Poland In World War II: Saviors And Collaborators [PART 2]

This is Part Two of my review of Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. Click here for Part One

Snyder does not have an easy task packing so much material and information in a book that’s just slightly over 300 pages long. Just for a somewhat related example, Ian Kershaw’s excellent biography on Adolf Hitler is close to 2,000 pages and still leaves many unanswered questions. However, if Snyder was writing “the book” on the Holocaust, he wasted a lot of pages which could have been better allocated. He spends several chapters on rescuers and their motives an addition to a large section related to the Polish Government’s ties with Zionist leaders, as both wanted the Jews to leave Poland. Since the topic of Nazi policy towards the Jews is so vast and extended from France to the gates of Moscow, it would have been better to focus on some other aspects in this space.

One country omitted altogether was Norway. Norway would be what Snyder considered a total puppet state similar to Slovenia or Croatia. Yet in Norway, “only” 50% of the Jews were murdered, far less than in the total puppet state of Croatia.

In Italy, “only” 25% of Jews were killed by the Nazis, and this occurred only after Mussolini was ousted around the time of the invasion of Sicily. Snyder comments that if Mussolini was in charge, no Jews would have been murdered, however, he does not mention another fact. The Italians largely hid the Jews, especially in the capital of Rome. Had Hitler won the war, the Jews likely would have been exterminated whether they had lived in Vichy, Mussolini’s Italy or in Lithuania. One reason the Nazis did not get to complete the deed is because they ran out of time and started with the Jews in the USSR (at the time of Barbarossa). Therefore, no matter how strong or weak a puppet state or ally was, the real reason the Jews were spared is that the Germans ran out of time.

Many topics were omitted in what I think is crucial for understanding the war and the war against the Jews. Snyder never mentions the differences between many of the secular Jews of Germany and other “Western Countries” versus the “Ostjuden.” While many Jews in Eastern Europe had become less religious (or totally secular), the capital of both the Hassidish and Litivish Jews (commonly grouped today as “ultra Orthodox,” the difference between them is beyond the scope of this review) was almost exclusively located in Eastern Europe. One example, the City of Brest-Litovsk, is known as Brisk in Yiddish and was considered one of the top Yeshivas in the world. Lithuania was the “capital” of the Litvish, who referred to the Capital of Lithuania (and by extension Poland). Further south, Galicia (in former Poland) and Hungary were the spiritual centers of the Hassidim. See Rabbi Barel Wein’s Jewish History – A Trilogy for more on this topic.

So why is this important? Because the areas where most of these Jews lived ended up being the stateless i.e. Poland – areas described by Snyder. These people (unlike in Germany) were visibly Jews in dress. Even if they tried to appear totally secular to evade the Nazis, it would have been very hard. These Ostjuden spoke Yiddish as a first language, went to synagogues, lived in Jewish areas, had Mezzusos on their homes, and knew little about Christianity (in fact, in Jewish law it is forbidden to learn about other religions at all). They had far fewer relatives or friends that were Mischling, Christian, Aryan or totally Jewish who could help them. Contrast this with Germany, where in (albeit an extreme) case, Wehrmacht soldiers would walk into the SS office and demand that they release Jewish relatives! How could a religious Jew overnight “become” a Roman Catholic in Poland? It is clear that these religious Jews would have a far higher death rate, as it was harder to conceal their Jewish identity.  For more on this topic, see Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers.

Snyder responded to my question about this stating:

“Definitely a good point and certainly in Poland people who were assimilated, prosperous, urban etc had a better chance. But consider the death rate in the Netherlands at 75% and then in the Soviet Union at 94%; in both cases Jews in general assimilated.”

My problem is first: in the Soviet Union, only the Jews who had lived under Bolshevism since 1917 were assimilated. As religion was practically banned, anyone practicing Judaism was treated harshly, and the Jews were assimilated. However, most of the Jews in the USSR Snyder mentions were living in Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary until the late 1930s or early 1940s, and there was a significant religious population specifically in Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. Second, Snyder does not mention the point of religious versus non-religious Jews at all in his book.

WWII Poland

Poland and other parts of Europe under Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement

Poland and elsewhere – Saviors

Snyder devotes several chapters to the topic of those who saved the Jews. He seems to go out of his way (unnecessarily) to show that many of those who saved Jews had ulterior motives and that things were more grey then they may seem. He diminishes the bravery even of people like Witold Pilecki, who volunteered for Auschwitz to find out what was going on there. Snyder remarks that Pilecki only did this to help the resistance in Poland — as if that was his only motive and/or makes him less of a hero – not only for Poland but for humanity.

