Today, as we again mark the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, it is high time to recall one small, neglected episode in that immense struggle. This year, Yom HaShoah fell on April 28. The holiday is dedicated, as the full name tells us, to the remembrance of the heroes as well as the martyrs of the Holocaust. Seventy years ago on April 28, 1944, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency opened its “Daily News Bulletin” with the following:
POLISH GOVERNMENT WILL CLARIFY ITS ATTITUDE ON COURT-MARTIAL OF JEWISH SOLDIERS
LONDON, April 27. (JTA) — Polish sources today indicated that the Polish Government-in-Exile will “within the next few days” issue a statement making clear its attitude with regard to the anti-Jewish atmosphere in the Polish Army as well as the verdicts imposed by a Polish court-martial on 21 Jewish soldiers who left their units because of anti-Semitism and attempted to join the British forces.
For me, these men have always been among the unsung heroes of the Holocaust era. Admittedly, my interest in the topic is more than historical: as I recounted last year, my father became the leader of these “deserters”—or what their leading advocate, Independent left-wing MP Tom Driberg preferred to call “refugees” from antisemitism: “Absentees for Freedom”.
Nowadays forgotten, the episode cries out for recognition: not because it was the worst that could happen, but because it was so fatefully quotidian and symptomatic. In the grand scheme of things, it was not much. Polish Jewry had already been exterminated. (In fact, by a cruel quirk of fate, the court-martial began on the eve of the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.) By the end of 1943, more than four million European Jews were dead. The (by official count) 714 Jewish soldiers of the Polish Army-in-Exile in the UK were among the living and the fortunate: free men, and armed, beyond the grasp of the Nazis. They wanted nothing more than to join the fight—but many found it impossible to do so.
We know that antisemitism still exists, but few of us encounter it personally. Even the way that we talk about discrimination in modern society is different: we speak clinically of a “hostile environment” and resort to the arcane and anodyne terminology of “trigger warnings” and “microagressions,” “microassaults,” “microinsults,” and “microinvalidations.” On balance, we are fortunate to live in a world that errs on the side of excessive caution, attempting to protect individuals from every possible emotional as well as physical harm. (Even the ridiculous is less objectionable than the vicious.) But most of us therefore find it difficult to imagine what it was like to live in a world of real, raw hatred.
What caused disciplined, levelheaded fighting men to take the desperate step of leaving their units, at the risk of prison—or death?
In the grand scheme of things, to be sure, it was not much. And yet, it was more than they could bear. What caused disciplined, levelheaded fighting men to take the desperate step of leaving their units, at the risk of prison—or death? As Driberg told Parliament :
They are a tough highly-trained combatant type of soldier, most of them, not the non-combatant clerical type or the sensitive intellectual type, although those types are also present in the group. Their stories are quite horrifying and absolutely convincing.
Conditions had become not only intolerable, but also lethal. The men feared for their lives. The pain was the greater because they felt a deep sense of betrayal at the hands of the nation that they had sought to serve. Contrary to the accounts by the Polish military, which characterized the soldiers as cowardly or lacking genuine attachment to the homeland, the Jewish Chronicle reported, “Among these Jewish victims were six volunteers, several who had taken part in the heroic defense of Warsaw in 1939 and in the fighting for France, and a number who had been wounded fighting for Poland.” In 1939, sensing war on the horizon, my father voluntarily returned from the safety of the Netherlands—via Nazi Germany—to Poland, because, as he later put it, “I wanted to be with my people.” Fortunate to find himself in the Soviet rather than German occupation zone, he managed to escape to Hungary, where the Polish government organized escapees for service in what remained of the Army. Traveling at some risk through Yugoslavia and Fascist Italy to France, he arrived shortly after the German invasion had begun and joined the Polish units in the south. Following the Fall of France, the Polish Army was evacuated to the UK and reconstituted in Scotland, where it first guarded the coast against an anticipated German invasion from Norway and then prepared for the liberation of the Continent. The Jewish soldiers found to their dismay that they had escaped the Nazis, but not antisemitism, which was endemic in their own ranks.
