman of the New York Times (April 17, 1996) wrote that "Holocaust survivors ... have little doubt about Polish complicity in the campaign that left Bransk and many other towns free of Jews."
The U.S. Social Studies School Service Resources Materials for the Holocaust (1997 edition) is even more graphic in describing the particular allure and value of this pedagogical tool: It provides "evidence of murder by Nazis and Poles, brutal deeds by Bransk’s elderly Gentile residents, and social acceptance of criminal behaviour during the Nazi era. This sober documentary concludes with the town’s 500th anniversary celebration and official amnesia that Jews ever lived in the pastoral village." In a similar vein, Walter Goodman of the New York Times wrote that Romaniuk had "purposely played down the Jewish role" in those ceremonies.
Although Romaniuk did speak about the Jews at those ceremonies, his remarks, recorded on film, were edited out by Marzynski. The town council sponsored an exhibit of historical documents, curated by Romaniuk, that showed the achievements of the Jewish community. At the dedication of the display Romaniuk traced the development of the Jewish community in Brańsk from the sixteenth century. The festivities ended with entertainment by a Jewish band playing and singing Yiddish tunes. Amnesia? In this instance, Marzynski’s editorial misjudgment borders on disinformation.
The Israeli students shown in the film who had just returned from a death camp trip to Poland openly share these hostile sentiments (and profound ignorance) too: "His [Romaniuk’s] people had a big part in what happened"; "30 million Poles against I don’t know how many German regimes, could have done something"; "I have the impression that what he’s [Romaniuk’s] trying to do is clear his conscience more than he tries to understand." They are right on one account though: "This kind of education of racism is something you get at home," as one of the students put it, not realizing that this applied to their own situation as well.
There is no inkling that there could be anything more of significance to the story. By and large, the mainstream media have refused to publish any addenda that could in any way cast doubt on Shtetl’s thesis. Finally, PBS has been intransigent in refusing to allow Zbigniew Romaniuk an opportunity to respond to the way in which he and his town were portrayed in Shtetl. The intended message was not lost on the many self-righteous viewers who, so generous with their instant insights and unsavoury moralizing, flooded the PBS website with letters.
Yet to a discerning eye, too many of the rave reviewers gave themselves away, some more blatantly than others. Maxine E. Cohen wrote: "The majority of the people of Bransk who were interviewed for the film lied. ... Clearly the film illustrates how the Polish People have not owned up to their responsibilities for helping slaughter the Jews. ... The film clearly illustrated the basis for my prejudice toward the Polish people. For many years, I harbored feelings of guilt concerning my opinions of the Polish people. Upon viewing the film, I feel completely absolved of any guilt feelings." Similar abuse was heaped on Zbigniew Romaniuk. J. S. of Thousand Oaks, CA wrote: "I really thought that the young Polish man had learned something from all of his research, but in the end he turned his back on everything he had learned."
Unfortunately, in the process, none of these harsh critics displayed any real knowledge of Polish-Jewish relations. About those Polish Americans whose protests have been virtually ignored by PBS and will never be fully aired on mainstream American TV, another viewer (David Stanvick) writes: "Once again, Frontline had the courage of its convictions to say it (and show it) the way it was and not bow to financial pressure and strong-arm tactics [sic] of those that prefer their abhorrent history be forgotten."
Obviously, people are not born with such views and attitudes. They are taught and nurtured. Is it surprising, then, that similar sentiments are expressed by representatives of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles? According to Aaron Breitbart, a senior researcher there, those criticizing Shtetl had a clear agenda to "diminish the stain of Poland’s reputation" during World War II. The admonition of French-Jewish intellectual Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who decried "the sort of primitive anti-Polish sentiments that too often characterize those whom I shall call ‘professional Jews,’" begs to be cited in this context.
The Story of Wartime Brańsk
It was a Jewish-American film-maker, Marzynski—not the Poles—who selected Brańsk as a microcosm of wartime Polish-Jewish relations. This choice was fully endorsed by PBS which has continued to this day to stand by the film’s "excellence." This should be borne in mind when reading the following summary of the documented story of Brańsk during the Second World War.
