According to Holocaust historians, the Jews who escaped the Nazi ghettos in northeastern Poland had to turn to the Soviet partisans for their salvation from both the Germans and the hostile local population.1 The Polish partisans of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa—AK)—or “White Poles” as they are called in the language of Soviet propaganda2—are portrayed as a “fascist” formation who were collaborating with the Germans and engaged in a war directed primarily against the Jews and Soviets. Soviet historiography paints a remarkably similar picture with the focus, of course, being on the Soviet partisans.
Typical of Jewish-American ethno-nationalist historians, Yaffa Eliach repeatedly accuses the Home Army of hunting down and killing Jews hiding in the forest as well as those who were active in partisan groups. Another example is Howard L Adelson, who charges that
The Polish Home Army, the Armja Krajova [sic], which was supposedly struggling against the Nazis, pursued the slaughter of the Jews with greater vigor than the war against the German conquerors.3 Many Israeli historians share these views. Yitzhak Arad provides the following synopsis:
In Poland, the Home Army (A.K.—Armia Krajowa), the general Polish Partisan Movement, was not open to Jews. Moreover, thousands of Jews were murdered by the rightist factions of the official Polish underground. In eastern Poland, in Byelorussia, and sometimes in other areas as well, groups of Polish rightist guerillas took an active role in the killing of many Jewish families and partisans in the forest. Among their victims was also a group of Jewish fighters who had succeeded in breaking out of the Warsaw Ghetto at the time of the uprising, had reached the forests, and launched guerilla warfare against the Nazis.4 But the charges don’t stop there, especially in popular writings. A few examples (of many) from that repertoire of crude propaganda accusing Poles of outright collaboration with the Germans—a charge that the Soviets, once themselves allies of the Nazis, started to disseminate during the war—will suffice.
The pro-Nazi bands included the White Poles … These Polish fascists murdered Byelorussians, Red Partisans, and—first and foremost—Jews.5 One group of partisans … sometimes fought on the side of the Germans. They were Polish farmers by day and partisans by night who carried out the orders of the exiled Polish government in London. These orders specifically stated that … all Poles were to see to it that no Jews remained in Poland after the war. Their slogan was “Polska Bez Zydow [Żydów]” or “Poland Without Jews.” These were the men of the Armia Krajowa or “Home Army”, known to us as the A.K. At the beginning, they had a special status with the Germans because they carried on the work of exterminating the Jews and Communists.6 Various rumors were circulating concerning the relations between these Poles [“White” bands] and the Germans. It was said that the Germans themselves were organizing the bands and arming them so that they could fight against the “Red” partisans and annihilate the last of the Jews who were still in hiding.
The rank and file in the bands knew nothing about the agreement with the Germans. They thought that they were fighting to free Poland. However, their leaders had accepted the authority of the enemy and were collaborating with it. They carried out their task faithfully, at least concerning the annihilation of the Jews. Thirsting for blood, they were hunting down the last remnants of Jews in the forests and destroying them.7
These various writings share certain common characteristics: they are analytically deficient, generally lack context, causation, and even chronolgy, and make use of Jewish anecdotal materials to the exclusion of archival sources of non-Jewish origin. Implicit in them is the premise that no amount of concrete deeds on the part of the Jews could had an impact on the conduct of the Polish underground, but rather its behaviour was conditioned by an endemic brand of anti-Semitism with a murderous streak. That thesis will be tested empirically in this study, drawing on a broad array of archival and other sources.
