- Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-1945
The study of the Holocaust includes many generalizations about the non-Jewish world that have found their way into textbooks. One article of faith holds that Polish antisemitism was so endemic among the population that Jews found it almost impossible to escape the ghetto lest they be turned over to the Nazis by hostile Poles. In Gunnar Paulsson's important book, the author rejects this assumption, and in the process broadens our understanding of the Holocaust, at least in Poland. The author, who is the Pearl Resnick fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the son of a Holocaust survivor, focuses his book on a subject rarely included by historians in studies of resistance during the Holocaust: those Jews who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto and went into hiding in "Aryan" Warsaw. Using memoirs and statistical tables to buttress his study, Paulsson recounts the life of 28,000 Jews who escaped the ghetto and found hiding places among the Polish population in Warsaw. The book's title, therefore, [End Page 184] refers to these Jews and the 70,000 to 90,000 Gentile Poles who made possible their concealment in the Polish capital. An additional 3,000 to 4,000 Poles, consisting of criminals, extortionists, and black marketeers, created a precarious daily existence for the hidden Jews, because of the possibility that they could expose them as well as their Gentile protectors. Together, states Paulsson, the some 100,000 people who were involved in the interaction of these groups constituted a "secret city" existing apart from the turmoil of everyday life in occupied Warsaw. The author describes the life of these Jews in hiding as "running the gauntlet" in which they faced hurdles on a daily basis that threatened to disclose their identity. Nevertheless, by the end of the war some 11,500 or 40% survived, a figure comparable to Jewish survival rates in most Western European countries, a percentage which Paulsson regards as a remarkable achievement, and had it not been for two instances, the so-called Hotel Polski affair, when some 3500 Jews were tricked by the Nazis to voluntarily turn themselves in, and the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, thousands of additional Jews would have survived.
Paulsson does not deny that antisemitism was endemic throughout Poland and could be found among all classes, but he also argues that the bark of Jew-hatred was bigger than its bite. The Poles, even antisemites, were not prepared, on the whole, to turn Jews over to the Nazis. They hated Jews, but did not hate them enough to hand them over to the Nazis for deportation to the death camps. Paulsson calculates that the chance for Jewish survival was greater in the Aryan Warsaw than it turned out to be in the ghetto. But because most Jews believed that the Polish population was antisemitic, they rejected any hope that escaping from the ghetto would lead them to safety. In his most controversial passage, Paulsson writes that despite these fears, escapes from the ghetto were swelling "when the Ghetto uprising broke out on April 19, 1943: given another six months or a year, perhaps many of these Jews would have been saved as well." Paulsson concludes that during the final period of the ghetto's existence the belief held by most Jews that escape was nearly impossible was in many cases a bigger obstacle than any reality to which it may have corresponded, and that although Polish society was hostile to the Jews, these assumptions were never put to the test. In hindsight, a Jew with nowhere to go had a better chance to save himself by knocking on a random door in Aryan Warsaw than by remaining in the ghetto, and although it is true that almost half or more of those who fled the ghetto perished, so did 99 percent of those who did not flee.
Paulsson concludes this riveting study with a defense of evasion...