The stories that deserters told were, as Driberg said, “quite horrifying”—and strikingly consistent:
The stories that deserters told were, as Driberg said, “quite horrifying”—and strikingly consistent: Jews were treated as second-class citizens, denied opportunities for training and promotion. They received harsher punishments for failures of performance or discipline. Worse, they had to endure constant hazing and harassment, verbal and even physical abuse. Complaints to superiors were met with indifference or retribution. Worse still, many reported hearing praise of the Nazis for at least solving one problem: “Hitler is the savior of Europe, because he exterminates the Jews.” In the spring of 1943, soldiers in public settings applauded—without reprimand—news of the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, and of the subsequent suicide of Szmul Zygielbojm, the Jewish socialist representative in the Polish National Council in London, who desperately sought to call attention to the slaughter. Conditions became even worse later that year when the Army-in-Exile absorbed a large number of Poles captured fighting for Rommel’s Afrika Corps, who seemed to have shed their German uniforms but not their antisemitism.
every Pole has two bullets—the first for a Jew and the second for a German
Deserter after deserter reported, in similar words, that their supposed comrades boasted of planning to murder them. In a version that Driberg related to Parliament:
We cannot do anything in this country, because Churchill is in the pay of the Jews; but you wait until we get you on the Continent of Europe: the moment we get you there, in the second front, then every Pole has two bullets—the first for a Jew and the second for a German.
One struggles in vain to imagine the daily situation and psychological state of these soldiers, who sought only to fight fascism and agonized over the fate of relatives under Nazi rule, yet found themselves confronted with native antisemites and even outright Nazis in their midst. In the aftermath of the court martial, my father testified to a commission of inquiry in July 1944:
Among such people, who did I-don’t-know-what things, who served in the German army, who had been in Warsaw, who told about Auschwitz—in such an atmosphere . . . it was impossible to go on.
The approach of both the British Jewish community and the Polish Jewish leaders left much to be desired. Fearful lest any rocking of the boat increase antisemitism in either wartime Britain or postwar Poland (it is hard to see how the situation in the army could have worsened), they continually urged patience upon the restive soldiers. Finally, at the beginning of 1944, Leftist Polish and Jewish members of the Polish Government-in-Exile warned that the problem needed to be confronted. Emanuel Szerer, Zygielbojm’s successor as Bundist representative on the Council, found that “the anti-Semitic atmosphere is still maintained—and even fostered—by certain groups in the Army.” The Zionist representative, Ignacy Schwarzbart, declared, “The Polish Army is poisoned with anti-Semitism.” It was too little too late. The gingerly approach of the two Jewish Council members had been completely ineffectual. Official condemnations of antisemitism and educational efforts on the part of the Army proved to be of no avail. The Jewish soldiers felt abandoned by both the Army and their supposed representatives.
They barricaded themselves in, had supplies and ammunition
Some had contemplated committing suicide, but ultimately, the collective choice was resistance. From January to February, two waves totaling some 200 men—nearly 30 percent of the Jews in the Army—left Scotland for London and demanded transfer to the British forces. Ralph Apel, whose father Avram Zysapel organized these deserters, recently told me, “They barricaded themselves in, had supplies and ammunition; Dad, as spokesman, said they would happily be put in the front line to fight Germans but did not wish to be shot in the back by fellow soldiers . . . Dad knew that these were not idle threats.” Eager to dispense with the matter, both Poland and Britain agreed to the transfer. Soon thereafter, the British declared their unwillingness to accept any further deserters and told the Poles to put their house in order. On March 13, Polish Defense Minister Kukiel announced that absence without leave would now be regarded as tantamount to desertion in wartime, with all that implied: a sentence of 1-15 years in prison—and, in the case of “conspiracy,” death.
By this time, my father and a comrade, Jakub Marber, had already decided to seek a transfer. On March 25, they traveled to London on a weekend pass, joining another group of deserters, who were already in contact with the British government via Tom Driberg. When their erstwhile “leader” cravenly absconded after the negotiations collapsed, they asked my father to take charge. Under the new policies, the hammer came down this time. On March 31, British police and the Polish military raided the Jewish restaurant where the men had taken refuge, arrested them, and sent them back to Scotland for a court martial.
Driberg recalled that he had been astounded to find himself publicly pursuing the cause of the deserters “against the advice—the almost lachrymose pleading—of the official spokesmen of the Jewish community in Britain.”
News of the arrests and impending trial leaked out in the following week, and Driberg raised the issue in the House of Commons. All hell broke loose.
Civil Liberties groups and the international as well as British press seized upon the story. And finally, the timorous Jewish establishment decided to join the fray. Driberg recalled that he had been astounded to find himself publicly pursuing the cause of the deserters “against the advice—the almost lachrymose pleading—of the official spokesmen of the Jewish community in Britain.” “I felt afterwards that, if I had listened to them, those Jewish soldiers would still have been suffering bullying in Scotland or been killed by Polish bullets in Normandy.” The Jewish press covered the story thoroughly and passionately.
As the story unfolded in the following weeks, each faction along the Jewish ideological spectrum found in it confirmation of its own worldview.