The notion that the Polish Home Army allegedly “did not want to fight against the Germans” and reached a political agreement of major proportion or entered into a secret military alliance with the Germans,8 is not substantiated by archival sources and has been amply debunked by historians. The matter of contacts between the Home Army and the German military in the Wilno and Nowogródek regions has an extensive scholarly literature,9 and is discussed later in context and in more depth. While a few units of the Home Army did, for a brief period in the early part of 1944, accept weapons from the Germans (generally by seizing arms and ammunition from lightly staffed outposts), they did so essentially for their own self-defence against incessant attacks by Soviet partisans, and they did so without any conditions attached. Overtures for strategic alliances from high-ranking German military officials were rejected by the district leadership of the Home Army and no formal agreements were ever concluded with the Germans.10 Indeed, both the Polish government in exile and Home Army high command strictly forbade such conatcts and agreements. During his internment after the collapse of the Warsaw Uprsing of August 1944, by far the most formidable anti-Nazi uprising in occupied Europe, Home Army Commander General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski was repeatedly approached by German officials intent on creating a collaborationist amy. He steadfastly refused.11 The unauthorized dealings with the Germans of some beleaguered Home Army commanders were a temporary and purely tactical expedient, undertaken for the very survival of their units which were under relentless attack from well-armed Soviet partisans. This strategy emerged out of desperation and occurred at a time when the Germans were clearly losing the war. It was not designed to bolster the German war effort, but rather was an attempt at self-defence against the treacherous politics of the Nazis’ erstwhile Soviet allies. It would be as malicious to read into this strategy alleged Polish support for the Nazi regime as it would be to suggest that the acceptance of the Soviet Union into the Grand Alliance (after June 1941) was indicative of Western support for Soviet totalitarianism. Moreover, as we shall see, Polish partisans continued to attack German garrisons throughout this period and Soviet field reports confirm that the Polish population was solidly opposed to German rule.12
Before the Soviet partisans turned on their Polish counterparts in the latter part of 1943, the Poles had undertaken many joint operations with the Soviets against the Germans (e.g., Nowogródek on July 11, 1942, Naliboki in August 1942, Żołudek in May 1943,13 Wołma in July 1943). Cooperation resumed with the arrival of the Red Army, but was short-lived. The city of Wilno (Vilnius in Lithuania, Vilna in Russian) was liberated in July 1944 by a joint assault of the Red Army and the Home Army, with the Poles initiating the attack.14 Afterwards, the Soviets promptly disarmed the Polish forces by stealth.15 This pattern of treachery characterized Soviet-Polish relations before, during and after the war. The best known example was the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the largest anti-German armed insurrection in occupied Europe: after encouraging the Poles to take up arms, the Soviet Army stood by idly on the east bank of the Vistula during the 63-day heroic struggle and watched the Germans massacre the Polish resistance and almost 200,000 civilians.16
The evolution of writings on the relations between the Poles and the Soviet and Jewish partisans is well worth tracing. Soviet reports from December 1942 attest to a rather favourable attitude toward the Soviet partisans on the part of the Polish population, including Polish self-defence and partisan groups.17 However, in a report filed on September 16, 1944, concerning the “History and Formation of the M. I. Kalinin Partisan Detachment,” Tuvia Bielski (or Belsky, known as Anatolii Belskii in Soviet sources), the legendary Jewish partisan leader in Naliboki forest (Puszcza Nalibocka), wrote about “Poles who joined the White Polish legions fighting alongside Germans against Soviet authorities.”18 Why the dramatic change?
In memoirs published shortly after the war, Bielski paints an entirely amicable portrait of early relations between Jewish and Polish partisans.19 According to Nechama Tec, the author of a monograph about the Bielski partisans, Bielski maintained a friendship with the local Home Army commander Lieutenant Kacper (or Kasper) Miłaszewski as late as August 1943.20 Anatol Wertheim, who served as aide-de-camp for Semen (Semion, Shimon, Shalom) Zorin, a Soviet-Jewish partisan leader in the same area, also describes relations with the Polish partisans until mid–1943 as “friendly.”21 This should not be surprising given the attitude of Lieutenant Miłaszewski (nom de guerre “Lewald”), as described by one of his own fighters:
In 1941 Lieutenant Kacper Milaszewski [Miłaszewski], known by the pseudonym Lewald, began to organize the Union for Armed Struggle (later the Home Army) in the county of Stolpce [Stołpce] (strictly speaking, the communities in the region included Derewno [or Derewna], Naliboki, Rubieżewicz [Rubieżewicze], and part of Iwieniec). He selected me as his adjutant, in which capacity I served during the organization and early operations of partisan units under his command in the Nalibocki [Naliboki] Forest (the Seventy-eighth Infantry Regiment and the Twenty-Seventh Cavalry Regiment).
