Village Society and the Holocaust in the General Government: the Kreis Debica
by Tomasz Frydel. 2021
Reviewed by Jan Peczkis
Tomasz Frydel: Poles Were Forced to Be Part of a German-Created Village Establishment. They Did Not Voluntarily Search for Fugitive Jews
The setting of this study is German-occupied southeast Poland (as defined by her post-WWII borders). It is packed with detail.
AUGUST DECREE MANIPULATIONS: TRIALS POLITICIZED, OVER-ACCUSATORY
The accounts used in this work are based on the court decisions of the August Decree, which included accusations of Nazi collaboration by the Polish defendants. This had built-in flaws.
There is no escaping the fact that the August Trials took place in an atmosphere of totalitarian, Communist terror. Frydel comments, “Like any body of sources, the August Decree files are not without their share of challenges. The documents were produced in the politically loaded context of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe and Poland’s Stalinist period (1948-1956)…Historians have debated the degree of politicization of the trials and their utility as historical sources.” (p. 35).
Now consider the expansive blame-fixing enjoyed by prosecutors, “The wide latitude of the actual formulation was designed to allow postwar authorities to prosecute broad categories of alleged culprits. Judges would not have to differentiate between murder, manslaughter, and accessory to murder. This allowed prosecutors to go far beyond the prosecution of war crimes and to give leeway to target members of the political opposition.” (p. 35). In contrast, “The wide latitude provided by the Decree stood in marked contrast to the legal constraints faced by West German prosecutors of Holocaust perpetrators in the 1960s.” (p. 36).
Importantly, German-created duress was hardly taken into account. “Further, though acting under threat or on orders did not release the accused from legal responsibility, the court could now consider it a mitigating factor in its sentencing decision.” (p. 34).
There were forced confessions, “In a number of instances, suspects reported being coerced into giving confessions during pretrial interrogations carried out by the Security Department (Urzad Bezpieczenstwa, UB), which were modified during the main hearing before the court, if not withdrawn entirely.” (p. 37).
It is doubtful if many of the defendants ever had competent legal counsel. For instance, Frydel writes, “The accused, an illiterate farmer showing little proclivity for legal subterfuge during the proceedings, shed light on the conditions in which his deposition and that of others was taken: ‘I signed the deposition at the prosecutor’s [office] in Kolbuszowa, but I did not know what I was signing. The prosecutor read the deposition aloud, but I did not understand it.’” (p. 270).
Typical Holocaust materials portray fugitive Jews as largely out of reach of the Germans, at the total mercy of the Poles, and with Poles responsible for all the fugitive Jewish deaths–hence the mantra about “Polish complicity in the Holocaust”. This is far from the truth.
Frydel identifies 1,257 Jews that evaded the German mass killing killing operations and took shelter on the territory of Kreis Debica. Of these, 945 (75%) were subsequently killed and the remaining 25% survived. (p. ii). Table 4 (p. 97) identifies the agency of the Jewish deaths. The German military, German police, German-led police, and unidentified police forces were responsible for 727 fugitive Jewish deaths. The Polnische polizei, working alone, killed 145 of the Jews. All this overlaps with 158 Jews denounced by “locals” (not necessarily Poles). Additionally, four Jews were killed by the A. K. (Armia Krajowa) and another 22 by “local civilians”. So the vast majority of the 945 killed fugitive Jews had little or no proven connection to any acts of Poles (in addition to the fact that Poles did not act voluntarily in those cases where Polish agency mattered).
NOT ‘NAZI COLLABORATORS”: POLES WERE FORCED TO BE ACTIVELY INVOLVED IN THE GERMAN-ESTABLISHED VILLAGE SECURITY SYSTEM
Again, the August Trials are telling, “The vast majority of peasants tried after the war for collaboration were not a random sample of ‘ordinary Poles,’ but were precisely those individuals with ties to the village security system. This suggests an institutional baseline for understanding human behavior during the occupation, as it appears that it was the institutional role that largely determined the range of behavior, not necessarily a shared ideological profile.” (p. 29).
Let us consider how Polish Jew-denouncing and Jew-killing acts were involuntary. Frydel states:
“With the commencement of ‘Operation Reinhard’ in the spring of 1942, the Germans required village heads to apprehend Jews escaping ghettos, camps, and trains and to deliver them to the local gendarmerie or Blue Police post. By the end of the war, virtually every category of outsider without proper identification (Kennkarten) was drawn into the net that village heads were to maintain around their communities, including partisans and Roma.” (p. 165).
“In terms of Jewish fugitives, village heads were forced to sign monthly oaths of responsibility for the presence of Jews in areas under their jurisdiction.” (p. 183).
POLISH VILLAGERS WERE FORCED TO PARTICIPATE IN SEARCHES FOR SHIRKING POLISH LABORERS, ESCAPED SOVIET POWS, AND FUGITIVE JEWS
Tomasz Frydel places Jew-killing in broader context, as follows, “But the larger importance of these various manhunts and roundups to the Judenjagd is that they played a role in conditioning local attitudes in anticipatory obedience toward German regulations when fugitives of any stripe made their appearance… Even if village society was negatively predisposed toward Jews, the participation of peasants in the capture of Jews was not as selective as might otherwise seem without taking into account these other targeted groups and the broader scope of activities of the village security system.” (p. 105).
POLES AND NOT ONLY JEWS FACED CHOICELESS CHOICES
“Choiceless choices” is a phrase readily used in reference to Jews that were forced to serve the Germans. Historian Frydel breaks new ground by pointing out that Poles also faced choiceless choices–as by village heads and guards dealing with “the domino effect in the reality set in motion by the German occupation” (p. 5); “The dilemmas posed by these ‘choiceless choices’ of survival were not only between life and death, but between life and the family.” (p. 156); “In almost all of the examined cases, village heads were involved in various forms of protecting fugitive Jews, Soviet POWs, members of the underground, and others in need. But the crucible of the occupation generated unprecedented ‘choiceless choices.’ The moral dilemmas they faced were often unanswerable without inadvertently causing harm to someone.” (p. 202).
