- The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939–1945 by Joshua D. Zimmerman
Some books are timely, others are useful, and still others are good. Joshua D. Zimmerman’s The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939–1945 is all three. [End Page 540]
A word about timeliness: the recently elected government in Poland, committed to advancing a Polish-centric agenda, advocates for a presentation of Polish history that stresses Polish heroism and minimizes—perhaps even obliterates—guilt for crimes perpetrated by Poles in occupied Poland during World War II. Zimmerman’s meticulously researched, scrupulously balanced and comprehensively written work will create much anguish for those attempting to re-write history. Few have conducted so much work in examining all the records, and fewer still have balanced the evidence without bending it, ultimately reaching seemingly irrefutable conclusions.
Not only Polish apologist historians will be upset by Zimmerman’s findings: Jewish historians or polemicists who seek simple answers will also find his balance disconcerting. He does not shy away from presenting the complications of the Polish situation clearly, taking apart the puzzle and reassembling its parts so that the reader can better understand its complexities.
Among serious historians, it is axiomatic that good scholarship drives out bad scholarship. There is no substitute for serious homework: going to archives, reviewing the evidence, reading memoirs, listening to testimony—and weighing all this material to present a coherent picture of the whole. Some scholars do a marvelous job of presenting an overarching theory, but leave the reader wanting more of the documentation that would anchor the general statement in particular evidence. Many also fail to consider contrary conclusions or indicate why they cannot be maintained. Other scholars seemingly know every leaf but seldom see trees and even more rarely the forest; they drown the reader in detail. Zimmerman does neither: details substantiate and illustrate the general picture he offers. One must appreciate both the detail and the substantive conclusions.
Zimmerman finds, among other things, that the attitude of the Polish underground toward the Jews reflected the prewar political views of its individual officers, commanders, and major constituent bodies. Those who had been open to a more pluralistic Polish society—one that accepted minorities as part of the landscape of Poland—had a radically different attitude toward Jews than those whose orientation was narrowly nationalistic.
Attitudes toward the Jews not only mirrored prewar political stances, but also were shaped by geography and the progress of the war. Why geography? Attitudes common in eastern Poland—the territories first occupied by the Soviet Union after September 17, 1939—were strikingly different from those common in territories occupied at that time by Germany. Zimmerman’s findings correlate with Timothy Snyder’s description of “double occupation” and “double collaboration” in the zones first occupied by the Soviets and later, after the June 1941 invasion, by the Germans. Poles in the East generally did not grasp that Jews may have been more welcoming to Soviet occupation because the alternative was German occupation; for Jews, the Soviets represented protection from ghettoization and persecution, though few could as yet conceive of the coming annihilation. Similarly, many Poles were [End Page 541] ready to identify Jews with Communism, but less willing to understand the impact that Communism had had on Jews as individuals—merchants and religiously observant Jews, for example.
Why timing and the progress of the war? In the Polish underground, attitudes toward the Jews underwent a significant shift when it became clear that the Soviet Union, rather than the Western Allies, would liberate Poland from Nazi Germany. The Polish underground feared—quite rightly—that the liberation by Soviet forces would serve as a pretext for Soviet domination and would decisively put an end to the independence that the country had enjoyed in the interwar period.
Why timing? Attitudes toward Jews also shifted as the larger fate of Polish Jews under German occupation became clear. As the scope, systematic nature, and brutality of the killing unfolded, reactions to the Jews who remained alive changed. Those...