In the cities, hamlets, and pine-covered forests of Poland, a murderous hunt took place in the summer of 1942. The Germans called it the Judenjagd, the hunt for the Jews.
Historian Jan Grabowski documents the deadly dragnet in his book “Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland.” Originally published in Polish in 2011, the book prompted vigorous debate. Some critics claimed it tarnished Poland’s image.
The subsequent English version, which contains new evidence, was awarded the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research in December 2014.
The book is the story of the hunt for Jews in Dabrowska Tarnowska, a rural county in southeastern Poland 50 miles east of Krakow. It describes the search for Jews who escaped from death camp transports and sought refuge among non-Jews in the Polish countryside, and gives a candid picture of terrible instances of Polish complicity in the detection and murder of Jews in hiding.
At the same time, Grabowski makes it clear that there was no Polish involvement in more than 90% of the Holocaust murder perpetrated by the Germans.
Grabowski, 52, is a professor of history at the University of Ottawa in Canada. He is also a founding member of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw, Poland. Born in Warsaw to a Christian mother and Jewish father, Grabowski immigrated to Canada in 1988.
According to the Book Prize Committee, Grabowski’s study is “exemplary and shows that a careful reading of archival material allows for the detailed reconstruction of personal life (and death) stories of Jews in hiding.”
The Forward’s Donald Snyder spoke with Grabowski about his book by phone.
Donald Snyder: How effective was the German hunt for the Jews?
Jan Grabowski: It was very effective. Two hundred and fifty thousand Jews fled to villages and the forests of eastern Poland to seek refuge, and 35,000 survived the Holocaust. That’s roughly 14%.
Why were the Germans so successful?
The Germans would not have been able to find the Jews without the help of the Polish police. They could easily detect someone new in their neighborhood. The police were permitted to shoot Jewish refugees, or transfer them to German authorities. In fact, my research shows that in many cases the police robbed the Jews and then killed them. They never informed the Germans. It was a huge surprise to me to discover the extent of Polish police involvement in deciding the fate of the Jews.
Courtesy of Jan Grabowski
You say in your book that Poles in small towns were active participants in the hunt for the Jews in hiding. Why?
There was a consensus among Polish villagers that they would not tell the authorities about Polish resistance fighters in the region, or about unlicensed animals, but there was no consensus about protecting Jews. You also have to figure in the long-lasting teachings of the Catholic Church, which has sown the grains of hate for a very long time.
You write that villagers hunted for the Jews. How did the Germans get them to do that?
The German policy was based on terror. Poles faced the death penalty for any help they gave to Jews. Also, the Germans created a so-called “hostage” system among the Poles. In every community they designated people who would be rotated every couple of weeks. They were responsible for informing the Polish police, or the Germans, about Jews hiding in their towns. If a Jew was discovered that had not been reported, the so-called hostages would be harshly punished. So everyone was highly motivated to get rid of the Jews.
You wrote that some of the Poles who murdered Jews regarded themselves as patriots and were offended when they were tried after the war for collaborating with the Germans. Their ultimate goal was a free Poland. Why did they kill the Jews?
If you read the Polish underground press, representing all political views, they all agree that Poland had three enemies: the Germans, Bolshevism, and international Jewry. So these so-called patriots regarded murdering Jews as a patriotic duty.
How many Polish Jews would have survived the Holocaust if they were not betrayed?
Of course, I can’t give you an exact number, but I can say many, many.
You laud the Poles in Dabrowska Tarnowska who were killed for helping Jews and co-dedicated your book to them. What was the greatest risk they faced?
The greatest risk was denunciation by their neighbors. Some to this day remain ostracized by their communities. In many cases, their children talk about their parents behind closed doors in hushed tones. It’s a piece of knowledge that shouldn’t be passed around freely. The 6,454 Polish righteous gentiles deserve great praise for what they did. But to say that saving Jews was a national pastime is simply ridiculous.
You apply your findings in one county — Dabrowska Tarnowska — to much of Nazi-occupied Poland. How can you make these generalizations?
We did compare the county I studied with other counties in rural Poland, and my researchers confirmed the universality of the phenomenon which I described in one county.
Why did you write this book?
There are so many layers of lies and propaganda surrounding Jewish-Polish relations during the war. It’s a festering wound that has to be cleansed and disinfected. It never was, and that has to be done as part of the healing process. For me, this is personal because my mother is a Polish Catholic, and my father is Jewish. I was raised and educated in Poland, and I was somehow infused with the belief that Poland was a heroic nation facing tremendous odds and preserving its moral virtue. The entire direction of my book goes against the grain of what I had been taught. I hope my book will help the healing process by facing some truths about Polish complicity so that we can move on. Despite all the problems, Polish society is extremely open. It is a democratic society where there is willingness to debate. I would say there is a huge and positive shift between the 1990s and now.
After your ambitious study about this dark chapter in Polish-Jewish relations, what is your reaction to the relative high level of anti-Semitic sentiment in today’s Poland?
Unfortunately, anti-Semitism remains a powerful force in public life. You have a country with a virtual absence of Jews and a fairly high level of anti-Semitic sentiment.
This interview has been edited for style and length.