I spent two days at the archive of the Institute of National Memory, reading reports about crimes committed during World War II. Witnesses filled out these forms in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so they were recalling events that occurred thirty years earlier. Different forms were used to document different offenses: repression of the Jewish population before the creation of the ghettos, persecution and extermination of intelligentsia, repression of the Gypsy people, roundups, arrests, prison and arrest, executions, resettlement, ghettos, camps, looting and destroying cultural goods, and help given by Poles to exterminated and persecuted Polish citizens of Jewish descent and other nationalities as well as citizens of other countries. These categories overlap, so sometimes forced labor is reported on the “resettlement” form, while in other cases the “camp” form is used. There are thousands of pages of these testimonies in the archive. I have only requested the ones from towns I have visited: places like Ustrzyki Dolne and Lesko, Żychlin and Kutno.
This is hard material to take in more than small doses. Page after page outlines the dehumanizing conditions Polish citizens were subjected to. The forms illustrate a certain asymmetry of experience. The ultimate fate of most Jews was death, as described on the forms for repression, execution, and ghettos. Most Jews were murdered because they were Jews. There is also an asymmetry of memory: those murders tend to be documented in large, even numbers—4,000, 6,000, 20,000 Jews passed through the Kutno ghetto on their way to the death camps.
Some records are more specific, including the names of 181 Jews who were taken to the Jewish cemetery in Żychlin on March 2, 1942, the day before the liquidation of the ghetto. Then they were shot and buried in shallow mass graves. The names of the five officers who shot them are also listed. Among the victims, #22 is Lajb Białak, age 38, trader; #59 is Hersz Klinger, age 39, shoemaker; #88-92 are Abram (48), Iojne (44), Rywen (16), Sura (14), and Bajla (12) Borensztajn. They may well have been a family. #159, Estera Rajch (62), trader, has the same last name as my great great grandmother, Liba Rajch who was born in 1829 in nearby Kutno.
In Ustrzyki Dolne, several witnesses report the shooting of 100 Jews rounded up from nearby villages and shot by a single SS officer. Only two Jews survived. Szternbach was a dentist who changed his name to Edward Stańkowski and moved to Szczecin, a city at the other corner of Poland. The other, named Szrecher (did they mean Szprecher?), moved to the United States.
More Poles survived and are named in these records, but the accounts also attest to the inhuman treatment to which they were subjected. Reading page after page of testimony gives me a visceral understanding why it would have been so hard for most to offer help to Jews. It doesn’t justify deliberate acts of prejudice and hatred, but it does help to explain what likely prevented more direct assistance. Poles were ordered to leave their homes with hardly any notice, then moved to poorer quarters on other streets or in different towns. Most of their property was taken from them. All they were allowed to bring with them was a pair of underwear, or a spoon and bowl. The luckier ones were told to pack a few days food or a change of clothes and some bedding. Thousands were transported to forced labor throughout the Third Reich. So many were put to work digging ditches. The pages of testimony don’t specify why but I can only imagine that these were in many cases death pits for murdered Jews. Others worked in gardens, factories, or on railroad tracks.
Poles were usually arrested for specific activities: illegal sale of food, making vodka, killing a pig, taking two ration cards, crossing borders, or avoiding work. Most often these offenses resulted in imprisonment or forced labor but sentences were unpredictable. Jan Tobolczyk, “a teacher and a good Pole,” was beaten for not admitting to being a witness of a Pole beating a German. He was sent to Dachau where he was killed. Poles were imprisoned, hanged, or shot for offenses like conspiracy, hiding arms, hiding people, or sabotage. Those caught hiding Jews were killed. Many of those documented on the “persecution and extermination of intelligentsia” form were arrested simply because they were priests; many were sent to Dachau where they were gassed, though some survived imprisonment.
Three railroad workers, Piotr Sand, Kolikst Perkowski, and Wilhelm Czarnewski, were hung in the Old Market Square in Kutno for transporting food to Warsaw. One witness said they were engaged in “illegal trade,” another said they were “transporting food for soldiers.” This happened on July 12, 1940, or perhaps at the end of May 1941. Many witnesses reported this incident. One explained that residents were forced to come at a designated time to watch the execution. The bodies hung all day, guarded by Germans. They were taken down at night and moved to an unknown location.
The accumulation of cases brings home how little Poles’ lives mattered to the occupier, and how easily and unpredictably they were imprisoned, relocated, or killed. These accounts document the inaccuracy, or at least the incompleteness of the claim that most Poles just stood by while the Holocaust happened. Many were preoccupied with the struggle for their own survival. And years later, many felt compelled to leave a public record of what they witnessed.