International Conference: Jews in the fight against Nazi Germany during World War II - recordings and abstracts

Zdjęcie: Nieśmiertelnik (blaszka identyfikacyjna) Juliana Bussganga z okresu służbyw II Korpusie Polskim, fot. M Starowieyska, obiekt w kolekcji Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich POLIN, nr inw. MHŻP-B80
Zdjęcie: Nieśmiertelnik (blaszka identyfikacyjna) Juliana Bussganga z okresu służbyw II Korpusie Polskim, fot. M Starowieyska, obiekt w kolekcji Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich POLIN, nr inw. MHŻP-B80

19 September 2019 (Thursday)

Keynote lecture

Marian Turski

Bearing Witness to History: Accounts of Civilian Resistance

Jewish civilian resistance during the Holocaust - was it at all possible? Is the most vulnerable group within a community, paralyzed by terror and fear, capable of putting up a resistance at all? Resistance in a sense of rescuing at least some people from extermination. Resistance in a sense of clinging to hope, of a will to survive and to fight, of dignity. Also, preparing those who will survive for an active - as far as possible - life in Poland, in Israel, or anywhere else in the world. In his lecture, the speaker will refer to his own conspiratorial activity in the ghetto.

20 September 2019 (Friday)

Panel 1: Armed Resistance(Chair: Andrzej Żbikowski)

Laurence Weinbaum

The History of the Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto: Deconstruction and Reconstruction in the Light of Research Post-1989

The revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto, the first urban insurrection in World War II, is, internationally, the best-known act of civilian resistance against Nazi Germany. Often compared with Masada and Thermopylae, few if any military encounters of its scale have attracted a comparable degree of attention—or have been the subject of such abundant scholarship. However, practitioners of the “historian’s craft” who sought, sine ira et studio, to conduct research on the revolt were hampered by the paucity of reliable information. Largely written by a handful of survivors, the story of the uprising was highly politicized, and the existence of material which would have contributed to our knowledge was either unknown or inaccessible. Consequently, a confusing amalgam of fact and fiction emerged, elements of which achieved near canonical status. It was only after 1989, with the collapse of the Communist system and the opening of several Polish archives that it finally become possible to completely reevaluate this chapter of history. As a result, the story of the enigmatic Revisionist underground (ŻZW), responsible for the ferocious fighting on Plac Muranowski, was completely deconstructed and reconstructed. In the process, the story of several figures long believed to have been associated with that group and whose purported gallantry had been highly acclaimed, were relegated to the realm of confabulation. The true dimensions of the mainstream Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB) whose numbers were smaller than had been originally believed and was less cohesive were also clarified. New light was shed on the little-known actions of Jews unaffiliated with either of the two resistance organizations. Today, more than 75 years after the ghetto was razed to the ground and its inhabitants put to death, we have a more detailed, nuanced understanding of that “flash of lightening in the black night of German domination”.

Andrei Zamoiski

Jews in the Soviet Partisan Movement: The Case of Belarus

The role of Jews in the development of armed or otherwise active resistance under the Nazi occupation was forgotten in the Soviet Union. No doubt done for ideological reasons, post-war Soviet historiography attempted not to highlight the history of Jewish fighters in Soviet and European resistance. In the summer 1941 the leadership of the Western Soviet Republics did not manage to organize a proper evacuation of the Jewish people. Over the course of  two months, hundreds of thousands of Jews in Soviet Belarus found themselves to be under the control of the German military (and later, - civil) administration. Majority of them had no chance of  surviving. Under the Nazi terror, Jews managed to establish underground groups in ghettos. They printed and distributed leaflets, produced false documents for resistance. Jewish liaisons also collected arms, ammunition and medicine for forest fighters. The Jewish underground played an active role in the revolts erupting  ghetto, that gave a chance to escape. Leaders of underground groups installed contacts with Soviet partisans and sent Jewish youth to partisan guerrilla units in the forests. Struggling together against their common enemy, Jewish partisans  experienced mistrust and anti-Semitic prejudice from their brothers-in-arms. The survival of Jewish families became possible mainly in Jewish family partisan camps such as the Bielski guerrilla and the Shchors battalion among others Jewish doctors constituted a part of partisan medical personnel, by providing medical service to their brothers-in-arms and local population.

