“Members of the Jewish police were not the only
ones who served the Germans; some Jews acted
as Gestapo spies and agents throughout Europe.
Their numbers are unknown; they were not many,
but they caused tremendous damage.”1
Yehuda Bauer, Israeli Holocaust historian
Patterns of Cooperation, Collaboration and Betrayal:
Jews, Germans and Poles in Occupied Poland during World War II2
Collaboration with the Germans in occupied Poland is a topic that has not been adequately explored by historians.3 Holocaust literature has dwelled almost exclusively on the conduct of Poles toward Jews and has often arrived at sweeping and unjustified conclusions. At the same time, with a few notable exceptions such as Isaiah Trunk4 and Raul Hilberg,5 whose findings confirm what Hannah Arendt opined about the Jewish councils,6 Holocaust historians have shied away from the topic of Jewish collaboration with the Germans. With few exceptions, Holocaust survivors are also in denial about this phenomenon.7 This dark chapter of the wartime history of Jews is one that merits closer scrutiny.
This study has gathered together hundreds of examples illustrating various forms of cooperation, collaboration and betrayal that turned Jews into a source of danger for fellow Jews, and less often for Poles, and facilitated the machinery of the Holocaust. (By and large, it makes little sense to speak of economic collaboration in the context of occupied Poland, since that very term implies at least some degree of mutual profit, and that possibility was excluded for both Jews and Poles from the outset. However, in other countries, such as Hungary and Romania, Jewish factory and mine owners earned fabulous sums from producing goods for the German army.8) This compilation, which is far from comprehensive, is not intended to demonstrate that such behaviour was somehow representative of the Jewish population, or that Jews (or Poles for that matter) had a particular propensity for such conduct. Rather it is meant to show that the actions of a tiny minority of the Jewish population were instrumental in inflicting significant, perhaps enormous, losses on the Jewish population.
The actions of these individuals, often carried out in extreme conditions and under duress, facilitated the Holocaust much more than the activities of their Polish counterparts. The latter are all too frequently blown out of proportion, while the former are glossed over. Far more Jews fell victim to the misdeeds of their fellow Jews than to those of Poles. Jews played an incomparably larger role than Poles in the ghettoization of the Jews, the day-to-day functioning of the ghettos, and their liquidation.9 The role of Jewish collaborators (councils, police) in the actual liquidation of the ghettos, however, was probably smaller than that of collaborators from among the non-Polish population, primarily Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Latvians, who were active in occupied Poland. Poles, and in particular the Polish police, did not take part in the liquidation of any of the larger ghettos on prewar Polish territories such as Warsaw, Łódź, Lwów, Wilno, Białystok, Lublin, Sosnowiec, Będzin, Kraków (Cracow), Kielce, Piotrków Trybunalski, Radom, Częstochowa, Grodno, and many other cities, nor did Poles serve as guards at the death and concentration camps built on Polish soil. The Germans, it should be underscored, built their largest death and concentration camps in occupied Poland for purely logistical reasons, as that was where the largest number of intended victims resided and the camps were far removed from possible attack. No major Holocaust historian—not Raul Hilberg, not Yisrael Gutman, not Lucy Dawidowicz—accepts the notion that the decision to locate the camps in occupied Poland had anything to do with alleged Polish anti-Semitism or anticipated collaboration. Notwithstanding, such a charge is frequently encountered in Holocaust literature.
