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Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry Volume 11Focusing on Aspects and Experiences of Religion$

Antony Polonsky

Print publication date: 1998

Print ISBN-13: 9781874774051

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: February 2021

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781874774051.001.0001

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Polish Influences on British Policy Regarding Jewish Rescue Efforts in Poland 1939–1945

Polish Influences on British Policy Regarding Jewish Rescue Efforts in Poland 1939–1945

(p.183) Polish Influences on British Policy Regarding Jewish Rescue Efforts in Poland 1939–1945*
Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry Volume 11

Bernard Wasserstein

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores to what extent Polish policies and attitudes helped shape British policy on the Jewish question during the Second World War. It particularly focuses on Britain's policy regarding the question of Jewish rescue in Poland. At the root of all discussion of the Jewish problem between the British and Polish governments before and during the Second World War was the emphatically and repeatedly voiced Polish desire to secure mass emigration of Jews from Poland on a scale sufficient to reduce the Jewish proportion of the general population and to diminish alleged Jewish preponderance in certain branches of the Polish economy, culture, and society. Such attitudes, commonplace in Poland in the period, reflected the widespread tendency to regard Jews as outsiders and aliens rather than as members of the Polish nation and society. The trend was noted by British observers and officials, some of whom indeed sympathized with the Polish desire to rid Poland of what was seen as its ‘excessive’ Jewish population. And of course this notion of ‘excess’ was certainly not limited to antisemites; some Jews themselves, particularly Polish Zionists, shared it. Ultimately, the Polish desire to stimulate large-scale Jewish emigration from the country was a significant element in Anglo-Polish relations in the pre-war years.

Keywords:   Polish policies, British policy, Jewish question, Second World War, Jewish rescue, Poland, Jews, Jewish population, Jewish emigration, Anglo-Polish relations

I TAKE as my starting-point the controversial exchange a few years ago between Kazimierz Dziewanowski and Władysław Siła-Nowicki on Polish–Jewish relations in the Second World War. In particular, I wish to address a point that Dziewanowski made. This was in response to Siła-Nowicki’s tu quoque exculpation of Polish behaviour towards the Jews during the war suggesting that the Allies too, and for that matter Jewish communities in the free world, had responded inadequately to the plight of Polish Jewry. Dziewanowski responded: ‘This argument … though correct, does not matter much to me. It does not concern me or my nation. It concerns strangers. It is a matter for their consciences, not mine. Too often, unfortunately, in this type of discussion the argument is used that others were no better. … I repeat it does not concern me. I am interested only in my own conscience.’1 Siła-Nowicki is by no means alone in his approach, which has become, in fact, a standard apologetic line. While we may respect deeply the moral stance of Dziewanowski, I believe it is necessary for the historian to go further and ask: To what extent did Polish policies and attitudes themselves help shape the policy of Poland’s allies on the Jewish issue? The evidence, I think, shows that they did have a considerable influence—although on balance not in a direction that advanced the cause of Jewish rescue.

Some years ago I published a book in which I discussed Britain’s policy on the Jewish question during the Second World War.2 My conclusions were that on the three central issues—admission of Jewish refugees to Britain or the British Empire, permission for relief supplies to go through the economic blockade of Axis Europe, and aid to Jewish resistance or active attempts to halt mass murder, notably the proposal for the bombardment of Auschwitz in 1944—the British (p.184) record, as revealed in the government’s own documentation, was unimpressive. I sought to analyse and explain the reasons for this, among them the overwhelming pressure of other, apparently greater, war priorities and the problem of Palestine, which was never far from the minds of British officials when dealing with the Jewish issue in that period. But in the last resort I must confess I found inexplicable what seemed to me a failure of elementary human solidarity.

