Poland & the Holocaust: Essential Reading

The history of Polish Judaism, Catholicism, politics, and anti-Semitism is complex and difficult to comprehend. The selection of Poland as the Nazi killing field during World War II was no accident. The Nazi invaders manipulated Polish anti-Semitism and Jewish identity with the aim of eliminating both groups. Some three million Polish Jews perished during the Holocaust, as did an equal number of Polish Gentiles.

Compiled by the Polish American Librarians Association, a new list of recommended reading emphasizes books that effectively examine inflammatory questions that may never be fully answered or understood but continue to be asked: Did Poles collaborate with the Germans? Why did Poland have the largest Jewish population of any country in Europe? Why did the West disbelieve information about the death camps that was gathered by the Resistance? Why didn’t more Jews resist? Why was Poland the only country in which the death penalty was imposed for Christians harboring Jews? Why was the response of the Catholic Church so meek? Why, by far, are there more Polish names on the roll at Yad Vashem of Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews than any other nationality?

Although dozens of other books could have been included in this list, these are essential for an understanding of Poland before, during, and after the Holocaust:

  1. Jews in Poland: A Documentary History by Iwo Cyprian Pognowski, Hippocrene Books, 1998. A carefully documented work of extraordinary scholarship, this book chronicles a thousand years of Jewish life in Poland, which, compared to the rest of Europe, was a safe haven central to the development of Jewish religious and secular life in Europe. In the foreword, Harvard professor Richard Pipes writes, “Even though Hitler selected Poland as the principal slaughter house for the ‘final solution’ and too many Poles turned their back on its victims, it must never be mistakenly believed that the Holocaust was perpetrated by Poles. Nor must it be ignored that three million Poles perished at German hands.”
  2. Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World by Jan Karski, originally published in 1944, reissued in a definitive edition by Georgetown University Press in 2013 with a foreword by Madeleine Albright. After reporting to the Americans and the British an eyewitness account of what he had seen as a courier between the Polish underground resistance and the Polish government in exile, Karski was appalled at the lack of willingness of both governments to do anything that would stop the slaughter. His story stands as a monument to the courage and bravery of one man who spoke truth to power.
  3. The Holocaust Chronicle: A History in Words and Pictures, Publications International, 2000. In “A Message from the Publisher,” Louis Weber notes, “Although its weight and heft cannot capture the immensity of its subject, the volume’s size does suggest that this is a topic that must be openly confronted.” Written and fact-checked by a team of scholars, this chronicle recounts in detail “the long, complex, anguishing story of the Holocaust” and the six million Jewish lives lost as well as the millions of Poles, gypsies, the handicapped, homosexuals, and others targeted in what Winston Churchill called “probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.”
  4. Anti-Semitism and Its Opponents in Modern Poland, edited by Robert Blobaum, Cornell University Press, 2005. An ambitious and highly readable scholarly work that demonstrates in a series of essays how ethnic Poles and Polish Jews managed to live together in “mutual good natured contempt” for hundreds of years until the late nineteenth century.
  5. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum, Doubleday, 2012. To understand life in modern Poland, Pulitzer Prize winner Applebaum examines the nation’s recovery in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, when Poland and the other nations dominated by the Soviet Union had little self-determination. The book contains thoughtful analysis of the ignorance and fear that led to anti-Semitic pogroms that were condemned by Polish and Hungarian intellectuals and politicians alike.
  6. Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation 1939-1944 by Richard C. Lukas, Hippocrene Books, 2012. A Publishers Weekly review noted, “Hitler hated Poles only slightly less than Jews; exterminating Poles and other Slavs was part of the Nazi master-plan. During the German occupation, three million Gentile Poles (and as many Polish Jews) were killed by mass executions, starvation or in labor camps; there were 2000 extermination and labor camps in Poland for Jews and Gentiles alike. One million non-Jewish Poles were deported in cattle cars to Germany and elsewhere; Polish children were sent to the Reich, where it was determined whether they were suitable for “Germanization” or should be slaughtered. This eloquent, gripping account of the Nazis’ systematic genocide of Poles, and of the Polish resistance movement, written by a professor at Tennessee Technological University, is exhaustively researched and fills gaps in our knowledge. Lukas disputes Holocaust historians who have portrayed Poles as anti-Semites who did little to help the Jews with evidence that Poles of all classes gave assistance to persecuted Jews. To explain the hostility between Gentiles and Jews in the Polish underground, he cites Jews’ close ties to the Communist movement. His arguments will provoke debate, and his important study deserves wide attention.”