After 1945, the Soviet state did not properly evaluate the contribution of Jewish fighters to the victory over Nazism. Many Jewish partisans later emigrated to Poland and Israel. The problem of remembrance of the Jewish armed resistance is still complicated in the post-Soviet states. Even nowadays in present-day Belarus, Russia and Ukraine the history of Jewish resistance in the years of the Second World War is not widely discussed. 

Renee Poznanski

Jewish, French and Transnational: Jews in the Fight Against the Occupation in WWII France

A great number of Jews participated in the Resistance in France during World War II. Was it a Jewish Resistance? Some of those fighters were born in France, in families whose French origin went back several generations and were fully integrated into French society; others, from recent immigration backgrounds, whether or not they were French nationals, remained very attached to their native culture - Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, etc. Some of them felt their Jewish identity very strongly while others were eager to acculturate and claimed vigorously their attachment to their new country. Still other Jewish resistance fighters were communists of various origins and citizenships, who considered themselves as internationalists.

What was the purpose of the struggle led by each and all of these fighters? Confronted during the postwar years with various and contradictory responses which generated fierce debates between Jewish resistance fighters in their postwar testimonies, historians face a difficult challenge when trying to provide a comprehensive picture. The question of identity is at stake in each interpretation. Questioning the relevance of the term of Jewish Resistance suggests that the accepted notion of the "French" Resistance might gain to be revisited as well.

Michał Wójcik

Uprisings in Death Camps

The three prisoner rebellions that occurred in concentration camps – despite their presence in several films and many publications – are still very little known and remain underappreciated armed acts in the history of World War II. These rebellions, aroused by Sonderkommando members in Treblinka (August 2, 1943), Sobibór (October 14, 1943) and Birkenau (October 7, 1944), do not even have the adequate terminology to personally describe them.

What were they? Uprisings in the sense of national and/or ethnic insurrection? Spontaneous revolts brought about by those held captive by these camps as a final and last resort? Due to the scantiness of testimonies as well as the post-war operations of falsifying memory and the history of these rebellions, researchers today are faced with a lot of different possible avenues and answers to those questions. It turns out that even the most simple facts need to established and set in stone. At any rate, the following question needs to be asked: what influence did the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto exert on the very least two of the rebellions that happened in these camps? What, if there was at all, was the Polish resistance involvement in these insurrections? Why has the memory of these extraordinarily heroic actions been so brutally falsified?

The last question seems particularly interesting when considering the Sobibór uprising of 1945 in comparison to the one that occurred in Treblinka. To what degree was the Sobibór uprising “institutionalized” to become a “Soviet” example of a unique, one-of-a-kind heroism when the history of the uprising in Treblinka fell victim to the narrative around the mythologized fight for “our and your freedom”? In Polish research journals and publications, the Treblinka uprising of 1943 functions as a successful and probably the only example of the entirety of Second World War that symbolizes Polish-Jewish brotherhood-in-arms. Interestingly enough, and like from a dark comedy, this narrative paradoxically was born on the wave of the post-March propaganda of 1968 and the consequences of Jewish emigration from Poland.

Panel 2: Jews in Allied Armed Forces(Chair: Michael Fleming)

Jacek Pietrzak

Jews in Regular Polish Military Forces During World War II

Not readily met with research or scholarly interest, the issue of soldiers of Jewish origin within ranks of the Polish Army during the Second World War is one that undoubtedly deserves more attention. In addition to concerning important international aspects of the Polish cause during World War II, the topic at hand is both an integral chapter in the history of Polish-Jewish relations as well as the activities of Polish Army. My paper is devoted to the Jewish soldiers that served in the regular formations of the Polish Army: in the September 1939 campaign, in the Polish Armed Forces in exile as well as the Polish Army in the USSR under Soviet control.

I initially present preliminary observations about the situation of Jewish soldiers in the army of the Second Polish People’s Republic as an introduction to the difficult research conducted in regard to the soldiers of Jewish origin in the war of 1939. Analyzing the consequences of Poland’s defeat, my research turns its attention to the problem of the German and Soviet conducted repression against these Jewish soldiers. The greatest attention is given to the Polish Armed Forces in exile fighting under the command of the British as well as the so-called Anders Army or the Army of Władysław Anders – a popular description of Polish formations in the Soviet Union, the Middle East and the Italian Front. Here I consider the emotionally charged and controversial issues such as the underlying presence of Polish-Jewish antagonisms in the army, anti-Semitism and the reaction to it by the commanding leadership in addition to political factors, and international aspects including the conflict over Palestine and the fight for the Jewish state.

