Jan ŚLIWA: Good Samaritans in the times of the Holocaust

Good Samaritans in the times of the Holocaust

Photo of Jan ŚLIWA


Passionate about languages ​​and culture. IT specialist. Publishes on topics related to data, medical research, ethics and the social aspects of technology. He lives and works in Switzerland.

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The penal code concerning Poles and Jews was written on three pages with the word ‘death’ appearing seven times there – writes Jan ŚLIWA

.Tarnow, occupied Poland, 1942. The Germans are closing off the Jewish district and turning it into a ghetto. These are the days of murderers running amok – blood-covered bodies are lying on the streets, people are trying to escape, some are thrown into a burning synagogue.

A few days later, a Jewish woman knocks at her Polish friend’s door. A young woman answers. What should she do? Giving shelter to Jews means death, so says the German law introduced by the occupants and applicable to Poles.

This young Pole’s life has just started. Was it not for the war, she would still be studying physics.

She opens the door wider.

The Jewish woman enters and stays for over two years.

* * *

.The Holocaust is a recurring topic in the media. In my view, the main obstacle to an objective discussion of the Holocaust is our difficulty in imagining the ordeal of those times, not just with our mind, but also with our feelings and senses. To analyse fear is not the same as to experience it, which is almost impossible today in the rich and well-kept West.

As I write this text, which is important to me, I would like to help my readers imagine the real situations as they were experienced back then. I will present some background so that everybody  can recognise the landscape of the plot, give some examples of actions and difficulties in helping Jews, define and assess ethical dilemmas and, finally, consider whether today we are better prepared for such an extreme trial, apart from our readiness to pass moral judgments.

As time goes by, the Germans were eliminated from global awareness and replaced by abstract ‘Nazis’. The Nazis have no homeland or children. They evaporated in 1945. But as we need the figure of a villain, this role was given to the Poles. Therefore  we can read about ‘the Jews murdered by the Nazis in the Polish death camps’. Because the only national identity mentioned here is the Polish one,  the   association ‘Nazis – Poles’ is imprinted onto readers’ minds. Repeated over and over again, it almost has a long-lasting effect. It leads to such mental acrobatics as the statement made by Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC about the Jews fighting against the Polish and Nazi regime in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Regular ignorance, but often intentional manipulation, distorts history.

Today, the Holocaust reports hardly mention the Germans, apart from saying that they apologised and that the ‘matter is closed’. On the other hand, these terrible Poles would not ‘accept any responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich’, as France Culture TV said recently.

* * *

.No, we do not want to be blamed for someone else’s crimes. Many people forget that Poland was neither a part of the Third Reich, nor its ally, but a conquered country under brutal occupation. Unlike anyone else, the Poles fought Nazi Germany from the first day of the war until the last one, and did this on all fronts, from Narvik to Tobruk, from Breda to Berlin.

Poland also played an important role in gathering information about the German occupation in the country, and specifically about the Holocaust, and they were passing this information onto the West. A striking hero of these times was Capt. Witold Pilecki, a cavalry master, who got himself caught in 1940 in order to infiltrate the Auschwitz camp and report from there. Another prominent figure is Jan Karski, who smuggled himself into the Warsaw Ghetto. He wrote a number of reports on the occupation and the Holocaust, which he brought as a courier to the West. In 1943, he met President Roosevelt in person, but his testimony stirred no interest, not even in Jewish circles. More information about the reaction of the West, or lack thereof, can be found in the article cited in references below the text.

Even when the Polish state did not exist, the Polish government operated abroad in London, and so did Polish embassies in some neutral countries, such as Switzerland, where a group of diplomats led by Aleksander Ładoś, a Polish MP in Bern, produced false South American passports for Jews. False documents were then distributed by couriers to many European countries, with thousands of people owing their lives to them.

As for helping the Jews, it seems strange that all the countries and people who did nothing have a whole lot of excuses. For a long time, death camps were outside the reach of bombers, but in 1944, during the Hungarian Holocaust, this was not the case. Contrary to the present narrative, no Western leader would fight ‘a war for the Jews’. Antisemitism was too widespread in the West. But it was a famished Polish peasant, tormented by six years of war and surrounded by death, who was supposed to save the honour of humanity. Sometimes he just does not have enough strength. Under German rule, all good deeds could cost a life – your own, your family’s, your neighbour’s. And all these lives matter. Thinking about Jews, let’s remember that all lives matter, which should be obvious for each humanist.