  7. Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw by Norman Davies, Penguin Books, 2003. Written by the preeminent scholar in Polish studies, this book was called “magisterial…a prodigiously ambitious book” by The New York Review of Books. Davies examines events that have been suppressed and misrepresented for more than half a century to reveal the true scale of a sacrifice that saw one of Europe’s ancient capitals razed to the ground while Stalin condemned the uprising as a criminal adventure and refused to come to Poland’s aid and Poland’s Western Allies decided there was little that could be done.”
  8. Forced Out: The Fate of Polish Jewry in Communist Poland by Arthur J. Wolak, Fenestra Books, 2004. This obscure little tome is a carefully researched analysis of the late 20th-century spurt of anti-Semitism during the Golmulka era in post World War II Poland. As valuable for its interesting bibliography as for its straightforward content, the book is written by the son of Holocaust survivors who connects recent history to the medieval origins of the hatred and fear of Jews that had forced them out of England, France, Spain, and Portugal and fueled the anti-Semitic politics of communist Poland.
  9. The Jews of Warsaw 1939-1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt by Yisrael Gutman, Indiana University Press, 1982. Remarkable in its clarity and written by a participant in the Warsaw Uprising and a professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University, this treatment makes use of primary and secondary materials from Jewish, German, and Polish sources to analyze the motivations of each side during the Holocaust. It has been described as “a massive scholarly undertaking, at once authentic, scrupulously objective, and deeply moving.” Warsaw was the first victim of World War II, but “she resisted the enemy and refused to accept docilely the terms of occupation…and was reduced to a pile of rubble in the waning days of the Third Reich and on the eve of its collapse.”
  10. Fighting Warsaw: The Story of the Polish Underground State 1939-1945 by Stefan Korbonski, Macmillan, 1956, reissued in paperback by Hippocrene Books, 2004. Korbonski was the leader of the Polish Underground State during World War II, and his account portrays the years of the German occupation and the beginning of the anti-Soviet underground following the war. The New Yorker called the book “detailed” and written with “a surprising lack of rancor.” Chapter Ten is titled “The Jews under the Occupation” and starts with a section called “Messages and Warnings”: “It began with my sending to London several messages, one after the other, with the information that on July 22, 1942, the Germans had begun to liquidate the Ghetto. In Stawski Street, 7,000 people were loaded in freight wagons and transported to Majdanek, where they were all killed in gas chambers. I was extremely astonished when the BBC made no use of my messages, and ignored them completely.” Later, he was told, “Your messages were disbelieved. Neither our Government nor the British would believe them.”
  11. When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland by Nechama Tec, Oxford University Press, 1986. Dedicated to “the rescuers, with gratitude and admiration” by a woman sheltered for three years by Christian Poles during the Nazi occupation beginning at age 11. Based on her own experiences, interviews with rescuers and rescued as well as published accounts and unpublished testimonies, this book was the first in-depth study of Christian rescue of Jews in Poland under Nazi rule. Not only has the author documented and footnoted her research in meticulous detail, she has created the most readable and accessible book ever written about the complicated history of anti-Semitism in Poland and why Germany chose Poland as the killing field for its “Final Solution.”
  12. Your Life is Worth Mine: How Polish Nuns Saved Hundreds of Jewish Children in German-Occupied Poland 1939-1945, by Ewa Kurek, introduction by Jan Karski, 1996, Hippocrene Books. The story of how Polish nuns in World War II saved hundreds of Jewish lives in German-occupied Poland was little told and little known until half a century after the war ended. Forty-nine convents and orphanages were involved in protecting the children and the most authoritative estimates indicate 1200 Jewish young people survived the war in these shelters.
