Among the many soldiers and civilians who were reviled for their behavior during the Nazi era, perhaps some of the most detested are those Jews who were perceived to be collaborators: Jews who openly turned against their own people to work with the Nazis to brutalize other, less powerful Jews, sometimes for their own gain, often for their own protection. Standing out among these people were the members of the Jewish Police in the Warsaw Ghetto, an intensely despised group of men who took on the role of policemen in the network of life in the ghetto.
History tells us that the 2,000 members of the Jewish Police, formally known as the Jewish Order Service, clearly participated in the destruction of Warsaw’s Jewish community, yet Warsaw Ghetto Police deals with the more difficult, layered question of what exactly constituted Jewish collaboration. Who participated in the Jewish Order Service? What kind of people were they? Katarzyna Person explains that they came from all walks of life; they were lawyers, engineers, young yeshiva graduates, and sons of businessmen. Starting in the autumn of 1940, these men coalesced into the Jewish Police, or the ZSP, as they were known, and followed direct orders from the Jewish Council that ran the Warsaw Ghetto via the Nazis’ dictates.
This book is the first thorough study of the Jewish Police in the Warsaw Ghetto that successfully challenges closely held assumptions and separates myth from reality. Through the author’s meticulous research and fine writing skills, the actions of the Jewish Police in the ghetto are placed in their historical context, revealing the men’s daily life and taking us inside the intricate web that dictated their decision-making.We see with stunning clarity the actions they were forced to take and the consequences that ensued.
Were they perpetrators, victims, or both? Did they directly aid in the collapse of values in the harsh reality of the occupation, or did they suffer from the intensely shifting boundaries and standards of behavior along with the other prisoners?
The common story of the Jewish Police is that they were sadistic oppressors in the ghetto and often self-hating Jews. It is impossible not to cringe at descriptions of how they possessed knowledge of the German authorities’ plans to deport the Jews in spring 1942 and how they were directly involved in the actual deportations in the summer of that year. Yet we also see them directing traffic in the ghetto, as real policemen do, and hauling away the trash.
Through these descriptions of everyday life in the ghetto, Person takes on the difficult task of presenting a nuanced study that uncovers diverse attitudes toward the policemen and explores their individual motivations within their own minds and private moral universes. She presents a well-balanced judgment, having delved deeply into primary source material, including first-person testimonies of Jewish Order Service members and memories of the ghetto residents themselves, plus Polish and German archival documents, contemporary newspapers, and wartime and postwar accounts. A detailed appendix even gives us a copy of the official instructions from the Jewish Council to the policemen in the ghetto that elaborately defined the role of the police.
A wealth of photographs offers a critical lens through which to view the men — scenes in which they are fully garbed as policemen, at other times in suits and ties, often with a range of readable facial expressions. The translation from the Polish is smooth and seamless, and the book will appeal to both scholars and an educated general audience.
At the end of this thoughtful journey, we are left with the question of how a nation decides to remember people whose allegiances were never clear. With significant guidance from the author, we have the information to decide for ourselves.
Linda F. Burghardt is a New York-based journalist and author who has contributed commentary, breaking news, and features to major newspapers across the U.S., in addition to having three non-fiction books published. She writes frequently on Jewish topics and is now serving as Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County.