The Poles did not play a pivotal, or even significant, role in the Holocaust of the Jews. Half a million Jews in the Warthegau and Eastern Upper Silesia, which were incorporated directly into the Reich, were eliminated without virtually any Polish participation as there was no Polish police or officials in those areas. This is in stark contrast to the situation that existed in almost every other occupied country, for example the Baltic States, Holland, Norway, France, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and Hungary, where the Germans relied very heavily on local collaborators (police, officials, military and paramilitary formations) to carry out the round-ups of Jews, deportations, and even mass executions. Many, if not most Polish Jews, were readily distinguishable from Poles, even to Germans,10 by reason of their distinctive dress, beards, physical appearance, and lack of knowledge of the Polish language. Jews tended to live among fellow Jews and their homes bore mezuzahs so there was no particular need for Poles to point them out. The creation of ghettos and deportation of Jews to death camps were not dependent on Polish collaboration. These tasks were assigned for the most part to the German-appointed Jewish councils (Judenräte—Judenrat in the singular) and the Jewish ghetto police (the so-called order police or Ordnungsdienst—OD).11 Jewish officials compiled accurate and detailed list of Jews in a particular town, carefully noting such matters as their wealth, residency status, age, sex, and occupation, with changes of residency being reported monthly.12
The indictment against the ghetto police, authored by historian Isaiah Trunk, is particularly damning: The Jewish police collected cash contributions and taxes; they assisted in raiding, guarding, and escorting hungry, mentally exhausted people on their way to places of forced labor; and it was the ghetto police who often were ordered to enforce discipline in the presence of German officials. The ghetto police sentries formed the inside guard at the ghetto fences. Both the Germans and the councils used the ghetto police to carry out confiscation of Jewish property and to combat smuggling, the only means of overcoming constant hunger in the ghettos. The Jewish police carried out raids against and arrests of inmates for offences against draconian ghetto rules. Last but not least, in the final stages of the ghettos the Jewish police were called upon to assist in “resettlement actions.”13 The liquidation of the ghettos was overseen by the Germans who employed numerous German forces, the Jewish police, and auxiliaries of various nationalities (Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian) brought in for that purpose. The involvement of the Polish “blue” police was, in the assessment of leading Jewish historians such as Szymon Datner and Raul Hilberg, marginal.14
There is no question that Jews had to contend with Jewish collaborators far more frequently than with Polish ones. Jews who did not venture out of the ghettos—and the vast majority did not—in all likelihood never encountered a Polish collaborator or denouncer. They were far more likely to be robbed or swindled by fellow Jews than by a Pole. Generally speaking, there were four significant sources of danger for Jews confined in ghettos: the Jewish council and its agencies, the Jewish auxiliary police, Jewish agents and informants, and miscellaneous Jewish betrayers and criminal elements. The moral choices and dilemmas that individual Jews who cooperated, collaborated or betrayed, faced in these circumstances is a topic that falls outside the scope of this study.15 From the victims’ perspective it mattered little whether collaboration or denunciation was forced or voluntary, or something in between. Without a recognition of this phenomenon, any treatment of wartime Polish-Jewish relations is seriously flawed.
The fate of Polish Jews was not dependent on the Poles, nor were Polish attitudes something that the Germans troubled themselves with. As Raul Hilberg notes, “There was no imperative to be mindful of the welfare of Poles,” and thus “no need for precautions whenever anti-Jewish measures could have painful repercussions for the non-Jewish population.”16 Contrary to what is often claimed, the Polish population was not supportive of German policies towards the Jews. General Johannes Blaskowitz, commander of the Eighth German Army during the September 1939 campaign and subsequently Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Territories, wrote to Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch, the Commander-in-Chief of the German Army, in his report of February 6, 1940: “The acts of violence carried out in public against Jews are arousing in religious Poles [literally, “in the Polish population, which is fundamentally pious (or God-fearing)”] not only the deepest disgust but also a great sense of pity for the Jewish population.”17