¦ After a ten-day occupation, the Germans retreated from Brańsk in accordance with a demarcation line agreed to by their Soviet ally who occupied the town on September 24, 1939. The invading Soviet Army was greeted enthusiastically by many in the town’s Jewish population, who were rewarded with most of the positions of authority including positions in the Soviet militia. Jewish collaboration was crucial to the deportation of 113 residents of Brańsk—the overwhelming majority of them (94) Christian Poles and the rest (14) Jews—to penal and hard labour camps in the far reaches of the Soviet Union where many of them perished. The lists of deportees were drawn up with the assistance of local collaborators, an indispensable component in the success of the Soviet deportations. Just hours before the Soviet retreat in June 1941, the NKVD (security police), accompanied by two Jewish policemen from Brańsk, led some 40 Poles from the vicinity to the jail in Białystok. These prisoners were brutally murdered en route. Shtetl is oddly silent about this crucial 21-month period of Soviet rule, which was no less brutal than the concurrent German occupation of the western half of Poland.
¦ The legendary Polish courier, Jan Karski, who was made an honorary citizen of Israel for his attempts to warn the West about the Holocaust, confirmed in one of his field reports (February 1940) that a similar situation prevailed throughout the eastern half of Poland: "Jews are denouncing Poles to the secret police and directing the work of the communist militia from behind the scenes ... Unfortunately, one must say that these incidents are very frequent." So do thousands of other accounts, including Jewish ones. British historian Norman Davies, the foremost authority on Polish history in the West, has aptly summarized the state of affairs as follows: "Among the collaborators who came forward to assist the Soviet security forces in dispatching huge numbers of innocent men, women, and children to distant exile and probable death, there was a disproportionate number of Jews ... news of the circumstances surrounding the deportations helped to sour Polish-Jewish relations in other parts of occupied Poland."
¦ Polish-Jewish intellectual Aleksander Smolar observed that "the welcome extended to the Bolsheviks was above all a demonstration of a separate identity, of being different from those against whom the Soviets were waging war—from the Poles—a refusal to be identified with the Polish state. In no other country in Europe did the clash of Jewish interests and attitudes with those of the surrounding population reach such dramatic proportions as they did in Poland under the Soviet occupation of 1939-1941. In other occupied countries, the Jews were in conflict with parts of the surrounding population—with local collaborators, for example—but they were united in solidarity with the rest of society. In Poland, under the Soviet occupation, it was the Jews who were regarded as collaborators. This should be borne in mind if one wants to speak honestly about mutual relations between Poles and Jews." (For a detailed treatment of this subject, see the essay, "Jewish-Polish Relations in Soviet-Occupied Eastern Poland, 1939-1941," found in Part Two of this book.)
¦ When Brańsk again fell to the Germans in June 1941, the few Poles who assumed minor positions of authority were almost all in the local police force. Nevertheless, it was not they who were responsible for the ghettoization of the Jews, nor for the operation of the ghetto and its destruction. The ghetto had its own Jewish Council (Judenrat) that oversaw day-to-day affairs and a Jewish police force that enforced German orders to supply labourers. Jews writing in the Brańsk Memorial Book attest to the harsh and brutal treatment that was meted out. In his monumental study about the Jewish councils, Jewish historian Isaiah Trunk writes: "The labor distribution of the Jewish Council in Brańsk 'put on the list mainly the poor, orphaned youngsters.’" Of the ghetto police in Brańsk we learn: "Severe, brutal treatment of Jewish forced laborers (arrests and beatings) often accompanied by acts of corruption (bribes for assignment to places of lighter work) are reported by eyewitnesses." Shtetl makes no mention of these sensitive but important matters that filled the next 16 months of the war.
¦ The local leaders of the Polish Home Army, then in its infancy, got wind of the plan to deport the Brańsk Jews and warned the ghetto. A number of Jews managed to escape and hide with Poles and in the forests. The large round-up of the Jews in the ghetto took place on November 7, 1942. It was carried out not by the Poles but by a German SS unit armed with machine guns sent especially for this task. The Germans even brought in non-Polish auxiliaries consisting of Lithuanians and Ukrainians to assist them in this "Aktion." They met with no resistance on the part of the Jews. Poles, who were themselves a persecuted minority in the town, played no part either in the destruction of the ghetto or round-up of the Jews. They were warned not to provide any assistance, under penalty of death, and local farmers were ordered to supply wagons. A Jewish policeman pointed out escaping Jews and another Jew, the leader of the Jewish Council, tracked down and divulged the hideouts of 70 Jews who had tried to avoid deportation. These Jews were all executed in Brańsk. Some 2,000 Brańsk Jews were carted off to nearby Bielsk. From there they were dispatched by train to the Treblinka death camp. Shtetl is silent about many aspects of this pivotal event in the history of the Brańsk Jews.
