This interview was published at Israel National News, and published here with permission of the author.
Polish WAR-TIME views on THE FUTURE OF THE JEWS
Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews David Bankier
“Already in 1941 and 1942, the Allies made preliminary plans for organizing post-Hitler Europe. Yet the Jewish question did not figure into these early American, British and Russian projects for the future. Neither can any significant references to the future of the Jews be found in discussions of governments in exile, either in London or elsewhere. There were no concrete plans, but at most a few vague, remarks.”
David Bankier (1947-2010) was a Professor of History at the Hebrew University. Until his death, he was also Director of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem. His research focused on public opinion in Germany, on Nazi policy, and on the exiles.
Bankier said: “The attitude of Polish leaders is particularly revealing because before the war, three and a half million Jews lived there, comprising about ten percent of the population. Most Polish underground organizations believed that post-Hitler Poland would be a country without Jews. They knew the majority of Polish Jewry was being exterminated.1
“Those who remained would have to leave Poland after the war. This view was expressed even in the Zegota Organization, the Council for Aid to the Jews set up by the Polish resistance. Among them were people who endangered their own lives, most notably, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, a devout Catholic, a famous writer and one of the founders of the Zegota. Her belief that Poland was not a country were Jews should live is highly indicative of what true Polish feelings were then.
“In an article entitled ‘Whom do we help?’ written in August 1943, Kossak-Szczucka outlined what the Polish post-War attitude toward the Jews should be: ‘Today the Jews face extermination. They are the victims of unjust murderous persecutions. I must save them. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ This commandment demands that I use all the means I have to save others, the very same means that I would use for my own salvation. To be sure, after the war the situation will be different. The same laws will apply to the Jew and to me. At that point I will tell the Jew: ‘I saved you, sheltered you when you were persecuted. To keep you alive I risked my own life and the lives of those who were dear to me. Now nothing threatens you. You have your own friends and in some ways you are better off than I. Now I ask that you go and settle somewhere else. I wish you luck and will be glad to help you. I am not going to hurt you, but in my own home I want to live alone. I have that right.
“The Jews were not considered part of the fabric of Polish society. Their ancestors may have lived there for 900 or even 1,000 years, yet as they did not belong to the national majority, they remained foreigners. Most people did not see in the catastrophe befalling the Polish Jews a tragedy for the Polish nation. At best, they saw two parallel disasters caused by the Germans. One concerned the Polish nation, the other the Jews.
“Except for some socialist and communist underground movements they never linked these two tragedies by saying that the suffering of the Jews was part of the Poles’ suffering. Those who belonged to the center or right did not see the Jews as fellow citizens. Their hardship thus could not be Polish suffering. That the ancestors of the Jews had lived so long in Poland and had Polish citizenship and passports was a formality without further implications or privileges.
“When making statements on the Jewish question, the Polish government exiled in London was under constraints. Their declarations would be heard by the British, the Americans, and Jewish organizations and they thus had to be careful. Hence, they usually stated that after the war, all surviving Jews will return and their rights will be restored.
“They were obligated to say this, despite the fact that many Polish leaders in exile were long-standing anti-Semites. The majority in the National Council of the Polish Republic in London were Polish nationalists who didn’t consider the Jews an integral part of the Polish nation, despite the National Council’s Jewish representatives: Ignacy Schwarzbart for the Zionists and Artur Zygelbojm for the Bundists. In the Polish army in the West there was also substantial anti-Semitism which led some Jews to desert their units in Scotland. Several Jewish organizations protested against this anti-Semitism to the government in exile.
“Economic issues played a major role in the anti-Jewish messages emanating from the Polish underground. This became even clearer when the Jews came back after the war and wished to return to their homes or farms. Many Jews were then subjected to violent attacks or murdered, by the Poles.”