On February 13, 2018, Polish President Andrze Duda signed a controversial new law into effect.
The law makes it illegal for anyone in Poland to refer to the extermination camps set up by Germans in wartime Poland as “Polish Death Camps.” More disturbingly, the law provides severe penalties for anyone who accuses the “Polish nation” of complicity in war crimes committed during the German occupation.
The intent of the law is to ensure that no one can blame the Poles for the mass killing of Jews in Poland.
The law has generated controversy in the international press. This week the media were filled with stories and op-eds revolving around the question of Polish complicity in the killing of Jews during the German occupation.
Were Poles responsible for the killing of Jews? Did they help the Germans in their campaign to exterminate the Jews — by betraying Jews-in-hiding to the Nazis, by extorting their Jewish neighbors with threats of revealing them, or by directly killing Jews?
The answer? It’s complicated.
My family’s story illustrates the complexity of the matter.
I grew up hearing stories from my relatives about the anti-Semitism of Poles and their treachery toward Jews during the German occupation and afterwards. Many Poles were all too eager to help the Germans hunt and deport Jews to their death — often for economic advantage, as Poles seized stolen Jewish property. Just as often the Poles acted out of pure Jew hatred.
After the war my father was liberated from a concentration camp. He was one of the few camp survivors. Unable to return to his former home (now occupied by a gentile Polish family) he found lodging with an aunt and cousin. In the middle of the night a group of Poles broke into the house and murdered the aunt and cousin. The next day my father fled the country. His experience was by no means unusual in post-war Poland. One of the most notorious post-war massacres occurred in the town of Kielce, where Polish soldiers and townspeople massacred about 40 Jews as the local police looked on. There were other pogroms as well.
But there was another side to Poland. It is represented by many brave Poles who saved Jews. This blog post tells one of those stories.
Forced from Home
I never knew Sister Edith. But if she hadn’t risked her life to save my Mother, I wouldn’t be here to write these words today.
After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Germans declared my family’s home town “judenrein,” that is, “free of Jews.” As a result, the family was forced to leave the familiar place of their childhoods. They were scattered across southwest Poland. Later, most of them were killed by German Einsatzgrupen (killing) squads or were gassed in Auschwitz.
Mom was 28 years old when the Germans forced her into the Krakow Ghetto. There she endured two bitter years without her family. Toward the end, she watched as the Germans deported more residents each week and gradually reduced the size of the ghetto, street by street.
Finally, Mom got hold of false identity papers and escaped the ghetto. She had been imprisoned from the ghetto’s inception in March, 1941 until March, 1943. She had survived countless selections (the unlucky ones were shipped directly to the Auschwitz Concentration camp where they were gassed and burned). And she had escaped just two weeks before the final onslaught against the ghetto’s residents. The Germans burst into the ghetto, killing as they went. They shipped the few remaining ghetto residents to the notorious Plaszow concentration camp, putting an end to the ghetto. Mom was among the few survivors of the ghetto.
With her new false identity papers, Mom travelled to the Polish city of Lemberg, where her sister and sister’s family lived, assuming the identity of Poles, rather than Jews. They sheltered Mom as a hidden guest in their small apartment.
On the Run Again
When the Allied aerial bombings began, the air raid sirens wailed and the residents of the apartment building rushed into the relative safety of the basement shelter. No one in the building knew of Mom’s existence. Had they known, they would have betrayed her to the Germans. So when the sirens wailed and the bombs began to fall, Mom was not able to join the other residents in the shelter. As she listened, terrified, to the long slow whistling of the descending bombs, all she could do was hide under the bed. At those times she was terrified. When the all-clear signaled the end of the bombardment, the family returned to the apartment. Each time, Mom’s sister found her frozen under the bed. She pulled Mom, stiff with fear, out from under the bed.
One day, two Gestapo soldiers barged into the apartment, searching for an escaped prisoner. Mom hid in a tiny space behind a hinged bookshelf her brother-in-law had built to obscure the hiding place.
The Gestapo took their time searching the apartment. They approached Mom’s 4 year old niece.
“Little girl, does anyone live here besides your parents and brother?”
Miraculously, the small child lied, “No.”
If she had told the Gestapo that her aunt was hiding in the apartment, the entire family would have been arrested and shipped to a concentration camp.
After the Gestapo left, it became clear that Mom had to leave. She could no longer afford to risk the lives of her remaining family. Every other member of her family had been killed or had disappeared. Where could she go?
That is when she found Sister Edith.
Hope for Survival
Mom’s sister had learned from her boss about a nun who was willing to hide Jews from the Germans. Sister Edith was the director of a convalescent home for ill and elderly patients in far-away Warsaw. On her first attempt to reach the convalescent home, Mom survived a terrifying aerial bombing of a train station. Later she managed to make it to the convalescent home, where Sister Edith took her in. Although Sister Edith knew that Mom was a Jew, she told the staff and patients that Mom was a Polish girl. When Mom despaired at ever seeing her sister again, Sister Edith comforted her. “You’ll see. This war will be over soon.”
Sister Edith was right.
Those who don’t know about the brutality of the German army in occupied lands should know that the Germans were merciless about anyone found to be harboring Jews. The Germans could easily have discovered Mom. They frequently stopped passers-by to check their identity papers and the ones my mother carried were a poor quality forgery.
Had the Germans learned that Mom was a Jew, they would have murdered Sister Edith and very likely the other nuns as well. Sister Edith knew that. Yet she took the risk. And here I am today, born just five years after Mom left that convalescent home.
War challenges people in unimaginable ways. It puts people to the test. I think of what happened in the darkroom when I developed film. I would slip a blank sheet of photographic paper into a tray of solution. In time, the hidden images became visible. In the same way, war makes visible who we are. In the final image, some of us emerge as heroes, others cowards. Some good, some evil. Most us somewhere in between.
But unlike the passive images of photography, we have a choice. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are forced to choose. Will we take advantage of circumstances to hurt people we dislike? Or will we risk our lives to help others? The awful thing is that we have to choose.
In the midst of a terrible war, Sister Edith made the moral choice.
But I never got to thank her.