The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and Poles in the Sec­ond World War

Halik Kochan­s­ki
  • Review
By – June 6, 2013
Kochan­s­ki, who is a Fel­low of the Roy­al His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety and a mem­ber of the British Com­mis­sion for Mil­i­tary His­to­ry, deft­ly recon­structs wartime Poland, a nation caught between Nazi Ger­many and the Sovi­et Union between 1939 and 1945. Her chap­ters on the depor­ta­tion of Poles to the Sovi­et Union as well as the mur­der of Pol­ish army offi­cers in the Katyn for­est is riv­et­ing in its detail. Pol­ish suf­fer­ing under Ger­man occu­pa­tion, the response of the Pol­ish gov­ern­ment in exile in Lon­don as well as detailed accounts of the Pol­ish under­ground con­fronting the Nazis, pro­vides in a sin­gle vol­ume the most com­pre­hen­sive account of this har­row­ing peri­od of his­to­ry. 

But a his­to­ry of wartime Poland would be incom­plete with­out deal­ing with the Holo­caust and the Pol­ish response to the mass mur­der of Pol­ish Jew­ry. Kochan­s­ki in a num­ber of chap­ters address­es this sub­ject. On the mat­ter of Pol­ish anti-Semi­tism, she rec­og­nizes that this has pro­voked intense and high­ly emo­tion­al argu­ments which shows no sign of end­ing.” She acknowl­edges that anti-Semi­tism was wide­spread before the war, which led to an eco­nom­ic boy­cott of Jew­ish shops and a con­sen­sus among Pol­ish polit­i­cal par­ties of encour­ag­ing Jew­ish emi­gra­tion (to Mada­gas­car). Kochan­s­ki also notes that dur­ing the Ger­man occu­pa­tion of Poland there was no strong demon­stra­tion of oppo­si­tion by the Poles to the per­se­cu­tion and sub­se­quent depor­ta­tion of the Jews. Yet despite the orders from the Pol­ish gov­ern­ment-in-Exile not to prof­it from the Jew­ish expro­pri­a­tion of prop­er­ty and shops, many Poles did just that. Kochan­s­ki attrib­ut­es this indif­fer­ence to the mur­der of Poland’s intel­lec­tu­al elite who were killed by the Ger­mans thus cre­at­ing a vac­u­um that might have pro­vid­ed lead­er­ship for the Pol­ish peo­ple. Despite the preva­lence of anti-Semi­tism in Poland, how­ev­er, there is evi­dence that many Poles gave shel­ter to Jews, know­ing that if they were caught it meant instant death. When it comes to the Pol­ish Catholic Church, she finds a mixed reac­tion to the plight of the Jews. Some priests attempt­ed to help Jews, oth­ers refused abso­lu­tion to Poles who helped Jews in hiding. 

There is much more of inter­est that Kochan­s­ki has to say about the Holo­caust, includ­ing the role of Pol­ish col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Nazis, but also that of Jew­ish col­lab­o­ra­tors. On this con­tro­ver­sial sub­ject, oft en omit­ted in works on the Holo­caust, she writes, it has been esti­mat­ed that at the end of 1941 the Gestapo con­trolled 15,000 Jew­ish agents in the Gen­er­al Gov­ern­ment,” includ­ing The Jew­ish Mili­tia” (Zydows­ka Gwar­dia Wolnosci), which assist­ed the Ger­mans in find­ing Jews in hid­ing, and The Soci­ety of Free Jews”(Towarzyst­wo Wol­nych Zydow), which spied on the Jew­ish under­ground (ZOB). Kochan­skii states that the Jews ran their own secret court in the War­saw ghet­to and sen­tenced fifty-nine col­lab­o­ra­tors to death. She notes that the Pol­ish archives have an incom­plete list of 1,378 Jew­ish col­lab­o­ra­tors and betrayers. 

Kochan­s­ki has writ­ten an impor­tant, albeit, a con­tro­ver­sial book on the sub­ject of Poland in gen­er­al and the anni­hi­la­tion of Pol­ish Jew­ry in particular. 
Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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