By Mike Poliec, 2012 Jaffa and Larry Feldman Fellow
Like many citizens whose countries were invaded by Nazi Germany during World War II, Polish civilians responded to occupation in two main ways: by collaborating or resisting. In the case of the latter, rescue operations, whether initiated by organizations or individuals, involved heroic endeavors and immense personal risk. In Poland, contrary to other German-occupied countries where fines or imprisonment were the consequences for assisting Jews, Poles risked death for themselves and their families. Nevertheless, acts of Polish heroism did happen.
Many Polish Jews who were in hiding during the war were able to do so because of the help of local Polish people. Emanuel Ringelblum, the renowned historian of the Warsaw Ghetto, was saved twice by the Polish underground. Writer and activist Jan Dobraczynski, the head of the Warsaw Department of Social Welfare, managed to save around five hundred Jewish children by placing them in Polish convents. There are countless other cases in which Jewish individuals or groups were aided by gentile Poles. Local clergy, laymen, women, children, and entire families, were executed or murdered in Nazi concentration camps for helping Jews.
On the continuum of involvement, resistance is opposite from collaboration. Providing aid to those in need was a matter of personal choice and responsibility, which reflected the bystander’s movement on this continuum. According to Yad Vashem, 6,394 Poles (the highest number in any one country) have been honored as Righteous Among the Nations for their involvement in rescuing Jews during World War II. These individuals embraced highly ethical, non-collaborationist behavior. No one was required to be a hero, yet people made decisions that were nothing less than heroic. Many Righteous interviews reflect humble individuals who did not aspire to be honored. I chose to explore the topic of resistance versus complicity in the Polish context because it converges with my doctoral research trajectory.
I seek to complement the existing knowledge on Romanian civilian complicity by examining questions and conceptual categories to understand how bystanders turned into perpetrators and made the extermination of Jews possible. Exploring and understanding the phenomenon of resistance and the behavior of rescuers in Poland complements my understanding of the situation in Romania and contributes valuable context for my own research.
Mike Poliec is a third year graduate student in Holocaust History at Clark University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust History and Genocide Studies. In his doctoral research he is reconstructing the profile of civilian accomplices in the Romanian context and the circumstances in which they chose to get involved in the persecution or murder of Jews.
The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit mjhnyc.org/tag/ajc. All Fall 2013 newsletter articles are found here.