* * *

.Some people compare the occupation of Poland to the one of France or other Western countries. These cases have nothing in common. First, the Germans introduced a precise hierarchy of human races. Obviously, they were Herrenvolk themselves, the master race. Slightly below the Germans there were the Scandinavians, also a Nordic people. The French were quite OK, and it was better to use Paris than to destroy it. At the very bottom there were the Jews, ‘Our misfortune’, according to a popular German propaganda slogan. A bit above the Jews there were the Slavs: Poles, Ukrainians, Russians. ‘Slawen – Sklaven”  – ‘Slavs – Slaves’ – it sounds similar. The Slavs were unlucky to live on the land that the Germans wanted for themselves, i.e. Lebensraum im Osten, living space in the East. To achieve that, the Germans developed a wonderful ‘Generalplan Ost’, presenting a future land of milk and honey – for the superior race. Not much space was left for the others. For the time being, the Polish people were still needed as they produced food for the Germans and worked in factories. But a Pole’s life was only ever worth anything if it was useful for the master race, it had no value on its own. Food rations were very small for the ‘inferior race’ and hunger was used to eliminate weaker individuals. Death was a typical punishment ordered by the Germans, so typical that it became ordinary.

Of course, Poles were punished with death for helping the Jews (even for offering them a slice of bread, there are many reports like that in the war archives), but also for insufficient deliveries of pork  for the German masters or for having a radio, which was used to listen to broadcasts from  London and the Polish government in-exile.

* * *

.After the attack of 1 September 1939, the Germans were quick to demonstrate who held power in conquered Poland. Under Intelligenzaktion, they murdered 100 thousand members of political and cultural elites with a view to breaking the backbone of the nation. The new German Governor-General invited the Jagiellonian University’s professors to a lecture on the German plans for education in Poland. Eager to hear the lecture, the professors arrived only to be pushed into a van by an SS commando and transported to a concentration camp. All these actions (and many others) happened shortly after the September attack, so they dispelled any illusions about an agreement between Germany and Poland or a formal collaboration. It was impossible to appoint a ‘Polish government’. Such activities were watched closely by Marshal Pétain and triggered his quick signing of a cease-fire and giving up  resistance in 1940. At all costs, Pétain wanted to avoid such a brutal occupation of France as he had observed in Poland.

Conquering Europe (the world?) was the main goal of the German Third Reich, but the next one was to eliminate the Jews. A few steps were needed to organise ‘aktions’ against the Jews.  First, persecutions intensified: Jewish property was confiscated, they were resettled to poorer conditions and finally locked up in ghettos. When the conquest of the Soviet Union was halted, it turned out that the war would last a long time, so food provisioning would be problematic, while the trauma of hunger was still vivid after the previous war.

Economical Germans decided that they had no use for the Jews, who they hated anyway, so somehow they needed to reduce the number of Jews. No country would accept them (conferences from that at Évian in 1938 to Bermuda in 1943 produced no results, the British closed access to Palestine). The tragic fate of ships such as the St.Louis, Struma or Exodus 1947, the latter already after the war, demonstrated that everybody wanted to push the problem away. The plan to relocate the Jews to the Vichy French-controlled island of Madagascar proved impossible due to the British dominion of the seas.

In January 1942, at the Wannsee Conference, the Germans decided on the Final Solution, i.e. extermination of the Jews in a network of death camps built for that purpose. Gas chambers and crematoria enabled efficient killing on an industrial scale. By November 1943, some two million Jews were exterminated. Those, who managed to escape death during the main phase of the Holocaust, were trying to survive until the end of the war. The Red Army was coming from the East, liberating eastern Poland by the summer 1944 and western Poland from January 1945. For the survivors, it meant one or two severe winters, impossible to pull through without the help of the Poles, who were also fighting to live.

* * *

.There are different theories as to why conquered Poland was selected for the death camps. In my view the reason is simple. Poland hosted the largest Jewish community and it would make little sense to transport them elsewhere. The Polish state structure was burnt to the ground, destroyed and replaced with a German colonial administration. Parts of Poland were incorporated into Greater Germany (around Auschwitz), the rest (General Government) was managed by the German governor, Hans Frank, from the Polish Royal Castle in Krakow, requisitioned for his HQ.

The penal code concerning Poles and Jews was written on three pages with the word ‘death’ appearing seven times there.

Occupied Poland was far out of sight of the West, where the Germans pretended to build a new Europe. In Poland, the Germans could do as they pleased, no questions asked. Indeed, the local population, like my mother in law who lived in Chrzanow, 20 km from Oświęcim, could feel the characteristic sweet odour of burnt bodies, but they were treated as cattle and were soon to disappear anyway. Let me remind you: the world was deaf to the voices of the Poles – Witold Pilecki or Jan Karski. The world knew but kept silent.