As the story unfolded in the following weeks, each faction along the Jewish ideological spectrum found in it confirmation of its own worldview. For the Bundists, who maintained their unshakeable faith in a secular Jewish destiny in a democratic postwar Poland—Szerer’s standard Eurocentric riposte to Zionists was: “Yisroel ligt in Azie!“ (“Israel is in Asia!”)—it was simply proof of the need for renewed efforts. Szerer opposed both transfer to British forces and the creation of a separate Jewish unit, arguing that the trial could “only serve to encourage reactionary elements,” which the Army now had to remove as a hindrance to a “truly free and independent Poland” based on “principles of economic equality and political freedom,” “true equality for all its minorities,” and “liberatarian [sic] socialism.”
The Zionists, understandably enough, were less sanguine. Given their core belief in the need for the negation of the Diaspora, the episode was for them proof that the future for Europe’s surviving Jews lay in a sovereign state where they would be responsible for their own destiny and defense. In a controversial editorial at the end of Passover, entitled, “Back to the Jungle?” The Jewish Chronicle dismissed both the Bundist and Zionist members of the Polish National Council (Szerer and Schwarzbart) as “virtual employees of the Polish government,” whose positions could only be viewed as “embarrassing in the extreme.” Given the stalemate of the deserters’ refusal to return to the Polish Army and the refusal of the UK to accept them, the only logical solution was “immediately” “incorporating them in a specially created Jewish unit in the British Army.” As for the more distant future:
It is profoundly to be hoped that in the coming peace reorganisation no pressure, subtle or otherwise, will be exerted to make the Polish Jews go down into hell again, but that the doors of Palestine will be flung wide open to them and to the other oppressed Jews. Anti-Semitism is proved a deep-seated and baffling disease against which the remedy of education, prescribed in the [Parliamentary; JW] debate, cannot be effective for years and years . . . . It has yet to be demonstrated that Atlantic Charters will succeed where Minorities Treaties have failed. It is, for the Jews, and probably therefore for the rest of the world, a case of Palestine or back to the jungle.
Although differing in their stances on the act of desertion and ultimate solution, the various political factions and communal organizations nonetheless formed a united front in rejecting punishment of the deserters and demanding strong action against antisemitism.
The affair was deeply embarrassing to the London Polish government, which responded, as earlier, with a litany of explanations and excuses. A previous inquiry had found that the complaints were trivial. The men were not real fighting material: cowards and shirkers. In any case, they were not real patriots, did not truly identify with the Polish cause. Or perhaps they were just oversensitive, driven to the point of paranoia by news of Nazi crimes. To these were now added the charges (echoing old antisemitic accusations) that the desertions were the work of agitators in the Army—or Soviet agents outside. In any case, the Polish Ministry of Information assured the public, “most of the incidents between Jews and Christians were inseparable from disputes which could not be totally avoided in barracks irrespective of a man’s faith.” But implicitly revealing that things were not so simple, Polish Commander-in-Chief Sosnkowski issued an Order of the Day both “deploring the recent desertion of Jewish soldiers and ordering the cessation of all manifestations of anti-semitism.”
The brief trial began on April 18 at a secret location (in fact, Division Headquarters at Cupar), although the Army, feeling the public pressure, allowed representatives of Jewish groups to attend as observers. The Court offered the accused legal representation almost literally at the last minute: one lowly private, unprepared, to make the case for 21 men facing the most severe charges. My father, insulted at this farce (and stubborn, as was his nature), decided to persist in conducting his own defense, laying out the history of discrimination and abuse. The court handed down sentences ranging from one year to twenty-three months—the latter, for my father, as ringleader and spokesman.
The Polish government viewed the sentences as lenient, but the world saw the affair differently. Put on the defensive by the outpouring of criticism, the Polish National Council established a commission to inquire into antisemitism and the military prepared to prosecute the worst offenders. Polish President Rackiewicz issued an amnesty for the deserters on May 12, but even this did not defuse the issue, for as the London News-Chronicle put it, “it is plain that these unhappy men were freed only under the pressure of public opinion.” Accusations of official antisemitism persisted, as the leftist Peasants’ and Socialist parties in the Polish Government demanded Kukiel’s and then Sosnkowski’s resignations.
Meanwhile, the deserters, kept at first in harsh British punishment facilities, found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Unconvinced that the situation on the ground had actually changed, they had no desire to return to their units. The JTA reported that 19 of the 21 soldiers “refused to leave their cells unless they are allowed to transfer from the Polish forces to the British.” Nine allegedly threatened to commit suicide if they were denied transfer. Unfortunately, as Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden adamantly told Parliament the UK would not accept them. Confined now to new quarters in Kincardine, and neither prisoners nor free men, the deserters lingered in limbo for nearly half a year. They persistently refused assignment to the Polish forces, insisting on either the regular British Army or a separate Jewish combat unit.