The Germans played a large part in encouraging and exploiting friction between the conquered peoples, and pitting them against each other. In November 1939 in Łódź, the Germans conscripted some Jews to help destroy the Kościuszko monument in Wolności Square. The Germans then set fire to two synagogues and blamed the Poles for burning them down in retaliation for the destruction of the Kościuszko monument by the Jews.18 (The Germans, of course, were actually responsible for the destruction of the monument.) In the spring of 1941, the Germans ordered the Jews to demolish the Catholic church in Sanniki. They took photographs of this and used the incident to foment anger among the Poles against the Jews.19 In Piotrków Trybunalski,
On September 6,  the Germans set fire to a few streets in the Jewish quarter and shot Jews trying to escape from their burning houses. … Those still hiding in their homes soon noticed that the Germans were interested primarily in their property. Both individually and in groups, the latter had invaded the Jewish community and confiscated virtually everything they could—clothes, linen, furs, carpets, valuable books, etc. They often invited the Poles in the streets to take part in the looting, after which they would fire bullets into the air in order to give the impression that they were driving away the Polish “thieves”. These scenes were photographed by the Germans to demonstrate that they were protecting Jewish property from Polish criminals.20
Theodor Oberländer, a principal Nazi strategist, advocated a “divide and conquer” strategy for Poland by pitting the country’s national groups against one another. In many towns and villages, Poles were evicted from their homes and farms to make room for displaced Jews.21 Since many Poles were indebted to Jewish creditors, and were for the most part rather poor, the Germans wanted to win them over by cancelling those debts and allowing some looting of Jewish property.22 (It is important to bear in mind that looting accompanies war and civil strife worldwide, and is not an ethnically determined activity.) But this policy was followed only to a limited degree, however, because almost all property of value was handed over or confiscated by the Germans themselves. The “divide and conquer” strategy was employed in a variety of ways. In the early months of the war, Jews were employed—as described later on—in the executions of Poles. Historians Tatiana Berenstein and Adam Rutkowski write:
The Nazis contrived in every way possible to provoke resentment and animosity between the national groups. For example, in February 1941 the warders for a Jewish labour camp were recruited from among Poles and Ukrainians, while early the same year the occupation authorities in Będzin employed Jews in compiling the registers of Poles liable to deportation from the town. Again, in the spring of 1942, five Jews were assigned for wholly clerical duties to the Treblinka I labour camp for Poles. Expedients like these all made for a continuous embitterment and vitiation of relations between Poles and Jews.23
These examples could be multiplied. For instance, in the hard-labour camp for Poles in Płaszów, many functions—including hanging Polish inmates—were assigned to Jewish prisoners from the adjoining concentration camp.24 In Auschwitz, newly arrived Polish inmates were processed by Jews and vice versa.25
The Germans also unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitic propaganda that played into the prejudices of some Poles and fostered anti-Polish sentiments among Jews. As one Jewish survivor recalled,
The Polish population was incessantly under the pressure of anti-Jewish propaganda. I recall the posters that were put up everywhere. To this day, I remember their text … I quote, “Stop and read, dear onlooker, how Jews beset you. Instead of meat, chopped rats, dirty water added to milk, and dough with worms, kneaded by foot.” Next to the text were drawings: a repulsive unshaven crooked-nosed Jewish butcher held a rat by the tail, which he was sticking into a meat grinder. Another drawing presented a milkman pouring water from a washtub, adding it to a can of milk.26
Historians Berenstein and Rutkowski comment on the scope of this divisive tactic:
In support of their policy of persecution of the Jews in Poland the Nazi authorities mounted a vast propaganda campaign of ferocious virulence which preyed on the lowest instincts of the unenlightened sections of the population. The Nazi Polish-language gutter press … strove unremittingly to whip up the Poles against the Jews. New posters continually appeared on the walls, in trams, in railway stations and other public places vilifying the Jews.27
