The role of the Polish police in the Holocaust
“A Lie Without Punishment,” blared the headline of the mass-circulation newsweekly Do Rzeczy, and the subhead added, “In his book about the ‘Blue’ Police, Jan Grabowski again accuses the Poles of having taken part in the Holocaust.”
“Who said history is a boring profession?” Grabowski, 57, thought when he saw the text on the magazine cover, which called for him to be brought to justice. Subsequently he published a Facebook post in which he shared with his students, colleagues and readers around the world the latest chapter in the saga of incitement that the Polish right wing has been conducting against him in recent years, since he became one of the leading names in the field of crimes committed by Poles in the Holocaust.
“As you can imagine, Do Rzeczy is unhappy with my work,” wrote Grabowski. “Needless to say, I will not read the article in question, but I am glad that the book has had its impact not only among the more enlightened readers but also among those, who prefer to build their historical identity on historical fallacies and myths. Who knows, perhaps some of them will even read the ‘dangerous material’?”
The “dangerous material” is his new book, published recently in Poland, titled, “Na Posterunku. Udział polskiej policji granatowej i kryminalnej w zagladzie Zydów,” forthcoming in English later this year as “On Duty: The Role of Polish ‘Blue’ and Criminal Police in the Holocaust.”
Warsaw-born Grabowski devoted a decade to collecting the material for the book. His research took him to archives in Poland, Germany, the United States and Israel in search of documents, some of which no one before him had perused, including reports and logs from police stations of the period. In the course of his research, he also met with eyewitnesses, among them Holocaust survivors, who told him about horrific crimes they had witnessed.
Anyone who thought that 75 years after the Holocaust there was little left for historical research to unearth will quickly discover – upon reading this book – that many fields of study remain to be plowed. The bottom line makes for very difficult reading, for Poles and Jews alike. “I was surprised to discover the role played by the Polish police in the murder of Poland’s Jews,” Grabowski told Haaretz this week in a Zoom interview from Germany, where he is currently conducting research.
“Murder, rape, robbery – the scale is incomprehensible,” he writes in the book. No historian has ever touched this explosive material the way Grabowski does. The only book that dealt until now with the history of the Polish police doesn’t even mention the subject.
Poland ceased to exist as an independent state after its conquest by Nazi Germany in 1939. In contrast to other countries occupied by the Nazis, a local puppet regime of collaboration was not installed in Poland. A Polish government-in-exile, pro-West and anti-Nazi, was established in London, and a Polish underground initiated operations against the Germans in occupied Poland. The exception in this context was the Polish police, which was reconstituted by the Germans in the autumn of 1939, immediately after the conquest of the country. Many of the personnel in the new force came from the local Blue Police that had existed before the war, along with new recruits. The background to this, as Grabowski explains, was the German need for assistance in enforcing order in the Generalgouvernement – the areas of Poland that were not annexed to Nazi Germany (and which included Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow).
However, in addition to regular policing tasks, the new Polish force – whose membership included nearly 18,000 armed men – also engaged in different missions, which Grabowski says were undertaken by “murderers in uniform.” The Polish police, under German command, he explains, became “a murderous and criminal organization which was a key element in the implementation of the Final Solution.”
Asked whether, in light of the campaign the Polish government has been waging for some time now against any mention of the word “Poland” in connection with the perpetrators of the Holocaust, he is not taking a risk by terming this body the “Polish” police, Grabowski provides documents that back up his words: Both the Germans and the Jews called the force by this name in real time. However, even beyond the semantic issue, his new book fiercely debunks the prevailing notion in present-day Poland to the effect that Poles did not participate institutionally, in a systematic and organized form, in the murder of Jews, but rather did so as individuals, as “wild weeds” that were not part of normative Polish society.
Grabowski’s book demonstrates the exact opposite. Under German auspices, but with independent initiative and great fervor, the Polish police officers took part in the systematic murder of Jews in cities and villages, in ghettos and in places of hiding – indirectly and directly. “Without the Polish police, the Germans would not have succeeded in their plan,” Grabowski tells Haaretz. “The Polish police became important actors in the German policy of extermination.”
According to the historian, they carried out a range of tasks, from guarding ghettos as early as the war’s first stages, to thwarting the smuggling of food and liquidating the ghettos and hunting down and murdering Jews who fled them, while acting at the Germans’ orders or on their own.
The Polish police, under German command, Grabowski explains, became 'a murderous and criminal organization which was a key element in the implementation of the Final Solution.'
Grabowski cites abundant examples. He also makes a point of naming the “protagonists” of his book in cases in which he has been able to uncover names. Doing so, he feels, is a special obligation for the son of a Holocaust survivor who fought in the Polish underground in the general Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
One of those he names is Kazimierz L., a Polish police officer who, while on the way to the city of Tarnow, in the southeastern part of the country, kidnapped a Jewish woman from the Kopelman family and, together with another officer, raped and murdered her. According to the author’s source, L. “frequently” robbed and killed other Jews in similar fashion.
Another officer, Stanislaw Mlynarczyk, from the police station in Radgoszcz, in the south, testified in 1942, together with two other members of the force, that he arrested four Jews who were in hiding in the home of a Pole in the nearby village of Zdzary. They handed the Jews over to the Germans, who murdered them. Around the same time, he stated, he arrested another Jewish woman and her young son, who were in hiding in the home of another Pole. They too were later murdered by the Germans.
