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The Attitudes of the Poles Toward the Jews

Excerpted from the diary of Calel Perechodnik, a Jewish Policeman in the Otwock Ghetto:

Calel Perechodnik was a young Polish Jew from Otwock – a small town near Warsaw.

In the vain hope of protecting himself and his family, Calel Perechodnik decided to become a Ghetto policeman in Otwock. The true tragedy of his choice became clear during an “aktion” in which he took part as a policeman, when he witnessed his own wife and child being deported.

Later, Perechodnik fled the Ghetto, finding shelter with a Polish woman in Warsaw. During his 105 days of hiding, he wrote his story in a diary.

Shortly before his death in 1944, he entrusted the diary to a Polish friend. The document was eventually given to the Yad Vashem Archives. It was published in Hebrew in 1993 and in English in 1996.

I would like to characterize the attitudes of Poles toward Jews and, in general, toward the acts of extermination of Jews. The lower classes of the townspeople as well as the peasants oriented themselves to which-ever way the wind was blowing. They understood that they had an opportunity to enrich themselves, one that came only in a great while. One could pillage without penalty, steal, kill people, so that many using the slogan “now or never” got to work. They raised their hands to heaven, thankful for the favor that they had lived to see such times...They considered themselves innocent. After all, the Germans were responsible.

In every town where there was an Aktion, the ghetto was surrounded by a mob that participated in a formal hunt on Jews, a hunt according to all the rules of hunting—with beaters or without them. Did many Jews perish at their hands? Countless ones! In the best case, the beaters took money from Jews, resigned to lead them only to the gendarmes. It was in any case a sentence of death. What could the Jew do without money? He could go to the gendarme himself and ask for a bullet. I myself saw and heard from the mouths of Poles about such cases.

Our janitor, Jan Dabrowski, caught Jews by force and delivered them into the hands of the gendarmes after first robbing them. The mob acted in unison, the nameless mob. When the conductors on trains noticed a Jew, they communicated to one another, " I caught a bird.” A bird naturally had to be “plucked of its feathers". I know about this from others, and I witnessed it myself, that the conductor checked the documents of women with a suspicious appearance. In ninety-nine such cases, the conductor exposed himself to shame.

"Sir, do you think me to be a Jewess? I wonder if you sir is looking for Jews as a job, or for your personal purposes?"

But in the hundredth case, the discovered Jewess had to pay the conductor with interest for all past embarrassments. In Warsaw there was even a new occupation: a tracker of Jews. Still, one should not throw stones at these people because they work for the German service. They work as they have an aim and for a "noble purpose". They want to make it easier for the Jews, meaning making it easier on their pockets. That is a noble and lucrative purpose. That is how the masses reacted, but the fact that in Poland half the people belong to these lower classes, that's another matter. And how did the rest of the population react - the intelligencia?

It's a peculiar thing: Jews did not even dream that the order to kill Jews would apply to all Jews, while the Poles realized right away that no Jew would survive the war.

Is this proof for the far sighted or the politically wise? Or is this wisdom a consequence of the saying "everyone draws conclusions regarding the future according to his own convenience?"

In general things happened that the greatest genius would not be able to describe. Tragedies took place that people never dreamed about, and in spite of that, they were not even an interesting topic of conversation. The Magister, who daily rode the electric train to Warsaw, told me that even in the worst time of the Aktion he did not hear comments about Jews in the train or that someone should have had pity for them.

In a word—not an interesting topic for a general conversation, but surely an interesting topic for a family discussion. Indeed, it happened that a Pole had a Jewish friend who gave him things for safekeeping. If he then obligingly went to Treblinka, the matter was finished. Possessions increased; the conscience was clear— tout va tres bien (“Everything is in order” (French) ed.).

It was worse when a Jew appeared to be "bothersome" wanted to live and remind them of his possessions. Then there was something to talk about to others. Indeed, the Jew will not survive the war anyway, and so he will not be able to repay the favor after the war. He will not be able to lodge charges before a court, will not cast a shadow on an unblemished name. To give anything back to him is simply a sin. If we give things back to him, others will come and take things away. Majority found an easy answer.

"The gendarmes took it away." They would say

" Please don't come to us anymore".

There were also those who demanded from the Jews the return of a thousand zloty, claiming that they had to ransom themselves from the Germans, being judged guilty by them for the Jewish possessions they had. Usually, after a couple of months, everything was in order; the Jew perished and the matter was closed.

I don't want to say that there weren't Poles who willingly helped Jews, some of them unselfishly. The best proof of this is the fact that I am still alive; if they had taken all my things, I would not be in this world. It's true that with the things they took away from me I could have lived to be one hundred, but that is really a small difference. It only amounts to two foolish zeroes.

Interesting are the changes in the mentality of many Poles in their relations with Jews. I know a Pole, our former tenant, who considers himself 100 percent patriot and a decent man. And, indeed, he is a decent man. I can trust him absolutely. He is probably the only tenant in 1943 in all of Poland's territory paying rent to his Jewish landlord. This man, in a conversation with my father, could express himself in the following manner: “I traded with that Jew for so many years, and think about it, he gave me nothing for safekeeping. They took him to Treblinka—and what did he get from that?! If only he had left me his goods.”

But let us put aside the material questions; these are dirty matters. It was reasoned plainly. From where did the Jews get such wealth? Wasn't it from the Polish soil? The time had come for them to repay their debt to Poles. Everything, then, is in order. Moreover, pecunia non olet .