¦ It is true that a very small number of local Poles sullied themselves by betraying Jews. Poles have never denied the existence of denouncers and blackmailers. According to Zbigniew Romaniuk, they numbered no more than a score out of a population of many thousands. What is more, mainstream Polish public opinion condemned such people and the Polish underground passed death sentences and executed many of them. In this context, we should also bear in mind what had happened under the Soviet occupation: there is no evidence of Jewish collaborators being reprimanded by their own community. Romaniuk also points out that Poles who assisted Jews far outnumbered denouncers. Poles were willing to assist even though there was a collective death penalty imposed on the family of anyone who dared to defy the Germans. Such a punishment was unheard of elsewhere in occupied Europe and, in the words of Columbia University historian István Deák, "makes all comparisons between wartime Polish-Jewish relations and, say, Danish-Jewish relations blatantly unfair."
¦ In fact, several thousand Christian Poles—men, women and children, entire families and even whole communities—were tortured to death, summarily executed, or burned alive for rendering assistance to Jews. (This singular group of people, however, has never been adequately recognized by either the state of Israel or the Jewish people, hence their altruism is scarcely known outside Poland.) The pastor of the local Catholic church, Rev. Bolesław Czarkowski, a prewar National Democrat (Endek), was one of numerous members of the Polish clergy who openly called on their congregations to assist the Jews. His assistant, Rev. Józef Chwalko, sought out shelters for escaping Jews among Polish farmers. Several local Poles were murdered for the "crime" of helping Jews including the curate, Rev. Henryk Opiatowski.
¦ Some 76 Jews from Brańsk survived the war, most of them with the help of Poles. To date, nine Polish families (which would have included about 40 people) from the immediate area of this one town have been recognized as "Righteous Gentiles." We know that Marzynski interviewed six Polish Christians from Brańsk who rescued Jews. However, they are absent from his documentary. It is not surprising that such facts did not find their way into the film. The prospect of acknowledging, for example, that three Catholic priests from one small town in Poland risked their lives to rescue Jews simply did not fit the story line or the popular caricature of Poles as portrayed in mainstream Holocaust literature.
¦ In total, more than 5,000 Poles have been honoured by Yad Vashem. They constitute more than one third of the "Righteous Gentiles." Yad Vashem historian Joseph Kermish concedes that this group of Poles constitutes but a tiny fraction of those deserving of recognition, since the documented number of "Righteous Gentiles" from Poland could approximate 100,000—a figure which does not include much larger numbers of Poles who provided casual assistance.
¦ It is a specious argument that many more Poles, who—unlike most other occupied peoples—had their own genocide to contend with, should have put their lives and the lives of their family members on the line to assist Jews. It pits one group of victims against another, forgetting in the process who the real culprits were. Moreover, it holds Poles up to a level of heroism and altruism that most of those who are anxious to condemn them could never themselves live up to. (We are repeatedly urged by Holocaust survivors, who are hurt by charges of Jewish passivity, not to judge but to put ourselves in their situation and ask how we would have behaved in similar circumstances. Surely, the same standard should apply to Poles.)
¦ The argument is also morally repugnant because one of its prime purposes is to vilify Poles. This self-righteous, if not hypocritical, approach has been amply exposed by courageous survivors who are prepared to look objectively at the nature and reality of the German occupation in Poland. Two testimonies of Jewish women who were rescued by Poles are very telling: (1) "I am not at all sure that I would give a bowl of food to a Pole if it could mean death for me and my daughter." (2) "Today, with the perspective of time, I am full of admiration for the courage and dedication ... of all those Poles who in those times, day in, day out, put their lives on the line. I do not know if we Jews, in the face of the tragedy of another nation, would be equally capable of this kind of sacrifice." There are many more such testimonies. When Zbigniew Romaniuk put a similar question to a Jew rescued by a Pole, after a moment’s thought, he replied that he would probably not have helped Poles under similar conditions.
¦ Except for one fleeting scene (when Marzynski is shown at Yad Vashem near the end of the film), Shtetl effectively negates the existence of Brańsk rescuers, even though Marzynski had initially gone to the trouble of filming some of their stories. The film’s primary concern it seems, to the virtual exclusion of all else, is the handful of Poles who sullied themselves during the German occupation of Brańsk. Shtetl rails pretentiously and with seeming indifference to a complex reality: "My mind cannot support decency and inhumanity in the same people." American journalists in turn ask, "Do good people turn in Jews?" The meaning of these words, which target Poles, is not lost on their audience. For those truly concerned about the human condition, however, the real question is: "Do good people act to the detriment of their neighbours regardless of their nationality?" And, unless we postulate collective guilt and selective morality, our focus must be on individuals, regardless of their nationality, not nations. On this point, Marzynski is, at best, ambivalent. "Nobody says the Polish nation is no good," he says. And then a few minutes later adds: "Doesn’t this condemn Polish society?"
