Forgotten Survivors: Polish Christians Remember the Nazi Occupation

edited by Richard C. Lukas; University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2004, $29.95.

Throughout his career, Richard Lukas has documented the persecution of Polish Christians by the Nazis during World War II. His latest publication, Forgotten Survivors, continues on this path. Here Lukas has collected the stories of 28 Polish Christian men and women who survived the war. Each of these personal accounts is in its own way difficult to read. These are the experiences of Poles who suffered tremendous hardship at the hands of their occupiers.

Some recount in disturbing detail the daily hell that was life in Nazi concentration camps. Others who did not experience the camps describe their struggle to survive at a time when death by starvation, random arrest and execution, or severe forced labor were very real possibilities. Still others explain their efforts to hide and save Jews who were being hunted by the dreaded Gestapo. Finally, all these witnesses recount the shock and horror they felt upon experiencing the destruction of their country by Germany’s invading armies.

It is appropriate that reading Forgotten Survivors is emotionally wrenching. The events reported by these men and women remind us of the barbarity of National Socialism as it was experienced by all subjugated peoples, including those who were not Jewish. The experience of Jews under Nazi occupation is probably the best documented mass crime of the 20th century. It is thus an unfortunate reality that readers faced with the immense amount of published material on Nazi genocide may not know that millions of non-Jews were also brutalized and murdered by Hitler’s minions. Forgotten Survivors is Lukas’ attempt to redress this imbalance as concerns Polish Christians, and I believe he succeeds in accomplishing his purpose.

In the accounts collected for this small volume, the author has managed to illustrate a wide spectrum of Polish experience. Consequently it is impossible to generalize from this book about Polish society under Nazi occupation. The light that Forgotten Survivors sheds on the variety of everyday experience is perhaps the book’s greatest contribution. The publication in 2001 of Jan Gross’ book Neighbors heightened the polemics that surround the issue of anti-Semitism in Poland during the war. Depending on the ax that a specific author had to grind, non-Jewish Poles were painted broadly as either a nation of vicious anti-Semites or a nation of falsely accused innocents.

Lukas’ work helps provide the more nuanced understanding of Polish behavior that students of the war need. As he shows, not all Poles were anti-Semites. Many men and women risked their lives to assist their Jewish countrymen in any way they could. Lukas also shows that Jews were not the only people slated for destruction, nor were they the only victims to populate the vast Nazi concentration camp system.

This is not to say that Polish Christians were herded into gas chambers and exterminated en masse. They were not. It is to say, however, that for Jews and non-Jews alike, survival in Nazi-occupied Poland was always precarious. To make this clear, Lukas has included 15 drawings by former concentration camp prisoner Jan Komski. What Komski’s words do not express about the horror of the camps, his drawings aptly convey.

The merits of the book aside, Forgotten Survivors can be criticized for minimizing the issue of Polish collaboration. Perhaps it is too complicated a subject to tackle in a book about those who survived. Here the lines between who is a survivor and who is a victimizer become blurred, thereby illustrating the problematic nature of the labels “survivor,” “perpetrator” and “victim.” It is an unfortunate fact that many Polish Christians informed on Jews in hiding. In some cases Poles even participated in German efforts to kill Jews, or they slaughtered their Jewish countrymen on their own. An unknown number of Poles also worked with the German authorities as policemen or administrators, thereby betraying all of their countrymen, Jewish and Christian. This should not be forgotten, even as one reads through what is otherwise a powerful and useful book.

 

Originally published in the April 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here