In vain, my father and his comrades again requested to serve and fight:
We, the undersigned, ask to be released from the Polish Army, & to be transferred to the British Army, to make it possible for us to fight the common enemy.
Should that transfer not be possible then we are prepared to accept any work in the British war effort, not looking at any risks or dangers.
We In at time like that, after the invasion of the continent has started and every man is needed we feel it our duty to do [corrected from: do to] our bit to help in a small way to get final victory.
We beg for a quick solution acceptance of our application.
Finally, in late October, the British and Poles, seizing upon the opening that the letter provided, devised a shrewd compromise, whereby the men were assigned to hazardous and essential—but civilian—British war work. Thus ended the saga—but not its significance.
In the grand scheme of things, it was not much: just over 200 individuals against the backdrop of . . . the Holocaust. Why remember?
In the grand scheme of things, it was not much: just over 200 individuals against the backdrop of all the Jewish combatants and the six million victims of the Holocaust. Why remember and call special attention to the episode? In the first place, it made a small but real difference in the course of history. Bernard Wasserstein characterizes the events as “The most important manifestations of war-time anti-Semitism in Britain, both as regards their impact on Jewish refugees in the country and in their international implications.”
The “international implications” were indeed considerable. As Minister of War Kukiel observed, the government’s approach to the problem “let loose a storm throughout the entire world against the Polish authorities and armed forces.” The last thing that the London Poles needed was to be accused of antisemitism while desperately fighting in the final phases of a war against Nazism. At stake were their claims in the postwar world. The western allies were already looking favorably on the territorial demands of the Soviets, who were backing a rival communist government-in-exile as the Red Army, by now on former Polish territory, was creating new facts on the ground. And indeed, although the USSR did not make as much of the episode as it might have, it was swift to respond. Within hours after the sentences were announced the Polish National Committee in Moscow pilloried the “crowd of reactionary officers” in the “so-called Polish Government” in London, noting that “the British did not understand what was the issue—freedom-loving democratic people on one side, and Fascists on the other.”
In the words of David Engel, the episode of the deserters “led remarkably to the generation of more paper by more government agencies than any other matter concerning Jews with which the government dealt before or since.” Quite a statement in the context of the Holocaust. This “seemingly minor episode” thus “acquired central significance in the evolution of the relations between the Polish government-in-exile and the Jews.” In 1944, that London Polish government began a belated effort to rescue the surviving Jews of Europe. Chaim Weizmann, head of the World Zionist Organization and future first President of Israel, saw no future for them there. Citing “as a small but instructive illustration, what is happening even in the Polish Army in Scotland,” he said, “It would be idle to expect, and cruel to encourage, re-settlement of these people among the ghosts of their dead, and surrounded by anti-Semitic populations.” The only answer was to fulfill the Palestine Mandate and “re-settle emigrants on a solid national basis in a Jewish State.”
honesty demands that we complete the historical record
In the second place, honesty demands that we complete the historical record by filling in what Mikhail Gorbachev famously called the “blank spots.” To call for long-overdue attention to the plight of the deserters is not to paint Poles collectively as antisemites. History is complex. Although the Polish Government-in-Exile may have failed to acknowledge the existence of virulent antisemitism within its own ranks, it was also the first Allied power to publicize news of the emerging genocide. This year, we celebrate the centenary of the birth of its heroic emissary Jan Karski who, at great personal risk, gathered evidence of the Holocaust and took it to the other western Allies—where it fell upon deaf ears. Poles constitute the single largest group of “Righteous Among the Nations” honored at Yad Vashem for aiding Jews during the Holocaust. Progressive elements in the Polish National Council spoke out strongly against antisemitism in the military. And last month witnessed the canonization of the Polish Pope John Paul II, who lived through the Nazi occupation and did more than any Catholic leader since his fellow saint John XXIII to build amicable Jewish-Catholic relations. Things are vastly better now. In the present day, Poland views the embrace of its Jewish past not only as redress for the sins of both commission and omission in the Nazi and communist eras—but also as natural. Without that story, Polish history and memory themselves would be incomplete. Ironically, at a time when reports of antisemitism in such presumed bastions of tolerance and “progressive” politics as France or Sweden regularly make headlines, Poland is now one of best places in Europe to be Jewish. Relations between Poland and Israel are strong.