The impact of German propaganda on Jewish attitudes is not widely acknowledged, however, it was significant. According to one Jewish survivor, “We also did not think about why they [the Germans] wanted to kill us. We knew that we were like rats. Their propaganda not only influenced the Gentiles, it also influenced us Jews. It took away from us our human dignity.”28 The German-sponsored Polish-language press claimed that the closure of ghetto in Warsaw “was the wish of the majority of inhabitants of Warsaw.”29 Jews played into this strategy by spreading anti-Polish propaganda, going so far as to claim that the Poles were inciting the Germans. In a wartime report, a resident of the Warsaw ghetto wrote of his efforts to convince fellow Jews “about the feelings in Polish society towards the Jews. They are inciting the occupier against the Jews, in order to save themselves by this stratagem.” He also questioned the sincerity of the Polish democratic opposition and preached about the “abject baseness of behavior among the Poles.”30 Not surprisingly, as Emanuel Ringelblum notes in his wartime journal, hatred towards Polish Christians grew in the Warsaw ghetto because, incredible as it may seem, it was widely believed that the Poles were responsible for the economic restrictions that befell the Jews.31 A jealousy built on false premises and traditional contempt for Poles set in. Many Jews could not comprehend why it was they, rather than the Poles, who were suffering the brunt of the German brutality. This caused deep resentment toward Poles. Stories spread in the ghetto that Poles were leading “normal lives” outside the ghetto: “Everything there is brimming with life. Everyone eats and drinks until they are full. … On the other side, the houses are like palaces … there is freedom to the full … complete safety … justice reigns.”32 A young Jew who witnessed the expulsion of the Poles after the failed Warsaw Uprising of August 1944 recalled: “I must admit that we even derived a certain schadenfreude from seeing Poles treated like Jews, driven like cattle through the streets the way Jews had been herded, beaten down and hardly saying a word. … This was so reminiscent of when we had first been evicted from our home and forced into the crowded ghetto more than two years before. How ironic. For the first time we were equal … Poles now [sic] also had a taste of what it was like to be at the receiving end of Nazi brutality and retribution.”33 (As if Poles had not experienced mass expulsions and executions before!) Paradoxically, for many Jews ghettization had a silver lining, as Noah H. Rosenbloom explains:
Paradoxically, ghettoization, notwithstanding the turmoil, misery and hardship if caused to thousands, evoked a glimmer of hope and even a sense of security. Some Jews initially believed that the term Wohngebiet der Juden, as the ghetto was euphemistically referred to by the Germans, truly reflected the German intentions, to establish a racially segregated “District of Jewish Residence”. While the prevailing conditions there were far from enviable, they hoped that this dismally imposed socio-cultural structure would permit them a limited measure of religious, social, and cultural autonomy, a questionable thin silver lining on an otherwise dark, foreboding, stormy and thunderous cloud. … The Germans, understandably, made no effort to dispel this optimistic Jewish notion, born in part of wishful thinking and in part subtly fostered by the Germans.34
Well-informed Poles could sense this resentment. It was not without some justification, therefore, that Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, one of the founders of Żegota, the underground Committee for Aid to Jews, wrote in her 1942 pamphlet “The Protest”: “we realize they [the Jews] hate us more than they hate the Germans and that they make us responsible for their misfortune.” Even Jews who left the ghetto and knew it was otherwise, endorsed resentment against Poles. Shlomo (Stanisław) Szmajzner admits candidly: “we could not experience any feeling about the fact that the Polish were suffering in their own flesh the same horror that the Germans had been practicing on us and which they used to applaud.”35 After escaping from Sobibór, Szmajzner took refuge with a Polish family and survived the war. He settled in Brazil. On his sixth visit to Germany, Szmajzner said the following in a 1983 interview given in German: “I will never return to Poland, ever. Had the Poles been different, more like the Danes, the Dutch or the French, I think 70, 80 or possibly even 90 per cent of the Jews would still be alive today. Because the Germans had no idea who was Jewish and who wasn’t. … I don’t want to speak Polish and I don’t want to return to Poland.”36 Many Polish Jews in fact had distinctive appearances and dress, so they were not difficult to detect, and were required to wear identifiable armbands. As mentioned, it was the Jewish councils who were charged with the task of registering the Jews, not the Poles. Depending on occupation conditions, the fate of Jews in Western Europe was no better. Almost eighty percent of Dutch Jews were murdered by the Germans with considerable Dutch collaboration. Most of those who attempted to hide were betrayed. Many survived simply because they were exempted from Nazi genocidal measures.
