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  • Letter to the Editor
  • Gunnar S. Paulsson

[Note: The editors of Holocaust and Genocide Studies reserve the right to edit all letters for length, content, spelling, and grammar, as well as the right to decline publication of any material submitted.]

In reviewing my book, Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940–1945 [HGS 19, no. 3 (Winter 2005)], Joanna Michlic alleges major holes, facile conclusions, naiveté, and apologetics that have somehow eluded two prize committees and every other reviewer whose opinion I can take seriously. I am astonished to learn, for example, that I characterize antisemites who helped Jews as "heroes." In fact I ascribe to such people a wide variety of motives, few of them noble: money, family ties, conversionism, a desire to cultivate people to vouch for them after the war or to square otherwise unsavory actions with their consciences. There were even people who "farmed" Jews, hiding them in order to blackmail them later, or to infiltrate the network of Jews and their helpers that I call the "secret city." I also show that the most revered antisemitic helper of them all, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, was openly conversionist and wrote nastily antisemitic articles for her newspaper, Prawda (edited by Wladyslaw Bartoszewski). The moral ambiguity of the antisemitic helper is self-evident and has been much discussed; a detailed analysis would be out of place in a book that is about Jewish experiences, not the Polish psyche.

Michlic attributes to me "the problematic claim that Jewish memoirists . . . [registered] negative experiences more often than positive ones." In fact, I make no such claim: what I do say, rather, is that reporting bias favors the exceptional, both positive and negative, over the mundane. Michlic then adds that memoirists who "registered hostile attitudes and actions . . . had real grounds in wartime experiences," and that "a historian who does not accept this risks recycling apologetic Polish narratives." I quite agree, but I do not see how it applies to me.

In Chapter 4, I write that Poles were divided into "three Warsaws" from the Polish point of view (patriots, ordinary people, and the canaille),1 and also from the Jewish point of view (helpers, neutrals, and hunters). I then show that these categorizations were not correlated: Polish patriots could easily be murderous antisemites; petty criminals could turn out to be decent. This analysis, according to Michlic, "draw[s] on old apologetic Polish narratives," is a "contradiction," represents two "mutually exclusive positions," and creates an "inconsistency." I am amazed.

Michlic subsequently implies that I ignore "the compatibility of a patriotic outlook with virulent antisemitism." In fact, that issue comes up repeatedly, not only in the "Three Warsaws" section, but also for example on p. 197: "the malignant element that was responsible for crimes against Jews . . . included brave and patriotic [End Page 372] members of the underground"; or in the discussion of the atrocities that such people committed during the Warsaw Uprising (pp. 173–83).2

Michlic says that I "overlook early postwar testimonies . . . and the return of some escapees to the ghetto caused by the hostile atmosphere on the Aryan side." In fact, those testimonies are a major part of my evidentiary base, and I cite them often—for example, on p. 84: "Jews are starting to come back from the Aryan side. There is no way to make it over there; people lack money to pay off the blackmailers." But those who lived to write testimonies almost certainly escaped again later, since there was virtually no other way for Warsaw Jews to survive. Relying, therefore, on contemporary evidence and third-person accounts, but excluding survivors' own experiences, I estimate that about 600 returned and stayed.3

Michlic alleges that I fail "to grapple with some of the complexities of crossing to and living on the Aryan side." The whole book is about those issues, and I am puzzled as to which "complexities" she thinks I have left out. In Chapter 2, on escape, I consider a vastly greater range of factors than she intimates. Life on the Aryan side, including "passing" (which she says I "leave out of the discussion") is integral to every chapter, and the sole topic of Chapter 3...


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