Here I will address the relationship between this Allied record and the question of Jewish rescue in Poland. I shall discuss only the role of the British government, both because of limitations of space and because, of all the Allies, the British were the most directly and inextricably involved (with the exception, perhaps, of the Russians, but their record, of course, raises quite different issues). I have recently read some new work, published since my own book, that relates to the matter at hand; I refer in particular to the two books by David Engel dealing with the Polish government-in-exile and the Jewish question, published in 1987 and 1993.3 These books, based on exhaustive study in Polish as well as other official archives, address the issue of Polish–Jewish relations during the war with a rigorous professional objectivity and fair-mindedness. Engel’s findings shatter whatever illusions may remain regarding the policies of the Polish government-in-exile, the Home Army, and the Anders army in relation to the Jews. Yet Engel’s work has been virtually ignored in Poland and hardly reviewed there.

Engel’s books led me to reassess my own conclusions, and in particular to draw out one point that I touched on in my book but which emerges much more clearly in light of all the evidence adduced by Engel. I refer to the direct and indirect effects that the actions and attitudes of the Polish government, and by extension of Polish élites and Polish society at large, had on the policy of the British government towards the Jewish question in general and the issue of Polish Jewish rescue in particular.

At the root of all discussion of the Jewish problem between the British and Polish governments before and during the Second World War was the emphatically and repeatedly voiced Polish desire to secure mass emigration of Jews from Poland on a scale sufficient to reduce the Jewish proportion of the general population and to diminish alleged Jewish preponderance in certain branches of the Polish economy, culture, and society. This view was by no means confined to anti-semites or Endeks (National Democrats). As Yisrael Gutman has pointed out, by the late 1930s it had become a ‘national consensus’. Thus a Piłsudski-ite such as Bogusław Miedziński could tell the Sejm in 1937 that he personally liked the Danes very much but if there had been 3 million Danes in Poland he would have wanted to get rid of them as soon as possible.4 Such attitudes, commonplace in (p.185) Poland in the period, reflected the widespread tendency to regard Jews as outsiders and aliens rather than as members of the Polish nation and society. The trend was noted by British observers and officials, some of whom indeed sympathized with the Polish desire to rid Poland of what was seen as its ‘excessive’ Jewish population. And of course this notion of ‘excess’ was certainly not limited to antisemites. Some Jews themselves, particularly Polish Zionists, shared it.5

The Polish desire to stimulate large-scale Jewish emigration from the country was a significant element in Anglo-Polish relations in the pre-war years. As the Polish ambassador in London, Edward Raczyński, put it in a typical démarche in January 1939: ‘Such a state of affairs, which is by no means isolated in its kind, finds its explanation in the universally known fact that there exist in Poland great numbers of Jews who far exceed the power of economic absorption of that country and whose rapid rate of natural increase has already for many years past subjected them to a necessity growing ever more urgent of considerable and continuous emigration.’6 When Foreign Minister Józef Beck visited London in April 1939, the Polish government insisted on placing the issue on the agenda for discussion with the British.7 Although expressing some sympathy with what was seen as the Polish predicament, British officials could hold out no prospect of assistance. Roger Makins of the central department of the foreign office was deputed to prepare a brief on the subject for the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax. While pointing out that something might be made of British efforts to seek outlets for settlement in the colonial empire, Makins remarked, ‘We cannot give Poland much more than sympathy in this problem.’ After consulting the colonial office, which insisted that there must be no ‘confusion of the Polish emigration question with [the] refugee question’, Makins added a further note stating that ‘Jewish refugees from Germany will therefore have first bite at the cherry, if any.’ And he perhaps expressed an unconscious absorption of the Polish government’s assessment of the human value of its own Jewish citizens in his further comment: ‘Polish refugees will be less welcome as immigrants in the Colonial Empire than any other class.’8

Especially after its adoption in May 1939 of the policy of the White Paper limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine to a maximum of 75,000 over the following five years, the British government feared that Polish pressure for Jewish emigration would interfere with Britain’s ability to implement the new policy. The policy was regarded as crucial to the restoration of peace in Palestine and, beyond that, to the preservation of Britain’s dominant position throughout the (p.186) Middle East—of critical strategic importance in time of war. The Polish government complained, however, that the policy exercised ‘an adverse effect on Poland’s vital needs for emigration outlets’.9 Foreign office officials expressed some understanding of Polish desires, as for example in a minute by A. W. G. Randall in June 1939: ‘On its merits the Polish case is a better one than the German, since for Poland the Jewish problem is a serious and pressing one.’10 But the pressure of illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine (a significant part of which originated in Poland) precluded any concession to Polish demands.