He also gives the “extreme example” of Kurt Triborn, who was responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of Jews and saved several personal Jewish friends of his. Snyder says that Triborn is an example of someone who “in one setting he was a rescuer, and in another a killer.”

While Snyder is right that there is little black and white in this area, there are certainly darker and lighter shades of grey. We need to look no further than the Fuhrer himself. Hitler was worried that every German would try to save “their favorite Jew,” as Heindrich Himmler said in a speech, “All the 80 million upright Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. They say: all others are swine, but here is a first-class Jew.” However, Hitler himself saved the Jewish doctor who had cared for his mother when she was dying cancer. Does this make Hitler a savior too? Of course not! See Hitler’s First War. Himmler also went on to save Jews, as it was clear the war was lost.

Yet, this is just one of many examples. Hermann Goering, the number two man in the Reich, adored his Jewish step-father. Although Goering was in charge of the hunger plan in the East under which millions would starve (and would cause many other crimes), the Reichsmarschall himself intervened to save elderly Jews who helped Goering while in hiding during the failed Munich putsch. For more on Goering and this topic, see The Devil’s Disciples. For more on top Nazis with Jewish relatives and friends, see Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers.

In terms of saviors, yes, some were less than noble, but that does not detract from their heroism. Farmers in Poland who hid Jews from collaborators in exchange or even hopes of cash rewards were still risking their lives and saved human beings from certain death. Some of these people may have been anti-Semitic. But even as Snyder himself notes, there is a big difference between being prejudiced and even hating a whole nation or religion and actually hoping they die (and in some cases participating). Many of the German conservatives disliked Jews and Oles and possibly favored discrimination against them but were likewise appalled at seeing the brutal atrocities against innocent civilians in places like Poland and Belarus. Wilhem Canarais, among many others, comes to mind. Others in the German opposition were less heroic and only opposed Hitler’s policies after it was obvious he would lose the war. See Hitler’s Spy Chief: The William Canaris Mystery and Luck of the Devil: The Story of Operation Valkyrie for more on this topic.

However, in Snyder’s world, besides Russia and Germany, which are black, everything else seems to be the same shade of grey. As a few of the above examples demonstrate, this is clearly nonsense.

Poland, Russia, the Baltic: Language

Snyder claims that no scholars have made use of the archives after the fall of Communism in former Soviet Rep. Therefore,Poland. Snyder claims, these historians have a warped view since they only relied on sources in Germany and other documents in the West. Snyder, who has mastered 11 languages, claims that his knowledge has helped present a more accurate picture of the Holocaust.

I find this argument to be totally bogus. First off, almost all historians who wrote books after 1990 or so had and did use their access to Soviet archives in particular. Furthermore, many of the great historians of this era know multiple languages such as German, Polish, Russian, and had help in researching in languages they do not know fluently. And now with the spread of the internet, it would be unlikely that a famous historian could not find someone in nearly any Eastern European language who could not help translate documents. However, Snyder does have an advantage in being fluent in 11 languages himself, and it is a testament to his genius that a young man could teach himself to become fluent in so many languages. However, I am grateful that Snyder uses many English sources and authors throughout his book, which I have also used in this article and for his help in answering some of my questions.

WWII – Poland and Belarus – The conclusion

Snyder tries to draw lessons to today. He mentions all possible future Hitlers, including Russians, Jews, Muslims, China, the GOP, and climate change deniers. There are many threats facing the globe which could create a resource scare. Many asteroids and meteors are not tracked by NASA and could hit Earth at any moment, if not wiping everyone out – certainly causing a cataclysmic catastrophe and search for food. Likewise, we are only now learning about how many close encounters we had with an accidental nuclear holocaust during the Cold War. With the increase in nuclear prolifaration, China’s growing military and nuclear arsenal, and another Cold War possibly setting in, these dangers could be increasing further. Even one accidental nuke by a rogue state or terrorist group detonated in, say, Afghanistan, could lead to a huge fight over resources and mass genocide. Climate change is a threat, but the end of the book seemed unnecessary, too political, and too focused towards that one particular issue.

If you are looking for “the book” on the Holocaust, Snyder’s is not it. He devotes too much time to non-important topics and misses far more important themes, and because of this, he does not discuss many important issues in depth. Second, as Snyder downplays anti-anti-Semitism as much as possible, he does a disservice to anyone trying to understand the regional politics at the time. He also is misleading in many cases, and one gets a distorted picture, even when an important topic is discussed. However, Snyder does make some key points in the book, and statelessness clearly is a factor, which is a topic that Snyder explains in a convincing manner, so this book would be better in conjunction with other books on the topic.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review