The Holocaust in Poland and the Erasures of the Past

JEWS IN THE GARDEN: A Holocaust Survivor, the Fate of His Family, and the Secret History of Poland in World War II, by Judy Rakowsky

Three decades ago, the veteran reporter Judy Rakowsky began accompanying her elderly relative Sam on trips to Eastern Europe. Sam had survived the ghettos and camps of the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Poland and Germany. He performed forced labor in a factory, as did an aunt and uncle who were among the Jews employed by Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist made famous in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Schindler’s List.”

Sam emigrated to the United States in the 1950s. In 1989, as the Communist regime began to crumble, he returned to Poland and learned that a member of his family, his young cousin Hena, was rumored to have escaped. Judy joined him on several visits over the years, using her talents as an investigative journalist to help him on his quest to find out what happened to her.

What they discover, and how hard it is to prove, is the story Rakowsky tells in “Jews in the Garden.” Journeying into deepest rural Poland, they find a society where agricultural produce is still transported by horse and cart, and close-knit neighbors still resent outsiders, particularly if they are Jewish.

“A ‘conspiracy of silence’ regarding Polish-Jewish relations under Communism has erected an impenetrable wall of memory,” Rakowsky writes. People refuse to speak to them about what happened. At one point, after snapping photos, Rakowsky flees from a man brandishing a pitchfork.

Three million Jews had been murdered in occupied Poland by the Nazis — half of all the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Their assets were taken over by Germans and in many cases, after the war, by Poles who were conveniently helped by laws about abandoned property. Jewish visitors from America asking what had happened to their families were not welcome. “It seemed,” Rakowsky notes, “like decades of suppression of facts and enduring self-interest of those who benefited from Jewish property had sealed off this dark history.”

Some former neighbors do talk. Rakowsky also pieces together her family history with the help of local researchers and even an F.B.I. agent. It gradually becomes clear that many of her relatives were massacred not by the Nazis, but by members of the Polish resistance movement. This was no isolated incident; it was a relatively common event in wartime and early postwar Poland. “Jews had a 1.5–2.0 percent chance of surviving the Holocaust in Poland,” Rakowsky writes, “due not only to actions by the Germans but also their own neighbors.”

Certainly, many Poles hid Jews and their families from the Germans during the war. Together with her cousin Sam, Judy Rakowsky learns that their Jewish family members had been kept in hiding by a friendly Christian family for 18 months before they were discovered by partisans and killed; there were many more like them.

These efforts carried a high degree of personal risk. Germans who found someone hiding Jews in the countryside were quite likely to murder not only the individual responsible but also destroy the entire village and its inhabitants as well; small wonder that so many villagers were so hostile to “friends of the Jews” in their midst. Families that were known to have hidden Jews were ostracized for years afterward.

As Judy and Sam return to Poland again and again, fresh obstacles emerge. In 2000 the U.S.-based Polish historian Jan Gross published “Neighbors,” a book that presents substantial evidence of a pogrom in the Polish town of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941. Hundreds of Jews who lived in the town were murdered by their non-Jewish fellow townspeople. Many of the victims were herded into a barn and burned alive. After a show of public remorse led by Polish politicians and members of the Catholic clergy, outrage grew among Poles who resented the book and its author, ascribing the massacre instead to the SS.

The most serious blow to the record came with the election that brought the right-wing populist Law and Justice Party to power in 2015. Like other nationalist parties, Law and Justice has done its best to present an exclusively positive image of its country’s past. In 2018, a new law effectively threatened, with vague exemptions, up to three years in prison to anyone who claimed that Poles had collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust.

There are at least some chinks of light amid the gloom. International outrage brought a softening of the Holocaust law. In 2021, a Polish appeals court reversed a ruling against two historians who had compiled a book that cataloged Polish antisemitism during the war.

But the struggle is far from over, and the Law and Justice Party is seeking new ways to curb the independence of the judiciary on these issues. Populist politicians everywhere, from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Donald Trump in the United States, are trying to remold their nation’s history into an uncritically patriotic narrative that involves massive denial of its negative aspects and brazen rejection of historical truth. This is a struggle that extends far beyond the borders of one country.

In the end, Judy and Sam fail to track down the young survivor Hena, who may well have changed her identity to preserve her life. But Rakowsky does discover some corroboration of their findings: In the 1940s and ’50s, a number of war crimes trials were held in Poland in which members of the resistance were convicted of murdering Jews during and immediately after the war. Whether or not this was part of the new Communist regime’s attempts to discredit the non-Communist resistance, the evidence presented was detailed, objective and unambiguous.

Rakowsky has written a moving and sometimes shocking book that often reads like a thriller. Its impact is somewhat blunted by irrelevant details — do we really need to hear about every interaction with a taxi driver on the way to and from the airport? — but many passages, such as the one in which Sam and Judy discover the place where their murdered relatives are buried, are deeply affecting.

Jews in the Garden” doesn’t change our view of what happened in Poland during the Second World War, and the bigger picture painted by Judy Rakowsky has been well known to academics for some time, but for readers unfamiliar with this history, it’s a readable introduction to the story, and beyond this, an effective counter to the attempts of the current Polish government to cover it up.

Richard J. Evans is a historian of modern Europe at the University of Cambridge and the author of “The Hitler Conspiracies.”

JEWS IN THE GARDEN: A Holocaust Survivor, the Fate of His Family, and the Secret History of Poland in World War II | By Judy Rakowsky | Illustrated | 364 pp. | Sourcebooks | Paperback, $17.99

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