- Gender Perspectives on the Rescue of Jews in PolandPreliminary Observations
Historians have only recently begun to rectify the neglect of the study of women's experiences in eastern Europe during the Second World War.1 One area in which there have been very few analytical studies is the role of women in both the rescue and the betrayal of Jewish fugitives during the Holocaust. Little work has been done on the relationships between female rescuers and their Jewish charges,2 on Polish women who denounced Jews and their rescuers, or on Polish women who rescued Jews 'for profit'. In 'The Contribution of Gender to the Study of the Holocaust', Dalia Ofer, one of the pioneering scholars of women and the Holocaust, called for gender analysis to be applied to topics such as 'cooperation with or resistance to the Final Solution, responses to the plunder of Jewish assets, and rescue efforts'.3 In historical studies, gender perspectives typically complicate and nuance understandings of events.4 Can they complicate and nuance understandings of the rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland? Is gender a useful lens [End Page 407] through which to view rescue activities? How does gender relate to other characteristics of rescuers, such as socio-economic background, religion, and age?
This chapter follows on from my earlier work on the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust in Poland.5 It is not a gender analysis of the subject, but a discussion of the difficulties of studying it from a gender perspective. It focuses on 'dedicated rescuers', those individuals who went above and beyond the call of duty to save Jews without profiting from their actions or taking advantage of their charges. Were male and female rescuers treated differently by their communities during and after the war, and, if so, what does this reveal about wider Polish social and cultural norms, especially towards Jews?
I aim to answer these questions through a careful examination of 500 personal letters written shortly after the end of the war, when memories were still raw, by rescuers and rescued Jews, and sent to the Central Committee of Polish Jews (Centralny Komitet Żydów w Polsce; CKŻP) and its various local branches and to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
A small number of the letters were written by people searching for former rescuers or charges. One male rescuer wrote asking for help in locating his Jewish wife. He had rescued her and married her, but once the war was over she had suddenly left him.6 Another small number were written by Polish widows of Jewish men who had been killed in the Holocaust, asking Jewish organizations for assistance in raising their half-Jewish children. The widows were uncertain of their status and that of their children in the Jewish community, and their letters are very self-effacing. The majority of the correspondence, however, consists of letters from Poles who had been involved in rescuing Jews, often requesting material or medical assistance. Many were accompanied by testimonies from their charges or local Jewish organizations confirming the claims of the rescuer. Both the rescuers' letters and the testimonies of the rescued provide insights into their emotions and personal recollections of their wartime experiences, especially which aspects of the rescue were important and remained clear in their memories. They disclose the human depth and texture of their experiences. They also challenge the myths and memories of Polish rescue of Jews that developed during the communist period (1945–89) and which have continued in the post-communist debate on Polish–Jewish [End Page 408] relations during the war despite the fact that recent research in Poland and abroad has contributed to the dismantling of the hegemonic narratives of Polish solidarity with the Jews and demonstrated the incongruence of these themes with historical reality,7 mainly by uncovering previously suppressed dark aspects of the relationships.8 As a result, the emphasis has shifted to the study of rescuers for profit9 and those who abused their Jewish charges or denounced them later.10 These new studies are generally descriptive and focused on a particular region.
The correspondence alone cannot...