When we had our framework ready, we began to penetrate German offices and place our own people there, with the aim of gathering and transmitting news about German actions. The most valuable information was transmitted by Hipolit Samson and J. [Jan] Borysewicz [nom de guerre “Krysia”], both of whom the Germans later put to death. They told us which ghettos would be exterminated and when it would occur.
In the spring of 1942, we learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the Rubieżewicz ghetto in June. Lieutenant Milaszewski immediately sent me to Rubieżewicz to relay this information to the Jews. The Rubieżewicz ghetto was not enclosed by a wall or barbed wire, allowing the Jews to walk freely around the town. They depended on the generosity of the Polish people for their food; the Germans did not give them any means of living. My first conversation was with Rabbi Pentelnik from Derewno and his daughter, Nieszka, a former schoolmate. The rabbi advised me to talk with Bratkowski, the former commander of a unit, called Talbot [Tarbut?], from Derewno. Upon my return, Lieutenant Milaszewski was clearly pleased with my trip to Rubieżewicz.
After some time, we received information about a plan to liquidate the ghetto in Stolpce. The ghetto was wired and well guarded. We knew that the Germans used ghetto labor for slaking lime and working in the sawmill in Nowe Swierznie [Świerżeń Nowy], two and one-half kilometers beyond Stolpce. I was sent to the quarry under the pretext of buying lime. I met Jewish acquaintances and relayed the news of what awaited them.
As they filled the bags with lime, three Jewish women asked me if I could take them along with the lime and carry them to the woods. I replied that we would try it and asked them [to] sit in the wagon. At the gate, the German police stopped us and sharply asked me where I was taking the women. I replied through an interpreter that the Jews had asked me to carry them to Stolpce, where they would pick up certain items from their abandoned houses and then return to work. The Germans conferred with each other. Eventually a German sergeant approached me. He expressed agreement, on condition that I hand over my German identity card, which would be returned to me after I brought the Jews back to work. … I readily handed over my identity card because that was not my real name on it anyway. We moved away as the Germans waved us on. …
After I crossed the railroad track, I did not travel over the bridge by way of Stolpce. I chose a longer road on the left side of the Niemen. After one kilometer, I threw the bags of lime into the ditch, and away I went with my Jewish charges. (This incident would be confirmed by a former resident of the Stolpce ghetto Mrs. R.N., who now lives in Manchester, England.)
In July and August 1943, action against the partisans began in the Nalibocki Forest. Several German divisions, aided by thousands of police, participated in the operation, code-named Herman [Hermann]. At this time our detachment numbered about 650 men under the command of Lieutenants Milaszewski and W. [Walenty] Parchimowicz. For several days we did not fight due to the overwhelming strength of the Germans, who drove us deeper into the forest. In the forest, we happened upon a Jewish partisan camp that the Germans had not yet reached. We had a cordial meeting. We had no provisions, but they had spare food. … They shared what they had with us. … We learned that their detachment numbered a few hundred, primarily from the ghettos in Rubieżewicz and Stolpce. I recognized many of my colleagues among them.22
Wiktor Noskowski, who hails from Ejszyszki, also recounts some of the forms of assistance that Jews received from Poles and the Home Army in this area:
During the German occupation I was a soldier of the Home Army and in its ranks I came into contact with partisans of Jewish origin: a medic whose nom de guerre was “Roch” (I don’t remember his surname) and Aleksander Lewin (Lewiński), whose nom de guerre was “Wrzos.” (After the war, Lewiński was a professor of medicine and rector of the Medical Academy in Gdańsk.) …
Of the examples of assistance to Jews in hiding known to me, the greatest helpfulness was shown by the Korkuć, Swieczko, Myślicki, Wołyniec, Misiuro, Tumielewicz, Sakowicz and Kiersnowski families, not to mention Rev. Gedymin [Giedymin] Pilecki and even the commander of the local Home Army battalion, Captain Stanisław Truszkowski, who sheltered a girl of the same age as his daughter, passing her off as his own child.