To reduce Polish-Jewish relations to antisemitism is in any case to make a travesty of a millennium of shared history, which serves the interest of neither of the two peoples—nor truth itself. As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimbel, designer of the core exhibit of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw says, “You don’t live in a place for a thousand years and create a great civilization if it’s one unmitigated disaster.” At the same time, to pass over in silence the very real and persistent antisemitism of the twentieth century is to ignore uncomfortable but undeniable truths.
the saga of the deserters is nothing less than a microcosm of the problem of Polish national identity and the at times troubled history of . . . “Jewish-Polish relations.”
It is a commonplace that war tends to pull a nation together, but it can generate centrifugal as well as centripetal forces and exacerbate internal social tensions. Even the Second World War—the so-called “good war,” was no exception. In occupied Poland and in the Polish Army-in-Exile, it tested the bonds of solidarity between peoples to the utmost and revealed the fissures that lay just beneath the shining surface of noble words and abstract ideals. The reborn Polish republic never fully resolved the tension between two historical competing visions of the polity: a “multinational nation” bound together by shared values or an exclusionary monoethnic Polish-Catholic state? a state that viewed its ethnic diversity as a source of strength or a cause for concern? The problem persisted into the communist era, and beyond. Seen in that light, the saga of the deserters is nothing less than a microcosm of the problem of Polish national identity and the at times troubled history of what scholars have come to call simply and laconically “Jewish-Polish relations.”
The incident . . . is barely known outside the circle of specialists
The incident, although well covered in two excellent chapters in two excellent larger studies relating to the Holocaust by Bernard Wasserstein and David Engel, is barely known outside the circle of specialists. It deserves to be more widely known and told in full. This is why, after researching it intermittently over a number of years, I finally decided to pursue it more intensively with an eye to writing a book.
The story of the “Absentees for Freedom” has (for better or worse) all the makings of a Hollywood feature film. But we are also witnessing the renaissance of the small-scale or independent film on Jewish history, for which it seems much better—indeed, ideally—suited. (I could not imagine a better venue for the premiere than the Kraków or Warsaw Jewish culture festivals.) The story should be occasion for reflection and education rather than sentimentality and grandiose talk of heroism. As in the case of the Holocaust itself, there are no uplifting “higher meanings” involving the “triumph of the spirit”—only needless suffering and sober lessons. And because this episode possesses such powerful educational value, it deserves a place in museum exhibits and curricula on the Holocaust and antisemitism. It certainly falls within the purview of Yad Vashem (which possesses much of the documentation) or the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It would seem a natural subject for such projects as Facing History and Ourselves or Teaching Tolerance.
Thus far, the story has been told mainly from the perspective of politics and government policies, not people.
Thus far, the story has been told mainly from the perspective of politics and government policies, not people. Indeed, the names of the individual soldiers appear, if at all, almost exclusively as footnotes. They are just “the deserters,” a nameless, faceless collectivity. What we need most, then, are the personal stories. Few if any of the “Absentees” can be alive today (a soldier who was 20 in 1944 would be 90, which is why the matter is all the more urgent). But some of them presumably live. Some left their testimonies. Their descendants still live. When Rafael Medoff, Director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, recently published a piece on the episode for JNS based in part on my article of last year, Ralph Apel, son of another deserter leader, read it and e-mailed me the same day to establish contact. The internet and social media allow us to make inquiries and connections in ways that were unimaginable even a generation ago. I would welcome any and all testimony and documentation from other “Absentees” or their descendants.
We need not only to recover the experiences of the 1940s in Scotland, but also to consider the lives of these men in their entirety: before, during, and after the war. As in the case of Holocaust survivors, to reduce their existence to one traumatic episode is to do them another injustice and to truncate history itself. My father went on to work in the American military government in Germany, implementing de-Nazification and rebuilding democracy. Some members of his group, such as Jakub Marber, stayed in England and made new lives there. Avraham Blum emigrated to Palestine and fought in Israel’s War of Independence. Avram Zysapel, leader of the earlier group, was one of those who secured transfer to the British forces. As his son Ralph told me, they “took great delight in ensuring he got his wish [for a combat assignment] and he was placed in the assault pioneers on the first wave on the 6th of June.” He fought on from D-Day to the conquest of Germany. “Finally on 14th April 1945 he arrived at Bergen Belsen where three living skeletons recognized him; distant family from Poland who said that his entire family had been killed. In 1972 I found a cousin who was lighting a Yahrzeit [candle] for my father in the belief that he had perished with the rest.”
What other stories can we recover? There is a powerful history here. We have an obligation to remember it. But first we must ensure that it is told in full.