July 16, 2024
Polish/Jewish Relations

Germans did punish the Poles, and more severely than they punished the Jews. And what is worse than the death penalty? The death of the family

Whoever Helps A Jew?…” – this is the title of the book by prof. Bogdan Musial. The author reveals that the willingness of Poles to help Jews forced the German occupiers to issue special legislation in Poland which was not administered in any other country.

TVP: Professor, “Whoever helps a Jew…?” – how to finish the sentence?

Bogdan Musial: “Whoever helps a Jew is subject to the death penalty”. This is a fragment from one of the German ordinances which mandated punishing Poles for helping Jews.

TVP: In addition to the death penalty, you quote such terms as “severe punishment”, “the harshest punishment” and “police security measures”. Did these all mean death?

BM: The process behind the creation of this legislation is very interesting. The ensuing regulations were a reaction to the attitude of Polish society. First, administrative sanctions appeared for hiding Jews. Later, on October 21, 1941, by the decision of Governor Hans Frank, a death penalty was imposed on any person who deliberately concealed a Jew. This is important because if someone took in a person and did not know of that person’s Jewish origin, he could not be sentenced to death.

Such actions were initially subject to the German special judiciary; however, this proved to not be enough of a deterrent for Poles. As a result, so called local administrations – the county (Landkreise), began to introduce their own regulations. The ordinances of the SS and police commander Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger unified these provisions. They prescribed the death penalty for any person who in any way helped a Jew (even just gavewater to a Jew). That person was punished with death. A person or persons who knew about a Jew being hidden somewhere and did not report it to the German authorities was also punished with death.

The “police security measures” mentioned in Krüger’sordinance consisted of one particular measure by whichthe decision to shoot on the spot, and the decision  to send someone to a concentration camp could be made by a German policeman. The special courts no longer oversaw these matters. By virtue of Krüger’s decrees, the policemen and gendarmes had free rein regarding these decisions. As of the end of November 1943, the Germans would often execute entire Polish families. In 1943, thishad already the norm in the General Government.

TVP: If the Germans were not satisfied with one ordinance regarding hiding Jews, maybe the famous “German order” is just a myth?

BM: It was the Polish society that was recalcitrant. When the ordinances were posted, the priests had to announce them from the pulpits and village administrators had to inform everyone in the village. But often the Polish people did not believe that such harsh penalties would be applied. The ghettos were not so tightly enclosed, so Jewish children went out to seek help from the Aryan side and the Poles gave aid for humanitarian reasons. Trade relations were also established.

For Germans this was a problem, because they wanted to starve the Jews in the ghettos. They didn’t want food there and it did not make a difference whether the source of it was alms or trade. In the provinces, where there were considerably fewer German security forces, trade cooperation developed widely. That is why there was no question of starving in the provincial ghettos. If Poles had followed German regulations, it would have meant starvation for the Jews in ghettos because the amount of food officially rationed for the ghettos made it impossible to survive.

It is worth remembering that for the Jewish population, the death penalty had no deterrent effect, because they were condemned to death anyway. The Germans quickly came to the conclusion that non-Jews (Poles) should also be punished. And more severely than Jews. And what is the punishment worse than the death penalty? Death of the family.

TVP: But in the General Government, the death penalty was the punishment for everything, including even for simply listening to the radio. So maybe the death sentence was such a common threat that no one was afraid of it?

Please, tell me how many people were sentenced to death for listening to the radio? Very few, and when they were it mainly affected city dwellers. Anyway, the punishment, if it was applied, concerned only the person who listened.For participating in the underground resistance, the death penalty was applied to a particular partisan.

However, in the province, the decision to hide a Jew was made by the father of the family, who risked not only his own life, but also the lives of his relatives. Few people went for it. These were exceptions, such as the Ulmafamily.

I have three children, but – sorry – if I hypothetically risked their lives today, the family court would have the right to take these children away from me. This is a great moral discussion, virtually undecidable, but it is obvious that risking your children’s lives is irresponsible.

TVP:  From your book, it appears that there was more repression in the provinces than in the cities, and it was more drastic, such as shooting on the spot.

In cities, these cases were subject to special courts (Sondergerichte) and they punished those who gave helpto the Jews with death. For these courts, the legal basis was the Hans Frank ordinance mentioned before from the beginning of October 21, 1941, and not later police ordinances that governed these matters in the provinces.

The Germans did not regularly patrol villages, so they had to terrorize them. They massacred whole families and their neighbors, so that the whole village  would be aware of the risk. When the Germans knew that Jews were hiding in the area, they took hostages. And those hostages, under the threat of death, had to catch the Jews.

TVP: In the book “Then There Is The night”, edited by Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski, they talk about the cooperation of village leaders, the security sguads, and volunteer fire brigade with the Germans in catching the Jews.

The village administrators had to sign a commitment that they were responsible for clearing the area of ​​the Jews, that is, catching them and handing them over to the Germans. They were punished by death for failing to do so. In addition, resigning from the post was not an option. The fire brigades were militarized by the Germans. Initially they were used to collect food allocations, then to catch Jews.