GERMAN TERROR DID NOT DEPEND UPON IMMEDIATE GERMAN PHYSICAL PRESENCE!
“German pressure from above was the most immediate concern of village heads. The prospect of German terror was the Sword of Damocles that constantly hung over their heads. In his interviews of the children of village heads who attended the mandatory briefings, historian Jan Hebda discovered that their fathers always said their final goodbyes to families in case of arrest and internment in prison or concentration camp. The August Decree trial records substantiate such fears. Village heads were kept under regular surveillance by German authorities.” (p. 189).
“The most powerful incentive reported in the August Decree files was pressure from above, especially awareness of the potential consequences of disobeying German regulations. The guard system hardly required the presence of the uniformed police, proving perfectly capable of operating on a self-regulating basis.” (p. 289).
“As many explained after the war, the challenge of communal self-preservation lay in satisfying a minimum of German demands with a minimal sacrifice on the part of the village. It was a rare village that could boast of not having a single one of its inhabitants deported to Germany for forced labor.” (p. 197).
“The Polish village head functioned within a nexus of local structures that acted under duress and in the belief that punishment for noncompliance was death. The dynamics that emerged from pressures from above and below took place in a context of mutually reinforcing fears. With each turn of the screw, the system became increasingly synchronized and self-regulating, its functioning did not require the presence of German authorities or the uniformed police.” (p. 204).
“Nonetheless, there is indeed a disjuncture between the professed fear of death among the guards and recorded cases that attest to this most extreme form of punishment. The fact that we find few documented cases of punishment with death, yet the system was capable of functioning effectively, is itself an important observation regarding the social dynamics surrounding fear. Needless to say, to disobey German regulations was to invite danger. Further, a state of mind, whether based on a corresponding reality or an exaggerated projection of fear, is itself a critical empirical fact in understanding the social dynamics under examination.” (p. 253).
“The prospect of death thus always hung above the heads of locals and impacted their perception of risk. The law was clear, even if it was not always applied rigorously.” (p. 317).
“Members of the Ortschutzwache [village guards] possessed less autonomy than the village head. A key frame of reference for members of the guard system was collective security and self-preservation. Their participation in acts of persecution was largely propelled by the ongoing threat of death and anticipatory obedience driven by the all-pervasiveness of German terror. These actors did not need to be antisemitic to participate in the capture of Jews, particularly ill-disposed toward Soviet POWs, or antagonistic toward Poles selected for labor quotas.” (p. 209).
“The use of informers posing as escaped Soviet POWs appears to have been a widespread practice in the district.” (p. 106). How’s that for building distrust to strangers seeking help?
FOR FURTHER STUDY
“Jews who were hiding in forest bunkers appear to have been particularly prone to German police attempts to extract information regarding the whereabouts of other bunkers or local providers of food.” (p. 321).
Now consider the villagers that Germans held hostage. “A decade after Stola’s review, a thorough historical study of hostages remains in its infancy.” (p. 234).
“Little has been written in a sustained fashion about Jewish informers during the Holocaust in occupied Poland. What we know is piecemeal.” (p. 146).
JUDENJAGD (HUNT FOR THE JEWS): A MISLEADING, ORWELLIAN TERM
In reviewing an earlier study by Frydel, I cautioned that the word “hunt” has a connotation of equality of participants and camaraderie between them, which was not at all true of Poles forced by Germans, directly or indirectly, to apprehend or kill fugitive Jews. See:
Now historian Frydel says much the same thing. (p. 48). He adds that, “In contrast, it finds that most locals were dragooned into various manhunts and roundups, which was hardly conducive to Polish-German camaraderie; neither was the Polish equivalent of ‘to hunt’ (polować) appropriated by locals in reference to Jews in hiding.” (p. 48).
Interestingly, the Germans are not known to ever have used the term Judenjagd. (p. 47). And, of course, no one ever calls the German search for fugitive Poles (such as Underground members) the Polenjagd.
Clearly, Judenjagd is purely an invention of Holocaustspeak, designed to mystify Jewish victimhood and to diffuse German guilt by shifting part of the blame for the Holocaust away from Germans and unto Poles.
NO DEGERMANIZED NAZIS
Frydel does not beat around the bush. He writes, “When referring to the occupation of Poland, I chiefly adopt the adjective ‘German,’ as opposed to ‘Nazi,’ as wars and occupations are deeply national projects, and the civil and military administration of the General Government in particular had a distinct German character, even if a pre-existing institution was co-opted by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP).” (p. 44).
He adds that, “Similarly, I resonate with concerns that the term ‘Nazi’ can function to efface the fundamental German responsibility, while leaving all others, like ‘Poles’ or ‘Jews,’ locked across time in the amber of ethnicity.” (p. 47).
BYSTANDERS: ANOTHER HOLOCAUSTSPEAK TERM
The author comments, “But village inhabitants, as a collective, were neither solely bystanders, perpetrators, nor victims. As individuals, they could, and often did, play multiple roles in a moral universe that was not primarily set against the horizon of the Holocaust.” (p. 23).
Frydel does not go far enough. “Bystander” is an Orwellian term that denies Polish victimhood by re-defining Poles solely in terms of Jews and the Jewish experience. It transforms Poles from co-victims alongside the Jews into mere spectators (or worse) of Jewish suffering. In actuality, Poles were no more bystanders of the Holocaust than the Jews were bystanders of the Polokaust.