The Poles were helping. The Jewish population was not uniform, which made it easier or more difficult to rescue them. On one hand there were assimilated Jews, like Władysław Szpilman, Polanski’s Pianist, who played Chopin on the Polish Radio. But on the other hand, there were Jews from the shtetl, with beards and sidelocks, just like in Fiddler on the Roof. They did not even speak Polish, just Yiddish.

As long as their looks did not betray them, the assimilated Jews could try to live among the Poles with false documents. This was possible even at the very beginning of the war and without relocation into the ghetto. But most of the Jews stayed in the ghettos, which were relatively safe for some time, although very crowded. There were significant social differences within the ghettos – some Jews attended elegant cafes (with Polanski’s pianist performing in one of them), while others were starving. Some were smuggling food just to survive, while others were making huge businesses. Importantly, the Jews had no direct contact with the Polish population as order was kept by the Jewish police. If the Jews tried to leave the ghetto, they were punished (with death, of course), and so were the Poles who they contacted. In 1942-1943, when the ghettos were liquidated and mass murders started, some Jews tried to flee and find Polish friends or hide in the woods.

* * *

.Do you remember the story at the beginning of my account? The young woman from the opening scene who answered her door to a runaway Jew is my mother.

In 1942, she was 23 and was living in Tarnów with her father. Frieda, a Jewish woman, was living in the Jewish district after she had fled from German-occupied Czechoslovakia. At the beginning of the war, when Polish -Jewish contacts were still possible, Frieda met my mother. She was giving her English lessons and often used the Czech word ‘opakovat!’, i.e. to repeat. They became friends. After the ghetto locked down, my mother smuggled Frieda onto the ‘Aryan’ side and finally took her home. She hid her there for ca. 1,000 days from summer 1942 to January 1945.

 Every day was like walking on a tightrope across Niagara. One misstep, light on, a cry, any mistake and that ends it. Apart from heroism, it also required perseverance. Dividing a two-person food ration into three. A factor that is often forgotten was the constant presence of many people in a limited space for a time as long as it takes to fly to Mars. A nervous breakdown caused by persistent fear and claustrophobia was a common problem.

Now we know that the situation lasted for 1,000 days.  But back in 1942 nobody knew what the outcome of the war would be, not to mention its duration. So basically it was a decision taken for an indefinite period of time with an option of shared death.

My Mother, her Father and Frieda, shortly after the war.

* * *

.We often read about seven thousand Polish heroes who helped the Jews. It is implied that the remaining Poles were bad people helping the Germans. First, the Righteous, i.e. the Poles rescuing the Jews, were only the registered cases, the tip of the iceberg. In this situation, a difficult condition to be fulfilled was for the rescued person to survive and get in touch after the war. It was the rescued Jews who had to contact Yad Vashem, but were they willing to do so after they found a new life somewhere in America? During the war people did not exchange their visiting cards, it was better not to know too much.

It is not true that most Poles turned against the Jews. Let’s do some maths: if only half of the Polish population was like that, then the chance of surviving one meeting would be 1:2, two meetings – 1:4, three meetings: 1:8 and ten meetings – 1:1024, i.e. 0.1% and so on. Finally, the Righteous and his/her Jew would stand no chance of survival. A letter of denunciation written over a few minutes and sent to the Gestapo would be deadly. Secrets cannot be held for long and gossip travels fast. Still, many Jews survived, which is also because their odds of meeting a good Pole were much higher than this.

My mother once told me that Frieda felt too safe and was walking freely around the house. One day a neighbour came in and saw Frieda. She then talked to my mum and suggested a ransom. My mother replied rather sharply that she knew some people who dealt with cases like that. She had her contacts with the Home Army, which executed people who reported to the Germans. So the case was over. But the news spread. Still, nothing happened. This shows that the threat of execution was real and, more importantly, for the whole time not a single person reported it to the Germans. The fact that I myself exist is the proof of this.

And then? Their friendship lasted until their deaths. My mother received her Yad Vashem medal in the Israeli embassy in London 1977. Frieda lived in London with her sister and her sister’s husband, as Frieda’s husband perished in Auschwitz. For me, she was ‘Aunt Frieda from London’, who was sending me Spitfire and Hurricane model kits.

Medal of the Righteous Among the Nations.
Awarding the medal, Embassy of Israel in London, 1977.

* * *

.We often focus on big decisions, but life consists of a number of small yet significant events.