Of course, the Germans played it both ways, and while disseminating anti-Polish propaganda among the Jews, they claimed to be their protectors. One Jew recalls:
I remembered the order to assemble on the lawn in front of the Judenrat headquarters in Grabowiec, the announcement that all the Jews of Grabowiec would be ‘resettled’ in Hrubieszow [Hrubieszów], where the SS officer had told us, the Jews would live and work together in a miniature ‘Jewish state,’ protected by the kindly German authorities from the wrath of the local Gentile populace.37
As soon as the Jews were enclosed in the ghetto, the head of the German gendarmerie … and his deputy … called all the Jews to a meeting, where they were assured there would be no more Aktions. They said the previous Aktion had been a Polish provocation, and that as long as Jews worked hard, they would survive the war.38
In view of the constant bombardment of such propaganda it is not surprising that some Poles succumbed to it, just as some Jews resorted to anti-Polish barbs and spiteful accusations.39
Some activities, though morally questionable, did not constitute collaboration, for example, taking payment for providing hiding places and upkeep or false documents. The Danish underground and boatmen who transported Jews to Sweden exacted huge sums of money from the Jews, even though that rescue entailed no real risk because it was carried out with the connivance of the local German naval command.40 Enterprising Jews in Poland also made handsome profits from the manufacture of and trade in false identity documents, passports, passes and currency (in the early years this was largely a Jewish enterprise),41 food smuggling (many examples are mentioned later on), and arranging for hiding places with Poles.42 While dozens of inmates were smuggled out of a transit camp in Wołpa on the daily burial wagon, the former hardware merchant Epstein, who was the head of the Chevra Kadisha Society, and Jankiel Paltes, who was in charge of the burial detail, charged a fee for their services.43 It is therefore quite improper to discount assistance provided by Poles simply because they expected remuneration. To put things in perspective, Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of the leaders of the Jewish underground in Warsaw, pointed out: “I said honestly [in 1945] and I repeat it today: to cause the death of one hundred Jews, all you needed was one Polish denouncer; to save one Jew, it sometimes took the help of ten decent Poles, the help of an entire Polish family; even if they did it for money.”44
Jews who hid outside the ghettos faced a myriad of risks. One of the risks was blackmailers, known as “szmalcowniks”, who were particularly active in Warsaw. Relatively few Jews actually perished on their account. Like Jewish extortionists inside the ghetto, they were primarily interested in extorting money and valuables. Even more dangerous were Gestapo agents and informers of various nationalities, especially Jews. As was the case in Berlin, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Italy, and Greece,45 Jewish Greifers or “catchers” played an ignominious role in hunting down and betraying Jews who tried to hide or pass as Poles. Many examples are cited later in the text. The German authorities also brought in Germans and Austrians to track down Jews. One survivor described how men in leather coats and Tyrolean hats stopped suspicious people in Warsaw’s main train station and examined their papers.46
The Polish underground reacted by condemning acts of collaboration including betrayals of Jews, whether committed by Poles or others, and also by punishing the transgressors by death. The repeated warnings issued by the underground authorities regarding assisting the Germans in persecuting Jews, as well as the severe punishment imposed by those authorities, made it clear that such conduct was outside the acceptable norms of behaviour and was so viewed by a significant majority of Polish society. There is no record of any political or popular backlash against these measures taken by the underground authorities.47 Although the underground passed a number of death sentences against informers and suspected Gestapo agents, they did not manage to carry all of them out because many practical difficulties stood in the way, such as collecting evidence and actually carrying out the executions. One of the most famous collaborators the Polish underground did manage to execute was Igo Sym, a popular interwar actor of Germanic origin (he was born in Innsbruck, Austria).