Skip to content

Response to Review no. 398

Tim Cole’s review of my book, Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-1945, is on the whole fair and accurate – and very positive and perceptive – but I have a few quibbles, corrections and additions to offer.

Cole writes that Jews escaped and were hidden by ‘pre-existing networks with non-Jewish friends and colleagues’. But such contacts were only the starting point: the networks expanded and became intertwined through new and ad hoc contacts, involving not only non-Jews, but also Jews who had previously established themselves in hiding – such as ‘the Polish peasant Antopolski’, as Cole calls him, who helped a number of Jews to escape but was himself actually a Jew masquerading as a Pole. The outstanding example of Jewish self-help was the wealthy Jewish lawyer, Maurycy Herling-Grudzinski, who passed as a Pole throughout the occupation and was able to hide about 600 of his fellow Jews on his estate near Warsaw. The Council to Aid Jews, code-named Zegota, often misrepresented as a Polish organisation, was actually a joint Polish-Jewish organisation, whose two Jewish member organisations, the Bund and the Jewish National Committee, between them looked after twice as many Jews as the Polish branch did, and subsidised the Polish operation financially as well. To a much larger extent than has previously been appreciated, therefore, the effort to survive through escape and hiding was a matter of Jewish self-help as much as of the Polish assistance to Jews which is naturally stressed by Polish authors. This is one of the reasons why the established topic of ‘rescue’ does not adequately cover the experience of the Jewish fugitives.

So the networks of helpers included Jews as well as non-Jews; but as time went on, the circles of non-Jews also expanded well beyond the pre-existing contacts. As Jews were forced to move again and again, they increasingly had to rely on help from strangers, some of whom were even rabid (if inconsistent) antisemites. It was because of this spontaneously self-constructing network that escape could spread beyond the relatively small circle of assimilated Jews and converts who had primary contacts among the Poles. It is also because of the size and interconnectedness of this clandestine network (indirectly, everyone knew everyone else) that I feel justified in calling it a ‘secret city’. This is not a ‘claim’ on my part, but rather a metaphor, the point of which is to emphasise that the Jews in hiding were (unbeknownst to them or anyone else) part of a protective community that was evidently very good at concealing its existence from the Nazis (and from Polish antisemites). People were drawn into this community by invitation only, on the basis that people already involved thought they could be trusted; therefore they were not at all representative of the larger Polish community, and the prevalence of antisemitism in the larger community was thus not as important an issue as it might seem. Antisemitism was indeed widespread (though not as murderous as the Nazi variety), but on the whole the secret city protected the Jews from it.

I don’t know that there is a ‘generally accepted practice of working with qualitative sources in a way which gives fair account to how representative they are’: at one time I used to count the references to some topic or other in historians’ books, and complain if they gave too much ink to marginal or unrepresentative phenomena. But, on reflection, why should discussion of a topic not be based on how interesting or important it is, rather than on how representative, provided that its representativeness (or exceptionality) is acknowledged? I felt, at any rate, that having provided a statistical skeleton to indicate the proportions, I could freely engage in such digressions. And they led in some interesting directions.

For example, although I estimated that only 1,000 or so people escaped by jumping from deportation trains or fleeing from labour camps (i.e., about 0.2 per cent of Warsaw Jews), I was actually surprised, as I think many readers will be, that the absolute number was so high. Therefore I thought it worth discussing the experiences of those who did flee in these ways, in part to try to understand why such escapes seemed to be more frequent than one might have expected. It turned out that, according to the testimony of a woman who had escaped from the Poniatowa labour camp, the guard at the camp was fairly lax, so that (she felt) many more could have escaped if they had not been too sunk in apathy and depression to make the effort. This is not an accusation, but a historical observation: apathy and depression under such circumstances are surely understandable. These were people who had endured two years of starvation and dehumanisation, had lost their families and seen their communities destroyed; no doubt many of them felt that there was no longer anything to live for.