In his book Bronisław Erlich, a Polish Jew, describes his war adventures as a young man. Not very Jewish-looking, he tried to make it on Polish papers. One day he was captured by a German patrol and taken to a police station. An officer arrived and not knowing what to do, told his soldiers: ‘Take him to the Gestapo in the town!’ There was a Polish woman there, who understood what was going on, she hugged the policeman and said: ‘Hans, let him go, he just wants to go home’. The officer agreed. Of course, nobody discussed or explained the situation, they understood each other without words. Bronisław’s life was spared.

Such small events are not registered anywhere, but they are critical. Each of them was like playing Russian roulette. If most of the Poles were not ready to help, the odds of winning all these survival games would be close to zero. And yet many people lived. Still, the fear was very real, each losing game meant death. No wonder many remember just the fear and all of their relatives who perished rather than the help they received.

The German threat of death was very real. Suffice it to recollect just one, out of many, the example of the Ulma family from Markowa in south-east Poland. For years the Ulmas were helping the Jews, in 1944 they had two Jewish families at their home, eight people altogether. The Ulmas were aware of the risk. They were good and courageous people. And they were good Christians, too – they had the parable of the Good Samaritan highlighted red in their Bible. And they gave the ultimate testimony of their faith. One day they were denounced, the Germans arrived and they first killed all the Jews, then they killed Józef Ulma and his heavily pregnant wife Wiktoria, and then, after a short reflection – they killed six children (aged 18 months to 8 years). All this was happening in front of other Poles’ eyes, a very clear message. Everybody knew: this may happen to me tomorrow, no mercy. A life for a life – it was no gentlemen’s game. If you were hiding a Jew, a terrified neighbour could turn you in. If a Jew was caught by the Germans, tortured and deceived with false promises, he could rope in all the people who helped him. Moral obligations can be analysed at seminars on ethics, but faced with a SS commando’s machine guns, we let our biological instincts win.

Moral choices are extreme here. Discussing them, we need to remember about the Germans who created them. Cruel laws with inverted morality. If you abide by the law now, during the war, you will later be considered a criminal. If you break the law, you will be a hero. Often, a dead hero.

A big discussion is pending now about what really happened, what should have been done? Is saving one’s own life a crime of collaboration, or just a survival instinct? If Hitler’s victims are having a fierce argument about who suffered the most and who was the most wicked villain, the perpetrator can laugh in his grave. 

Let’s not give this final victory to Hitler, please.

My Mother and Frieda. Friendship for life, holidays in Poland.

* * *

.Now that we know all that, are we any stronger? I doubt it. Ultimately, it all boils down to my own life and death. Take this example: you are on a bus, a few men attack a passenger; they want to take his smartphone; they hit him. What do you do? You can turn away or you can reprimand them or try to stop them actively. But they are three strong young men and there is your daughter and your pregnant wife sitting next to you. You would like to act like a hero. But do you? Most probably you just glance at your family and take them along with you to leave at the next stop.

Anyway, it would only be a single act of courage. A real test would be a long-term risk taken for someone you don’t know while you, yourself are in danger. Luckily, such a test is difficult to simulate here and now. I don’t think many people would be heroes. Modern society wants to have fun, and words like ‘duty’ or ‘responsibility’ sound old-fashioned. The public domain is dominated by people who are young, healthy, beautiful and successful. Is there anyone still out there, who can promise to be faithful for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part?

If we look at the current pandemic, we can see how nervous people have become after just a year. Resistance against an occupier or another existential threat requires a coordinated action undertaken by an entire society, because a few distractors may waste this common effort. One has to have a  strong moral backbone. Copying the Good Samaritan, the way the Ulmas did, is against logic and requires more than that. Walking around with posters that urge people to take action is easy, but scarifying one’s own life, health and property is not. Many people take the war-time heroism for granted and criticise others for not doing enough. Today, however, any heroic deed like that would be worth the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Do such deeds still happen? I don’t know. I am worried that in the modern societies everyone would run, trying to save themselves. Maybe I am too pessimistic. We can also hope that nothing like that would happen again. Let us hope.

Translation: Magdalena Skoć
Stanisław Kwoczyński and Alina Śliwowa (Kwoczyńska) in the Yad Vashem database: [LINK].

Nechama Tec “When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland”
Martin Winstone “The Dark Heart of Hitler’s Europe: Nazi Rule in Poland under the General Government”
Bronisław Erlich “Ein Überlebender berichtet”
Gabriel Berger “Der Kutscher und der Gestapo-Mann. Berichte jüdischer Augenzeugen der NS-Herrschaft im besetzten Polen in der Region Tarnów”

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