Government policies, of course, rarely emerge perfectly formed like Athene from the head of Zeus. Generally they arise from fundamental attitudes and are the product of long gestation periods. So it was in the case of British policy regarding Jews in Poland. One cannot separate Britain’s wartime policy-making from the long and fraught record of relations on this issue between the British government and the Second Polish Republic from the moment of its birth—or more broadly from relations among Jews, Poles, and British in general. Jewish attitudes were naturally coloured by the memory of pogroms such as those at Lwów in 1919 and Przytyk in 1936, the openly antisemitic policies advocated by the Endeks and other Polish parties, and the thinly veiled anti-Jewish feeling that inspired Polish legislation on a variety of issues through much of the inter-war period. Polish attitudes in the Second World War continued to be imbued with resentment of what was seen as Allied, and in particular British, meddling in Polish internal affairs, notably the imposition of the supposedly humiliating Minorities Treaty in 1919—the treaty that was unilaterally (and illegally) renounced by the Polish government in 1934. The renunciation was declared by Beck, but approved by virtually the whole of the Polish political spectrum, including prominent future members of the government-in-exile, among them Mikołajczyk and Raczyński: the latter, indeed, is said to have been the architect of Beck’s strategy in the matter. British official attitudes, too, were formed by a long official memory that encompassed all these elements, but which acquired a heightened urgency on the eve of the Second World War by the renewed emphasis the Polish government laid on mass Jewish emigration at the very moment when Britain had decided to reduce the flow of Jews to Palestine to a trickle.

This, in brief, was the historical backdrop against which Polish and British politicians and officials during the war discussed the Jewish issue. The change in the composition and character of the Polish government after the German and Soviet occupation in September 1939 did not significantly alter the official outlook on this issue. Polish attitudes to Jews became, if anything, more hostile during the early part of the war as a result of widespread complaints that Jews in the Ukrainian and Belorussian lands of eastern Poland had welcomed the Russian (p.187) invaders as liberators—as, of course, they were. The reports were not unfounded, since the Red Army did indeed put a stop to antisemitic disturbances promoted by Ukrainian nationalist elements who attempted to exercise authority for a few days between the withdrawal of the Poles and the arrival of the Soviets. In April 1940 Stanisław Kot discussed with British Jewish leaders the need, as he and his colleagues in the Polish government-in-exile saw it, for mass Jewish emigration after the war; he suggested a concentration of Jewish settlers in the Odessa area.11 Such conversations were reported to the British government, which also heard similar ideas directly from the Poles. But the notion that such emigration might be steered to a destination other than Palestine did not at all reassure the British. They had lived with the problem since 1933, indeed since 1917, and knew that in fact there were now no other potential destinations. Any such large-scale emigration would therefore inevitably build up the pressure on Palestine. Frank Roberts of the foreign office summed up British thinking on the issue clearly in a minute in May 1941:

Since there are some three million Jews in Poland (ten per cent of the population of prewar Poland) and many of these are not very well assimilated, any Polish Government must inevitably aim at finding some solution of this problem by emigration. Since, however, no other country is willing to accept Polish Jews, and the absorptive capacity of Palestine is strictly limited, it is not in the interest of H.M. Government to encourage such a policy on the part of the Poles. All we can do is express the pious hope that the Poles will in fact do their best to assimilate the Jews.12

When a foreign office official talks about a ‘pious’ hope, the plain meaning is that there is no hope at all.