¦ Poles also suffered terribly under the Soviet and German occupation, though not nearly to the same extent as the Jews under the latter. Selective genocide of the Polish educated classes was undertaken almost immediately by both occupants before the Holocaust of the Jews got underway. In total, three million non-Jewish citizens of Poland perished in the Second World War, including many residents of Brańsk. Although the fate of the Poles was not the focus of Shtetl, failing to even acknowledge this important aspect of the war further discredits the film. It was as if Marzynski feared that mentioning the fate of the Christian victims would somehow threaten the incomparable Jewish tragedy or the universality of the film’s intended message.
¦ The Soviet re-entry in mid-1944 saw a repetition of what had occurred in 1939-1941. Members of the anti-Nazi and anti-Communist Polish Home Army, including those from Brańsk, were rounded up in droves and executed on the spot, imprisoned, or deported to the Gulag. Local collaborators—often Jews—played a key role in this operation by identifying and arresting those who had fought for a free Poland. Some former Jewish partisans continued to engage in common robbery. Again Shtetl maintains complete silence about these matters, preferring instead to talk about the Jewish victims of the immediate "postwar" era, i.e., the so-called Soviet "liberation" of Poland.
¦ It is regrettably true that collaborators—whether with the Nazis or Soviets, whether Christians or Jews—were an effective force with which to contend. The Polish Underground imposed death sentences on such persons and carried out many executions. But at the same time we must remember that these collaborators represented tiny, marginal and unrepresentative groups within their respective communities. In the case of Brańsk, the historical record shows that the first collaborators were primarily (some) Jews who assumed positions within the Soviet administration and apparatus of terror and facilitated the arrest and deportation of (mostly) Poles and (some) Jews to the Gulag. As we have seen, in one notable instance, Jews took part in the execution of local Poles.
¦ Under the German occupation, the role of Polish collaborators was marginal. The Jews, especially those in the Brańsk ghetto, suffered mostly on account of the collaboration of the Jewish Council and the Jewish police. Even after the ghetto was liquidated, some 70 Jews who were hidden with the help of Poles were betrayed by Isaiah Cukier, a leader of the Jewish Council. Scores of Jews managed to hide, most often with Christian help. Unfortunately, some of them were betrayed. This, however, was the work of a tiny group of people. On the other hand, after the war, members of the Home Army were also betrayed by some Jews and a few Jews (as well as a local Catholic priest and some other Poles) were killed by criminal elements.
¦ The evidence does not support the claim that more Jews suffered at Polish hands (under the Nazi occupation) than Poles at the hands of Jews (under the Soviet occupations). If there was some imbalance in the statistics, it was likely attributable to the fact that Jews were in a more precarious situation than Poles for a longer time. But incidents of collaboration should never divert our attention from those forces which were primarily responsible for the cataclysm that befell all of Poland’s citizens: Nazi German fascism and Soviet communism. Such a diversion would constitute a posthumous victory for the totalitarian aggressors.
Simon Wiesenthal has advocated the following wise and balanced assessment of that tragic period which consumed millions of Jewish and Polish lives: "Then the war came. It is at times like these that the lower elements in society surface—the blackmailers who would betray Jews ... On the other hand, the 30 or 40,000 Jews who survived, survived thanks to the help of Poles. This I know. But whenever I am talking on this subject, I always say that I know what kind of role Jewish communists played in Poland after the war. And just as I, as a Jew, do not want to shoulder responsibility for the Jewish communists, I cannot blame 36 million Poles for those thousands of blackmailers."