… My schoolmate Estera Bielicka spent the entire [German] occupation with the Myślicki family in Matejkany in plain sight of all of the residents of this village. Not only did the villagers know about her, but she was also seen at church services in town and no one from among the parishioners betrayed her.
Rev. Gedymin Pilecki, the head chaplain of the Nowogródek district of the Home Army, sheltered two Jewish women from Wilno in his rectory. He also administered the sacrament of baptism to Dawid Lipnicki, changing his name to Andrzej, and placed him with his sexton Wacław Misiuro. (When the Red Army arrived in July 1944, Dawid Lipnicki left his hideout with the Tumielewicz family and joined the Soviet army. Two years later, Misiuro met him in Białystok. Lipnicki was riding in a convoy of automobiles dressed in Soviet uniform. He recognized Misiuro, his first protector, and immediately denounced him to the NKVD as a Home Army member.) Rev. Pilecki also helped the Wilno ghetto with shipments of food. Jews from Wilno, who travelled in trucks accompanied by authentic German gendarmes who had been bribed to act as camouflage for the convoy, were brought by Misiuro to the rectory in Hermaniszki. There, they picked up tons of food procured by Rev. Pilecki.
The Kiersnowskis, owners of an estate in Podweryszki, helped the Jews in the small neighbouring town of Bieniakonie. During the harvest of the crops they snuck loaded wagons into the town where starving Jews descended on them. …
The mayor of Raduń. Bolesław Kuligowski, issued fictitious identity documents (Personal-Ausweis) to Jewish refugees, thus enabling them to remain legally in their chosen place and to obtain employment. I personally met two such Jews: Wirszubski, an interpreter in the local Kreisverwaltung [district administration], and Artur Rozental, a mechanic in the estate of Horodenka. …
After the independent state of Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union and the diplomatic posts of the neutral countries were shut down in Kaunas, the Polish underground extended a helping hand to those Jews who did not manage to leave for countries outside Europe and found themselves entrapped. In the underground certification workshops of the command of the Wilno district of the Home Army, a factory producing false passports and imitation visa stamps was established under the direction of Michał and Romuald Warakomski and Stanisław Kiałka. These documents helped thousands of Jews to leave for Japan and Curaçao.
One should also note the marriages, albeit infrequent, between Poles and Jews. … For example, Franciszek Kudelski married a Jewess by the name of Kazia and both of them held responsible positions in the Home Army in the Baranowicze district. …
Chaim Długin, the leader of the Judenrat in Werenów, ignored the proposal put forward by the local command of the Home Army, represented by Wacław Domański (“Korweta”) and Bronisław Hajdul (“Wyrwa”) …, to seize the poorly guarded storehouse of Soviet arms and eventually to undertake joint partisan warfare. … Długin decided to reject this plan because, as he stated, he was afraid it would provoke the Germans to take unanticipated repressive measures. In view of his stance, the prospect of organizing armed resistance was impossible against the will of the Jews. It was agreed only that contacts would be maintained and information exchanged through a designated liaison, the elegant Chana Abramicka. …
It is worth recalling the burning of the farm and the shooting of the five-member Wołyniec family in the village of Romaszkańce near Werenów, together with the three fugitives from the ghetto whom they sheltered. Two Jewish women from Wilno were found on the property of the Sakowicz family in the remote settlement of Władysławów. The owner of the farm, who was the mayor of Werenów, managed to escape death because he was absent. He was unable to return to his home until the end of the war. In Raduń, the cover of the interpreter Wirszubski, a Jew, was found out. Fortunately, he was rescued by the Home Army.23
Jewish sources also confirm that relations with the Polish underground in this region were, in the early period, generally favourable.