On the other hand, the topic of soldiers of Jewish origin in the Polish Army under Soviet control (1943-1945) is largely an actual terra incognita in present historiography. My research addresses the sensitive issue of the role of Polish Jews in the political apparatus of Polish Army in the USSR. I discuss individual soldiers of Jewish origin from various regular formations who are little known and deserve special commemoration.

Leah Garrett

Jewish Soldiers in the British and US Armed Forces

In this talk I will discuss the prominent and central roles of Jewish soldiers in the US and British Armed Forces during World War Two. In the US, Jews served in statistically large numbers and were on the frontlines of all the major battles. In my discussion of the British Armed Forces, I will focus on a special top secret unit of commandos, the X Troop. The eighty-seven commandos of the X Troop were nearly all Jewish Holocaust survivors. Fluent in German, and desperate to fight and destroy the Nazis, the men of the X-Troop saw the war as personal. They played a central role in the D Day landings and later killed, captured and interrogated their way across Normandy. They fought in France, Italy, Belgium and Germany. They were highly motivated, highly trained commandos and (according to the various war diaries) proved to be extraordinary warriors on the battlefield. One of the men, Manfred Gans, even commandeered a Jeep after VE day and drove through the Sudetenland to the Terezin concentration camp where he rescued his parents.

Arkadi Zeltser

Jews in the Red Army

During Soviet–German war of 1941–1945, between 300 and 500 thousand Jews served in the Red Army. Due to available non-systematic information regarding the ethnic composition of the Red Army, we may conclude that the Jews were overrepresented in the military forces that required special training. They often served in artillery, tank forces, aviation and engineer corps as well as physicians, translators, newspaper correspondents, and propagandists. There was also a high percentage of Jews  among the officers.. Such disproportion, which even increased toward the end of the war, reflects the overrepresentation of Jews among personnel with high-level education on the eve and during the war.

Some Jews believed that it was necessary to fight the general war of the Soviet people against Germany, in addition to conducting their own war against the Nazis. A sense of their ethnic identity significantly heightened even among those Jews who had previously been indifferent to their Jewishness. The information regarding the Holocaust that the soldiers and officers received from the Russian and Yiddish Soviet press as well as  from propagandistic discourse in the army strongly influenced these changes, as did the additional information that was acquired during the liberation of the western parts of the USSR and Poland.

Cases of grassroots anti-Semitism in the Red Army and in the Soviet interior  generally, as well as the reluctance of some non-Jews to consider Jews as brave combatants, played a no less important role in raising Jewish consciousness. All these factors contributed to Jewish sensitivity regarding their collective image. Moreover, it strengthened their perception of themselves as members of an ethnic group. This led to an initiative of creating separate Jewish units in the Red Army, as in the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Polish divisions. However, this contradicted the pragmatic Soviet ethnic policy during World War II and the initiative was never carried out.

Yoav Gelber

The Historical Significance of the Jewish Brigade Group in the British Army

It is impossible to summarize in 20 minutes the four volumes that I wrote 35-40 years ago about Jewish volunteering in Palestine into the British army during World War II , in which I stressed the main historical contributions that the 30,000 volunteers from Palestine brought to the history of the war, the Holocaust, the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine and Jewish history in general.

The main original motivation for enlistment of most volunteers between the summer of 1940 and the fall of 1942 was to take part in defense of their country against either resumed Arab rebellion, or Axis invasion or both. However, starting in the fall of 1942 when the tide of the war turned and information about the destruction of the European Jews increased, the striving for revenge as well as the will to arrive in liberated Europe and to find out what remained of the old Jewish world became the paramount motivation of both the already serving soldiers and the new recruits.

More than one million Jews fought against the Nazis in World War II in various regular and irregular frameworks. About 5,000 of the 30,000 volunteers from Palestine served in the Jewish Brigade Group (JBG), an internationally recognized Jewish formation under a national Jewish banner and insignia; this phenomenon symbolized Jewish participation in the war. Besides, WWII probably might have been won by the allies without them. The Israeli triumph in the War of Independence could not have been so decisive without their knowledge and experience of regular warfare, organization, intelligence and logistics. Israel’s image to the rest of the world would have been totally different, had the State in the Making not taken part in the war of the Good against the Evil, being on the side of the Good.

