Joanna Michlic

Gunnar S. Paulsson, Secret City. The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-1945 New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2002. pp. 298 + xv, Notes. Illus. Maps. Gloss. Bibl. Ind. $29.95 (hardcover).

Among the heretofore neglected dimensions of the social history of the Holocaust are the histories of Jewish survivors and rescuers of Jews in particular localities in Nazi occupied Europe. Gunnar S. Paulsson’s Secret City. The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-1945, a study of Jews in hiding in Nazi-occupied Warsaw should be welcome as pioneering and long overdue. However, in spite of his skillful quantitative analysis of the escapees from the ghetto and valuable observations about the survival process itself, Paulsson’s work fails to address the large interpretive problems and does not present consistent arguments pertaining to these problems; this undermines the overall value of the book.

The strength of Secret City lies in the detailed elaboration on the prior work of a handful of scholars such as Nechama Tec herself a Jewish survivor from Poland. Tec had argued that hidden Jews, both adults and youth, were not passive recipients of aid but they took an active efforts to help themselves.

Secret City constitutes a series of observations, sometimes brief, on a stream of topics on Jewish escapees from the Warsaw ghetto, where approximately 445 000 people were confined at its peak in 1941. The book presents the stories of the escapees in chronological order from the formation of the Warsaw ghetto in the autumn of 1940, through the Great Deportation of July-September 1942, the Aktion of January of 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943 and the destruction of the ghetto in the summer of 1943, until the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944 and its aftermath. Paulsson estimates that about 28, 000 Jews lived in hiding or under cover of a secret identity beyond the Warsaw ghetto walls in what he calls the secret city within Warsaw. According to his calculations, of these 28, 000 hidden Jews, some 61 per cent were still alive on the eve of the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944 and 11, 500 - roughly 40 per cent of the total number of Jewish escapees - survived the war. Paulsson convincingly argues that roughly 12.5 percent escaped the ghetto in the last three months prior to the ghetto Uprising of 18 April 1943.

Paulsson’s quantitative analysis of Jewish escapees reveals his passion and talent for understanding numbers. His talent with numbers also manifests itself in his discussion on the economic aspects of life income in the wartime Warsaw. However, when it comes to the discussion of large interpretive problems such as the nature of evasion and the reasons for the relatively small number of the Jewish escapees, the problem of anti-Semitic ideas and actions in wartime Polish society and their impact on the Jewish escapees and the rescue activities, and the position of the Polish rescuer within his/her community including his/her own family, Paulsson’s many suppositions are dubious at best. For example, Paulsson’s major claim that “the lateness of escape, rather than a shortage of hiding-places, explains why 95 percent of the ghetto population did not flee”(232) is highly problematic and reveals that Paulsson fails to grapple with the complexities of crossing to and living on the Aryan side. Paulsson ignores the early post-war testimonies of Polish Jews, including those of children of acculturated middle class background, which reported that their authors were forced to return to the ghetto in the summer of 1942 because of the hostile atmosphere on the Aryan side. In its most extreme and rarest form, this hostile atmosphere led to Poles denouncing Jews to the German occupiers. Rather more often, it took the form of forceful social pressure directed at those who had sheltered the Jews to stop their rescue activities. The early post-war testimonies of Polish rescuers deposited in the collection of ZIH also inform us that this pressure came from neighbors and acquaintances and people considered ‘close friends’, and also from some members of the rescuer’s families. This is why the Polish rescuers often stated in their testimonies that they had to “isolate themselves from the rest of the world” and that sometimes “they had to disappear, relocate outside of Warsaw.”

Paulsson’s categories of ‘untypical’ and ‘typical’/mundane applied in the discussion of the escapees also collapse under scrutiny. His claim about the possibilities of escape from the ghetto for more traditional Jews thanks to their connections with the acculturated Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity and therefore to many Poles on the Aryan side (p. 34-35) is naive and groundless. Perusal of Ringelblum’s archives reveals that the milieu of acculturated Polish Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity were generally isolated from the rest of the Jewish community in the ghetto. Paulsson also does not discuss one of the major strategies of survival of the acculturated Polish Jews on the Aryan side. Many testimonies and memoirs such as Antoni Marianowicz’s Life strictly prohibited describe how many acculturated Jews were able to play ethnic Poles well enough that their Polish landlords were unaware that their tenants were Jews.

Paulsson makes another problematic claim that Jewish memoirists paid more attentions to exceptional rather than representative behavior in the portrayal of their encounters with and treatment by the Poles, registering negative experiences more often than positive experiences. This position shows that Paulsson is not a careful and thoughtful reader of the material under analysis. The Jewish wartime diaries and early post-war testimonies and memoirs generally register each individual act of help and kindness of any degree. The fact that they also registered variety of hostile attitudes and actions does not seem to spring from the notion that “wrong is engraved in stone and kindness in sand” only, but must have some grounds in wartime reality. If we do not accept the latter, we are in danger of recycling some old apologetic Polish narratives about Polish-Jewish relations, which young Polish historians such as Dariusz Libionka have begun to challenge in contemporary Poland.

Paulsson’s treatment of Polish anti-Semitism reveals that both the old apologetic Polish narratives and the new critical scholarly analysis of anti-Semitism advanced by various scholars shaped his perspective on the subject. His attempt at the incorporation of these two mutually exclusive positions creates inconsistency in his arguments. How could one otherwise explain the contradictions of the two following statements about the great majority of Warsaw’s society: “There was at the same time an element that was malignantly anti-Semitic, or criminal, or both, which presented the Jews with a range of threats, from ‘just words’ to active collaboration with the enemy. We have seen that both pro-and anti-Jewish attitudes and sections cut across all social classes and all the ‘Three Warsaws” and even divided families” (p.163) and “There were also Three Warsaws from the Jewish point of view. In between {the network of supporters and szmalcownicy} were the great majority, who stood outside the secret city and were only vaguely aware of its existence. Whatever they thought of the Jews, they neither actively harmed nor helped them.” (P. 142)

The apologetic Polish position is most pronounced in Paulsson’s discussion of a small group of committed ideological Polish anti-Semites who took part in rescue activities of Jews. In making out of them heroes Paulsson ignores the more sophisticated analysis of the subject presented by Michael Steinlauf in Bondage to the Dead. In his presentation of contemporary critical analysis of Polish anti-Semitism Paulsson gives credit to some key authors, but does not credit others such as Aleksander Smolar’s contention about the compatibility of a patriotic outlook with virulent anti-Semitism. (Daedalus, 116, 1987 p. 41).

Finally, Paulsson has made a mistake in the citation of the title of Czeslaw Milosz’s poem The Poor Christian looks at the Ghetto p. 4 as the Poor Pole looks at the Ghetto, which is the title of Jan Blonski’s famous article published in Tygodnik Powszechny in January 1987. Paulsson also does not always provide the secondary sources that he cites about traditional and racial anti-Semitism. He also does not give the archival sources of some primary material that he cites (ie. Wyszynski’s response to the Jewish delegation in the aftermath of the Kielce pogrom in 1946) (P. 272 endnote 3).

Overall, in spite of striving for nuance Paulsson’s portrayal of the Jewish escapees on the Aryan side is problematic and does not cover the multitude of experiences. Therefore, Paulsson’s work cannot be viewed as having the last word on the subject. In fact, the recent publication of the Polish sociologist Malgorzata Melchior’s Zaglada a Tozsamosc (the Holocaust and Identity) illuminates the subject to a much greater extent.