Book Review | The Dark Origins of Polish Revisionism

By | Mar 15, 2021

The August Trials: The Holocaust and Postwar Justice in Poland
By Andrew Kornbluth
Harvard University Press
352 pp., $45.00

In February, in a case that made international headlines and provoked widespread condemnation, a court in Warsaw ordered two Polish historians of the Shoah to apologize to an elderly woman from the village of Malinowo for having “inexactly portrayed” her uncle Edward Malinowski, the village’s wartime headman. Their offense: In their 1,600-page study of the fate of Jews trying to hide from the Germans in wartime Poland, historians Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski had dedicated a paragraph to the village. In it, they quoted testimony given in 1996 to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project by Estera Drogicka, a Jewish woman who said Malinowski had helped her but had also robbed her and participated in German murders of Jews.

Encouraged by a Polish NGO that specializes in tracking down alleged Jewish slander of Poles, the niece sued. The court found in her favor, citing contradictions between Drogicka’s 1996 Shoah Project testimony and evidence she had given at a trial in Poland in 1949. Malinowski at that time had been accused of collaborating with the Germans in rounding up Jews, but he was exonerated, partly on the basis of Drogicka’s testimony in that trial. The accusation and the entire 1949 proceeding—one of many held in postwar Poland—was based on the so-called August Decree, issued in August 1944 by the Russian-imposed provisional Communist government of Poland to prosecute German collaborators.

The decree set up “special courts” that between 1945 and 1956 held more than 32,000 trials of Polish citizens accused of collaborating with the Nazis. In a pioneering new book, University of California at Berkeley historian Andrew Kornbluth examines the decree, its consequences and iterations, and its functioning in the complex realities of postwar Poland—both then and, by implication, today. Then, as now, the government largely sought to underscore crimes against Poles and to minimize crimes against Jews.

Poland was the only country in Nazi-occupied Europe not to have had a Quisling administration collaborating with the occupiers: The Germans, simultaneously determined to crush the country’s national will and contemptuous of Polish “subhumans,” refused to allow one to be set up. Yet the country had no shortage of individual and institutional collaborators against whom postwar charges could be brought. Overall, those accused in the “August” trials were found guilty in approximately half of the cases. In cases where the victims happened to be Jewish, though, that rate fell to 14 percent. This was true even though crimes against Jews had been mostly more serious than those against non-Jews. “Polish-on-Polish crime had been fleeting, covert and rarely fatal, but Polish-on-Jewish crime had been systematic and popularly endorsed, and almost always ended in murder,” Kornbluth writes.

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He agrees with contemporary historians of the Shoah, led by Engelking and Grabowski, that Poles killed or betrayed to the Nazis tens of thousands of Jews. It was a campaign of ethnic cleansing bordering on genocide. To be sure, the primary and ultimate responsibility for that campaign falls on the German occupiers, but Polish participants had substantial agency—and availed themselves of it. The trial records Kornbluth analyzed, produced by two of the four special courts, in Kraków and Lublin, demonstrate it in harrowing detail: “A rough division of labor existed: villagers were to alert the headman to the presence of Jews [trying to hide in the area], village watchmen or firemen would take custody of the victims, and a cart driver or escort was to be designated to convoy the Jews to the [Polish] Blue Police or the [German] Gendarmerie for execution.”

Noncompliance was rare: It could be denounced to the Germans but also signified a breach of communal solidarity, both in the implicit moral condemnation and in hindering the acquisition of material goods—Jewish property or German rewards—that compliance brought with it.

Kornbluth is excellent in dissecting the complex dynamics between the Soviet-imposed postwar regime, the judiciary (who were largely pre-war and anti-Communist) and the postwar Polish population. Contrary to accepted myths, he does not find that the judiciary was necessarily following the Soviet-backed Communist regime’s orders (this was different in the separate branch set up to punish anti-Communists). Indeed, he amply documents the regime’s dissatisfaction with the special courts. He demonstrates that neither the anti-Semitism of the pre-war judiciary nor the Jewish presence in the top ranks of the Communist regime played a major role in the proceedings. The courts were, rather, grappling with issues of legalism, as the badly worded August decree was repeatedly amended and rewritten.

But most important, the courts sought to respond simultaneously to two widespread, popular impulses: the universal demand for justice/vengeance for crimes committed against Poles by German collaborators, and the no-less-universal fear of punishment for Polish perpetrators of crimes against Jews. This second category of collaborators enjoyed social solidarity that perpetrators of Polish-on-Polish crimes were denied.

Prosecuting their crimes would have threatened the freshly minted legend of a nation united in resistance, which constituted one of the few political issues on which the population and the regime could agree.

Jewish victims often could not testify, for they were either dead or had fled, while those who did survive and remained were most often too terrified to testify against Poles. Even Poles who had saved Jews asked them after the war to keep this heroism secret, out of fear of retaliation. Kornbluth shows brilliantly how, when those actually found guilty and sentenced for crimes against Jews challenged the verdicts, the description of facts would be totally changed between the original trial and the appeals trial, exonerating the perpetrators and strengthening the legend of Polish innocence. Sentences were reduced, amnesties applied. In a final, particularly obscene gesture, Polish courts after 1989 rehabilitated some perpetrators of crimes against Jews, designating those crimes as “acts done in the defense of Poland’s independence.”

Headman Edward Malinowski never denied having organized a roundup of 18 Jews hiding near Malinowo, but he testified he did it under German orders, a statement that usually sufficed for exoneration. His August Decree trial was held in the presence of defense witnesses only, witnesses for the prosecution having been beaten up by a guerrilla band and rendered unable to appear; the court later deemed their absence excused. In her Shoah Project testimony in 1996, Drogicka said she had falsely exonerated Malinowski out of fear and because she had pity for him and did not want him to go to jail. Seventy years later, quoting her testimony is grounds for legal action. The August Decree has done its job well.

Konstanty Gebert is a Moment contributor and an international reporter with the leading Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

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