Panel 3: Civil Courage(Chair: Krzysztof Persak)

Natalia Aleksiun

Testimonies about Jewish Acts of Heroism in the Holocaust

In January 1947 r., a young survivor Fania Szrage recorded a short testimony about her experiences during the Holocaust in Zbaraż, eastern Galicia. A teacher before the war, she survived having jumped from the train to Bełżec. While she did not detail how she was able to survive after the liquidation of the ghetto in June 1943, she recalled vividly an earlier encounter with a German perpetrator. When she was captured during the round up in November 1942, together with her mother, they were both taken to the bathhouse, where the Germans “beat us terribly. I was trying to shield my mother from the blows, then the Gestapo man got mad that I did this. I told him that he too would have likely protected his mother from beatings. My words made him so mad that he hit me even harder”. What do we make of Fania Szrage’s futile effort to protect her mother and to shame the perpetrator by reminding him of common human decency and of the shared humanity of Jewish victims? In my paper, I argue that Szrage’s attempt should be seen as an act of individual heroism. Many such acts have been preserved in Jewish testimonies, which include vignettes that offer us important, intimate insights into verbal communications that constituted acts of defiance. Though substantial historical research has been conducted on organized group and armed resistance in Nazi occupied Poland and the Soviet Union, little work has been done on individual opposition. In his 2011 article on open protest and other forms of Jewish defiance in Nazi Germany, Wolf Gruner argued for the importance of expanding the focus on resistance beyond organized groups. Taking cues from his analysis of acts of defiance among German Jews, this paper seeks to examine individual acts of heroism recorded in testimonies from Eastern Europe.

Barbara Engelking

Jews Helping Jews: Hiding on the ‘Aryan Side’

Thousands of Jews were hiding on the “Aryan side” in Warsaw at the time of Nazi occupation. Many were aided by conspiratorial organizations, others had to cope on their own, all were under constant threat of denunciation or blackmail. In order to find a hideout, they used all their contacts and connections, as well as their social and financial resources; their chances of survival often depended on coincidences or being exposed to human evil. I would like to focus on various types of mutual help provided by the Jews who remained in hiding, with particular attention drawn to their courage, self-reliance and sacrifice. I shall present a number of examples of such help: help provided to family members, to comrades from the same shtetl, and to strangers — both selflessly and for money.

Anna Bikont

Żegota as a Polish-Jewish Organization

In my presentation, I will discuss Żegota, the Council to Aid Jews with the Government Delegation for Poland, and in particular I will address some of the organization’s Polish Jewish members and their accomplishments. These members were: Adolf Berman, the secretary general of Żegota, and his wife liaison officer Basia Temkin-Berman; lawyer Maurycy Herling-Grudzińśki who transferred funds from Żegota to almost 500 people in hiding as part of a self-help network with Jewish Poles being the main link in the endeavor; Maria Hochberg-Mariańska, a Jewish activist within the organization based out of Kraków (Cracow); Wanda Wyrobkowa-Pawłowska, who served as a liaison officer for Irena Sendler’s children division in the organization, and Bogna Domańska, who served as the secretary presenting Jewish matters in the Government Delegation for Poland. Each one of these individuals will allow me to specifically talk about the presence of Jewish Poles in Żegota. What did the other members within the organization know about their origins? To what extent did the people who received help from them know about their origins, if they did at all? How was the participation and activities of these Jewish Polish members in Żegota discussed in post-war research and studies of the organization? I will end with the issue of how Żegota was financed, that is, to what degree it was helped monetarily by the Polish Government-in-Exile, and how much it was helped by the resources of Jewish organizations.

Andrea Löw

Documenting the Holocaust in Poland: The Ghetto Archives in Łódź and Warsaw

Jews under Nazi occupation, and especially in the ghettos, documented what was happening to them. They wrote diaries, poems, short stories and chronicles; they painted and they took photographs. They did not want to let the perpetrators determine how their fate and suffering would be remembered. It is mostly because of the documentary efforts of the Jewish ghetto inhabitants that it is possible for us today to write the history of the ghettos and the people who had to live in them.

In my paper, I will concentrate on the ghettos of Lodz and Warsaw and their archives. While there are differences between the official Lodz Ghetto Archive and the clandestine Underground Archive in Warsaw, both of which I will address in my presentation, there are also important similarities: the strong will to document life and death, the belief that their perspective has to be documented and that they themselves had to start writing their history. With this in mind, the archivists wrote and collected a manifold of documents. Their efforts can be seen as a very important contribution to the Jewish resistance against Nazi Germany.