All this was not merely a matter of theoretical planning for the post-war period. It related directly to the question of Jewish rescue. During the early part of the war the most effective potential method of rescuing Jews was not exhortation in radio broadcasts or underground action or the hiding of individuals in barns and attics; it was emigration, legal, illegal, or extra-legal. I demonstrate in my book the extent to which the British government, fearful of a wave of Jewish illegal immigration to Palestine from occupied or threatened areas in Europe between 1939 and 1941, took diplomatic, economic, and even forcible naval action to seal the exits from Europe against the Jews. More than any other country, Poland, with the largest Jewish population by far in occupied Europe, seemed to British officials to represent, in the long run, the greatest potential source of the threatened flood of Jewish refugees that they believed was being deliberately engineered with the connivance of the Gestapo in order to embarrass the British. Hence the foreign office’s concern at repeated Polish emphasis on emigration. Hence the impossibility of even raising the question of large-scale rescue of Jews from (p.188) Poland—and indeed the question was never raised in such terms in discussions between the British and Polish governments at any stage in the war.

A vivid illustration of the working of these attitudes, and of the effect of the Polish official mind on the British in relation to this issue, is afforded by the question that first arose in July 1940 of movement of Polish troops from south-east Europe to Palestine. This was a matter that at that stage involved the potential arrival not of millions but of at most a few hundred Jews in Palestine. The British high commissioner in Jerusalem, Sir Harold Macmichael, cabled the colonial office in London to ‘suggest that only non-Jews be regarded as acceptable’. He added that he had ‘reason to believe that [the] Polish authorities would be willing to arrange that only non-Jews should come to Palestine’.13 The question of Jewish troops in Palestine arose again in different circumstances in 1942, when part of the Anders army was moved there. Engel shows clearly how hostility to Jews at every level in the Polish armed forces combined with and reinforced British official views. He quotes Frank Roberts again in March 1942: ‘For political reasons we should not want a large number of Polish Jews in the Middle East.’ Charles Baxter, head of the foreign office eastern department, agreed: ‘Their presence there will be a continuous source of trouble and after the war the Poles who wish to get rid of their Jews would probably make difficulties about readmitting them to Poland.’14

Other aspects of Polish government conduct were no less likely to alarm the British government or to stiffen their resistance to bending policy to assist or rescue Jews in occupied Europe. One such aspect was the tendency during the early part of the war for the Polish government to befriend the Revisionist Zionist movement. This strange friendship also had long pre-war antecedents and was based on a perceived community of interest in mass Jewish evacuation from Poland. But during the war—as Revisionists organized illegal immigration to Palestine, as extreme elements in the movement turned to terrorism, and as the British government sought to prevent the emergence in post-war Palestine of large numbers of Jews with military training—the Polish–Revisionist alignment could not but harden the hearts of British officials confronted with pleas for aid to Jews seeking to resist the Nazis or to escape from Poland.15

The British government’s response to efforts to rescue Polish Jews from Nazi terror was affected further by what was seen, not without reason, as the corollary to, if not the cause of, the continuous and emphatic Polish stress on mass Jewish emigration, namely, deep-seated anti-Jewish feeling within Polish society in general. If Jews were so deeply unpopular in the country that for the full two decades of an independent Poland’s existence its governments had sought to (p.189) induce them to leave, then British officials charged with organizing logistic support for resistance in wartime Poland naturally worried that calls for aid to Jews might play into the hands of Nazi propaganda: far from stiffening Polish resistance, such calls seemed more likely to arouse anger and hostility. British officials responsible for orchestrating propaganda themes for broadcasts to Poland (as to other countries) manifested concern lest too great a stress on the specific travails of the Jews excite animosity rather than sympathy on the part of non-Jewish radio audiences.

This British concern arose from reports such as one reaching the British government in January 1940 that the Nazis were using antisemitism to attempt to win over the Polish non-Jewish population.16 That there might have been some foundation for such a propaganda strategy was suggested by a letter from Prince Janusz Radziwiłł in Warsaw that reached the Polish and British governments in January 1941. The letter states that a speech by a Polish minister promising Jews equality in Poland after the war had ‘made a disastrous impression in Poland’.17 This British reading of the attitudes of the greater part of the Polish population was lent greater verisimilitude by the Polish government in London, whose members, at almost every stage in the war, sought in their propaganda and public statements to assimilate the terror against Jews into the terror against Poles in general.18 It was the latter that the Polish government regarded as its primary responsibility; the Jews were at most a secondary one. This was the only sphere, it seems, in which Jews could be ‘assimilated’ in the minds of most Polish politicians and officials.