  13. The Samaritans: Heroes of the Holocaust by Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and Zofia Lewin, Twayne Publishers, 1970. Of the 3.5 million Jews living in Poland before the Holocaust, a mere 100,000 were alive at the end of World War II. A small fraction had survived the death camps, while the remainder owed their lives to the Poles who hid them. The courage of the men and women who risked their lives to shelter Jews is the theme of this collections of memoirs from a cross-section of Polish society—professionals and clergy, artists and truck drivers, farmers, celebrities and peasants. Bartoszewski was one of the co-founders and active leaders of the Council for Aid to Jews and worked for the Polish Government-in-Exile in London during the war.
  14. Poland in the Modern World: Beyond Martyrdom by Brian Porter-Szücs, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014. This recent addition, offers a history of the country from the late nineteenth century to the present, incorporating new perspectives from social and cultural history and positioning it in a broad global context. Readers have found that the book challenges traditional accounts of Poland that tend to focus on political history, presenting instead “a lively, multi-dimensional story, balancing coverage of high politics with discussion of social, cultural and economic changes, and their effects on individuals daily lives,” providing “a new interpretive framework for understanding key historical events in Poland s modern history, including the experiences of World War II and the postwar communist era.”
  15. Hollywood’s War with Poland by M.B.B Biskupski, University Press of Kentucky, 2010. The book examines Hollywood’s “fundamentally distorted and negative portrayal of Poland and the Poles during the Second World War.” Author Mieczysław Biskupski’s research into the movies of the period makes a compelling case for his contention that “an American citizen whose knowledge of the war was derived exclusively from the movies would be unsympathetic if not hostile to Poland and understanding if not supportive of Soviet policies directed against Poland’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” This is not a book about Poland, but a book about how Americans viewed Poland as it was represented in films; the book is an exhaustive, but never exhausting, examination of the power of movies before the dawn of television and the internet to influence public opinion
  16. Bieganski:The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture by Danusha V. Goska. Offering no apologies for Polish anti-Semitism, Goska instead explores the roots of prejudice in a provocative way through an examination of the stereotyping of Poles as stupid brutes. A powerful work of scholarship, the book has implications not only for Polish-Jewish relations in Europe and America but also for issues of class and race in the United States.
  17. On the Edge of Destruction: Jews of Poland Between the Two World Wars by Celia S. Heller, Columbia University Press, 1977. On the Edge of Destruction, focusing on the Jews of Poland between the two World Wars, illuminates a critical time in the recent Jewish past that has received surprisingly little attention. The Holocaust virtually destroyed the Jews of Poland, once a community of more than three million, constituting ten percent of the population, and the oldest continuous Jewish community in a European country. This book looks at the rich and complex nature of that community and the tremendous pressures under which it lived before the tragic end. The first half of the book deals with the objective situation of Poland’s Jews and the complex historical development of the community. In Part II, the focus is almost exclusively on the actions and the reactions of the Jews to their situation as a despised and oppressed minority. A new epilogue to the second edition brings the complex and tragic story of the post-war Jewish remnant in Poland both under communism and democratization.
  18. Code Name: Żegota: Rescuing Jews in Occupied Poland 1942-1945: The Most Dangerous Conspiracy in Wartime Europe by Irene Tomaszewski and Tecia Werbowski, 2010, Praeger. More than a thousand people in Nazi-occupied Poland were executed for helping Jews. Even though it was the only country in which the Nazis instituted the death penalty for harboring Jews, Poland created a secret organization for the sole purpose of saving Jews. In the book’s foreword, Norman Davies writes, “While the Jewish population was being destroyed en masse, the non-Jewish sector was being worn down by an occupation regime of unprecedented savagery, where executions, street round-ups, hangings, proscriptions, deportations, camps, prisons, and slave labor were the order of the day.”