At a certain stage, contacts were also established between some ghettos and the Polish underground. Such a link was formed in Wiszniewo [Wiszniew]. Members of the Polish underground sent information, received over the radio, to the ghetto; they also sent in underground newspapers and leaflets. There was talk of bringing explosives and arms into the ghetto, but there is no proof that this ever happened.
We have already told of the group from Novogrudok [Nowogródek] ghetto who had formed an autonomous unit in conjunction with the A.K. in the Naliboky [Naliboki] region and which was completely destroyed when it was left without assistance in a battle against the German occupation forces.24
It was December 16 . … Late that night the local Chief of Police, a [Pole] friendly to the Jews, had warned the Judenrat [in Jody, a small town near Brasław] of impending doom. …
A Polish forester took a group of Jody Jews, twelve families in all, to a secluded swamp area where there was a well-concealed sandy hill. This is where they set up their camp. …
Dave and I decided to find more weapons and by chance we stumbled upon the perfect contact. His name was Vanka [Wańka?] and he was a Polish ultra-nationalist from Mlynarovo [Młynarowo]. We did not know it at the time, but he was also the commander of the local Polish underground and in charge of a large collection of weapons. Vanka was an important source of information and shelter. He had a concealed shortwave radio which gave us news through the BBC. … His house was also very close to Jody and we always knew that in emergencies he would provide a secure hiding place … He also had friends among the local police who worked with the Germans. Through them, Vanka knew much about German activities in our area.
We were soon able to purchase our first weapon from Vanka … Vanka still supplied us with weapons and with information he received from his friends in the Polish and Belorussian Police.25
Likewise, at least in the initial stages, the presence of the Home Army was viewed as beneficial by many Jews in hiding in various parts of Poland. A Jew from the Siedlce area attests to this:
That the Jews succeeded in surviving in the forest was also in some measure due to the Polish underground. This organization became progressively more active, and, by the summer of 1943, it had developed into a full-fledged, partisan outfit. …
As a result of the AK [Armia Krajowa] activities, the Germans, if they could, avoided venturing into the countryside. Gone were the days when a few of them would take off into the villages to have extracurricular fun with requisitions and casual killings. The underground was systematically assassinating all their collaborators and spies, except those who also served the underground. They had killed the Arbeitsamt in Losice [Łosice] as well as the Commandant of the Polish police. Since all collaborators and German agents were inevitably Jewbaiters, these assassinations often seemed to the peasants an admonition not to harm Jews. This impression was strengthened by the illegal pamphlets distributed throughout the country in which the official position of the AK was to help the remaining Jews by all possible means. So the underground protected us to some degree, not only from the Germans but also from the Poles. And, indeed, this was the quietest and safest period in our clandestine life.26
Obviously, something other than “endemic” Polish anti-Semitism played an important part in the subsequent deterioration of relations with the Soviet and Jewish partisans. What went wrong? Understanding the complexities of the situation in northeastern Poland is a key to a proper assessment of relations between the Polish underground and the Jews throughout the country. This book is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the topic of Polish-Jewish relations, nor is its primary focus the Polish Home Army. Rather our intention is to dispel the popular, but undeserved, image of bloodthirsty Polish partisans, who were allegedly eager to collaborate with Germans against the heroic Soviet and Jewish partisans and were preoccupied with hunting down Jews. Although no one can deny that Jews in hiding were in a difficult, precarious and, indeed, desperate situation, and that their fate did not always elicit the sympathy of the local population, the simplistic and distorted picture pushed in Holocaust literature of Polish partisans waging a war against the Jews is far from accurate. Nor is it borne out by a careful reading of Jewish writings and recently revealed Communist documents.