It is true that the Polish government-in-exile took three important steps of a pro-Jewish character during the war. In the first place, it formally declared its commitment to the principle of Jewish equality in the Polish state. On the other hand, this commitment was not always fulfilled, even within the limited sphere of authority of that government: the frequent instances of anti-Jewish discrimination in the wartime Polish army are the most notorious example of disparity between words and actions. Moreover, when Zionist leaders failed to respond to the Polish declaration, as Polish leaders demanded, by supporting the Polish government’s unrealistic demands for the restoration of the 1921 eastern frontier of Poland, Kot and others complained of a lack of reciprocity. The commitment to Jewish equality was plainly not a matter of principle; it was a political manoeuvre.

Secondly, the Polish underground movement and government played a role in (p.190) furnishing the evidence of Nazi atrocities against Jews, in particular in a long memorandum by Raczyński on 10 December 1942, that led to the joint Allied declaration of 17 December 1942 promising retribution for Nazi war criminals. But here again Engel has shown the mixture of motives and calculations, not all purely humanitarian, that led the Polish government to press this issue. In any case, although the ammunition for the declaration was provided by the Poles (among others), the trigger for its publication seems to have been a personal initiative by the Soviet ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky, himself a Jew, who apparently took the bold step of acting in the matter without instructions from his government.19

Thirdly, it is beyond dispute that the eyewitness reports of Jan Karski played a significant part in corroborating earlier accounts of Nazi war crimes, furnished important new information, and helped convince the Allied governments of the true nature and scale of the atrocities. Karski also carried direct messages from Jewish leaders in Poland to the West. But this was not the primary purpose of Karski’s mission, to which the Jewish issue was quite incidental—until, that is, Polish diplomats in the West saw it as a useful device for, as they believed, attracting the sympathetic interest of the American government. Moreover, Karski himself provided a sobering assessment of his own people’s reaction to what they saw of Nazi treatment of Polish Jews: in February 1940 he reported to the Polish government that the attitude of ‘the broad masses of the Polish populace … towards the Jews is overwhelmingly severe, often without pity’.20

Some historians whose judgement one must respect, such as Władysław Bartoszewski, have denied that such reports represented the true or whole picture of the Poles’ wartime attitudes to Jews. Others, such as Yisrael Gutman, whose judgement, based on personal experience as well as historical research, must command at least as much respect, disagree with Bartoszewski’s rosier appraisal of Polish popular sentiment under German occupation. The fact remains that, so far as the British government was aware, antisemitism remained a predominant reality of life in occupied Poland, and the British acted accordingly. We can at least conclude conservatively that the British had some grounds for that assessment of the prevalent Polish attitude towards Jews.

It is altogether healthy and proper that the new, post-communist Poland should honour the minority of Poles who sympathized with the Jewish tragedy and the heroes among them who sought to rescue Jews, and that a democratic Poland should seek to incorporate their actions into the national historical record as an example, just as Germany has honoured German resisters. These points of light shine all the more because of the surrounding darkness. But, as in the German case, we should not allow the exceptional cases of individuals acting against the general current of feeling in the surrounding population from being misappropriated as the alibi for a nation. Yet this is precisely how the marginal (p.191) phenomenon of Polish rescue of Jews has been exaggerated and misused repeatedly in post-war Polish history, beginning with Cardinal Hlond’s notorious statement in July 1946, in the aftermath of the Kielce massacre:

During the time of the exterminating German occupation, the Poles, in spite of the fact that they themselves were being exterminated, aided, hid, and saved Jews, endangering thereby their own lives. Many a Jew in Poland owes his life to Poles and to the Polish clergy. The responsibility [for the fact] that this good relationship is deteriorating lies in a great measure on the Jews who remain in Poland on preferential bases in governmental affairs and who tend to impose forms of organization which the enormous majority of people do not want. That is a harmful game, because from this dangerous tensions arise. In fatal armed encounters on the political battleground in Poland, some Jews perish, I regret to say, but far more Poles perish.21

On this and subsequent occasions a distorted version of the Polish wartime record of rescue of Jews was thus invoked as a licence for continued antisemitism.