As to jumping from trains, there were a number of accounts by people who had escaped in this way, or witnessed others doing so, and apparently there was some effort by the Jewish underground, towards the end of the ghetto period, to smuggle hacksaws, files and similar equipment onto the deportation wagons. It seems also that Polish railwaymen sometimes pried up boards or left crowbars behind. It seemed, from these strands of evidence, that towards the end of the deportations the means of escaping from the deportation trains existed and that there were a few people jumping from each trainload of 6,000. Certainly, those who tried and succeeded in these ad hoc, unprepared ways of escape were lucky to make it, but most of the methods they tried – for example, walking up to a policeman guarding a ghetto gate and offering him a bribe – required nerve, however were otherwise not especially difficult. And in that case, we need to ask what the limiting factors were. Hence, ‘on the back’ of these relatively marginal phenomena, as Cole puts it, I was led to wondering why more people did not ‘give it a go’, and what would have happened if they had. The numbers that might have been saved were probably not large – perhaps another 1,000 or so – but a life is a life, after all.

Cole complains:

Although, as Paulsson demonstrates, a large minority [of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto] did … go into hiding, … the majority did not, and his account could pay more attention to why this was not the case. Certainly those reasons are more complex than Paulsson’s conclusion that, in the closing days of the ghetto, ‘the belief that escape was nearly impossible was in many cases a bigger obstacle than any reality to which it may have corresponded’.(p. 84).’

I cannot understand this comment. In fact I devote considerable discussion to this question; the quoted statement merely sums up one section, on ‘contemporary perceptions of escape’. Elsewhere, I show (among other things) that at every point the idea of escaping had to compete with seemingly realistic alternatives; that there were many physical and logistical difficulties; that the Nazis practised numerous forms of deception; and that escapers and their helpers were threatened with death. Jews (for example, Korczak, whom Cole mentions) were held back by a sense of duty to their families and their people, and also by the stigmatisation of flight, which for a long time was considered almost a form of betrayal. The net effect of these factors was that escape did not take place on a large scale until very late in the day – after the 1942 deportation, when all but 60,000 of the Jews of Warsaw had already been killed. It is in comparison with this figure that escape deserves to be called a mass phenomenon: nearly a quarter of this remnant managed to escape, and the trend was still accelerating when the Ghetto Uprising broke out.

What I do argue against is the notion, urged by many survivors, that Jews did not escape because life on the Aryan side was ‘too dangerous’, especially because of rampant antisemitism among the Poles. I do not deny that it was dangerous, or that antisemitism was rampant; but once it was known that deportation meant virtually certain death, the notion that any alternative was ‘too dangerous’ loses its meaning. Also, before the deportations, when the ghetto was still crowded, hundreds of Jews left the ghetto every day to smuggle, not judging it too dangerous (compared with starving to death). In addition, Jews could gauge the actual dangers, if at all, only once they had left the ghetto; until then, they had only their perceptions to guide them. Finally, the survival statistics that I develop suggest that escape and hiding were in practice less dangerous than any of the alternatives, suggesting that any perceptions to the contrary were mistaken. Hence the remark that Cole quotes.

In writing that Adina Blady-Szwajgier was chosen as a courier for her ‘good looks’, Cole does not make it clear that ‘good looks’, in the jargon of the time, did not mean that she was an attractive woman (although she was that, too), but that she did not look Jewish.

Cole is no doubt right that more should be done on gender and class issues: a great deal more needs to be done altogether on the question of escape and hiding; my book is, after all, only a first exploration of the subject.(1) But it is not correct to say that I have not dealt with these issues at all, apart from a brief mention of the problem of circumcision. I noted that nearly two-thirds of those in hiding were women, and advanced a number of theories to explain that fact. I theorised that families tended to organise the escape of adult daughters in the belief that they would have the best chances of survival (because they were not circumcised), and might then be able to organise hiding places for the rest of the family. The availability to women of domestic work, in some ways an ideal form of employment outside the ghetto because of its secluded character, also meant that women were easier to place with Polish families, and the fact that they did not bear the mark of circumcision made them a more acceptable risk (especially in the case of children). Possibly a ‘women and children first’ mentality might have played a role, too, or the attitude that saving young women would preserve future generations. It is difficult to say exactly, however, since memoirists rarely comment on gender issues. Cole offers his own guesses: he speculates that women had more trouble finding work in the ghetto, and there might be something to that, but it would require further research to establish. He adds that more women than men were deported, but I don’t see why that would explain why more women than men escaped: on the face of it, the opposite should have been true. Undoubtedly, these themes could have been developed further, but then, ‘ars longa, vita brevis’: is there anything about which the same could not be said?