The major reason for the Germans’ co-option of the Poles in their murderous campaign was that they found it difficult to distinguish between Polish Jews and Poles who were not Jews. A Jew who succeeded in escaping from the ghetto and mixing in with the local population thus constituted a significant challenge.
“The Germans were rather at a loss and did not have a clue about how to distinguish those who were Jewish, once they blended into the outside population and took off their arm bands,” Grabowski says. In this they were aided by the Polish police, who knew their Jewish neighbors well and were familiar with the areas where they had taken refuge.
However, the historian also documents many other cases in which Polish police officers acted independently and murdered Jews without any German involvement. According to the testimony of a Pole from the village of Dulcza, northeast of Tarnow, one day the Polish police raided his home and found four Jews whom he was hiding. “They shot the Jews and then told me to bury them,” he is quoted as saying in the book.
A Jew named Aleksander Kampf testified after the war that in 1943 three Polish police officers burst into the barn where he was hiding with his family and dragged out his wife and children. One of the officers, Piotr Binczycki, “shot my wife on the spot and took the children to the police station, where he tortured them that whole day and night, and the next day killed them.”
In Tarnow, local farmers brought a Jew whom they had caught in a nearby forest to the police station. An officer named Marian Czerniewski marched the man, whose hands were bound with barbed wire, to a spot a few dozen meters away and shot him in the head. Toward the end of 1942, another Polish police officer murdered a young Jewish woman and her infant son. According to documents cited by Grabowski, she begged the officer to be merciful and kill her first, so she would not have to witness the death of her baby boy – but to no avail.
“I cannot say that all were killers, but all of them made their contribution, with very rare exceptions,” the historian says.
The new book fiercely debunks the prevailing notion in present-day Poland to the effect that Poles did not participate institutionally, in a systematic and organized form, in the murder of Jews.
No going back
In 2017, Prof. Grabowski stirred a furor in an interview with Haaretz, following the Hebrew publication of his 2013 book “Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland” (Indiana University Press). It dealt with Poles’ involvement in the murder of Jews in a rural area of southeastern Poland.
Grabowski said at that time the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust as a result of Polish involvement, direct or indirect, could be as high as 200,000. That figure, which was soon circulating worldwide in the wake of the interview, came as a shock to many in Poland. It also exacerbated the delegitimization campaign Grabowski is enduring in his homeland, from which he went into exile 32 years ago to Canada, where he teaches at the University of Ottawa; he travels back and forth between the countries and elsewhere in Europe, in order to conduct research.
Now, three years later, Grabowski wishes to update the data. “I must tell you that in the course of my last three-four years of work, I am reevaluating these numbers upward. My previous estimate, of 200,000 Jews, was very, very, very, very conservative.”
The reason for the new estimate is found in the materials he discovered about the role of the Polish police in the persecution of the Jews. “They were the people who made certain that there was no way for the Jews to escape,” he asserts.
One of the chief causes of the fury his latest book has unleashed among the Polish right wing is the identity of its “protagonists”: In contrast to the incited and uneducated Polish murderers in the rural regions who filled “Hunt for the Jews,” the Polish police personnel were normative, law-abiding citizens who bore a high status in prewar Polish society. According to Grabowski, some of them were even considered the “crème de la crème.”
During the war, in addition to their service in the Polish police under the Germans, many of these men also belonged to the Polish underground, which fought against those same Germans, and for that they are to this day are considered national heroes in Poland.
Grabowski: “The fact that many of them were heroes of Polish resistance, and at the same time they are vicious killers of Jews… and the fact that these two positions are compatible, is a shocking thing for me as a Polish historian to admit.”
Asked how he explains the phenomenon, he notes both the widespread antisemitism that festered in Poland even before the Holocaust, and the effective German propaganda, which transformed the Jews – in the eyes of the Polish police officers – from Polish citizens with equal rights into outsiders and ultimately into nonhumans.
“This is a breakthrough study, impressive and innovative, which offers important insights, both in regard to Holocaust research and in regard to human behavior in extreme situations,” says Havi Dreifuss, a professor of history at the University of Tel Aviv, who heads the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
Grabowski’s new book, she adds, “makes a significant contribution to understanding the Holocaust, and redefines the areas of activity and nullity and destruction of central strata of the Polish society in the face of the murder of the Jews.”
Still, there is a ray of light in the universe of death Grabowski describes. Faint, but worth mentioning. In 1941, he writes, police officer Franciszek Bana was posted to guard duty at the gate of the Krakow ghetto. However, instead of carrying out his official assignment – he smuggled food and medications to Jews inside, and on several occasions helped Jews escape from the ghetto. Yad Vashem recognized Bana as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. The Jews he saved included 3-year-old Miriam Schein, Rabbi Lewertów and his sons, and the Hoffmann family.
In 1943, at the time of the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, Bana bribed an S.S. officer to allow Róza Jakubowicz and her young son Tadeusz to escape. Both survived the Holocaust thanks to him. “Who gave one man the right to murder other people?” he said later.
Grabowski talks about the price he pays in contemporary Polish society for his intense occupation with this highly charged, sensitive, complex and difficult subject. “There are stressful moments,” he says. “I get hate mail and nasty phone calls, there are unpleasant physical encounters. There were nasty stares after Polish state television stated that I am a ‘falsifier of history.’”
However, he has no intention of backing down. “The nationalists don’t understand that if you study the Holocaust it’s not a question of your choice. It’s a path that was chosen for you. You cannot turn around and say, ‘I’ll conform.’ There is an obligation to both the dead and the living.”