Such apologetics should not obscure the larger historical reality: the extrusion of their Jewish fellow citizens from the arena of mutual moral responsibility by the Polish government, by the majority of members of Poland’s political and military élites, by its ecclesiastical hierarchy, and by a substantial part of Polish society. In striking contrast to the Federal Republic of Germany, Poland has only recently begun to make a serious attempt to confront this uncomfortable feature of its national history.

As for the conduct of the Allies, far from extenuating that of the Poles, the evidence now available suggests that the legitimate institutions of the Polish state, accurately reflecting the preponderant weight of Polish opinion, themselves contributed significantly to the shaping of Allied policy on the issue of Jewish rescue.


(*) This chapter is a revised version of a paper prepared for the Conference on Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, Warsaw, July 1993.

(1) Kazimierz Dziewanowski, ‘Do Not Speak for Me, Please’, in Antony Polonsky (ed.), ‘My Brother’s Keeper’: Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust (London, 1990), 114–15.

(2) Bernard Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939–1945 (London, 1979).

(3) David Engel, In the Shadow of Auschwitz: The Polish Government-in-Exile and the Jews 1939–1942 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1987) and Facing the Holocaust: The Polish Government-in-Exile and the Jews 1939–1942 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1993).

(4) Yisrael Gutman, ‘Polish Antisemitism between the Wars: An Overview’, in Gutman et al. (eds.), The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars (Hanover, NH, 1989), 101, 104.

(5) See Ezra Mendelsohn, ‘Jewish Politics in Interwar Poland: An Overview’, in Gutman et al. (eds.), Jews of Poland, 12.

(6) Edward Raczyński to Lord Winterton, 13 Jan. 1939, Public Record Office (PRO) FO 371/24080 W 1010/520/48.

(7) See Emanuel Melzer, ‘Antisemitism in the Last Years of the Second Polish Republic’, in Gutman et al. (eds.), Jews of Poland, 136.

(8) Minute dated 5 Apr. 1939, PRO FO 371/24084 W 5796/520/48.

(9) Aide-mémoire left by Polish ambassador with Sir Alexander Cadogan, 10 June 1939, PRO FO 371/24084 W 9133/520/48.

(10) Minute dated 15 June 1939, PRO FO 371/24084 W 9133/520/48.

(12) Minute by F. K. Roberts, 13 May 1941, PRO FO 371/26769 C 4878/4655/55.

(15) See e.g. British official expressions of concern over the Polish–Revisionist relationship in 1942 in PRO CO 733/444/14.

(16) See report from Kennard to foreign office, 8 Jan. 1940, PRO FO 371/24470/219.

(17) PRO FO 371/26723B. See also Engel, In the Shadow of Auschwitz, 80, 245.

(18) Except, apparently, in discussions in Feb. 1940, when Polish representatives insisted on specific reference to anti-Jewish atrocities in a protected joint British–French–Polish declaration on Nazi outrages. See foreign office note, 26 Feb. 1940, PRO FO 371/24422/204. On this occasion, however, British officials opposed mentioning the Jews (minutes by F. K. Roberts, 5 Feb. 1940, PRO 371/24422/167, and 8 Apr. 1940, PRO FO 371/24423/297). In the event, no such declaration was issued. The episode is passed over by Engel, but it requires further investigation.

(21) Statement by Cardinal Hlond, Warsaw, 11 July 1946, US National Archives, State Department decimal file 840.48 Refugees/7-1146.