Scholars of the calibre of Walter Laqueur have remarked that the Poles have become a convenient scapegoat, at whom all manner of false charges have been hurled. The oft-repeated charge that Poles were responsible for the Holocaust is a vile myth to which no serious scholar subscribes. Yisrael Gutman, director of research at the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem and editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, has stated authoritatively and without mincing words: "all accusations against the Poles that they were responsible for the ‘Final Solution’ are not even worth mentioning. Secondly, there is no validity at all in the contention that Polish attitudes were the reason for the siting of the death camps in Poland. Poland was a completely occupied country. ... No one asked the Poles how one should treat the Jews." And again: "I want to be unequivocal about this. When it is said that Poles supposedly took part in the extermination of the Jews on the side of the Germans, that is not true. It has no foundation in fact. There was no such thing as Poles taking part in the extermination of the Jewish population. There were minor exceptions when the (Polish) ‘Blue’ police and the Jewish police took part in the expulsion and extermination of Jews."
Professor Gutman has stated that the percentage of Poles who collaborated with the Germans was "infinitesimally small." Harvard University historian Richard Pipes wrote: "it must never be mistakenly believed that the Holocaust was perpetrated by the Poles. Nor must it be ignored that three million Poles perished at German hands." Szymon Datner, long-time director of Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute, has been equally blunt: "Poles are not responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust."
Joseph Rothschild, a noted historian at the Institute on East Central Europe at Columbia University in New York, writes: "... the achievements of the Polish resistance movement were indeed prodigious. It tied down approximately 500,000 German occupation troops and, according to official German figures, prevented one out of every eight Wehrmacht transports headed for the Russian front from reaching its destination. ... Abroad, substantial Polish military units fought against the Germans on most Allied fronts: Norway, France, the Battle of Britain, North Africa, Italy, Normandy, the Lower Rhine, and the Soviet Union. And Poland was the only Axis-occupied country in Europe without a quisling."
This, in essence, is the tragic story of Brańsk. It is a story which the Polish community simply wants to have told fully and impartially. It is a story that Shtetl deliberately suppressed and distorted. Furthermore, the film set the stage for confrontation and thereby precluded meaningful dialogue between Poles and Jews.
All that is sought is honesty and balance in reporting the Holocaust, and fairness to the Poles. Nothing more, nothing less. Although PBS has all the means at its disposal to deal fairly with this matter, including airing an in-depth interview with Zbigniew Romaniuk, the foremost authority on Brańsk, who has publicly expressed his willingness to take part in such an interview, it has sorely failed to live up to its civic duty. What is more, PBS has continued to broadcast Shtetl in its original form even though Marzynski has edited a more palatable version for the Polish market.
The wartime story of Brańsk, as well as related aspects of Polish-Jewish relations, are treated comprehensively in The Story of Two Shtetls, Brańsk and Ejszyszki, a publication of the Polish Educational Foundation in North America. The book lends itself to use in Holocaust and modern history courses at the high school and college levels, as well as journalism and media courses.
The second part of The Story of Two Shtetls is devoted to the story of wartime relations between Poles and Jews in northeastern Poland. It takes issue with Yaffa Eliach’s widely publicized, but conflicting and highly questionable, accounts of the postwar fate of the Jews of Ejszyszki, another "shtetl" or small town inhabited by a large Jewish population that was briefly featured in Marzynski’s Shtetl. Recently released Soviet archival documents have confirmed what Polish historians have maintained all along about the alleged pogrom in Ejszyszki.
The Soviets, and in particular their partisans and security forces, were engaged in an all out war against the non-communist Polish underground. Members of the Polish Home Army were rounded up, and many thousands of them, especially leaders, were either executed on the spot or deported to the Gulag. The dreaded NKVD, whose collaborators included Yaffa Eliach’s father, Moshe Sonenson, had a base in the town of Ejszyszki. In fact, a high-ranking Soviet officer was lodged in the Sonenson home at the time of the assault. It was for this reason, and no other, that her family’s home, the only one of all the homes occupied by Jews, was attacked by a Home Army unit on October 20, 1944. In the process of apprehending the Soviet official, two members of the Sonenson family were also killed. This action cannot be called a pogrom since Jews, as such, were not its target.
Regrettably, many—but certainly not most—Jews became agents of the Soviet regime imposed on Poland after the "liberation," thereby placing themselves on a collision course with Poles. It was not simply a matter of anti-Semitic Poles attacking defenceless Jews, as Yaffa Eliach and others would have us believe. Incomparably more Poles became the victims of the Stalinist regime.
Based on The Story of Two Shtetls, Brańsk and Ejszyszki: An Overview of Polish-Jewish Relations in Northeastern Poland during World War II. A collective work in two parts, published in 1998 by the Polish Educational Foundation in North America. 434 pages. Canadian orders (postpaid): $28 CDN. US orders (postpaid): $20 US. Available from (mail orders only):
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