The Attitudes of Poles Towards Jews During the Holocaust

The extermination of Jews during World War II took place before the eyes of Poles who, at the time, were themselves subjected to the terror of the German occupying force. Their humanity was put to the test. Most of them remained passive in the face of the Holocaust, many showed reluctance towards Jews, some even hostility; few helped.

Poland under German occupation

During World War II, terror reigned in the Second Polish Republic under German occupation. Its citizens, a multi-ethnic community consisting of Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Belarusians and Lithuanians, were subjected to severe repressions and struggled with everyday difficulties, poverty and hunger.

Many regulations, governing the life of civilians, were in force and failure to comply with them could result in severe punishment, including the death penalty. Among other things, political and cultural activities, the slaughter of farm animals and the possession of a radio were prohibited. It was also strictly forbidden to provide help to prisoners-of-war, partisans and Jews.

In order to survive, those sentenced to extermination by Nazi Germany had to go into hiding.

Hostility, Indifference, Help

Despite the threat of punishment, including the death penalty, hundreds of thousands of Poles were involved in underground activities and some were also involved in helping persecuted Jews – sometimes selflessly or for financial gain, for shorter or longer periods of time. However, such an attitude was rare within Polish society, nor did it meet with general approval.

Most Poles remained passive during the Holocaust, focusing on the fate of their own family and fearing repression.

This passivity also resulted from prewar antisemitism which had been expressed directly, especially in the circles of the Roman Catholic Church and among the nationalist milieus. The attitude of Poles towards the Holocaust varied broadly – from a sense of quiet satisfaction derived from the atrocities committed against Jews which they witnessed, to deep compassion and disapproval of them.

At the same time, many people were actively hostile towards Jews, posing a deadly danger for them. Driven by antisemitic motivation or a desire to gain financial profit, those people collaborated with the Germans and denounced those who remained in hiding. There are many known cases, especially in large cities, of the blackmailing Jews by Poles, i.e. extortion of money in exchange for keeping quiet.

Engagement of Poles in hiding Jews took many forms and resulted from various motivations.

For some, it was a way to earn money – due to the high risk involved, hideouts were usually provided at high prices. Sometimes, payment was postponed and was based on the promise of transferring various goods after the War (e.g. money, jewellery, property, land). There were also times when the “service” provided turned into selfless help or merciless exploitation of those in hiding – financially and, sometimes, even mentally or sexually. Often, the fact that Jews in hiding ran out of money resulted in the refusal to continue to provide aid.

Dangerous during hiding Jews

Providing shelter to Jews was extremely difficult and risky. It was a fully conspiratorial action, carried out in fear of the Germans but, most of all, of one’s own neighbours. Motivated by the desire to gain financial profit, and sometimes by fear or reluctance, they posed a risk of denunciation.

Poles who helped Jews selflessly were indeed acting in extremely difficult conditions – burdened with the task of organising shelter, covering the costs of living, often emotionally connected with those in hiding. It was a heroic undertaking – physically and nervously exhausting, requiring a great amount of courage and perseverance.

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