The village guards, on the other hand, were peasants taken by the Germans as hostages, who – also threatened with death – were forced to catch Jews. In addition, they were to catch smugglers and bandits. Of course, they did not have a weapon, so they were helpless with the real bandits. They could only inform the nearest police station.

Barbara Engelking in her book calls these peasants “Holocaust volunteers”. This is a lie, because their actions were demanded, not voluntary. The authors of the “Then There Is the Night” leave out the German ordinances, which speak about the threat of death punishment, the punishment that was actually carried out. In my book, I give an example of the execution of members of the village guard in Miechów. I come from the city of Miechów and I grew up hearing stories of fear that the Germans managed to instill there.

In my opinion, the omission of some documents by the authors of the work “Then There is the Night” was intentional, because if they were taken into account, the thesis about “Holocaust volunteers” would be unsustainable. It can only be put forward if the authors ignore the German legislation introduced in Poland in stages, with growing severity, as a result of subsequent German experience in Poland. The Germans had this experience only in Poland, not in any other occupied country. The Germans did not issue such ordinances in their country in the Reich nor in France, nor in Denmark, nor in the Netherlands nor in the Czech Republic. If Poles had been “volunteers of the Holocaust”, then there would have been no need to introduce such ordinances or conduct such show executions.

TVP: Does the opinion that the Poles cooperated with the Germans in the Holocaust, resonate with what is said about us in the West?

This thesis has been functioning in the West for decades, especially in Israel and the United States. Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking did not invent it. The anti-Polish prejudices are very strong, but no one in Poland has paid attention to them for years.

Today, however, Mr. Grabowski and Mrs. Engelkingdistribute manipulations under the guise of scientific work. For example, they write that there was no obligation to denounce Poles who kept Jews. This is misleading to the readers. There was indeed such a duty and the death penalty for not reporting the hidden Jew was used as part of the “police security measures”.

It is shocking that the researcher does not check the documents. The more so that the regulations we are talking about here are available even on the internet, and in Polish.

TVP: Did the Poles in the provinces alone murder Jews, without the presence of Germans?

From the turn of 1939/1940, banditry became a scourge.Weapons were easily accessible, there was no public order, there was poverty and many refugees. Bandits sought opportunities to earn a living. In the villages they murdered Jews, but also Poles, all who were easy prey.

The Germans chased these bandits. A peasant, if he murdered a Jew, was hunted. It sounds paradoxical, but the Germans did not agree to such arbitrariness. Only they had the right to kill, to rob, too, because Jewish property belonged to the Reich. Regulations issued in the deportations of provincial ghettos announced that the theft of Jewish property would be punished with death. There were also German death sentences for killing Jews.

TVP: You are still talking about the Germans, not about the Nazis, you use the term in the book as well.

I use this word consciously. Officials whose careers I researched were officers before 1933, they were still after 1945, and they always felt German. They committed a crime in the name of the German people who, with conviction, chose Adolf Hitler as chancellor.

TVP: however, a lot has been written about the fact that after the war  Germany carried out denazification, cut itself off from the past, punished criminals

The thesis that Germany has overcome the past is propaganda. Recently, the anniversary of the adoption of the 1949 constitution was celebrated with a great pomp and praised for what a wonderful work it is and how useful it is in building democracy.

It was not mentioned that two articles of the German constitution had the purpose of protecting German criminals from being convicted for their crimes during the war. One of them prevents the extradition of German citizens abroad. And it is worth remembering that they could be tried only abroad, because German courts have no powers to pursue crimes committed in another country, for example Poland. These German criminals, whom we could have tried in the 1940s, were given to us by the Allies.

The second article illegalizes death penalty. Today it looks very humane, but then it was just about protecting German criminals. The Nuremberg trial  causedtremendous indignation in Germany, as have other trials carried out by the Allies before the creation of the Federal Republic. After the prohibition of the death penalty in 1949, death sentences in allied trials were changed to life imprisonment, and then amnesty shortened the imprisonment to several years.

Although later the trials of “Nazi criminals” were organized in West Germany, there were few of them, only to shape the opinion about Germany as a law-abiding state.

I spoke with numerous German war criminals, two of them even told me how they were carrying out the deportation of Jews. And after the war, they built their careers or held clerical jobs. Nobody was chasing them.

There is a lot of talk about resistance against Nazism in Germany. To the extent that they already believe that on May 8, 1945, they were freed from Nazism. During the celebration of the anniversary of the end of the war, the German Minister of Justice said: “Not only for us, Germans, this day is the day of liberation.”

The interview conducted by Krzysztof Zwoliński

Prof. Bogdan Musiał, author of the recently published work “Kto Dopomoze Zydowi…” is a historian specializing in the history of Germany, Poland and Russia in the 20th century. He has lived in Germany since 1985, where he obtained political asylum. He has worked at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw and the Institute of National Remembrance. He is a member of the Council of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk.Publishes in German, Polish and English.

The link to the original interview, in Polish:



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