I will now describe two other occurrences.

Miss Alkimowitch belonged before the war to society's elite. At the start of war, when she lived in my house, she could have discussions with my wife for hours. She addressed her always as Dear Miss Anka. You will see soon the Germans will start running away and there will be an end to the Jew hunts. Our suffering will disappear. Do you know how good in Poland it will be then! We considered her an educated patriot, a democrat, a person with a noble heart. At the beginning of the war she stopped speaking to my wife. That is why I was very surprised when after the Aktion Miss Alkimowitch didn't even approach me and ask me what had happened to “dear Miss Anka.” It became clear only in the fall. Dr. Lidia Wolanska told me that in a conversation with Miss Alkimowitch, she explained, “The one and immortal favor by the Germans toward the Poles is the fact that they had cleansed her of Jews.”

What was more, Miss Lidia did not say this in an angry tone. She repeated what she heard and also added what she thought.

Mr. Calek,” she explained to me, “so many Poles are being transported to Oswiecim so many thousands of people are being deported to work, and nothing has happened to the Jews so far. They have not suffered such sacrifices. Is this just? The Germans, deporting Jews from Warsaw, behaved fairly. It's too bad that they have deported Jews from Otwock, for these are our friends. ...”

This was how the lady doctor, the mother of two small children, with a clear sacrificed 3.5 million men, women, and children as an equivalent for the losses and sacrifices suffered by the Poles. It is necessary to add that she was not an anti-Semite; she expressed only the opinion of the environment, accepting it as her own. Only her good heart took pity on the Jews of Otwock.

The reaction of prewar anti-Semites is interesting. I was surprised by the actions of Staszek and Stefan M., whom I have mentioned. They came from a Catholic environment. They had no social contacts with Jews and even fought against them using means not sanctioned by the teachings of their religion. For them a Jew was a wealthy man who exploited Polish labor and was an opponent deserving of a fight.

When times changed, when a common enemy ruled Poland, even though he sowed dissension among Poles against Jews, the prewar attitudes lost their significance. The human hearts of the brothers protested against the extermination of Jews. The brothers, as much as possible, saved their friends and those they did not know. I bow in honor to them. That they were anti-Semites before the war means that their behavior should be viewed in a special light. In these difficult and ungrateful times, they behaved as real believers in Christ and as sincere Polish patriots. That is not to say that this is how all prewar anti-Semites behaved. An overwhelming number now found a proper time to show their best tricks. People such as Brothers M. are lost in such a mob.

What, then, was the position of the Polska Partja Niepodleglosciowa [Polish Independence Party] Three months after the start of the Aktion, in October 1942, an article discussing the deportation of Jews appeared in Biuletyn Informacyjny [Information Bulletin]. It emphasized the barbarism of the Germans, expressed compassion for the Jews, but in the end came to the following conclusion: The best class of Jews were those who before the war did not want to be a parasite on a foreign organism and emigrated to Palestine. They were destined to live; the remainder of the nation perished.

The Polish armed forces held to a prewar position of antisemitism and had no intention of defending the Jews. If there had appeared in the daily press even one communique with the following text—“The Special Court has decreed a sentence of death on a functionary of the Blue Police for seizing and delivering Jews to the Germans. Sentence carried out on that and that day, in such and such a place”—the situation would have been different. Various Polish policemen or private trackers would have stopped such a disgraceful, although lucrative practice. Unfortunately, neither did such or similar communique appear, nor did the armed forces proceed to enlist young and able Jews with the purpose of strengthening partisan detachments. Only in December did the Polska Partia Robotnicza [Polish Workers Party] come into contact with the Warsaw ghetto, furnishing arms for a price. But it was already too late for Jews to save themselves or to inflict serious losses on the Germans. The last of the Jewish Mohicans could, however, thanks to that help, perish honorably with arms in hand.

It's difficult for me to write about Poles. What is happening today is the greatest disillusionment that I have endured in my life. I have lived for twenty-six years among the Poles, embraced Polish culture and literature, loved Poland, looked on her as another motherland, and only in the last year have I recognized the true faces of Poles.

I would gladly describe the facts of every noble behavior toward Jews, but I cannot be silent in the face of the vileness of those who, out of desire for profit or out of blind hatred, sacrificed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

One has to look truth squarely in the eye. Jews perished first of all because they didn't realize in time what level German cruelty and barbarism would reach. They were well aware, however, of the vileness of some Poles. They knew what it was that closed before them the gates of the Polish neighborhood and forced them to wait in the ghetto for the near and inevitable sentence of death.

I am not in the least blind. I don't consider it to be a duty of every Pole to hide, at the risk of his own life, every Jew. But I believe that it was the responsibility of the Polish society to enable Jews to move freely within the Polish neighborhood. Polish society is guilty of not strongly condemning the “trackers” of Jews.

It's true Poles helped me, my father, my mother—they helped thousands of other Jews. Thinking of the base ones should not lead one to draw conclusions touching on all. Does the statistic of good and bad deeds have any meaning? No, this is not important. God on Highest took a position on this matter. In the Old Testament it is written that if one finds in a town ten righteous people, that place will not be destroyed. Probably in Warsaw and in every other city one can also find ten righteous people.

Source: Calel Perechodnik, “Am I A Murderer? Testament of a Jewish Ghetto Policeman,” Westview Press, 1996, pp. 97-101.

Source: Yad Vashem