By: Jessica Jager
Tadeusz Piotrowski’s book, Poland’s Holocaust, is essentially exactly as the title states: an overview of the holocaust as it played out in Poland. However, it differs from most studies of the WWII time period in that it focuses less on the prime perpetrators and more so on Polish collaborators. The main thrust of Piotrowski’s work is aimed at dissecting how Polish natives of all ethnicities facilitated the oppression and murder of their fellow citizens. In particular, Piotrowski discusses Jewish, Polish, Belo-Russian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian collaboration with German and Soviet invaders. In doing so, Piotrowski relies heavily on primary and secondary sources to build his account, and though he claims to have included “analysis” and “insights” throughout the course of his work, Poland’s Holocaust reads more like a textbook.
As stated above, the book nearly ignores the Soviet and Nazi participation in the Polish holocaust. After a very brief description of the economic, social, and human atrocities committed by the Soviets and Germans, (constituting only 25 pages out of a total of over 250) Piotrowski delves into the manner in which Poland’s largest minority populations attempted to exploit the upheaval of war. The problem that was specific to Poland was that its population was not extremely homogeneous, as many European nations were at that time. During the interwar years, over 30% of all Polish citizens belonged to ethnic minorities, and in many areas, national minorities actually constituted local majorities. Ukrainians, Jews, Belo-Russians, and Germans, in particular, were represented in large numbers within Poland’s borders. All of these minority groups, in some manner or another, were agitating for independence and ethnic reunification before the onset of WWII.
It was as a result of these different national goals that each minority group ended up contributing to the Polish terror – each group chose sides in the war, hoping to capitalize on Soviet and German power in an attempt to achieve divisive objectives. The extent to which each group was able to do this, the manner in which it was accomplished, and the victims that were left in their wake, are the basic subjects of Piotrowski’s work. Over 6 million Polish citizens died during WWII, over 90% came through non-military loses; a whopping 21.4% of the total population was lost between 1939 and 1945. No doubt, the rate of death was expanded exponentially because of rampant Polish disloyalty and ethnic collusion with the enemy. Much of the inter-Polish terror that occurred at the hands of ethnic minorities was particularly devastating, and Piotrowski does not hesitate to term many atrocities as instances of ethnic cleansing.
However, as mentioned above, original analysis is hard to come by in this book – most of the chapters are chock full of facts, tables, and long excerpts from other works and personal narratives. That does not mean that it does not make for a good read though, Poland’s Holocaust flows well and engages the reader, making up for its lack of analysis with a wealth of interesting and useful primary and secondary sources. In fact, the book is worth reading simply for bringing together so many diverse and poignant sources. In many cases, the reader may find the notes and appendices to be more interesting than the main document.
Piotrowski’s work does not offer much in the way of analysis on the Holocaust as a whole, nor is he comprehensive in his discussion of the Polish Holocaust, but he has covered his chosen topic well. And if anything, the work is a very interesting and underrepresented description of perhaps the most tragic chapter in Poland’s history.