Cole writes that ‘Paulsson estimates a population density of around three persons per room in the Warsaw ghetto’. This is not an estimate, but is rather based on Jewish Council census figures, which have long been known. The German ‘resettlement commissioner’, Waldemar Schoen, mangled these statistics in a report, making the population density out to be twice what it actually was (he mistook the number of flats for the number of rooms). The mangled figure of seven persons per room has entered the folklore, for example inspiring the scene in ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993) in which one family after another troops into a ghetto apartment, and is repeated in virtually every book on the subject; but there was never any basis for it.

Cole maintains that my ‘attempts to assess the size of pre-war secondary networks include too much conjecture’, and feels that this was unnecessary in view of the rich anecdotal material in the second half of the same (first) chapter. But the two halves of the chapter have different purposes: the second half illustrates how the network of contacts between Jews and Poles reached into every corner of Polish society, while the first half tries to sketch the ethnographic and political conformation of pre-war Warsaw and the rough divisions within the Jewish community between converts, assimilators, acculturated and traditional Jews. There is no need for this sketch to be particularly precise, but I tried for the best numbers I could, given the rather limited information available.

In writing about the highly contested field of Polish-Jewish history, I was conscious of setting out onto an emotional and political minefield. I knew that my findings were likely to be controversial, and I was therefore concerned to try to make them as bulletproof as possible. Therefore I tried to quantify everything I could, even where the supporting sources were not entirely satisfactory. The point is that when we have numbers, we can argue about whether they are wrong or right – future researchers in this area will no doubt be able to improve on many of my estimates – but at least we will know what we are arguing about; whereas previous discussion has often floundered about in a sea of terms such as ‘many’, ‘most’, ‘some’, ‘few’, and so on. Most readers will probably not need so much convincing, and they can skip over the derivations if they wish; but for the gimlet-eyed sceptics I felt that I had to provide as much hard documentation as I could, or at least make the attempt when information was limited.

Cole’s discussion of ‘whether historians are the best people to uncover the realities of life in the ghetto’ in my view raises the wrong question. Both historians and eyewitnesses surely have their contribution to make. Personal stories, being more vivid and emotionally engaging than historical analyses can ever hope to be, are naturally more popular and find a wider audience: one need only to compare the success of the film, ‘The Pianist’ (2002), to be convinced of that. My book – essentially on the same topic – cannot hope to compete with that level of success. But personal stories have their limitations, and not just because memory is unreliable. Viewers of ‘The Pianist’ will get entirely the wrong impression about life in hiding in Warsaw, because they are seeing the experiences of one man, and a very exceptional man at that. From his perspective, pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman was totally isolated, and seems in the film, furthermore, to be virtually the only Jewish survivor of Warsaw. It requires careful historical analysis to put together the composite picture and show that it was not so. Regrettably, it is the film that is more likely to enter the folk-consciousness, leaving historians, as usual, vainly trying to debunk the resulting myths.


1. It is not the first such exploration: I give full credit, for example, to the work of Michal Borwicz in the 1950s. But the fact remains that these early investigations went virtually unnoticed, and were limited by the sources then available, as well as by the undeveloped state of Holocaust historiography as a whole. Since then, escape and hiding have not been part of the mainstream historiography, and discussion of Jewish responses has focused instead on the issues of resistance and compliance. I can, however, claim to have written the first modern, detailed, systematic exploration of the subject, which I hope will put these issues back on the table again.