  19. Lost Landscape: In Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Poland by Agata Tuszynska,    This is an account of an intensely emotional journey by an award-winning Polish writer and historian who searches for the remaining traces of the culture of Polish Jews-permanently erased by the Holocaust and the subsequent forty-five years of Communist rule. Agata Tuszynska first learned about the Jews of Poland by reading the novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Polish-born Yiddish novelist and short story writer. Surrounded by silent mementos of that lost world — a cemetery full of broken tombstones, a cinema in an ancient synagogue — she stubbornly refused to accept its passing, deciding to re-create it from the memories of its dispersed and now aged inhabitants. Her travels took her to small Polish towns, once vibrant with Singer’s heroes and now empty of any Jewish presence, to the cafes of Tel Aviv and the Jewish neighborhoods of New York. There, speaking with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust, with Singer’s colleagues and co-workers, working with the patient persistence of an archaeologist, she removes layers of pain and trauma to uncover memories deeply concealed and often purposely forgotten. From these personal and tragic experiences emerges a broad and tangled tapestry of Polish and Jewish lives lived side by side, observed in brilliant and vivid detail.
  20. Cruel World: The Children of Europe in the Nazi Web by Lynn H. Nicholas, Knopf, 2005. The New York Times Book Review said this book “deserves the widest reading among those who call themselves civilized.”  With passionate empathy for its innocent victims, Nicholas examines the Holocaust with implications for the helpless victims of war and hate who suffer in the world today. Of anti-Semitism she notes, “So self-contained was most of the Jewish community in Poland that an estimated 85% did not speak Polish but communicated in Hebrew and Yiddish. Nor had there been much love lost between the two communities over the years, and anti-Semitism, pumped up before the war by the Polish government in its unsuccessful efforts to align itself with Germany, was strong. Most ‘Poles’ and ‘Jews’ (so denominated even though all were Polish citizens), interdependent when it came to commerce, lived separately at the personal level.”
  21. The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War by Halik Kochanski, Harvard University Press, 2012. Undoing some of the marginalization of Poland’s role in World War II is no small feat, achieved in this book with remarkable clarity and documentation. Invaded by both Germany and the Soviet Union, Poland fought on four fronts and its government never capitulated. Focused on the suffering and slaughter that took place on Polish soil, the story looks very different as seen from Warsaw instead of Washington or London. Kochanski also examines the highly sensitive and controversial subject of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis. She writes, “The Jews ran their own secret court in the Warsaw ghetto and sentenced 59 collaborators to death…Polish archives have an incomplete list of 1,378 Jewish collaborators and betrayers.”
  22. The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville by Clare Mulley, St. Martin’s Press, 2012. More than simply a biography of a Polish-Jewish special agent who risked her life for her country, this is the compelling story of one woman’s courage told within the context of the Second World War  and the brutality unleashed on Poland–a country that “would never have a significant collaborationist faction”–by both Germany and Russia.
  23. Why? Explaining the Holocaust by Peter Hayes, W.W. Norton & Co., 2017. With no apparent axe to grind, the author tackles such questions as: Why the Jews? Why the Germans? Why such swift and sweeping extermination? Why didn’t more Jews fight back more often? Why didn’t they receive more help? In the section about Poland, Hayes points out that “more inhabitants of Warsaw alone, about 720,000 people, perished in the Second World War than did Germans in all Allied air raids.”
  24. The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy by Tadeusz Pankiewicz, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2013. This memoir tells of a Polish pharmacist whose store because a hiding place and a clearing house for escape information during the Holocaust. Pankiewicz was a non-Jew who was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1983. Pankiewicz gave eyewitness testimony to Nazi attrocities at the Nuremberg trials following World War II.
  25. The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather, 2019. Meticulously researched and exquisitely written, this gripping nonfiction title has all the elements of a thriller novel in telling the story of Polish resistance fighter Witold Pilecki, who deliberately got sent to a concentration camp in order to report atrocities to the outside world.

Essential Fiction:

The novels and short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, especially  The Manor (1967), The Estate (1969), The Family Moskat. Better than any other writer, Nobel Prize winner Singer was able to capture the details of daily life in Poland during the 19th and early 20th century, especially the tense relationship between Polish Jews and ethnic Poles, from the Jewish perspective. Translated from the original Yiddish.

Send comments or corrections to Leonard Kniffel, Polish American Librarians Association, lkniffel@sbcglobal.net,